The Hindu 29 May
When it came to foreign affairs, Barack Obama’s first presidential task was a simple one. He had to be better than his predecessor. For this alone, it seems, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.
But those who hoped Obama’s promise of “change” would apply to the US’s relations to the rest of the world have been bitterly disappointed. His recent State Department speech and ensuing overseas tour are supposed to mark a new phase in US foreign policy, but it’s continuity, not “change”, that prevails.
Obama spoke at length about “self-determination” as a driving force of both the Arab Spring and US policy. He also declared the US “will not tolerate aggression across borders”.Yet on a weekly basis his administration launches murder sorties against human targets in northern Pakistan. The great majority of the victims are guiltless civilians. What’s more, these flagrant violations of Pakistani sovereignty, carried on in defiance of direct appeals from Pakistan’s elected parliament, undermine the country’s vulnerable democracy and spur violent extremism. But they are defined by Obama as essential to US “security”, and he accepts no check on that prerogative.
The killing of Bin Laden was an extension of this policy of extra-territorial, extra-judicial assassination, with accompanying indifference to “collateral damage”. Instead of arrest and trial, Obama’s team preferred a no-questions-asked execution and rapid disposal of the body. His subsequent insistence that he would do the same again, wherever the “security” of the US warranted it, is a re-statement of a unique US prerogative: the right to conduct global search-and-destroy missions. The US would not accept a similar claim from any other country, though it gives a pass to Israel.
Obama’s two years in office have seen an escalation of the Afghanistan war – in US troop numbers, in resistance to their presence, in civilian casualties. Obama now says there won’t be a military solution, but it’s his regime that continues to try to implement one, at great cost to the
welfare of Afghanis and their capacity for self-determination.
Obama lectured the Arab world about taking “responsibility” and accused “leaders” in the region of blaming the west and Israel for all their ills. He spoke as if the US and its allies had not been instrumental in maintaining many of the regimes against which people have rebelled, as if the US had nothing to do with Mubarak or Ben Ali, as if the US had not funded and did not continue to fund the Egyptian security services who may yet derail the revolution. Which “leaders” was Obama talking about? Mubarak or Sadat, Hussein and Abdullah in Jordan, Hassan II and Mohammed VI in Morocco? The Gulf sheikhs or the Saudi royals? All promoted and thrived on strong ties with the US.
This was one of several passages in Obama’s speech that galled people who actually participated in the Arab Spring, as did its patronising tone and evasion of recent history. A serious departure from the past would have involved, at the least, some kind of acknowledgement of the role played in supporting regional despotisms by the US and other western powers. Despite talk of “humility” the heart of Obama’s policy, and his speech, is the opposite: a throbbing imperial presumption.
It is of course when it comes to Israel that continuity in US policy is most marked. Under Obama, the billions in military and economic aid have increased; Israel has enjoyed the protection of the US veto at the Security Council; mild objections to Israel’s settlement expansion were easily rebuffed, while the ongoing wall building, ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, blockade of Gaza have been effectively endorsed.
Obama has backed the Israeli rejection of the PLO-Hamas accord brokered by the new Egyptian government – though to the rest of the world it is uncontroversially a step forward. In his speech he blamed the Palestinians for refusing to talk – without acknowledging that it is the settlement programme and Israeli attempts to establish facts on the ground that are making meaningful talks impossible. Although Obama received some flack from the Israel lobby for talking about a return to pre-67 borders, he made it clear that his idea of a two state solution – a “non-militarised” state on perhaps 60% of the occupied territories – falls well short of anything Palestinians could accept.
Te current Libyan imbroglio was pushed by Britain and France, but it would not have got off the ground without Obama’s support. In the end, the obvious perils of this adventure were outweighed by the opportunities it represented: to insert a friendly (dependent) government in an oil producing nation and resuscitate the discredited doctrine of liberal interventionism. The NATO attack may well have protected civilians in Benghazi, but it has now developed into an air war against the Gaddafi regime, a messy and prolonged exercise in regime change that may end in partition.
US allies in Yemen and Bahrain were gently criticised in the Obama speech, but both showed just how seriously they took this slap on the wrist by escalating their violence against protesters in the following days. They know that under Obama the flow of US aid will not dry up. Even as Obama spoke, his representatives were negotiating a major new military agreement with Saudi Arabia, the region’s most repressive regime, whose counter-democratic intervention in Bahrain was supplied and supported by the US.
Crucially, Obama insists that democracy must be accompanied by what he calls “economic reform”, the neo-liberal prescriptions that have already exacerbated poverty, inequality and corruption in many west Asian and north African states and against which the Arab Spring was in part a revolt. He wants the new democracies to prove their credentials by opening their doors to predatory multi-nationals and exposing themselves to destructive international competition. All of his proposals for debt relief and aid are tied to this model, which Obama identified with the free-booting capitalism that wrought havoc in Russia and Eastern Europe.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, long seen by the US as its proprietary backyard, the social and political forces which have ushered in egalitarian and in many cases remarkably effective economic reform have been met with unremitting hostility from Obama’s administration. Here “change” is not welcome, even when it comes through the ballot box or “the moral force of non-violence” that Obama praised in his speech. His administration sought to establish a new chain of US military bases in Colombia, a clear threat to neighbouring Venezuela and to regional stability which was stymied in the end by a new Venezuelan-Colombian treaty of cooperation, agreed against the State Department’s wishes.
In Honduras, a military coup against an elected left-leaning president was at first condemned, then sanctioned and supported by Obama’s people. In Haiti, they opposed the return of former president Aristide, a social reformer who was democratically elected but ousted in a US-backed coup, and insisted on the exclusion of his popular party from the recent elections. Meanwhile, the US trade embargo on Cuba – annually condemned by the United Nations – has nearly completed its fifth decade.
Unlike Bush, Obama is highly skilled in deploying the language of universality on behalf of the expediencies of US power. But his credibility, globally, is in decline, and his speech was met with derision by many of the “ordinary people” of the region it was supposed to address.
This is not about Obama’s personality or style or even his ideology. Nor is it about the Israel lobby or domestic electoral considerations. US foreign policy is deeply rooted in American Exceptionalism, of which Obama is a declared adherent, connected to a sense of western civilisational superiority, and overwhelmingly shaped by the needs and ambitions of US-based capital. Any real change will require a major rupture in US politics, and that will only emerge to the degree that the US and its allies meet resistance globally – political, economic, cultural resistance. In this respect, India’s UN abstention on the Libya resolution (along with Russia, China and Germany) was an inadequate gesture.