Obama’s circle of hawks

The Democratic nominee has a team of veteran warriors advising him on foreign policy issues.

DURING HIS campaign to win the Democratic nomination for president, Barack Obama used a line that never failed to draw applause from the largely antiwar crowds that turned out to hear him.

Columnist: Lance Selfa

Lance Selfa Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History, a socialist analysis of the Democratic Party, and editor of The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays by leading solidarity activists. He is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

"I don't want to just end the war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," he said. "That's the kind of leadership that I think we need from the next president of the United States. That's what I intend to provide."

Yet only days after clinching the nomination, here was the same Barack Obama performing one of the biggest rituals of conventional foreign policy thinking.

On June 4, Obama addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, pledging his fealty to the Zionist regime and even calling for an "undivided Jerusalem" as Israel's capital. In other words, he endorsed the annexation of East Jerusalem, the Palestinian capital--a position that no government, including George Bush's, supports.

In an earlier appearance before that other favored foreign policy lobby, the far-right Cuban American National Foundation, Obama pledged to support the U.S. embargo on the island--a position that the Republican House of Representatives voted to rescind in 2005.

Some may be tempted to write off these appeals to the right as political pandering to insulate him from the Republicans' planned assault on him as "weak on defense." But the people who believe this are burying their heads in the sand.

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LET'S STIPULATE a couple of points at the top. First, Obama is running to be the commander of the world's biggest imperial power. He will fill that role--and not that of anti-warrior in the White House.

Second, aside from his well-publicized opposition to "the wrong war at the wrong time" in Iraq, there is nothing in his record to suggest that he plans any radical departures from the mainstream of the American foreign policy establishment.

To survey Obama's positions, it's well worth reviewing his almost year-old Foreign Affairs article, "Renewing American Leadership."

The main aim of Obama's presidency, it seems from this article, will be to regain the leadership of the world that George Bush's reckless and dumb foreign policy has squandered. "In the wake of Iraq and Abu Ghraib, the world has lost trust in our purposes and our principles," Obama writes. "We must lead the world, by deed and by example."

There's no disputing that the U.S. is more widely hated today than before Bush took office, and Obama's message recognizes that. And it's not surprising that Obama would urge "renewing American leadership," because "leading the world" has been the overriding U.S. foreign policy aim since at least the end of the Second World War.

"This century's threats," he writes, "are at least as dangerous as and in some ways more complex than those we have confronted in the past," including "weapons that can kill on a mass scale," "global terrorists who respond to alienation or perceived injustice with murderous nihilism," "rogue states," "rising powers," "weak states that cannot control their territory" and global warming.

Leaving aside the question of whether al-Qaeda is really the equal of Nazi Germany or thermonuclear holocaust--the last century's major threats--this is the standard issue from all sectors of the political establishment, including Bush.

"We must become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale," Obama writes. "I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened."

In other words, it seems that the Bush Doctrine of endless war and unilateral intervention would not disappear under an Obama administration. It will simply be "repurposed" and given more lofty-sounding justifications.

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LEST ANYONE think that this kind of interventionism is just campaign rhetoric, one should consider who Obama's chief foreign policy advisers (and likely authors of the Foreign Affairs article) are.

They include Anthony Lake, a one-time protégé of Henry Kissinger. As Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Lake devised the main strategy for U.S. intervention in the Balkans, including the NATO bombings of Serbia and aiding Croatia's ethnic cleansing of Serbs, which ultimately led to the 1999 NATO war.

Lake and another ex-Clintonite, Susan Rice, co-authored a Washington Post op-ed in which they argued for unilateral U.S. intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan: "The United States acted without UN blessing in 1999 in Kosovo to confront a lesser humanitarian crisis (perhaps 10,000 killed) and a more formidable adversary."

Beyond them are a number of ex-Clinton advisers, including Gregory Craig, who oversaw State Department policy planning around the expansion of NATO and the decision by the Clinton administration to endorse "regime change" in Iraq.

Another Obama adviser was Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard history professor who is a leading advocate of "humanitarian intervention" around the world. Power was what liberal blogger Joshua Micah Marshall called Obama's "Condi Rice"--that is, she played the same role in schooling Obama on foreign policy that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played in training candidate George Bush in 1999 and 2000. Although she was forced to resign from the campaign after calling Sen. Hillary Clinton a "monster" in print, Power's influence is still heavy.

A second Harvard academic in the Obama brain trust is Sarah Sewell, who collaborated with Gen. David Petreaus in updating the army's counterinsurgency manual. Sewell advised Petreaus on human rights in counterinsurgency.

"Her impact on the thinking about the war and the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been significant, and not without cost," Army counterinsurgency expert Lt. Col. John Nagl told American Prospect. "She has shown, in my eyes, great moral courage. I think Senator Obama is listening to someone who has thought long and hard about the use of force, and who understands the kinds of wars we're fighting today."

Besides these bureaucrats and intellectuals are a coterie of generals and other ex-military types who have lent their names to the Obama campaign. One is Jonathan Scott Gration, a two-star Air Force general who commanded a task force in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

While Gration has endorsed Obama's stated support for withdrawing troops from Iraq, he has also hedged on this position. "If it's very clear that the al-Maliki government is making significant progress, that we're turning the tide, it would be crazy not to re-adjust" the plan to withdraw, he told the New York Sun.

As Anthony Arnove pointed out in a recent Socialist Worker interview, "People who believe Barack Obama will end the occupation of Iraq are likely in for a rude awakening. Despite talking about withdrawal from Iraq, his plan would keep troops in the country for years to come, likely well beyond his potential first term.

"Obama has also left open the possibility that if he reduces the overall troop levels in Iraq--something that from a military standpoint is very likely, given how overstretched the United States is now--he would increase the number of mercenaries in Iraq."

As media speculation about Obama's vice presidential short list began, Team Obama made sure that the name of Ret. Gen. James Jones--one-time Marine Corps commandant and Supreme Allied Commander in NATO--was thrown into the mix. Jones, like Obama, has called for the U.S. to send more troops to Afghanistan.

Finally, if Obama's Middle East policy remains fairly conventional, that might be because one of the most conventional Middle East foreign policy hands in the U.S. establishment is advising him. Dennis Ross, special Middle East adviser to both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is encouraging Obama to pursue diplomatic interactions with Iran and Syria.

But this is hardly the "path to peace" in the Middle East that Obama's supporters might hope for.

According to the Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon, "Members of Sen. Obama's Middle East team, however, said they believed Damascus should be tested diplomatically because success could undermine Syria's military alliance with Iran. They said such a development could drastically shift the power balance in the Middle East while stanching the flow of arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. Syria also could become a partner in stabilizing Iraq, they say."

In the Middle East, as in the rest of the world, Obama's foreign policy might mark a change from the disastrous and incompetent policies that the Bush administration has pursued. But the change will be one of style and form, not one of substance and content.

Commenting on Obama's "fawning" speech before AIPAC, Israeli analyst Uri Avnery wrote that Obama's "dizzying success in the primaries was entirely due to his promise to bring about a change, to put an end to the rotten practices of Washington and to replace the old cynics with a young, brave person who does not compromise his principles. And lo and behold, the very first thing he does after securing the nomination of his party is to compromise his principles."

Avnery is only partly right. Obama isn't betraying his principles. Those are his principles.