Against amnesia: The empire under Obama

January 27, 2017

There is already nostalgia for the Obama years among people who care about justice and peace. But we should question the rosy picture, writes Khury Petersen-Smith.

EVEN BEFORE Barack Obama left office, an effort was underway to secure his legacy as a progressive and an idealist. And now that Trump has taken the throne of American power, the mythology surrounding the Obama years will only grow.

The myth presents Obama as a tragic figure: committed to a progressive agenda, but more committed to national unity. This idealism, the story goes, left Obama open to a relentless, racist opposition by the Republicans that hamstrung his presidency from the start.

The Republicans' racism and efforts to undermine Obama at every turn are undeniable facts. But an honest assessment of Obama's presidency needs to go further--to look at the unforgivable actions that he, and not the Republicans, is responsible for, particularly beyond the borders of the U.S.

The failure to take such a look ignores violence committed by U.S. empire over the past eight years--and the victims of that violence around the world. Whitewashing Obama's presidency will also serve the Democrats in inevitably selling a fantasy of a more peaceful and just United States with a Democrat at its helm after what is sure to be a horrific regime under Trump.

President Barack Obama speaks to U.S. soldiers
President Barack Obama speaks to U.S. soldiers

Rather than imagining a dream, in four years' time, in which a Democrat is president, we would do well to assess the nightmare of the past eight--when one was in charge.

The Rebranding of Imperialism

Obama ran for president with the credibility of having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He said he would close the U.S. torture camp at Guantánamo Bay. But if the expectation was of a departure from the belligerence of George W. Bush's "war on terror," the reality was different.

The Democratic Party version of what the modern U.S. empire should look like came of age under Obama. Since its defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese resistance in the 1970s, the U.S. was set back in its ability to intervene directly to reshape the affairs of other countries.

Washington's primary mode of imposing its military will abroad became funding, arming and backing reactionary regimes, paramilitaries and other forces. The U.S. did this in the 1980s with right-wing governments and death squads throughout Central America, and with the Islamic fundamentalist fighters against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan during the same era.

President Ronald Reagan brought belligerent American rhetoric back into the mainstream, and his successor George H.W. Bush backed up this ideology with military force. First came the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, callously named "Operation Just Cause." This was followed by the 1991 U.S. invasion of Iraq, in which at least 100,000 Iraqis were slaughtered. Upon proclaiming victory, Bush celebrated the fact that "what we say goes."

The Clinton years were only slightly different. While Clinton continued the punishment of Iraq with regular bombings and economic sanctions--actually deadlier than the 1991 invasion--and carried out numerous military operations in Haiti, Somalia, Serbia and more, U.S. actions under Clinton had short-term objectives, couched in the rhetoric of "humanitarian intervention."

With George W. Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, all under the rubric of the worldwide "war on terror," a much more aggressive face of U.S. militarism was cemented with the Republican Party in the popular mind.

But under Obama, U.S. empire showed no hesitation in launching military intervention.

One marker of "humanitarian" imperialism's convergence with a more nakedly "realist" approach came on June 8, 2016, in Germany. That day, the American Academy in Berlin awarded Samantha Power, Obama's United Nations Ambassador and a former member of National Security Council, with the Henry Kissinger Prize.

The award's namesake and war criminal himself was present for the occasion. Power had decried Kissinger for his leading role in U.S. genocidal wars in Southeast Asia and Iraq in her book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which had earned her a reputation as a liberal critic of U.S. foreign policy. Power argued that as a superpower, the U.S. has a responsibility to use its military--however reluctantly--to stop genocidal forces from committing crimes against humanity.

With Power's and Kissinger's embrace in 2016 came the end of any illusion that there is anything in Obama's foreign policy worth defending by anyone remotely interested in social justice.

It is impossible to document in a brief article just how much damage the U.S. did around the world with Obama at the helm. But a few broad features of Obama's imperial presidency are worth going.

Expanding the "War on Terror"

Those hoping to see an end to the "war on terror" launched by the Bush administration got, instead, the very opposite.

While Obama dramatically reduced the number of ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. soldiers continue to carry out military operations in both countries. The shift that Obama oversaw in U.S. strategy involved a reliance on covert operations, Cruise missile strikes and drone warfare, instead of ground invasions.

In particular, Obama massively escalated the drone war in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, killing more people with drones in his first year in office than Bush did in his entire presidency.

With this approach, Obama expanded the scope of the "war on terror" to a dizzying scale, with U.S. Special Forces carrying out missions in 150 countries between 2012 and 2014 alone.

Obama also launched major military operations in Libya in 2011 and Syria in 2014, bringing the number of countries where the U.S. carried out large-scale bombings under Obama to seven. In Obama's last year in office, the U.S. dropped 26,172 bombs in these countries.

Opposition to Democracy Around the World

On June 4, 2009, President Obama spoke at Cairo University in Egypt in a celebrated speech about the U.S. relationship to the Muslim world. Among Obama's remarks, he said the following:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Just a year and a half later, across the Arab World, and particularly in the very city where Obama spoke, ordinary people rose up in their millions to demand democracy and the end of the dictatorial regimes in the region.

How did the U.S. respond to the rebels of the Arab Spring "speaking their minds" and challenging their governments? In a move typical of U.S. presidents and especially of this latest Democrat, Obama rhetorically supported the pro-democracy movements--while arming the states repressing them.

Revolutionaries in Cairo's Tahrir Square used social media to document the use of U.S.-exported tear gas against the revolt. The Obama Administration approved the sale of gas to the regime, and in doing so remained consistent with Washington's relationship with Egypt.

After all, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who ruled the country for 31 years, was the second-biggest recipient of U.S. aid in the world, second only to Israel. U.S. aid for the Egyptian state continued after Mubarak's fall and Egypt's all-out offensive of counterrevolutionary violence.

The U.S. also outsourced counterrevolutionary repression to its junior partners in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. That country viciously repressed the revolt in Bahrain and has been at the forefront of promoting religious sectarianism, which has divided the region's people and their revolts. Nevertheless, the U.S. sold it and other allies in the Middle East an ever-growing number of weapons to do the job.

One of the more absurd conversations since November has involved Democratic Party leaders indignant that Russia allegedly interfered with the U.S. election. An extensive and bloody history of U.S. manipulation of the political systems of other countries make the Democrats' fit ironic, to say the least.

We should call particular attention to the Obama administration's role in securing a coup in Honduras in 2009, which deposed the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. Hillary Clinton writes proudly about her role in buttressing the coup's success in her heartlessly titled memoir Tough Choices. The coup ushered in a new wave of state and right-wing violence in Honduras, including the assassination of feminist and indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceras.

The same violence and broader social crisis that came in the wake of the coup led to an explosion of Honduran youth fleeing the country and seeking asylum in the U.S. They joined record numbers of minors leaving social crises in El Salvador and Guatemala--the exodus was the product of U.S. economic and migration policies after years of arming catastrophic wars in the region.

Yet Obama detained these child migrants in their tens of thousands--and Hillary Clinton called for their deportation en masse.

Using the Rhetoric of Peace to Lay the Basis for a Future of War

Of all of the ironies of Obama's presidency, perhaps the supreme one was his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The prize was granted to honor Obama's supposed commitment to nuclear disarmament. Yet even in his acceptance speech, Obama championed the U.S. commitment to war: "The plain fact is this: the United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms."

But the ultimate irony was that the president awarded the Nobel Peace Price because of nuclear disarmament launched a $1 trillion-dollar, three-decade-long plan not to eliminate the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but to modernize it. As many experts have pointed out, the program that Obama set in motion is creating weapons that make nuclear conflict more likely than previous generations.

One of Obama's last major acts in office was a tour of Asia that involved him visiting countries with which the U.S. was previously at war--Japan, Vietnam and Laos in particular. While framed as a tour of reconciliation--especially Obama's visit to Hiroshima in Japan--the visits were actually meant to shore up the U.S. "pivot to Asia.:

Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, the Pivot to Asia is a strategy for the U.S. to deploy more naval and air power to the Pacific Ocean, construct a set of military bases, and arm and unite its allies against ascendant China.

A military confrontation between China and the U.S. or its allies in the region would be devastating beyond words. While Obama waxed philosophical about the horrors of war when he was in Hiroshima and Vientiane, he laid the foundation for future wars in Asia in the 21st century with his Asia tour.

In the closing days of Obama's tenure in office, those on the left were pleasantly surprised to learn that Chelsea Manning and Oscar López Rivera--two political prisoners jailed for resisting U.S. empire--would be freed. News headlines credited Obama with commuting these freedom fighters' sentences.

But in the case of Manning, Obama was responsible for imprisoning her in the first place. It was years of activism--and in the case of Rivera, decades--that freed our sister and brother.

We should remember this lesson. U.S. empire under Obama has been a catastrophe for the world. The victories that we did achieve during this time have come through struggle that challenged Obama, not from Obama himself.

The demobilization of the antiwar movement that began under Bush has been one of the most devastating features of the Obama years. As a result, when the U.S. bombed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in October 2015, for example, there was virtually no protest this crime in the U.S.

There is an urgent need to revive resistance here against U.S. empire in solidarity with struggles against it around the world. In the struggles that emerge, we can never forget or excuse Obama's two terms of American violence.

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