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The Foreign Policy of Barack Obama

More Muscular Interventionism

by JEFF TAYLOR

Barack Obama provides no alternative to Hillary Clinton, in terms of imperial-minded foreign policy. This is doubly regrettable since Clinton herself provides no substantive alternative to the neoconservative philosophy of the Bush administration.

As with Clinton and the other "respectable" contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Obama has consistently voted to fund the war and has opposed an immediate withdrawal of American troops. While state legislator Obama opposed an immediate war with Iraq in 2002-03, he did not do so on anti-imperial or noninterventionist grounds. He opposed the war at a time when the idea was relatively unpopular, especially among his Chicago constituents. He later backpedaled somewhat from his public opposition.

Referring to the U.S. Senate authorization vote of 2002 and senators having access to intelligence reports, in July 2004, he told the New York Times, "What would I have done? I don’t know." Asked about the pro-war votes of Kerry and Edwards, Obama told NPR, "I don’t consider that to have been an easy decision, and certainly, I wasn’t in the position to actually cast a vote on it. I think that there is room for disagreement in that initial decision." Not exactly a stunning statement of the peace position! In July 2003, Obama argued that a unilateral approach to Iraq was not the best one, that a multilateral coalition against Saddam Hussein would have been better so that "if we ultimately had to overthrow him, we would have built an international coalition that could have moved forward."

An adept politician, Obama began emphasizing his "anti-war" stance as the war became increasingly unpopular among Democrats across the country and he began gearing up for the 2008 presidential campaign. Gone was the 2004 equivocating. He had found an issue with which to distinguish himself from Clinton, Edwards, and Biden. Campaigning among grassroots Democrats, Obama sounds like Cindy Sheehan, but his real, far more nuanced views have been laid out for members of the elite Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

In November 2006, he telegraphed his "safe" imperial mindset to the powers that be when he said, "There is one other place where our mistakes in Iraq have cost us dearly–and that is the loss of our government’s credibility with the American people. According to a Pew survey, 42% of Americans now agree with the statement that the U.S. should ‘mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.’ We cannot afford to be a country of isolationists right now. 9/11 showed us that try as we might to ignore the rest of the world, our enemies will no longer ignore us. And so we need to maintain a strong foreign policy, relentless in pursuing our enemies and hopeful in promoting our values around the world."

Of course, Obama is being dishonest when he pretends that the U.S. government was trying to "ignore the rest of the world" prior to 9/11. Isolationism did not provoke the terrorists. On the contrary, the terrorist attack was partly a result of decades of U.S. intervention overseas–precisely the kind of meddling that Obama euphemistically calls "maintaining a strong foreign policy, pursuing our enemies, and promoting our values around the world." This is the point made by Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX), a principled and consistent Iraq War opponent, and it is understood by millions of populist Democrats as well. When you stick your hand in a hornet’s nest, you may get stung. Perhaps the action is worth the possible consequence, but don’t pretend that the sticking of the hand into the nest had nothing to do with the stinging! The hornets didn’t choose to sting someone minding his own business simply because they "hate freedom."

In a second speech, in April 2007, Obama told the CCGA, " I reject the notion that the American moment has passed. I dismiss the cynics who say that this new century cannot be another when, in the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, we lead the world in battling immediate evils and promoting the ultimate good. I still believe that America is the last, best hope of Earth. We just have to show the world why this is so. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open. And it’s time to fill that role once more." Yes, the dream of Pax America must continue, only under better management–management that is more savvy in handling international public opinion.

With a straight face, Obama declared, "In today’s globalized world, the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people." He continued, "World opinion has turned against us. And after all the lives lost and the billions of dollars spent, many Americans may find it tempting to turn inward, and cede our claim of leadership in world affairs. I insist, however, that such an abandonment of our leadership is a mistake we must not make….We must lead the world, by deed and example."

In his speech to the internationalists, Obama endorsed the Persian Gulf War of 1991, a bloodletting that had nothing to do with U.S. national security and was opposed by populists as diverse as Jerry Brown, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, and Chuck Grassley: "No President should ever hesitate to use force–unilaterally if necessary–to protect ourselves and our vital interests when we are attacked or imminently threatened. But when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others–the kind of burden-sharing and support President George H.W. Bush mustered before he launched Operation Desert Storm."

Notice that Obama has quietly slipped in an endorsement of preemptive war with his wording "imminently threatened." And notice also the use of the Power Elite’s favorite foreign policy weasel words: "our vital interests." This is a catch-all phrase that really means the economic and imperial interests of the Fortune 500 and their political deputies. Not shying away from military imagery, Obama said, "In order to advance our national security and our common security, we must call on the full arsenal of American power and ingenuity. To constrain rogue nations, we must use effective diplomacy and muscular alliances." He evoked the names of beloved figures of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Richard Lugar, George Marshall, and Harry Truman.

Senator Obama ended his speech with stirring words worthy of a neoconservative: "The American moment has not passed. The American moment is here. And like generations before us, we will seize that moment, and begin the world anew." Revolutionary fervor a la Robespierre and Trotsky has not completely left the Democratic Party in favor of greener Republican pastures!

Not surprisingly, neocon guru Robert Kagan gloated over this speech in a Washington Post column ("Obama the Interventionist," April 29, 2007). Kagan is the man who coauthored the 1996 Foreign Affairs article "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy" with William Kristol in which he told us that the "appropriate goal" of U.S. foreign policy is the preservation of "American hegemony" so we can continue to fulfill our "responsibility to lead the world." Kagan’s résumé could be considered quintessential for a servant of the Power Elite. All of the usual suspects are found: Yale, Harvard, Public Interest, Washington Post, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, U.S. Information Agency, State Department, George Pratt Shultz, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Council on Foreign Relations, Henry Jackson Society, Project for the New American Century, New World Order, and–appropriately enough–an Alexander Hamilton fellowship at American University. It is no coincidence that Kagan sounds so much like Obama and vice-versa. They share an elite mindset.

David Brooks, another influential neocon writer, has been very warm toward Obama’s candidacy. Obama has told Brooks that Reinhold Niebuhr is one of his favorite philosophers. This was also true for Senator Hubert Humphrey (DFL-MN), a father of neoconservatism. In the early 1940s, Niebuhr resigned from the Socialist Party, denounced Norman Thomas as a "utopian" for maintaining pacifist, anti-imperial views, and became an admirer of FDR. Niebuhr and Humphrey were both founders of Americans for Democratic Action, a pro-capitalism, pro-Cold War group, and both supported Truman for president rather than Norman Thomas or Henry Wallace in the fall of 1948.

Niebuhr used theological arguments to defend the economic and political status quo, specifically monopoly capitalism seasoned with welfare programs at home and martial imperialism leaved with humanitarian rhetoric abroad. Unlike William Jennings Bryan–a Democratic opponent of militarism and imperialism earlier in the century–Niebuhr rejected orthodox Christianity as grounded in a literal reading of the New Testament.

Like Hillary Clinton, Obama is clearly in the Hubert Humphrey-Harry Truman-Henry Jackson tradition of "muscular internationalism," with its attendant gunboat diplomacy and faux global humanitarianism. Obama also identifies with the Kennedy fraternity of the Democratic Party…not only stylistically with his movie star glamour but also with his "pay any price, bear any burden" view of the whole world as our responsibility and fiefdom. Those who want peace on Earth and who favor a humble American republic rather than an overbearing American empire must look elsewhere for an alternative to HRC, GWB, and the foreign policy status quo.

Returning to the supposed glory days of a bipartisan foreign policy is not the answer. That would only mean a return to White House/Wall Street management of the world through the fig-leaf instrumentality of the U.N. Security Council. Exchanging the Bush-Kristol-Kagan neoconservative approach of unilateral imperialism for the Clinton-Schlesinger-Brzezinski approach of multilateral imperialism yields nothing positive. In fact, the more subtle imperial approach favored by Democratic leaders may be more dangerous, as Gabriel Kolko pointed out in 2004 here and here.

What is the answer? It ain’t Obama. Better to vote for Senator Mike Gravel or Congressman Dennis Kucinich. Kucinich is good but he has a Humphrey-like sentimentality that can lead to mushy-headed thinking and political compromise. Gravel is more of a no-nonsense guy with deep populist instincts unclouded by New Age touchy-feeliness. That’s one reason I prefer him over Kucinich. But either of these lesser-known Democratic candidates are far better than the more-famous options of Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Dodd, or Gore. All of these individuals supported the Clinton administration’s foreign policy of missiles and money in the 1990s, and all of them supported military action against Iraq during the past twenty years.

Another option for those of us who like popular sovereignty, justice, and nonviolence is Ron Paul. He is the only GOP presidential contender who opposes the Iraq War, the U.N. Security Council, and the Patriot Act. It’s true that some liberal Democrats cannot swallow his opposition to abortion–which comes from a consistent life ethic that also includes opposition to war and capital punishment–and some New Deal nostalgiasts object to his libertarian belief in small, constitutional government, but Ron Paul is far more Jeffersonian in the best sense of the word than is Obama or Clinton.

Unfortunately, Gravel, Kucinich, and Paul have no chance of being nominated for president by their respective parties. The best we can hope for is the injection of some real issues and good ideas into the primary-season presidential "debates" and perhaps a worthy third party ticket next year (Paul-Gravel?). In the meantime, Americans who are dissatisfied with needless wars and arrogant meddling could more profitably spend their time reading someone like Andrew Bacevich than gazing at the tinseled hoopla surrounding candidates like Barack Obama.

JEFF TAYLOR is a political scientist. His book Where Did the Party Go?: William Jennings Bryan, Hubert Humphrey, and the Jeffersonian Legacy was published last year by University of Missouri Press. For more information, see: http://www.popcorn78.blogspot.com.