[Marxism] Obama and Empire
alruff at tds.net
Wed Jul 30 10:27:25 MDT 2008
Obama and the Empire*
[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
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
...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
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
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
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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