Change you have been told to believe in: A closer examination of Barack Obama’s foreign policy


Freedom of Information
April 17, 2009

“What you want in a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals actual uniformity”

- Joseph Goebbels

The election of Barack Obama has been rightly heralded across the world as a defining moment in the history of the United States. The election of the nation’s first black president is symbolic of the progress made in terms of attitudes towards racial harmony and acceptance in a country where less than fifty years previously basic rights and entitlements were routinely denied to non-white people, and a dehumanising structure incorporating segregation and separation kept people permanently excluded from any sort of meaningful political representation according to their ethnicity.

Obama’s victory has cued an outpouring of elation and hope both among the American people and abroad, which says much for the disastrous two-term presidency that preceded his victory. For many Americans and those of the younger generations in particular, the election of the Democratic candidate represents a rejection of eight years of George W. Bush’s neoconservative rule. The Bush administration was characterised by callous militarism, total disregard for international consensus on matters such as war and torture and policies that have progressively eroded civil and constitutional rights within the United States.

Bush left office with plummeting approval ratings, his hugely unpopular policies having engendered overwhelming anti-American sentiment internationally and created a climate of fear and intimidation in the United States that has undermined the preservation of freedom of speech and justice. The wars started by Bush’s administration have taken an enormous toll; an ORB survey estimates that more than a million Iraqis had died by August 2007 following the 2003 invasion of that country[1], in addition to the millions of displaced, and American military casualties since Bush took office now number more than 5,000, with over 100,000 soldiers estimated wounded.

Public opinion demanded an end to the wars of aggression, the torture and warrantless wiretapping. The American people cried out for an end to the no-bid contracts for Halliburton and a halt to the intimate relationship with the highest echelons of elected power enjoyed by big business. People had had enough of a government which seemed to revel in trampling on the country’s core values, and under whose rule those suspected of being enemies of the state are now guilty until proven innocent. It was in this context that Barack Obama was elected; indeed his campaign could be succinctly represented by one word: “Change”.

Those who elected Obama on anti-war grounds, however, had not read the small print. Indeed, Obama’s status as a champion of pacifism can be attributed in no small part to the stance taken by his Republican opponent during the campaign; compared to John McCain’s overt belligerence, Obama became the candidate of peace by default. Whereas McCain hypothesised that American military involvement in Iraq could continue for “a hundred years”, Obama affirmed in September 2007 that, “[t]here is no military solution in Iraq and there never was. The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq’s leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year – now.”[2]

In July 2008, Obama said that a previous commitment and campaign pledge to complete a full withdrawal of combat troops within 16 months could be “refined” at a later date[3], and following his inauguration he indeed extended the timetable for the prospective pullout to between 19 and 23 months[4]. Obama’s current position is that a “residual force” of up to 50,000 troops will be left in the country after this 23-month period has elapsed[5] – giving rise to consternation from anti-war activists and from some within the Democratic Party. There are currently 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and therefore the proposed 50,000-strong residual force represents more than one third of the American forces currently serving in the country. Under an agreement signed between George W. Bush and the Iraqi government in 2008, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraq by December 31st 2011.

Aside from the somewhat confused stance with regards to the Iraq pullout, President Obama has been criticised by opponents of the ‘war on terror’ for pledging to almost double the number of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan. His proposal to supplement the existing force of 36,000 with an additional 30,000 troops[6] – presumably consisting in no small part of soldiers who have already served in Iraq – contradicts statements made in July 2008, in which Obama had suggested increasing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by just 7,000[7]. Since taking office, Obama has already dispatched an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to the country[8].

The newly elected President wasted no time whatsoever in continuing another policy inherited from his predecessor; attacks by unmanned drones inside Pakistani territory. In September 2008, Obama called the first attacks carried out by the government of George W. Bush inside Pakistan a “small step in the right direction.” Susan Rice, top foreign policy advisor to Obama’s campaign, said of the raids – undertaken without approval from Islamabad – that the U.S. had a right “Not to invade. Not to take over Pakistan’s sovereignty, but to take out that target as an act of self-defence”[9]. Obama stated publicly as far back as July 2007 that he had no qualms whatsoever about using military force against “al-Qaeda” in Pakistan, even without consultation with the Pakistani government[10], provoking outrage in a country that has been a key strategic ally of the United States during the ‘war on terror’. Following his inauguration, Obama did not dawdle in making good on those threats.

The new President carried out the first such strike just three days into his term in office on January 23 2009, killing 22 people inside Pakistani territory and provoking huge protests in the tribal heartlands of North & South Waziristan[11]. The total number of unauthorised U.S. raids inside Pakistani territory since August 2008 now stands at more than 30. Pakistani officials were quick to condemn these attacks as violations of their national sovereignty, pointing out that many civilians have been killed by missiles fired from unmanned drones since the raids began last summer, and emphasising that in terms of winning hearts and minds in the region such aggressions are counter productive to say the least.

Another potential sphere of conflict following Obama’s electoral success is Iran. In a statement made before the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – widely considered to be the most powerful lobby group representing the interests of any foreign nation in Washington – in March 2007, Obama called Iran “a threat to all of us” and received a standing ovation from the crowd in attendance as he said global leaders must do “whatever it takes” to stop Iran from enriching uranium – refusing to rule out a recourse to force, and called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad “reckless, irresponsible and inattentive”[12].

In an address to the Iranian people given in March 2009, Obama appeared to change tack somewhat, declaring, “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right – but it comes with real responsibilities.”[13] This apparent reference to Iran’s nuclear programme, which the Persian state claims is purely for civilian and not military purposes, reiterates the line taken by the Bush administration. Earlier in the month Barack Obama had extended U.S. sanctions against Iran that began under Bill Clinton in 1995 and had been continued throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, claiming that Iran poses a threat to U.S. “national security”. The sanctions would have expired automatically had Obama not extended them for another 12 months. In an address to the U.S. congress, the new President stated, “The actions and policies of the government of Iran are contrary to the interests of the United States in the region and pose a continuing and unusual and extraordinary threat”[14]. Obama’s refusal to rule out using force against Iran and his decision to extend American sanctions has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. “Unlimited sanctions which still continue and have been renewed by the United States are wrong and need to be reviewed”, said President Ahmadinejad in response to Obama’s message to the Iranian people. “By fundamentally changing its behaviour America can offer us a friendly hand,” he added. A fundamental change in behaviour does not look on the cards however, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed as much when he stated, “the opportunity for success in is probably more in economic sanctions [in Iran & North Korea] than it is in diplomacy”[15]

One area of U.S. foreign policy that the newly elected President is coming under increasing pressure to act on is the United States’ controversial relationship with Israel, particularly in the wake of evidence that the Israeli military committed war crimes during the 23-day Gaza war. Barack Obama maintained a deafening silence throughout the Israeli onslaught, which was carried out in the period between his election and his inauguration, even though the then President-elect was vocal in his condemnation of the attacks in Mumbai, and gave numerous statements regarding the global financial crisis during the same period.

In his aforementioned address to AIPAC in March 2007, Barack Obama stated, “We must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs”. The then senator’s performance at the forum received a rave review from the Washington correspondent of Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, who remarked that Obama “sounded as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So he is pro-Israel. Period.”[16]

Israel has been the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States since the Second World War, receiving approximately $3 billion per year in grants since 1985[17]. In August 2007 under the government of George W. Bush, the U.S. signed an agreement pledging Israel $30 billion in armaments over the next decade[18]. 26.3% of the money may be spent on arms produced by Israeli manufacturers, with the rest being earmarked for the purchase of weapons and military equipment from U.S. arms producers. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. Undersecretary of State who signed the deal during Bush’s presidency called it an “investment in peace”, saying that, “peace cannot be made without strength”.

Obama

Some of the appointments the new President has made since taking office have also done little to assuage those who fear there is little difference between his policies and those of his predecessor. Obama decided to retain Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, who picks up where he left off in the same position to which George W. Bush appointed him. Obama has appointed Rahm Emanuel, a former investment banker and one-time volunteer in the Israeli army, as his Chief of Staff. Emanuel is a particularly polemic figure in the context of the economic downturn because of his strong ties to Wall Street – he has been one of Congress’ top recipients of Wall Street contributions since his congressional election in 2002. Indeed, Rahm Emanuel was the top House recipient in the 2008 election cycle of contributions from hedge funds, private equity firms and the securities/investment industry[19] – putting him at odds with Obama’s frequent criticism of Wall Street’s financial institutions, although Obama himself also took large contributions from the securities and investment industries[20].

Despite Obama’s affirmation that none of his appointees would be placed in positions that, “directly and substantially related to their prior employer, for two years”, the new President has selected William J. Lynn III as deputy Defense Secretary[21]. This has provoked outrage among peace campaigners and anti-war activists, as Lynn served as head of government relations for arms manufacturer Raytheon, where he was also a top executive, prior to his selection by Obama, prompting accusations of a conflict of interest. In November 2007, Obama announced that,

“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

However just weeks into his administration that is already starting to look like dated campaign rhetoric. Other notable lobbyists appointed to high-level positions by Obama include former lobbyist for investment banking giant Goldman Sachs Mark Patterson who has been selected as Chief of Staff at the Treasury[22], Attorney General Eric Holder who formerly lobbied for the now bankrupt telecommunications firm Global Crossing Ltd.[23] and Mona Sutphen, who lobbied for a number of corporate clients including Angliss International, who has been selected as deputy White House Chief of Staff[24].

Finally, one of the first high-profile ‘changes’ Obama made after taking office was to sign an order that many media outlets reported would close the United States’ detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba within a year and return America to “the moral high ground” in the ‘war on terror’[25]. Such reports were premature however, and skated over the fact that Obama has signed executive orders since taking office that preserve and protect the controversial practice of rendition; secret abduction and transfer of prisoners and ‘terror suspects’ to “countries that cooperate with the United States”[26]. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials even stated that there might be an “expansion” of the practice of rendition given that other avenues for ‘interrogation’, such as the transfer of suspects to Guantanamo Bay, have been closed by the government. Obama administration officials confirmed that the orders to shut the CIA’s network of secret prisons “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis”, according to the LA Times. Suspects who have been held in secret prisons have given harrowing accounts in recent years of brutal torture experienced at these ‘black world’ camps in countries such as Algeria and Poland, and under executive orders signed by Obama such treatment of detainees will be allowed to continue.

It is frequently stated that Obama and his administration must be given time before judgement can be passed; that perhaps Obama is holding back his more radical policies until he is able to gain a stronger grounding that will enable him to better implement real change. However, in the face of the available information, this looks like wishful thinking. Barack Obama has unquestionably softened the rhetoric used in comparison with his predecessor, who seemed unmoved by his overwhelming unpopularity and by consistent opposition to his unethical policy decisions. Obama is a much more palatable figure than the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney; he is more charismatic, more charming and clearly more intelligent than the man he has replaced as president, and this has evidently endeared him to many in the U.S. and around the world. The underlying problem is that, as notorious neoconservative commentator Ann Coulter observed whilst commenting on Obama’s handling of issues of ‘national security’, “we ought to be gloating because he seems to be continuing the policies of George Bush”[27].

Smooth rhetoric aside, as of yet there is precious little that distinguishes President Obama from his Republican forerunner in terms of foreign policy and the rolling out of a draconian police state within the United States. It is looking increasingly unlikely with each passing day that those who were wooed by the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history and swept Barack Obama into the White House on an unprecedented wave of popular fervour will stand up and hold the new President to account for the flagrant violations of his campaign’s principles that are already piling up within the first hundred days of his term in office.

[1] January 2008 – Update on Iraqi Casualty Data, http://www.opinion.co.uk/Newsroom_details.aspx?NewsId=88

[2] Obama calls for the immediate withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-481393/Obama-calls-immediate-withdrawal-US-combat-troops-Iraq.html

[3] US election: Barack Obama wobbles on withdrawing Iraq troops, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/barackobama/2243536/US-election-Barack-Obama-wobbles-on-withdrawing-Iraq-troops.html

[4] Obama weighing 23-month Iraq withdrawal option, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1233304707882&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull

[5] Democrats voice concerns on Obama’s Iraq drawdown plan, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/27/iraq.dems/

[6] Up to 30,000 new US troops in Afghanistan by mid-2009: Mullen, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5j8aaFy5REgT_h1Pvsiar04fxldcA

[7] OBAMA: SEND 7,000 MORE TROOPS, http://www.nypost.com/seven/07202008/news/worldnews/obama__send_7_000_more_troops_120759.htm

[8] New Afghanistan strategy will target Taliban, pressure Pakistan and add non-military tactics to war, http://www.mlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2009/03/new_afghanistan_strategy_will.html

[9] Obama: Bush’s Pak incursions, small step, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=69518&sectionid=3510203

[10] Obama warns Pakistan on al-Qaeda, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/6926663.stm

[11] Obama air strikes kill 22 in Pakistan, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article5581084.ece

[12] Obama on Iran: Take off the Kid Gloves, http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/281249,CST-NWS-OBAMA03.article

[13] Obama offers Iran ‘new beginning’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7954211.stm

[14] Obama renews US sanctions on Iran, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7941031.stm

[15] Gates prefers sanctions to diplomacy for Iran, http://www.france24.com/en/20090329-gates-prefers-sanctions-diplomacy-iran

[16] Rosner’s Blog: Obama Supports Israel. Period., http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/pages/rosnerBlog.jhtml?itemNo=832667&contrassID=25&subContrassID=0&sbSubContrassID=1&listSrc=Y&art=1

[17] CRS Report for Congress – U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33222.pdf

[18] US & Israel in $30 bn arms deal, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6948981.stm

[19] Rahm Emanuel brings strong Wall Street ties to White House, http://news.muckety.com/2008/11/07/rahm-emanuel-brings-strong-wall-street-ties-to-white-house/6451

[20] Wall Street puts its money behind Obama, http://uk.reuters.com/article/stocksNews/idUKNOA53525520080605

[21] Obama picks lobbyist as Pentagon No. 2, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uslatest/story/0,,-8220924,00.html

[22] Another Lobbyist Headed Into Obama Administration, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6735898&page=1

[23] Obama AG Pick Lobbied for Dicey Telco Deal, http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6302394

[24] Obama Finds Room for Lobbyists, http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0109/18128.html

[25] Obama signs order to close Guantanamo Bay facility, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/01/22/guantanamo.order/index.html

[26] Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/washingtondc/la-na-rendition1-2009feb01,0,4661244.story

[27] Ann Coulter offers mild praise for Obama, http://www.cnsnews.com/public/content/article.aspx?RsrcID=44283


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