During Obama’s election campaign, it was common to hear progressives, liberals and leftists breathless with excitement as they looked forward to an Obama administration.
Obama promised "change" in every speech. In all likelihood, Bush had become the most unpopular president in American history, both domestically and internationally. Friends and media commentators alike proclaimed that a new era of American policy would begin.
On March 27, Obama announced his "comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan". Not so long before that, the Australian reported what it called Obama’s "radical reversal" in American policy in the Middle East.
While I would welcome a radical reversal in US foreign policy in these areas, a closer look at the emerging contours of American foreign policy reveals more continuity than change.
Consider first the case of Afghanistan. Obama — more intelligent and candid than Bush — has admitted the occupation of Afghanistan is going badly. What has he learnt from this? To respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the wishes of its people? No. Obama has inherited Bush’s imperial arrogance, which is considered so natural that it goes unnoticed, even when openly reported. British paper the Independent, for example, reported that Obama has decided he doesn’t like Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, and wants to find a new one.
It seems not so long ago we were reading in the press about how Afghanistan had been liberated and finally had democratic elections. Of course, inside Afghanistan, the "mayor of Kabul", whose writ largely was confined to the capital of Afghanistan, was considered an American puppet, and has largely been supportive of American wishes.
However, lately even Karzai has been speaking out against American arrogance towards Afghanistan. The Economist notes that he has been publicly condemning the US airstrikes that have been killing Afghan civillians. It even called him "strident", as it is considered inappropriate and audacious for poor countries to dare lecture the rulers of the world about who they should or shouldn’t be killing. Karzai responded to questioning about whether the US wanted to install a new government by saying, "The Afghans determine who leads Afghanistan … We are not a colony."
The evidence of Obama’s dislike for Karzai is increasing. His plan, backed by European governments, to override Karzai’s government by installing a new prime minister or chief executive has been reported in the Guardian. As a European official explained, they need someone who will be "reliable for us". It’s reported that imposing a government to do US and European bidding may be regarded as colonialist. Whether or not colonialism is legitimate is something not discussed — it is simply assumed we have the right to install puppet governments if currently existing ones are disobedient.
Karzai must now be acutely aware that Obama, like Bush, reserves for the US the right to determine which governments — elected or not — should be allowed to govern their countries. This is why Obama, immediately on assuming the presidency, called his allies in Egypt and Jordan. These hideous tyrannies — and presumably many more in the region — were reassured of their close relationship with the US. But then, any Middle Eastern country, no matter how tyrannous, which is willing to obey Washington (and perhaps tacitly support Israeli crimes against the Palestinians) is ipso facto considered "moderate".
Obama’s "change" platform did, however, include one substantive issue. He virtually pledged that he would bomb Pakistan, and that is what he has been doing.
The LA Times reported on the public revelation that US missile strikes have been carried out within Pakistan. Reporter Greg Miller notes casually that the "attacks are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, in part because of the high number of civilian casualties inflicted in dozens of strikes." The revelation of the cooperation of the Pakistani Government is considered embarrassing, because it has been trying to pretend to the people of Pakistan that it opposes the air strikes. However, the actual desire of the Pakistani people to not be bombed is considered trivial.
Plainly, Obama’s "radical reversal" doesn’t include worrying about the nagging of people in foreign countries. They fail to understand that they should not determine what happens in their own land.
The depressing continuities extend to US policy on Israel. Obama appointed Dennis Ross to his administration, making as plain as possible that he is going to continue America’s support for the Israeli occupation.
Mild ado was made in the press about Hillary Clinton criticising Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. But, as plenty of others have pointed out, merely saying that these crimes are "unhelpful" does not signify any substantive change, while America continues to give billions of dollars in aid to Israel.
Seth Freedman accurately noted that this is the "standard American formula of expressing mild annoyance at the Israeli government in public, while privately soothing Israeli politicians, patting them on the head and sending them out to play with another year’s pocket money to spend on arms, roadblocks and concrete slabs of separation wall." Obama is also continuing the boycott of Hamas.
This is all happening at a time when Israel has just sworn in a prime minister who opposes on principle the creation of a Palestinian state, and whose foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a quasi-fascist. US administrations tend to prefer Labour in power, because they provide the appropriate fig leaf of conducting an imaginary "peace process" as a cover for continued work against real moves toward peace. Netanyahu was shrewd enough to see this and offer a spot to Labour in his coalition, and Barak was venal enough to accept it.
Indeed, within hours of being sworn in, Avigdor Lieberman announced his rejection of the basically hollow Annapolis Peace Process. The US, which boycotts Hamas on the grounds of its extremism, responded to this declaration by explaining its "full confidence" in the Israeli Government, which the US would "continue to support". To show Israel’s commitment to peace, a US official noted "Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments, that he will work for peace with the Palestinians and peace in the region". Netanyahu, as it happens, did not mention a two-state solution, which he refuses to endorse, and thus Obama has become fully supportive of outright, brazen Israeli rejection of a two-state solution, in word and deed.
And finally, to Iraq, and what the Australian‘s Geoff Elliot interpreted as Obama’s "radical reversal". In his article from last month, Elliot tells us that Obama will withdraw 12,000 American troops by September. However, this news doesn’t constitute any substantial change.
Removing some troops from Iraq after the "surge" — which was supposed to be temporary anyway — is hardly a major divergence from Bush’s policy. If this actually marked an end to the military occupation of Iraq, or at least pointed to it, it would be a major reversal of the direction under Bush. But leading analysts of the occupation argue that this isn’t what’s happening.
In an interview with Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill noted that when Obama was questioned on the campaign trail about ending the occupation, Obama declared he would not support a withdrawal that included the new "embassy" that the US has just unveiled in Baghdad. As Scahill says, it is the "largest of any nation anywhere in the history of the planet", and defending it will require a "sizeable armed presence in Baghdad".
So much for all the rhetoric about leaving. But since they’re staying, will it be under significantly different terms to those under Bush? Article 27 of the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US grants the US the right to undertake military action "or any other measure" inside Iraq "in the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq." An "internal threat or aggression" can provide practically any pretext for the US to prolong its stay in Iraq.
If one thinks that Bush’s policy in Iraq was one of suppressing independent and nationalist forces and imposing a pliant government, then Obama’s gradual withdrawal of only some soldiers is broadly consistent with Bush’s policy. Indeed, the US policy of resisting what is called "internal aggression" in a foreign country has a long list of precedents, in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Consider also the opinion of regional expert Juan Cole. Cole has consistently opposed the war on Iraq, and is convinced that Obama is ending the occupation. Yet he also notes that Obama’s plan includes leaving up to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2011. Cole recognises also that Maliki remains dependent on US military support, so the "caveat about Obama’s pledge to remove troops by the end of 2011 is that he cannot possibly be including the US Air Force, which is almost certainly in for a longer mission".
Cole ends by saying that we should take seriously Obama’s announcement that he "intend[s]to remove all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011". But he points out that "troops" doesn’t include the US Air Force or Navy. What he doesn’t mention is the ambiguity of the word "intend", which means that Obama could pretend to try to withdraw all the soldiers, but then fail. This could occur if, for example, the Iraqis elect a nationalistic, or perhaps pro-Iranian government, unwilling to obey the dictates of Washington. Then Obama might choose to undertake military actions to "defend" that country against "internal aggression" that acts against American imperial will.
Furthermore, evidence is emerging that Obama is seeking to camouflage continued American occupation of Iraq, by simply relabelling US combat soldiers "advisory and assistance brigades".
This, in a nutshell, is Obama’s "radical reversal" on foreign policy: some mild tactical differences in US machinations in the Middle East.
Obama was elected promising change. But in all the US’s recent actions — in everything from a new series of embarrassing gaffes right down to a new Guantanamo — the changes are noticeable to anyone but the victims of US foreign policy.
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