Obama’s gathering of hawks

December 12, 2008

When it comes to foreign policy, there's always been much more continuity than differences between Republicans and Democrats.

OF ALL the "teams" of Cabinet appointees that President-elect Barack Obama has introduced, his foreign policy appointees represent the biggest gap between Obama's campaign rhetoric about "change" and the reality of "more of the same."

What could better symbolize the status-quo nature of Obama's selections than his retention of George W. Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates?

Designating Hillary Clinton as secretary of state may be a savvy move to co-opt a rival, but it's also an implicit (if not explicit) admission that the differences the two expressed in the Democratic primaries--over her vote to authorize the Iraq war or his insistence on the need to engage Iran--really didn't amount to much.

Add in Vice President-elect Joe Biden--whose supposed foreign policy "expertise" includes a vote to authorize the war in Iraq and a plan to partition that country into three ethnic mini-states--and National Security Adviser James Jones, who just as easily could have turned up in a McCain administration, and you have a lineup of hawks who certainly don't represent "change we can believe in."

A recent U.S. News and World Report story indicated that Obama may pick Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency under Bush, as the next director of the CIA.

If that comes to pass, it will represent an even bigger concession to the national security establishment than appointing Gates and Clinton. In 2006, Obama was one of 15 senators who voted against Hayden's confirmation as NSA director--because, he said at the time, of Hayden's support for the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program.

Dismayed liberals consoled themselves with the fact that Obama designated Harvard professor Susan Rice to be his UN ambassador. But they should hold their applause for Rice. Her "liberal" credentials appear mainly to stem from her penchant of championing U.S. military intervention for "humanitarian" purposes.

THERE IS both a general and a specific lesson in Obama's status quo appointments. The general one is about the position of U.S. foreign policy (or, you might say, management of the U.S. empire) in the political system.

One of the oldest clichés in American politics holds that "politics stops at the water's edge"--that is, that partisan disputes aren't supposed to interfere with the conduct of American foreign policy.

On the biggest, guiding questions of American foreign policy, this is certainly the case. But within these wider agreements on goals and aims, there is room for disagreement on the particulars. This is especially true during election season, when candidates and parties accentuate even miniscule differences to appeal to their respective voting bases.

As foreign policy analyst Andrew Bacevich explained in 2002, "Through tacit agreement, the two major parties approach the contest for the presidency less as an opportunity for assessing U.S. policies abroad than for striking poses--a hallowed and inviolable bit of political kabuki."

During the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush blasted Clinton for promoting "nation-building" in places like the Balkans, overextending the deployment of the armed forces and taking too soft a posture towards China, among other points. Future National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice even hinted that the U.S. would pull its forces out of the Balkans, telling the New York Times in 2000, "We really don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

After Rice's trial balloon caused an outcry in Europe and the U.S. media, Bush said he had no intention of pulling out of the Balkans. And despite its stated hostility to "nation-building," the Bush administration became bogged down in just such an endeavor in Afghanistan and Iraq.

These examples show that when it comes to foreign policy, there is much more continuity between administrations of the two main political parties than there are differences. As Bacevich noted, most disagreements between Democratic and Republican administrations emerge on the margins of the main questions of U.S. foreign policy.

As to the specific lesson of Obama's appointments--what they say about Obama's role in 2008--it's important to point out that Obama aims to bring some change to U.S. foreign policy. But it is a change of style, rather than of substance.

One constant theme since the beginning of his presidential campaign has been "renewing American leadership," which, he argued, Bush's reckless and stupid foreign policy moves had squandered. In a recent interview with the International Socialist Review, socialist Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar explained Obama's importance for the U.S. imperial project:

In my opinion, repairing the damage caused by the Bush administration could be facilitated by such a profound and radical change...of image for the United States. An "imperialism with a Black and human face" could restore the image of the United States that was so greatly tarnished by the disaster of the Bush administration.

In international polls, the image of the United States has never reached such lows, even during the period of Vietnam. The majority sectors of the American dominant class feel the need to reconstruct the image and the reputation of the country. A figure such as Barack Obama could facilitate this makeover and reconfirm key elements in the American ideology: democracy, social mobility, etc.

The rapturous crowds that greeted Obama in Berlin last summer demonstrated Achcar's point. And in the U.S., Obama crafted a message that wrapped quite conventional positions within the gauze of liberalish rhetoric. While the majority of voters fed up with the war in Iraq heard Obama's pledges that "we will end the war in Iraq," they didn't read his position papers spelling out a drawn-out troop reduction, with plans to leave military bases and thousands of U.S. troops and mercenaries in Iraq for perpetuity.

Clinton's refusal to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war allowed Obama to campaign against her as someone who wouldn't be captive to establishment thinking. But in fact, Obama's and Clinton's foreign policy stands--like their domestic policy stands--were virtually identical.

So Clinton should have no problem advocating for Obama's policies overseas. She agrees with most of them.

Nor should we forget that in the first McCain-Obama debate--the one that was designated to center on foreign policy--Obama agreed with McCain on at least eight occasions.

In sum, Obama's hawkishness and deference to the foreign policy establishment--notwithstanding whatever changes of atmosphere from Bush he plans to implement--was no secret. Liberals who are just now waking up to that fact allowed wishful thinking to cloud their judgment.

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