Revolution#137, July 27, 2008
Obama’s Foreign Policy:
Steering U.S. Imperialism Through
On July 14 The New York Times published a major editorial by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama titled, “My Plan for Iraq,” in which Obama called for “redeploying” U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. The next day Obama gave a major foreign policy address outlining his “new overarching” global strategy. It laid out how he sees the “challenges of a new and dangerous world,” his criticisms of the Iraq war, his concerns about Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, and a list of other contradictions the U.S. is facing, including global climate change, nuclear proliferation, and rising energy costs.
Obama’s article and speech come on the eve of his overseas trip, which is designed to demonstrate his credentials as a “credible commander-in-chief,” as one backer put it. And it comes when many who oppose the Iraq war are hoping that Obama represents a real change from Bush and his unending war for greater empire, and that there’s a basis for the people to “hold” Obama “to his good positions,” as columnist Norman Solomon put it.
However, if we take Obama’s words at face value, they reveal no such hope, and no “good” positions. His vision and plans aren’t identical to Bush’s, but they’re imperialist to the core. They aren’t designed to share the planet with the rest of humanity—they’re designed to strengthen and extend U.S. global hegemony. They’re not designed to help solve the crushing horrors threatening the world—they’re designed to strengthen the very system of global capitalism-imperialism that’s the root cause of these horrors. And they aren’t even about ending U.S. wars—just the opposite. "Obamaplan" is to scale back U.S. forces in Iraq (leaving an estimated 50,000 for the indefinite future), while escalating the war in Afghanistan (dispatching another 10,000 troops) and stepping up U.S. military intervention in Pakistan.
And many of Obama’s positions aren’t even that different from current Bush administration policies, which have been evolving in the face of the shifting terrain and contradictions facing the U.S. empire.
Imperialists Debate Grand Strategy in a Changing World
Obama’s criticisms of Bush’s strategy are not unique—they are shared by many in the ruling class. These strategists of empire feel the invasion of Iraq and the neocon strategy of rapid, forcible regional transformation of the Middle East has not gone according to plan and has hurt U.S. interests in the region and globally in important ways. They think the Bush administration has focused too narrowly on Iraq and the Middle East to the detriment of other global concerns, giving other powers openings and more maneuvering room. And they argue that the Bush team has relied too heavily on U.S. military power and not enough on other elements of imperial might—economic leverage, political posturing, and diplomatic efforts.
“This [Iraq] war distracts us from every threat that we face and so many opportunities we could seize,” Obama declared. “This war diminishes our security, our standing in the world, our military, our economy, and the resources that we need to confront the challenges of the 21st century. By any measure, our single-minded and open-ended focus on Iraq is not a sound strategy for keeping America safe.”
On the Lehrer NewsHour (July 15), Obama said, “[W]hat I have said continuously is that in light of the problems that we’re having in Afghanistan, in light of other security threats that we have out there, non‑proliferation issues, Iran, what we’re doing with respect to China, what we’re doing with respect to North Korea, it is important for us not to be single‑minded about Iraq.”
Obama’s concerns reflect the changing global terrain and necessities facing U.S. imperialism—which is why even Bush and McCain would agree with much of what he says—and in some cases these shifts have already been implemented, including escalating the war in Afghanistan and placing more emphasis on diplomacy and political preparation in dealing with the very acute challenges posed by Iran. (For a broader discussion of the changing global terrain, see Raymond Lotta, “Shifts and Faultlines in the World Economy and Great Power Rivalry,” Part 1, Revolution #136, July 20, 2008; Part 2, page 6 this issue).
In short, Obama is coming from a thoroughly imperialist viewpoint—being concerned with the problems confronting not humanity, but the U.S. empire militarily, politically, and economically—and what should be done about them. So it’s not surprising that Obama’s answer is thoroughly imperialist as well—beginning with joining “overwhelming military strength with sound judgment,” while shaping events “not just through military force, but through the force of our ideas; through economic power, intelligence and diplomacy.” Obama proposes expanding the size of the U.S. military by 65,000 ground troops and 27,000 marines. The point? “[A] strategy that saw clearly the world’s dangers, while seizing its promise.” Coming from the would-be commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest empire and exploiter, “seizing” the world’s “promise” is chilling—and sickening.
Iraq: Redeploying Forces to Meet “Broader Strategic Goals”
Obama trades off his 2002 opposition to the Iraq war, and is often branded an “anti-war” candidate. He is no such thing.
Obama has never criticized the invasion of Iraq because it was an illegal, immoral, and unjust war of conquest and empire. And the criticisms he raises come from the thoroughly chauvinist viewpoint of what’s best for America—i.e. the U.S. empire. “I warned that the invasion of a country posing no imminent threat would fan the flames of extremism, and distract us from the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Obama writes. And he argues that the cost has outweighed the benefits for U.S. imperialism: ”Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face—from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran—has grown.... The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted.”
Obama never mentions the horrors the war has inflicted on millions of Iraqis—the one million dead, the five million driven from their homes. Obama is training people in the foul logic that only American lives and power count for anything, while Iraqi lives count for nothing.
Obama argues that continuing the occupation in its current form will further damage U.S. imperial interests and has called for withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months. “Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been.” He then cites Admiral Mike Mullen, Bush’s own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argues, “we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.”
But Obama is not calling for leaving Iraq or allowing the Iraqi people to determine their own destiny. His plan includes leaving a “residual” force of perhaps 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to continue the effort to create a stable pro-U.S. state, which is seen as key to strengthening the U.S. grip on the region and transforming it in the interests of U.S. imperialism. And he makes clear that anything he does would be conditioned by the situation on the ground and U.S. interests: “...My plan would not be a precipitous withdrawal...we would inevitably need to make tactical adjustments. As I have often said, I would consult with commanders on the ground and the Iraqi government to ensure that our troops were redeployed safely, and our interests protected.”
In other words, even to the degree Obama and the Democrats have real differences with Bush, they’re not about to do anything that could jeopardize the war—which is why they have approved every bill appropriating billions (over $600 billion and counting) for the war.
This is another example of the fact that real decisions are not made through elections—they’re made by the ruling class based on their interests, not what the people want or what candidates promise in campaigns.
So Obama is right. His position on the Iraq war has been consistent. Consistently proceeding from the reactionary needs and interests of U.S. imperialism.
Iran: “I Will Use All Elements of American Power”
Obama agrees with the broad ruling class consensus that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a huge strategic problem that has to be dealt with one way or the other, while repeating the charges that Iran supports “terror” and is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. His criticism is that the Bush administration’s approach has strengthened, not weakened, Iran.
“We cannot tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of nations that support terror. Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a vital national security interest of the United States. No tool of statecraft should be taken off the table, but Senator McCain would continue a failed policy that has seen Iran strengthen its position, advance its nuclear program, and stockpile 150 kilos of low enriched uranium. I will use all elements of American power to pressure the Iranian regime, starting with aggressive, principled and direct diplomacy—diplomacy backed with strong sanctions and without preconditions....the measure of any effort is whether it leads to a change in Iranian behavior.”
Obama’s position on Iran flows from his advocacy of key tenants of imperialist strategy, shared by the whole ruling class: the U.S. must dominate the Middle East, and strengthening the settler-colonial state of Israel (which was founded on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine) as a regional ally and military outpost is essential to doing so. This is why Obama has repeatedly made clear, as he told AIPAC (The American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee), that his “bottom line” is an “unshakeable commitment” to Israel and his determination to “do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” including waging war if need be. Obama’s call for direct diplomacy is in the service of these objectives, including by putting the U.S. in a stronger political and diplomatic position should it decide to go to war. “If we must use military force,” Obama told AIPAC, “we are more likely to succeed, and will have far greater support at home and abroad, if we have exhausted our diplomatic efforts.”
Escalating War in Afghanistan and Pakistan
This so-called “anti-war” candidate wants to escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan—sending 10,000 more U.S. troops to reinforce the 36,000 already in Afghanistan and threatening unilateral military action inside Pakistan—whether the Pakistani government agrees or not.
“[A]s President, I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”
Obama’s concern is that the greatest immediate threat to stability and U.S. hegemony in the Middle East-Central Asian region is the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This assessment is widely shared by ruling class strategists—of both parties. Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been loudly arguing for more air power in Afghanistan, the CIA and Special Forces have already set up secret bases in Pakistan, and the Republican nominee John McCain calls for even more troops—15,000—to be dispatched to Afghanistan.
But what’s the nature of this war that Obama claims the U.S. must win? Is it a just war to liberate the people of Afghanistan? No. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was driven by reactionary imperialist interests and ideology from the beginning. This war was never about simply capturing Osama bin Laden in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Its focus was replacing the Taliban regime with one more suitable to U.S. interests, which included defeating Islamic fundamentalism and gaining strategic control of this crossroads of Central Asia, where an intense great power rivalry over the control of oil and natural gas resources and pipelines is taking place. (See “Afghanistan: The Oil Behind the War,” Revolutionary Worker #1125, November 4, 2001.)
During the U.S.’s October 2001 war, thousands of Afghanis were massacred and tortured to overthrow the Taliban regime and put a reactionary collection of warlords more loyal to the U.S. in power, with Hamid Karzai its figurehead leader. Since then, the Taliban has regrouped, and attacks on the Karzai regime and U.S. forces have escalated. Tom Hayden, citing journalist Ahmed Rashid’s new book Descent into Chaos,* writes, “There are some 36,000 U.S. troops stretched across Afghanistan, another 17,500 under NATO command, and 18,000 in counterinsurgency and training roles. They are so aggressively combat-oriented that the Afghan government itself continually objects to the rate of civilian casualties.... Seven hundred civilians were killed in the first five months of 2008 alone, according to the United Nations.
“By 2005, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission cited 800 cases of detainee abuse at some thirty U.S. firebases. ‘The CIA operates its own secret detention centers, which were off limits to the U.S. military.’ Ghost prisoners, known as Persons Under Control are held permanently without any public records of their existence. Warlords operate their own prisons with ‘unprecedented abuse, torture, and death of Taliban prisoners.’ And as the U.S. lowered the number of prisoners at Guantánamo, it increased the number held at Bagram, near Kabul.”
Besides enormous violence, what have seven years of U.S. “liberation” brought the people of Afghanistan? When the U.S. invaded, Afghanistan was 172nd out of 178 nations on the UN’s Human Development Index. Today, little has changed. Afghanistan “has the highest rate of infant mortality in the world, a life expectancy rate of 44-45 years, and the youngest population of any country. In 2005, 95 percent of Kabul’s residents were living without electrical power.… As of 2006, Afghanistan’s economy still rested on producing 90 percent of the world’s opium.” And women remain shackled by repressive Islamic social codes.
This is the war Obama wants to escalate and declares the U.S. must win. How can anyone who supports the liberation of oppressed people support that?
Obama is promising to successfully battle his way through an intense cauldron of contradictions in the Middle East and Central Asia. But who says he’s going to be any more “successful” there than Bush has been—or that U.S. forces will be leaving the region for years? (All this puts his vote for the new FISA law expanding spying in context. Obama, like the other imperialists, knows this “war on terror”—to strengthen the U.S. grip on the Middle East-Central Asia as part of solidifying U.S. global hegemony—will go on for years if not decades. Given that, and the deep faultlines in U.S. society, new repressive measures are demanded. (See “New Wiretapping Law: A Big Leap in Big Brotherization of Society” and “Why Did Obama Support FISA and Telecom Immunity?” Revolution #136, July 20, 2008.)
All this shows why the Obama campaign is not progress—it’s extremely harmful to the people. In short, Obama is using his anti-war credentials to build public support for more U.S. imperialist war! A new face for the same rotten empire.
* “Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan,” Tom Hayden, The Nation, July 15, 2008, citing and quoting from Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos (Viking, 2008) [back]
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