Rebranding war and occupation

June 17, 2009

Barack Obama's speech in Cairo was celebrated in the media as a profound statement of a new direction for U.S. foreign policy. But when you look beneath the rhetoric, there's far more continuity with the last eight years of war and occupation than most people who supported Obama last November would have guessed. asked two leading voices of the antiwar movement--Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army and the Rebel Reports blog, and Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, and coauthor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People's History of the United States--about Barack Obama's record after five months in office.

MILLIONS OF people voted for Barack Obama last year hoping he would set a new direction for the U.S. in foreign policy. Does the experience match the rhetoric?

Jeremy: Let's step back and look at what we've seen happen over five months of the Obama administration when it comes to foreign policy.

We've seen a radical escalation of the war in Afghanistan. We've seen Obama continue to use a quarter-million U.S. contractors--50 percent of the force that's fighting the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's increasing the number of mercenaries in Afghanistan by 29 percent and approximately 23 percent in Iraq.

He's continuing the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and maintaining the monstrous U.S. embassy that was built, in part, on the basis of slave labor. He's continuing to dole out contracts to KBR, the single greatest corporate beneficiary of the war, despite the fact that its work has electrocuted U.S. soldiers.

He's pumping up the National Endowment for Democracy, the leading organ to promote U.S. neoliberal economic policy and interfere in the elections and democratic processes of countries where the outcome might not be favorable to U.S. interests. He's continuing to use the rhetoric of the war on drugs in Latin America.

Barack Obama salutes as he exits Air Force One

Overall, he's implementing a U.S. foreign policy that in some ways--or, I think, in many ways--advances the interest of the American empire in a way the Republicans could only have dreamed of doing.

What people, I think, misunderstand about Barack Obama is that this is a man who is a brilliant supporter of empire--who has figured out a way to essentially trick a lot of people into believing they're supporting radical change, when in effect what they're doing is supporting a radical expansion of the U.S. empire.

I think that it's a bit disingenuous for people to act as if though they were somehow hoodwinked by Barack Obama about this.

If people were playing close attention during the election--not just to the rhetoric of his canned speech that he gave repeatedly, and the commercials, and the perception of his supporters was that he somehow was this transformative figure in U.S. politics, but also to the documents being produced by the Obama campaign and the specific policies he outlined--you realized that Barack Obama was very much a part of the bipartisan war machine that has governed this country for many, many decades.

What else to read

Jeremy Scahill's Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army climbed into the New York Times best-seller list on its release. Now the book has been republished in paperback. Scahill is also the author of the regularly updated Rebel Reports blog.

The crucial book on Iraq for antiwar activists is Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal, with a foreword by Howard Zinn.

For more on U.S. foreign policy, including a historical analysis, see In Praise of Barbarians, a collection of essays by Mike Davis.

Michael Schwartz's book War Without End: The Iraq Debacle in Context provides a thorough analysis of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and demolishes the myths used to sell the U.S. public the idea of an endless "war on terror."

Independent journalist Dahr Jamail's Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq describes his time in Iraq reporting the other side of the story.

What we see with Obama's policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the broader Arab and Muslim world, as well as his global economic policies, are a continuation of the most devastating and violent policies of the Bush administration--while placing a face on it that makes it easier to expand the iron fist of U.S. militarism and the hidden hand of the free market in a way that Republicans, I think, would have been unable to do at this point in history.

Anthony: I think the key word is perception. Whether or not people were paying enough attention, it's clear that Barack Obama was able to get elected by signaling, even if only rhetorically, a shift in U.S. foreign policy. But as Jeremy points out, the continuity is really disturbing on a number of fronts.

There are striking similarities to the policies of the Bush administration. Take, for example, habeas corpus rights. The Obama administration made a lot of noise about closing down Guantánamo. Yet in a series of briefs, the Justice Department has said that prisoners held in any base other than Guantánamo don't have habeas corpus rights--for example, prisoners being held in Bagram, Afghanistan.

Featured at Socialism

Hear Jeremy Scahill at Socialism 2009 in Chicago, speaking on "Occupation Rebranded: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Age of Obama." Anthony Arnove will speak on "Do We Need an Antiwar Movement Under Obama?" with Cindy Sheehan in San Francisco and on "How Marx Became a Marxist" in Chicago. Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

The administration has also filed briefs saying people in Guantánamo shouldn't have the ability to challenge their detention in civilian courts, so it's preserved the military commissions policy of the Bush administration.

In Iraq, although Barack Obama promised he would have all troops out by 2012, the ground is being laid for troops to stay in Iraq for years and years to come. The army chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, said that the Pentagon was making preparations to keep troops in Iraq until the year 2019.

Then, in Afghanistan, you now have more than 20,000 troops added to that occupation by the Obama administration. When Obama was interviewed by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times right before the Cairo speech, he said very explicitly that anyone "would be hard-pressed to suggest that what we are doing in Afghanistan isn't backed up by hard power."

In other words, there's a shift toward an emphasis on so-called "soft power" that doesn't unnecessarily antagonize allies that might be able to supply money and troops, and assist U.S. foreign policy objectives, in contrast to the kind of bombastic unilateralism of the Bush administration. But it's backed up by "hard power" in Pakistan, where the Obama administration has escalated the aerial attacks on that country, with devastating consequences for the civilian population.

So really, what we're seeing are rhetorical shifts and tactical shifts. But the underlying ideology and the underlying substance of U.S. foreign policy remains, as Jeremy says, quite consistent with the broad bipartisan consensus that's defined U.S. foreign policy for decades.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans shifted together after September 11, when there was, as Condoleezza Rice put it, a new "opportunity" for the United States to advance its interests, with the tectonic plates of geopolitics changing. This was seized on by both parties, leading to a series of policies that Obama is now correcting. In fact, he's continuing a correction that actually began during the second term of George W. Bush, because top military planners recognized that these policies were lessening the ability of the U.S. to project its power globally.

THERE WAS a huge media fanfare about Obama's Cairo speech setting a new tone for U.S. foreign policy, but even some conservatives acknowledged the aspect of continuity when it came to substance. What do you think the speech was about.

Jeremy: First of all, what I think was remarkably important in terms of symbolism was the fact that Obama went to the Middle East, and immediately went to pay his respects to the Saudis, one of the least democratic states on the planet. Then he goes to a country with an absolute despot in charge, Hosni Mubarak--who has been in power for 28 years--and Obama tells the BBC on the eve of his visit that Mubarak isn't an authoritarian ruler.

Yet he condemns Hamas, which was democratically elected by Palestinians, and which the Obama administration refuses to engage in any direct talks. On the one hand, you have Obama holding up the suffering of the Palestinian people in a way Bush never would have, but at the same time, he's continuing to support a very brutal Israeli government.

I think that Obama is showing himself to be a master of misdirection--almost like a magician. He'll say a few things in his speech that sound like they're new, like a totally different U.S. approach, but then he'll also at the same time roll out a policy that is further than even Bush took things.

The perfect example of this was given by Michael Ratner from the Center for Constitutional Rights, who I recently did an event with in New York. Michael was talking about Obama's speech at the National Archives, where's he was essentially wrapping himself in the Constitution, and he then proceeded to outline a policy that explicitly violates the Constitution--the policy of preventative detention.

So while the Cairo speech was interpreted by some people as sending a new message to the Middle East and the Arab world, the reality is that there was nothing in that speech indicating any shift whatsoever for the better in U.S. policy. It's just that we now have a president who can pronounce Arabic words and speak in complete sentences and carry a speech for about an hour, something which Bush was unable to do.

Anthony: The Financial Times had a long article by Roula Khalaf, its Middle East editor, that quoted Daniel Levy of the centrist New America Foundation very accurately summarizing the speech by saying that "Obama has bought 'time and space'" for the administration. That was the goal of the Cairo speech--to create more room for maneuver, and for the administration to revise policies that had reached dead ends.

The Bush administration basically drove a series of foreign policy objectives into cul de sacs, which Obama is now trying to extract the United States from--with the goal of pursuing the agenda that Bush had been so ineffective at carrying out, because of the attitude of aggressive and bombastic unilateralism, and a series of miscalculations and misjudgments, especially in his first term.

This is essentially a rebranding operation, as Jeremy has described it in some of his reporting. It's an effort to assert the United States as the indispensable nation in global affairs in a package that will be more acceptable to the traditional allies of U.S. power.

Barack Obama is now asking for 20,000 of the NATO troops, which were temporarily deployed to Afghanistan for the period leading to the upcoming election, to stay on as part of the stepped-up occupation of Afghanistan and the broader strategy he's pursuing in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now.

He's asking European countries to support U.S. objectives in western and central Asia, and he's also trying to restore the legitimacy of American power after a period when it reached its lowest levels of the last century.

So to my mind, it was a very clever strategic effort to assert a different image and put a different face on the foreign policy objectives of the United States, but without providing any substantive change in the policies.

Jeremy: One really disturbing aspect of Obama's speech in Cairo was when he said that the U.S. doesn't intend to stay forever in Afghanistan and doesn't want military bases there--that was the statement that was really promoted in the media. However, in the next few sentences, he said that the U.S. would stay as long as there are violent extremists in Afghanistan who want to kill Americans.

The fact is that we have violent extremists who want to kill Americans in America. So when you set that as the standard, it's a recipe for an infinite presence.

The more civilians that the U.S. kills in Afghanistan, the more people who are going to want to kill Americans will emerge. When the U.S. bombed Farah Province on May 4, killing 140 people, including 13 members of one family, there are people there who, in all likelihood, are going to decide that they're going to fight the United States.

I think this was a very dangerous indication of how long Obama wants to stay in Afghanistan, and that he has bought in to the Bush administration lie factory about the so-called "war on terror," even though he's supposedly dropped it.

The fact is that he's been more radical in his denunciations of people half a world away than he's been of people who kill women's health care providers in this country. That's domestic terrorism in the United States, and yet the president's statement on that falls far short of any of the rhetoric he seems to reserve for people in Afghanistan who are under U.S. bombardment and occupation.

Anthony: I think it's also worth pointing out that the corporate media suggested repeatedly that Obama's speech in Cairo represented some kind of departure from the Bush administration's positions on Israel and Palestine. In reality, there was no departure at all.

George Bush also claimed to support a two-state solution. In both cases, with George Bush and with Barack Obama, you have to look at the difference between talk about supporting a two-state solution and the reality on the ground--of the ongoing funding for Israeli obstruction of any kind of two-state solution.

In terms of actual practice with regard to Israel, there has been no freezing of funding for Israeli settlements. Obama is talking about not allowing settlement expansion to "continue." But that does nothing to address the years and years of the radical expansion of settlements that already effectively precludes the possibility of any meaningful Palestinian state ever coming into being.

The debate taking place between Israel and Washington is about how to define the level of growth of these settlements that will be permitted, and to what extent the so-called "natural growth" of the settlements is going to be allowed--though there's nothing natural about this practice of immigrants being brought to Israel and subsidized to illegally settle Palestinian land.

Notice that the Obama administration hasn't even taken the steps that George Bush Sr. took--of freezing loan guarantees for settlements.

So in reality, this isn't a shift. On the ground, we continue to see the further devastation and isolation of Gaza, the continued expansion of settlements, and Israel's continued foreclosure of any meaningful self-determination for the Palestinian people, while claiming it's working toward a two-state solution.

FOR PEOPLE who supported Barack Obama last November, and are now trying to understand the gap between his rhetoric and what he's delivering, what would you point them toward more broadly in terms of how U.S. foreign policy is made and U.S. imperialist interests are pursued?

Anthony: It's important to get past the very short-term framework that not just the establishment media but so much of the left has in this country.

Essentially, during the Bush administration, whole sections of the left acted as if empire began with George W. Bush. As if it was something managed only by a handful of people: George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, sections of the neo-conservative movement, perhaps even the Republican Party more generally.

That takes the events of the last eight years out of the context of a history of U.S. empire and aggression and intervention in global affairs going back to the 19th century.

If you look at that history, you come to see a number of things. First of all, you come to see that the Democrats are as much a party of empire as the Republicans. In fact, one can make the case historically that the Democrats have been more aggressive in the expansion and the assertion of American power than Republicans, who have always tended to have an isolationist wing.

Second, you see that the rhetoric of empire being cloaked in the language of spreading democracy and spreading freedom doesn't begin with George Bush. It also goes back to the 19th century. You see that the justification for war after war has been not an honest explanation of the material gains to be made by the expansion of American empire--the access to markets, the control over labor and resources--but claims about liberating people from tyranny, spreading American values and showing American leadership in the world.

Part of what's disturbing about the uncritical reception of so much of Barack Obama's rhetoric is that behind it is this idea that he is reasserting the legitimacy of so-called "American leadership" in the world. Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan writer, was in New York City a few weeks ago, and when he was asked about Barack Obama, he said that as someone from Latin America, which has been colonized and suffered repeated occupation and military intervention by the United States, the last thing he wants to see is American leadership reasserted in Latin America.

That's a point that I think we have to examine. The underlying ideology of U.S. foreign policy is that America is the "indispensable nation," with the right to intervene in countries around the world--that it's somehow an honest broker, and unique in its ability to solve the problems of the world. That ideology has been used over and over again in history as a mask for the real interests behind U.S. intervention.

The real reason the U.S. is in the Middle East is energy resources. The real reason the U.S. is concerned with maintaining an empire is economic and political interests, which haven't changed with the advent of this administration.

Jeremy: I spent the better part of the past two years traveling around the country, and during the election, I talked to people of every possible perspective about Barack Obama. And I think that it's hard to say to people that they did something wrong by voting for Barack Obama versus John McCain.

The reality is that the third-party movement in this country was in disarray during the election, and a lot of people really did fear John McCain as president and got caught up in the enthusiasm of Barack Obama. I don't think there's any wisdom in hammering people for that.

The lesson here is a very clear one: Any time you look to electoral politics as the solution to systemic problems in our society or around the world, you're going down a dead-end street.

What I think the policies of the Obama administration over the past five months show is that we need independent political movements in this country that cannot and will not allow themselves to be co-opted by the Democratic Party--that don't function as partisan movements for the promotion of one of the two corporate parties, but rather keep as their primary focus ending U.S. wars of aggression around the world, fighting for single-payer health care and fighting for the rights of working-class people and the poor in this nation.

I think we have a moment now where there are people coming forward and saying, "I feel like I've been tricked," or "I'm really disappointed," or "This isn't what I voted for." I think that the anger and frustration that many people are expressing now is increasing, and it can be funneled into movements that fight for true change.

I think we're at a crossroads where if we seize the day, we really can look toward building independent political movements that are not so easily co-opted by the Democratic Party, as many, many antiwar and social justice groups were in the 2008 election campaign.

Transcription by Meredith Reese and Matthew Beamesderfer.

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