[Marxism] Obama and Empire

Allen Ruff alruff at tds.net
Wed Jul 30 10:27:25 MDT 2008

Obama and the Empire*

*-Allen Ruff*

[The following article is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming 
/*AGAINST THE CURRENT*/, issue 136 (September-October 2008). For current 
and back issues of /*ATC*/, including analyses of the significance of 
the Obama campaign, go to www.solidarity-us.org 

AS BARACK OBAMA'S campaign shifted focus to battle John McCain following 
his victory over Hillary Clinton, various observers began to suggest 
that Obama had begun to "move to the center in order to get elected." 
Supporters explained that shift as a necessary pragmatic step; others, 
airing varied degrees of disappointment, went so far as to suggest that 
he had somehow "lurched to the right."

Despite such perceptions, Obama has certainly remained remarkably 
consistent in one area, namely the realm of foreign policy and his 
unflagging support for the U.S. imperial agenda. On the question of 
support for empire and the role of the United States in the world, the 
Democratic contender has barely budged. While sectors of liberal opinion 
and antiwar activists may feel disillusioned by his recent 
pronouncements, Obama's record shows that those disappointed supporters 
have mainly engaged in self-deception.

In the New York Times of July 14 and in a major Washington speech the 
following day, delivered just ahead of a "fact finding" trip abroad that 
included stops in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel/Palestine and Europe, the 
Democratic candidate detailed the "five goals essential to making 
America safer" that he would pursue as President. He spoke of putting an 
end to the war in Iraq; pursuing the "war on terror" against al-Qaeda 
and the Afghan Taliban; ending U.S. oil dependency; securing all nuclear 
weapons and materials from terrorists and "rogue states;" and rebuilding 
U.S. alliances.

With whatever minor changes and refinements, those mid-July statements 
amounted to little more than the repetition of positions mapped out some 
time ago and articulated from the start of Obama's campaign, most often 
to elite audiences in less public venues, and entirely within the 
"mainstream" of Democratic Party politics. While it remains impossible 
to know exactly what an Obama presidency would do to uphold and maintain 
U.S. imperial power, especially in the event of unforeseen new crises -- 
nor how much he would continue George W. Bush's obscene executive abuses 
of power under cover of the "War on Terror" -- the candidate's positions 
have long conveyed the clear message that there will be little if any 
change in the overarching strategic course and direction of the imperial 

Obama's candidacy is historic in its symbolism: the potential election 
of a Black candidate as the chief executive of the global superpower. It 
has nothing to do with challenging the "right" of that superpower to 
dominate the world -- for the world's own good, of course. Obama's 
global outlook is firmly situated at the center of the long-established 
ruling class consensus on the U.S. prerogative to intervene anywhere and 
any time to make the world safe for capital, couched for public 
consumption, as always, in the rhetoric of "freedom," "democracy" and 

In this sense, he personifies a deep strand of liberal interventionism 
with roots extending all the way back to the early "progressive" 
imperialism of a Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Given the 
disastrous results of the Bush regime's ideologically-driven Iraq 
adventure and the impasse with Iran, however, Obama's promised course 
appeals to most of the elites and the general population because it 
seems more "realistic" and less "unilateral."

"Renewing American Leadership"

The Obama camp early on articulated its major foreign policy positions 
in the form of an address before the non-governmental and bi-partisan 
Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), historically the most important 
foreign policy formulating body outside the State Department.

Disseminated in the pages of the bi-monthly Foreign Affairs, the CFR's 
immensely influential "international relations" house organ, that speech 
laid out the framework and strategic vision for its intended audience, 
the elite who's who of the foreign policy establishment -- those not 
only at the upper echelons of the foreign relations and national 
security state bureaucracies, but also the corps of think tank and 
academic policy wonks, and most importantly, the key CFR patrons from 
the "commanding heights" of the corporate world. (Barack Obama, 
"Renewing American Leadership" Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007 

While certainly promising a change in direction from the current course 
of Bush failures and outright blunders, the piece very systematically 
promised to stay the grand strategic course of global predominance 
pursued by every President across the 20th century. At its heart, 
Obama's strategic outlook pledged the continuation of a struggle to 
reclaim and guarantee U.S. imperial hegemony, euphemistically described 
as "leadership" throughout the CFR piece and elsewhere, in a world grown 
increasingly hostile to American domination.

This hostility is caused primarily, according to the candidate, by the 
arrogant unilateralist contempt for allies, failed diplomacy and 
mismanaged military adventurism of the Bush regime. Invoking Franklin 
Delano Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy as the pantheon of a tough but 
enlightened liberal interventionism that supposedly carried the "torch 
of freedom" and the promise of "democracy" from World War II to victory 
in the Cold War, Obama promises a return to a pragmatic and rational 
revival of the United States as "the leader" of a "free world."

Offering to reward friends (those in line with the U.S. agenda) and 
penalize foes (i.e. any opposition) and ready to "walk the walk" with an 
unsurpassed military to be augmented by tens of thousands of new 
soldiers, he assured his CFR audience of his willingness "to place boots 
on the ground" anywhere, with or (when necessary) without the support of 
those "partners" ready to follow the American "lead." Steeped in the 
rhetoric of American global mission, Obama laid out a series of 
positions that must raise serious questions for those of his supporters 
who view authentic national self determination and an end to imperial 
meddling as the prerequisites for lasting peace and a stable and a more 
just international order.

"The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. To see 
American power in terminal decline is to ignore America's great promise 
and historic purpose in the world," he explained. Early in his address, 
Obama highlighted a litany of 21st century threats and challenges facing 
the empire.

    ...They come from weapons that can kill on a mass scale and from
    global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice
    with murderous nihilism. They come from rogue states allied to
    terrorists and from rising powers that could challenge both America
    and the international foundation of liberal democracy. They come
    from weak states that cannot control their territory or provide for
    their people. And they come from a warming planet that will spur new
    diseases, spawn more devastating natural disasters, and catalyze
    deadly conflicts....

Absolutely nowhere in this list of major international threats facing 
America was there a hint that the United States itself might have played 
a historic role, been directly involved or somehow complicit in shaping 
that dangerous world. Least of all is there any recognition that the 
American drive to dominate the world, including its energy resources, 
and the permanent war economy that is required for this, have anything 
to do with the looming catastrophe of the "warming planet"!

Rhetoric and national myth trump history. Couched in the post-Cold War 
discourse that defines "terrorism" and "rogue" or "failed states" as the 
major sources of global instability and insecurity, Obama's entire essay 
assumes that the U.S. role as primarily been a positive force for good, 
the bulwark for "liberal democracy," in a hostile world.

The fleeting reference to unnamed "rising powers" is interesting. The 
potential rivalries of an ascendant capitalist China and its Asian 
allies, or the Euro Bloc, Russia and India were not explicitly listed, 
but the elite CFR audience understands the meaning. Nowhere in the paper 
was there a hint of the economic underpinnings at the root of the U.S. 
imperial crisis -- among them, increasing global competition, the demise 
of the dollar, monumental trade deficits, the quest to control vital 
resources, etc.

On Iraq: "Responsible End"

Regarding specifics, the CFR address stated that as a necessary first 
step "to renew American leadership in the world," the United States must 
bring the Iraq war to a "responsible end" in order to "refocus attention 
on the broader Middle East." The central point: pacify the situation in 
Iraq in order to get on with the larger imperial project of winning and 
maintaining strategic control over the region and its oil reserves.

While failing to mention the invasion and occupation of Iraq as the 
major source of violence in the country, and focusing on the 
Sunni-Shiite civil war that seemed so paramount at the time (July, 
2007), Obama's CFR address argued that Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis would 
most likely settle their differences without a U.S. presence -- true 
enough, and an obvious argument for withdrawal.

Astoundingly, Obama then went on to suggest that the contending sides 
could be pressured toward an agreement by the threat of an imminent 
American withdrawal (as if the overwhelming majority of Iraqis do not 
want the U.S. occupation to end!) He then spoke of a "phased withdrawal" 
of all combat brigades as "the only effective way to apply [such] 
pressure." (He initially proposed March, 2008 as the commencement date.) 
In keeping with decades-long U.S. Middle East strategic interest, 
Obama's piece voiced opposition to a complete withdrawal from the 
region: While vowing to "make [it] clear that we seek no permanent bases 
in Iraq," Obama stated that, "...we (sic) should leave behind only a 
minimal over-the-horizon military force in the region to protect 
American personnel and facilities, continue training Iraqi security 
forces, and root out al-Qaeda."

At the time, he did not state where such an "over-the-horizon" force 
might possibly be stationed, perhaps since a place in the region where a 
sizable U.S. force might be welcomed could hardly be said to exist.

Obama's more recent July, 2008 statements seemed to address that tough 
question by calling for a "phased redeployment of combat troop," but 
maintaining a "residual force" of upwards of 30,000 troops, left behind 
to pursue an ever elusive "Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," while continuing 
the training of the Iraqi military, and "to protect American service 
members" (a troop presence in order to protect the troop presence!). 
This sounds suspiciously like an updated version of the formula whereby 
Britain maintained semi-colonial control of Iraq from the 1920s all the 
way up to 1958.

Contingent on Iraqi "political progress," the judgment of military 
commanders on the ground, and the possible "need to make tactical 
adjustments," Obama now states that U.S. combat brigades currently in 
Iraq could safely redeploy within 16 months of his taking office. That 
would make it the summer of 2010. That's hardly a firm commitment. And 
without said "political progress," President Obama would have "no 
choice" but to carry on the war indefinitely.

Afghanistan: "Boots on the Ground"

Obama would move at least two combat brigades, some 10,000 soldiers, to 
Afghanistan. In his '07 CFR address, Obama talked of increasing the 
number of "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan in order to "confront... 
terrorists where their roots run deepest." Like any other tough-talking 
politician, he didn't mention how many of those "boots" will wind up "in 
the ground" along with the soldiers wearing them, or the enormous 
casualties to be suffered by Afghan civilians.

Pledging to pursue the "real war," the one against al-Qaeda and the 
Taliban, in August, 2007 Obama openly spoke of military strikes against 
"high-value terrorist targets" in Pakistan's Waziristan province. "If we 
have actionable intelligence and President Musharraf won't act, we 
will," he proclaimed then. Perhaps Obama's "inexperience" was showing, 
as this kind of outrageous violation of an allied nation's sovereignty 
isn't supposed to be explicitly acknowledged, let alone advertised in 

In July of this year, he called for "more troops, more helicopters, more 
satellites, [and] more Predator drones in the Afghan border region." 
Convinced that "success in Afghanistan is still possible," Obama would 
"pursue an integrated strategy" that would not only increase U.S. troop 
strength in the country, but would "work to remove the limitations 
placed by some NATO allies on their forces."

"To defeat al-Qaeda," the candidate promised, "I will build a 
twenty-first-century military and twenty-first-century partnerships as 
strong as the anticommunist alliance that won the Cold War to stay on 
the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar." Neither Hillary 
Clinton, John McCain or George W. Bush himself could make a more 
explicit statement of unrestrained imperialist ambition.

How is all this supposed to be accomplished by a military virtually 
broken by the Iraq debacle? In his July, '07 CFR speech and again a year 
later in Washington, Obama called for an increase in the strength of the 
Army by 65,000 and the Marines by 27,000. "I will not hesitate to use 
force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our 
vital interests wherever we are attacked or imminently threatened," he 
declared. The speech this July also called for a massive spending 
project, numbering in the billions, to build and stabilize the Afghan 

On Iran: "Force Beyond Self-Defense"

Obama promises no departure from the longer trajectory of U.S. policy 
toward Iran. The bottom line? Iran must concede to Washington's demands 
on all fronts, halt its nuclear program, alleged "sponsorship of 
terrorism" and "regional aggression," or pay the price through increased 
sanctions and, if need be, direct intervention.

While liberal pundits have noted and right-wingers denounced his 
declared willingness to "sit down and talk" with the leadership in 
Teheran, Damascus and elsewhere, few have noted that such negotiations 
would be based on sets of preconditions and the constant threat of "real 
politic" penalties, the use of coercion and threat of force.

Obama has called for stronger international sanctions against Iran to 
persuade it to halt uranium enrichment. He co-sponsored the Durbin-Smith 
Senate Bill, the Iran Counter Proliferation Act, which calls for 
sanctions on Iran and other countries for assisting Iran in developing a 
nuclear program. He authored and introduced as the primary sponsor, the 
Iran Sanctions Enabling Act in May, 2007. That bill would make it easier 
for state and local governments to divest their pension funds from 
companies that invest in Iran's energy sector.

Divestment and sanctions for Iran, yes. Divestment and sanctions aimed 
at Israel's nuclear weapons? Out of the question.

Interventionism will remain a key component of the Obama's international 
"peace through strength" approach. As he put it, "We must also consider 
using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense (emphasis mine 
--AR) in order to provide for the common security that underpins global 
stability -- to support friends, participate in stability and 
reconstruction operations, or confront mass atrocities."

Would it be too much to suggest that the U.S. invasion and occupation of 
Iraq was just such a "mass atrocity"? Or indeed that "military force in 
circumstances beyond self-defense," essentially a restatement of the 
Bush preemptive war doctrine, is itself a violation of international law 
and an indictable war crime?

On Israel: "Unshakable Commitment"

Those hoping for a "sea change" in Middle East policy might look no 
further than Palestine and Israel.

Obama told us in 2007 that, "For more than three decades, Israelis, 
Palestinians, Arab leaders, and the rest of the world have looked to 
America to lead the effort to build the road to a lasting peace... Our 
starting point must always be a clear and strong commitment to the 
security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only 
established democracy." In the Senate, he has unflinchingly supported 
increased economic and military aid to Israel and came out strongly in 
favor of Israel's July, 2006 attack on Lebanon.

In speeches before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 
and elsewhere, he has consistently confirmed the U.S.-Israeli "special 
relationship" and the "unwavering support" of Israel as a cornerstone of 
US Middle East policy. Feeling compelled to counter claims by critics 
and opponents, he has consistently voiced the belief that Israel's 
security is "sacrosanct" and affirmed "an unshakable commitment to the 
security of Israel and the friendship between the United States and Israel."

In order "to secure a lasting settlement of the conflict with two states 
living side by side in peace and security," Obama told the CFR elites, 
"we must help the Israelis identify and strengthen those partners who 
are truly committed to peace, while isolating those who seek conflict 
and instability."

Barack Obama, unlike the current occupant of the White House, is not 
uneducated or illiterate. As the Chicago area Palestinian activist Ali 
Abunimah has recounted from his personal contact, Obama knows perfectly 
well that the Israeli Occupation is the real source of "conflict and 
instability." His speech to AIPAC was more than a statement of obedience 
to the Zionist lobby -- it was part and parcel of Obama's loyalty oath 
to the empire and the fundamental continuity of Middle East policy.

Speaking at a synagogue in southern Florida as recently as May of this 
year, he provided assurances of traditional positions on relations with 
Israel, promised an "unshakable commitment" to its security, praised the 
bond between the U.S. and Israel and declared he would not negotiate 
with Hamas and Hezbollah. Speaking before AIPAC immediately after 
clinching the nomination in early June, he promised that an "undivided 
Jerusalem" would "remain the capital of Israel."

Did he not know that this pronouncement goes even beyond official U.S. 
policy, according to which Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel? What kind 
of message did talk of an "undivided Jerusalem" send to the Arab and 
Muslim masses, especially the faithful who look to the Al Aqsa 
Mosque/Dome of the Rock as the third holiest place in all of Islam? What 
kind of "change" does it suggest to them? What "promise" does it hold?

Cuba and Latin America

In a May 23rd speech before the Miami-based right-wing Cuban American 
National Foundation (CANF), Obama promised to maintain the existing 
trade embargo against the island "as leverage for winning democratic 
change." He said he would lift restrictions on family travel and 
remittances to the island but would offer to start normalizing relations 
with the country if it released all political prisoners. A "change" in 
direction, here? Not really, but rather a reversion to the Clinton 
administration's position. The bottom line? The blockade will remain in 
place as will the U.S. insistence on "regime change" and a ceaseless 
opposition to Cuba's self determination in place since the Kennedy era.

Obama has also promised a continuation of U.S. support for "regime 
change" in Venezuela, nothing more nor less than the reversal of the 
Bolivarian revolution. While his CANF speech spoke of the lack of 
democracy in Cuba, it seemed to suggest something else in regard to 

    ...We know that freedom across our hemisphere must go beyond
    elections. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez is a democratically elected
    leader. But we also know that he does not govern democratically. He
    talks of the people, but his actions just serve his own power.

Obviously much the same might be said of George W. Bush, except for the 
detail that Bush probably wasn't ever "democratically elected" at all, 
but that's not the Obama agenda. Voicing opposition not only to Hugo 
Chavez, but to the inroads in self-determination "from Bolivia to 
Nicaragua," the July, 2007 CFR speech also raised another primary concern:

    While the United States fails to address the changing realities in
    the Americas, others from Europe and Asia -- notably China -- have
    stepped up their own engagement. Iran has drawn closer to Venezuela,
    and just the other day
    Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with their windfall oil

Foreign powers meddling in the Western hemisphere? Horrors! (Would 
anyone be surprised if the would-be President were to invoke the Monroe 
In closing his address to the CFR, Obama waxed rhetorically eloquent, 
per usual, in a call for a "renewed American leadership" in the world. 
Interestingly, he quoted from one of the rarely mentioned passages of 
John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address.

    "To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe
    struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best
    efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is
    required -- not because the communists may be doing it, not because
    we seek their votes, but because it is right. *If a free society
    cannot help the many who are poor, _it cannot save the few who are
    rich._*" (Emphasis added.)

A Way Forward?

In sum, Barack Obama promises to uphold the "national interests" of the 
U.S. imperial project. His promise of a reversion to Clinton-era policy 
but no actual change in the Middle East status quo; his talk of 
diplomacy reinforced always by the threat of military force "beyond 
self-defense" and unilateral interventionism; his call for "regime 
change" and counter-revolution in Latin America -- none of these bode 
well, especially for all those still hungry for something more material 
than the rhetorical promise of "change."

At the height of the Presidential primary season, Obama certainly 
captured the imagination and yearnings of a huge swath of the U.S. 
public. His historic campaign mobilized Black America, and whole strata 
of youth legitimately concerned about an increasingly uncertain future 
as well as vast numbers of people of color long hungry for a "sea 
change" in the direction of the country.

The Obama candidacy, perceived not only as longed-for relief from eight 
years of Bush crowd rapaciousness, but also as a seeming departure from 
the corporate neoliberalism of the Democratic Leadership Council, also 
captivated the hearts and minds of many in those sectors where the Left, 
broadly defined, has had significant influence -- in the labor, 
environmental and peace movements as well as among those basing their 
support on racial, ethnic and gender identities.

The thought of a John McCain certainly is frightening. No one on the 
Left would dispute that. Even among those outside the Democratic fold, 
the argument for "the lesser of two evils" has already become immense, 
even more so perhaps than with Kerry and Gore in 2004 and 2000. There 
are those who have even resurrected a line similar to the one put 
forward by those in 1964 who argued, "Part of the Way with LBJ." And 
there are those still enthralled and excited with the fact of Obama's 
"historic campaign" who have not gone beyond the form, that well-honed 
Kennedyesque poise and "vigor", to examine the man's political substance.

So what do we on the anti-imperialist Left say to those masses of 
people, tired and rightfully fearful of the Republican agenda, who have 
placed their hopes in Obama? Clearly, his foreign policy positions 
provide important messages for those who choose to engage in positive 
dialogue with his supporters. His designs for the revitalization and 
furtherance of the U.S. imperial project must also be placed front and 
center by advocates of independent political action and supporters of 
Green Party candidates Cynthia McKinney/Rosa Clemente's campaign.

In either case, those critical of the U.S. role in the world must not be 
party to any illusion of "hope" or substantive, meaningful "change. 
While an Obama Presidency would be impelled tactically to shift away 
from the outright warlordism and banditry of Bush & Co, there will be no 
strategic departure from the continued quest for U.S. global dominance 
and the imperatives of empire. On that point, those involved in antiwar, 
peace and anti-imperialist work must remain absolutely clear if the 
struggles still needed to be won are to continue if and when an Obama 
inauguration takes place in January.

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