Barack Obama has assembled a team of rivals to implement his foreign policy. But while pundits and journalists speculate endlessly on the potential for drama with Hillary Clinton at the state department and Bill Clinton’s network of shady funders, the real rivalry that will play out goes virtually unmentioned. The main battles will not be between Obama’s staff, but rather against those who actually want a change in US foreign policy, not just a staff change in the war room.
When announcing his foreign policy team on Monday, Obama said: “I didn’t go around checking their voter registration.” That is a bit hard to believe, given the 63-question application to work in his White House. But Obama clearly did check their credentials, and the disturbing truth is that he liked what he saw.
The assembly of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Joe Biden is a kettle of hawks with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic interventionism, neoliberal economic policies and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George HW Bush’s time in office to the present.
Obama has dismissed suggestions that the public records of his appointees bear much relevance to future policy. “Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost,” Obama said. “It comes from me. That’s my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing.” It is a line the president-elect’s defenders echo often. The reality, though, is that their records do matter.
We were told repeatedly during the campaign that Obama was right on the premiere foreign policy issue of our day – the Iraq war. “Six years ago, I stood up and opposed this war at a time when it was politically risky to do so,” Obama said in his September debate against John McCain. “Senator McCain and President Bush had a very different judgment.” What does it say that, with 130 members of the House and 23 in the Senate who voted against the war, Obama chooses to hire Democrats who made the same judgement as Bush and McCain?
On Iraq, the issue that the Obama campaign described as “the most critical foreign policy judgment of our generation”, Biden and Clinton not only supported the invasion, but pushed the Bush administration’s propaganda and lies about Iraqi WMDs and fictitious connections to al-Qaida. Clinton and Obama’s hawkish, pro-Israel chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, still refuse to renounce their votes in favour of the war. Rice, who claims she opposed the Iraq war, didn’t hold elected office and was not confronted with voting for or against it. But she did publicly promote the myth of Iraq’s possession of WMDs, saying in the lead up to the war that the “major threat” must “be dealt with forcefully”. Rice has also been hawkish on Darfur, calling for “strik[ing] Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets”.
It is also deeply telling that, of his own free will, Obama selected President Bush’s choice for defence secretary, a man with a very disturbing and lengthy history at the CIA during the cold war, as his own. While General James Jones, Obama’s nominee for national security adviser, reportedly opposed the Iraq invasion and is said to have stood up to the neocons in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, he did not do so publicly when it would have carried weight. Time magazine described him as “the man who led the Marines during the run-up to the war – and failed to publicly criticise the operation’s flawed planning”. Moreover, Jones, who is a friend of McCain’s, has said a timetable for Iraq withdrawal, “would be against our national interest”.
But the problem with Obama’s appointments is hardly just a matter of bad vision on Iraq. What ultimately ties Obama’s team together is their unified support for the classic US foreign policy recipe: the hidden hand of the free market, backed up by the iron fist of US militarism to defend the America First doctrine.
Obama’s starry-eyed defenders have tried to downplay the importance of his cabinet selections, saying Obama will call the shots, but the ruling elite in this country see it for what it is. Karl Rove, “Bush’s Brain”, called Obama’s cabinet selections, “reassuring”, which itself is disconcerting, but neoconservative leader and former McCain campaign staffer Max Boot summed it up best. “I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain,” Boot wrote. The appointment of General Jones and the retention of Gates at defence “all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the unconditional summits with dictators and other foolishness that once emanated from the Obama campaign.”
Boot added that Hillary Clinton will be a “powerful” voice “for ‘neoliberalism’ which is not so different in many respects from ‘neoconservativism.'” Boot’s buddy, Michael Goldfarb, wrote in The Weekly Standard, the official organ of the neoconservative movement, that he sees “certainly nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term.”
There is not a single, solid anti-war voice in the upper echelons of the Obama foreign policy apparatus. And this is the point: Obama is not going to fundamentally change US foreign policy. He is a status quo Democrat. And that is why the mono-partisan Washington insiders are gushing over Obama’s new team. At the same time, it is also disingenuous to act as though Obama is engaging in some epic betrayal. Of course these appointments contradict his campaign rhetoric of change. But move past the speeches and Obama’s selections are very much in sync with his record and the foreign policy vision he articulated on the campaign trail, from his pledge to escalate the war in Afghanistan to his “residual force” plan in Iraq to his vow to use unilateral force in Pakistan to defend US interests to his posturing on Iran. “I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel,” Obama said in his famed speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last summer. “Sometimes, there are no alternatives to confrontation.”
JEREMY SCAHILL is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.