In a jaundiced US national foreign-policy perspective, Obama, befitting America’s steadily moving shift politically, ideologically, culturally, sharply rightward, is somehow viewed as weak, vacillating, lacking sufficient will to stand up to Aggression (capitalized because seen as all-pervasive, coming from every quarter: militant Islam, Russia, China, even Gazans), and thereby presumably a Leftist, when in fact he occupies the exact, predictable position marking an extension in US hegemonic claims to unilateral global supremacy effected through war, intervention, trade agreements, military alliance systems, market penetration, international financial and banking pressures and manipulations, that we have seen since the close of World War 2. Lack of toughness? Hardly. Departure from the Cold War? No, further continuities, only slightly more cosmopolitan in the use of proxy forces, drone assassination, rendition, the while speaking words of peace and social justice, i.e., the cover of liberal humanitarianism as screws are tightened both on regional spheres of influence and Third World aspirations toward modernization.
Yet for much of an imperialist-thirsty America, not enough: Support Kiev, encourage serious rearming of Japan, hasten Israel’s destruction of Gaza, push regime change in Syria and wherever—and this, merely in today’s news, for the long-range picture is more decisive in the elucidation and practice of American power. Presently, under Obama, the US is on a collision course with the world, his nearest comparison in point of militarizing an acceptable definition of US-inspired (read: directed, supervised, administered) globalism would be three-fifths John F. Kennedy, two-fifths Ronald Reagan, that superb bipartisan mix of main-force over-the-top militarism and the nitty-gritty suppression of indigenous movements of social change. World dominance with respect to major power systems, localism in the eradication of national liberation struggles, a petrifaction of world order, grounded on American military foundations premised in turn on the expansion of US capitalism as principal architect of the international political economy—what in a franker day, we called Counterrevolution, now muddied by not only liberal humanitarianism but also counterterrorism. The Islamic Assault is manna from heaven for America’s global extension of power, as is liberal humanitarianism for sanitizing both imperialism and the encirclement of Russia and China.
Obama means business (ignore the pun) facing off against Russia and China through respective regional alliance systems and largely exclusive trading frameworks (and for the former a sanctions regime) while domestically continuing the trend of deregulation to the advantage of corporate/banking concentration and a consequently stronger business voice in formulating the aims of foreign policy. Domestic policy, in business’s favor, is already a foregone conclusion. Here liberalism bears special scrutiny, as ideological camouflage for the war-provoking tendencies in US foreign policy, Woodrow Wilson the prime exemplar of its use in market expansion (liberalism an energizing factor in world trade, as against the Republican isolationists nakedly imperialist ensconced behind a high protective tariff), an historical course anything but harmless when it is realized that market expansion is not an abstract pursuit but always supposes a strong military presence whether brought into play or held in the background. Obama while not aware of the historical background weds Wilsonian internationalism with Theodore Roosevelt’s Battleship Navy (suitably brought up-to-date with carrier groups, long-range aircraft, extensive paramilitary operations, and, of course, a stunning nuclear stockpile). Liberalism in America, even in the late-19th century Open Door, was never really liberalism, its military undergarment always showing.
To be more specific, liberalism has been true to itself in its fashion, primarily antiradical in its genesis and practice, and primarily to soften the rough edges of capitalism while not undermining its essential structure or impeding the wealth-concentration process of class differentiation. To be not-reactionary counts for something in waging a battle on behalf of the status quo, chiefly, through enlivening sources of false consciousness, particularly in foreign policy where identifying expansion with democracy (our famous Turner Thesis was the ideological prop for joining the two internally) sends an electric charge through the body politic through patriotism, a cult of strength, and the use of force. In this regard, liberalism was and remains blood-soaked transferring the psychodynamics of patriotism, strength, and force to capitalism itself, the two becoming the same (the basic synthesis, liberalism/capitalism, at the core of Exceptionalism, both as ideology and militarized implementation), and for Obama the launching pad for further political-commercial expansion.
It may seem like hitting below the belt (it isn’t), but drone assassination so beautifully exposes the moral pretensions, negation of humaneness, and contempt for the rule of law, of liberalism. It is however not alone in this regard, Obama’s talking point that he inherited a mess (including drones) and therefore cannot be held accountable for, e.g., the Iraq war, assassination, events in Africa, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, etc., begs the question of WHY NOT reverse course, renounce intervention, eschew regime change, stop using the IMF and World Bank as battering rams for securing economic-financial penetration, above all, renounce—demonstrated through action—unilateral dominance of the world system and gracefully concede instead the existence of a multipolar global framework where hegemony is both destabilizing and no longer realistic. And the foregoing, just in foreign policy, because domestic course-reversal is also critically important if the US is to abandon—under Obama thought anathema—global hegemony. His whole purpose is to keep the US on top, an uncontested given in the American political universe, “on top” being construed not as the romanticization of power and prestige, enough perhaps to suck-in a mass constituency, but, starting with military supremacy, a political-economic- ideological dominance forcing the world system in all its myriad forms to pivot around the Nation, its needs, its perceived superiority. Liberalism, the paradigm of the Divine Order, Obama and his critics to the Right (there has been insufficient criticism from the Left) partaking with equal fervor Exceptionalism as guiding myth and rationale, differences occurring only in the realm of means. Simply, to his critics, he has not been sufficiently decisive, code for, more military engagement, more military spending, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Putin and Li, macho America not afraid of mushroom clouds to prove its toughness.
In Obama’s defense (back-handedly, to be sure), he has been plenty tough already, as in the cumulative development of foreign policy, in not one instance or policy arena modifying hegemonic goals, indeed, being more pronounced in viewing and taking action to counter Russia and China as interrelated threats, in what should be acknowledged as a renewed Cold War spirit, than most if not all of his predecessors, dating back to Harry Truman. Nor on his watch have defense budgets—as well as military assistance to governments in the business of suppression, whether of their own people or others—slackened, while domestic needs go largely unmet. He is indistinguishable from the presidential pack. In addition, there are the less visible integuments of national power on pace and more: continued nuclear modernization, greater lethality of weaponry, and still largely unnoticed, more emphasis on paramilitary-special forces operations integrated with CIA activities, hiring of private contractors, covert warfare, all protected by the negotiation of status-of-forces agreements with the countries to which our “brave warriors” have been assigned, avoiding prosecution in the event of the commission of war crimes. As with so much else about the Obama administration, this is just for starters, thus reason enough for invoking the Espionage Act against whistleblowers and mounting the most ambitious campaign of massive surveillance of the American people in US history. Where there’s smoke (and this looks like a four-alarm blaze) there must be—or at least the presumption of—war crimes. Why else the defensiveness?
And yet critics of Obama call him soft (the imagery right out of McCarthyism, this directed against one who is himself an adept pupil of the Meister of Defamation). We turn, then, to Peter Baker’s New York Times article, “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way,” (Aug. 16), Baker, along with David Sanger, altogether trustworthy in accurately parroting the Administration line, as though enjoying White House access of a special kind, here with an excellent sampling of critics and supporter alike. (It is difficult to know which is more disheartening, Obama’s supporters maintaining the same overall framework, but with greater finesse.)
Baker writes, “In this summer of global tumult, the debate in Washington essentially boils down to two opposite positions: It is all President Obama’s fault, according to his critics; no it is not, according to his supporters, because these are events beyond his control.” Welcome to the kindergarten of the mind, which is Washington, for me, a pox on both your houses, were it not that you dwell under the same roof (however cantankerous on the surface, perhaps to give the illusion of policy differences on imperialism). Criticism and praise, equally disheartening, for one—“his critics have made the case that Mr. Obama’s mistakes have fueled the turmoil in places like Syria, Iraq and Ukraine”—and for the other—Obama “has increasingly argued that his power to shape these seismic forces is actually limited”—presents a phony dichotomy, implying that some golden mean would resolve the issue, or more likely, for Baker, these “seismic forces” provide extenuating circumstances. Obama is not God, he can’t do everything; give him credit for statesmanship in doing what he is able to accomplish.
Obama: “’Apparently, people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.’” Not for want of trying, I would add, but the important point, neither Obama, and his supporters nor his critics address the questions: what kind of control and control TO WHAT END? Control is the alchemic formula for achieving what must be whispered, lest the word get out alerting world opinion to America’s urge toward global hegemony at almost whatever cost or self-knowledge because of such ambition might have crippling effect. Vagueness, obfuscation, false consciousness, do your work, so long as the sweep of historical continuity is not obstructed. No, retract the statement, if not too late, Obama, “because it was seen by adversaries as a cop-out and even by more sympathetic analysts as a revealing moment for a president whiplashed by international instability.” Cop-out: bomb the hell out of everyone; whip-lashed by international instability: as though America is helpless tossing about in the wind and had not contributed to, or bears responsibility for, the contexts in which it finds itself in trouble. (Here, add Ukraine and the coup, to interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Baker summarizes the critics (the actual vitriol, testifying to, for many, an overt fascistic worldview, as when McCain visited Kiev, not directly quoted): “The bill of particulars against Mr. Obama is long. In the view of his critics, he failed to stanch the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria when he rejected proposals to arm the more moderate elements of the Syrian resistance. He left a vacuum in Iraq by not doing more to leave a residual force behind when American troops exited in 2011. And he signaled weakness to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, encouraging the Kremlin to think it could intervene in Ukraine without fear of significant consequence.” Yes, ISIS simply grew from nowhere, and could have been stopped; yes, full-throated occupation in Iraq forever and a day to quell internal disturbance; yes, the risk of nuclear conflagration because of Ukraine. But in each case, Obama did not sit on his hands. He bears responsibility for interfering in Syria to achieve regime change (probably at Israel’s behest), giving ISIS breathing space; he was party to the Iraq intervention, playing on internal forces of division to keep the hand-picked regime in power; Ukraine, however, takes the cake, for without US-EU assistance on regime change, there would have been no crisis, and no intended NATO march to the Russian border.
Then, still inclined in direction toward the same world view, more modulated, but no less hegemonic in content and thrust, Obama’s supporters want to put more starch in his collar to stand up to America’s Enemies. Close to home, Hillary leads the pack, the vacuum ISIS supposedly filled in Syria, James Jones (retired NATO commander and Obama’s first national security adviser), more troops in Iraq, punish Syria for crossing the “’red line’ by using chemical weapons,” and arm Kurdish forces, and Strobe Talbott (head of the Brookings Institution), in mitigation, “’We have an overall contagion of diffusion which makes it much harder to advance the cause of regional and global governance,” the “cause” however still being US pre-eminence, now more difficult because of “the diffusion of power from states to nonstate forces, the rapid spread of technology and the rise of Islamic extremism.” Points well-taken, but each in turn grist for the American-military mill. One of my favorite Democrats, Jane Harmon, now head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, presumably holds the key to American supremacy and answer to Obama’s critics: Persist on the hegemonic course, war, intervention, what she aptly terms re-engagement with foreign policy, but be a more effective communicator in selling that foreign policy to the American public. She states on Obama: “What he’s come up with in Iraq and in Ukraine are sensible strategies. He now needs to link them with a narrative that explains to the American people why we have to re-engage in foreign policy matters, and I hope he does that.” Then all will be fine, sensible strategies to the rescue.
My New York Times Comment on the Baker article (also Aug. 16) follows:
Both Obama and his critics occupy a practically minuscule spot on a comprehensive political-ideological foreign policy spectrum, as though POTUS were somehow to the Left when in fact he is consistently pursuing a geopolitical strategy, like his predecessors, of US global hegemony (in his case just as involved in military premises for action).
To wit, more than Bush, Obama presses for confrontation with Russia and China, his advisers bent on containment, isolation, ultimately, if not dismemberment, then drastic weakening in world affairs, to be accomplished, in one case, via Ukraine, positioning NATO forces on the Russian border, and, the other, the Pacific-first strategy, shifting military “assets” into the region, dovetailed with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Obama is John Foster Dulles with a smiley face, but possessing little of the other’s sophistication, only his belligerence. There are no softies in the White House: Brennan, Rice, Powers, as hearty and committed a set of Cold Warriors as one could want. Critics to the Right of Obama (only in America does one find such gut-warrior sentiment, parading gung-ho anticommunism a la Joe McCarthy days, under the heading of counterterrorism) simply want to get further, faster to the same destination than he.
In the present world match-up I think Putin and Li far more reticent about aggression, and far more aware of (and partly responsible for) the multipolar power system rendering US unilateralism dangerous and archaic.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.