Obama Sounds Like an Echo
to stay on the offense everywhere from Djibouti to Kandahar."
I don't know how America was defined in the thoughts of our fellow man before we began to speak softly and carry a big stick, but, as I write this, the Statue of Liberty no longer stands tall in the minds of the world but is stretched flat, strapped down tight for her waterboarding. Morally speaking, the American Empire is coughing and choking to the finish line.
Barack Obama's ascension has caused joy in so many hearts worldwide. Not being a born killjoy, I am reluctant to burst yet another bubble, this one a hope for peace. Obama's book The Audacity of Hope, combined with a largely overlooked essay he penned for the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, goes a long way to letting us know if we should keep hope alive.
Obama's foreign-policy moves during his first hundred days have already caused some to lose their hope for peace in this dawning Age of Obama. But not me. My entire American experience has been defined by war or the threat of it. Peace to me would feel positively un-American.
So I never had any hope to begin with.
President of the United States of America and Wherever Else Its Interests Lie
In his writings, Obama comes down for a heavily interventionist foreign policy, which is surprising since his book also includes a lucid, unabashed rundown of what fifty years of American meddling has done to Indonesia — a country where he spent part of his childhood.
During the height of the Cold War, Indonesia had a number of warring factions all bent on seizing the top rung of power. One man in particular, General Suharto, became a CIA favorite (which tells you right off what a vicious thug he must have been) and in 1965, with a helpful shove from America's politicians, he began his rapid climb to the pinnacle. Prominent on the to-do list of his ascension was the traditional purge of enemies, and "according to estimates, between 500,000 and one million people were slaughtered," with another 750,000 or so imprisoned or banished (2006, p. 273). Score one for freedom and democracy.
Put on a lifeline of socialist largess from the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development, Suharto presided over a country where "corruption permeated every level of government" (p. 275). Obama states that "by any measure, Suharto's rule was harshly repressive," and his myriad crimes were committed with "the knowledge, if not outright approval, of the US administrations" (p. 276).
Fast-forward to 2003 when the people of that country were so thankful for this intervention that "most Indonesians had a higher opinion of Osama Bin Laden than they did of George W. Bush" (p. 278). Obama sums up the whole sorry episode by stating that "Indonesia provides a handy record of US foreign policy for the last fifty years" (p. 279). Indeed it does.
Unfortunately, Obama intends to continue it and promises "to renew American leadership in the world … [and] strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity" (2007). Where George W. Bush claimed to be bringing "compassionate conservatism" to the world, Obama is promising much the same in the foreign-policy realm — he wants to show the world "compassionate interventionism." Empire with a smiley face.
Mr. Obama, with no proofs to back the assertion, and countless dead and wounded to refute it, claims that "today, we are again called to provide visionary leadership" (2007) to "help reduce spheres of insecurity, poverty, and violence around the world" (2006, p. 315). Called by whom, exactly, he does not reveal — definitely not the Iraqi or Afghani people, safe to say.
Maybe God called him. God calls many politicians. US Senator John Kerry, in his A Call to Service, wrote that "our commitment to social justice, here and around the world is a direct command from God" (seriously, see page 24), so maybe, being a loyal party man and all, Mr. Kerry had God give Mr. Obama a call.
Obama intends to "show the world that America remains true to its founding principles. We lead not only for ourselves, but also for the common good" and the common good is that "citizens everywhere should be able to choose their leaders" (2007). Unless, of course, they choose Hamas.
Mr. Obama's striving for a "common good" requires us to "re-focus our attention on the broad Middle East" (2007) — as if we haven't been constantly re-focusing our attention on the "broad Middle East" for half a century now. On the bright side, while Obama knows nothing about the Middle East either, at least he will explain his disasters in full sentences, with a style that is easy on the ears.
Obama, in one of the few moments where I agreed with him, notes "only Iraqi leaders can bring real peace and stability to their country" (2007). And they're going to have to, because despite our fifty years of violent meddling, we have never really cared for the region, to the point that the government cannot staff all the newly available positions that require knowledge of the Iraqi peoples' multitudinous languages, dialects, sects, and history.
The president is a true believer in America's latest fad: our violent delusion that every foreigner's deepest wish is to be an American and all that's holding them back are a few thugs at the top, easily removed with a missile or two. Our attempts to remake the world are bound to fail because we are a people with local interests, happily ignorant about what lies across the immense oceans that protect us. Obama laments that his average fellow citizen "can't find Indonesia on a map" (2006, p. 272), not understanding that most Americans are a provincial people; it's our politicians who salivate over the globe.
He believes that while "in the past, there was the perception that America could perhaps safely ignore nations" (2006, p. 305), Pearl Harbor and 9-11 prove "isolationism of the sort that prevailed in the 1930s [is] now thoroughly discredited" (2006, p. 284) — a fact that Switzerland might find surprising. His statement that "we need to deepen our knowledge of the circumstances and beliefs that underpin extremism" (2007) is encouraging, yet he dismisses offhand any policy of nonintervention.
Believing that even if we adopted a noninterventionist foreign policy, "the US would still be a target, given its dominant position in the existing international order" (2006, p. 304), Obama will continue our policy of striving for a dominant position, our self-proclaimed status as world sheriff "will not change — nor should it" (2006, p. 306).
Well armed with his rally cry that "there are compelling moral reasons … for renewed American leadership" (2007), with God firmly at his side, President Obama will strive "to make sure that US policies move the international system in the direction of greater equity, justice, and prosperity" (2006, p. 316) as defined by him.
With a foreign policy chock-full of self-righteousness and good intention, and a big helping of largely unchecked power, Sheriff Obama is going to amble across the globe on his moral high horse — with history's most brutally effective war machine following close behind, doglike in its obedience.
And Behold a Pale Horse…
Prior to reading his latest book and his Foreign Affairs essay, I knew little about Mr. Obama beyond his widely publicized objection to the Iraq War, so the fact that his words on foreign policy read as if ghostwritten by Dick Cheney took me completely by surprise. How on earth did Obama get to claim the mantle of "peace" candidate?
If you think neocon rhetoric towards Iran and North Korea is alarming, be warned that Mr. Obama can rattle a saber with the best of 'em. Like Hillary Clinton, George Bush, and Dick Cheney, he too insists, "we must not rule out using military force" against them — "them" being defined as "Iran and North Korea," at least for the moment. In one of his lighter moments, he even condemns "Iran's regional aggression" (2007), and if that's not the pot calling the kettle black, I'm stumped.
The litany of "threats" he lists to justify all the excitement (terrorism, poverty, weak states, failing states, rogue states, rising states, and the latest crowd favorite, global warming) are a "call to action," and under the Obama regime the action will not be purely defensive, so if you're a fan of preemptive war there's no need to lament the passing of W.
In his Foreign Affairs article, Obama says he "will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened" (2007, emphasis mine). He makes this point clear in the book, too, warning that "we have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security" (2006, p. 308 emphasis his). Doubtless there will be plenty of money in the Obama budget to track down those elusive WMDs.
Needless to say, in all this there is no mention of needing a declaration of war from Congress because — let's be frank — circa 2009 he doesn't, and with his view of our Constitution as "not a static, but rather a living document ... [that] must be read in the context of an ever-changing world" (2006, p. 90), he's not about to bother to ask for one anyway.
Obama is smart enough to note the insidious effects of all this endless war, worrying that "the Cold War techniques of secrecy, snooping, and misinformation, used against foreign populations, became tools of domestic politics" (2006, p. 287), yet he was "practical" enough to cast a FISA vote to protect those very same techniques, no doubt rereading the Constitution in the context of an ever-changing world as he did so.
Mr. Obama tsk-tsks at the mess W and his friends created in Iraq, certain in the knowledge that he would never have fallen for those phony intelligence reports and — unlike Hillary Clinton — he would have actually read them. Yet while making hay with the antiwar crowd with his condemnation of the Iraq War, Mr. Obama is still a true believer in the ideology that caused the war to be launched in the first place. To wit, "[t]he security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders" (2007).
Anyone hoping for a change from the violent delusion of neoconservatism will find only an echo in Barack Obama. But here the echo comes back to our ears with its promises and excuses transformed from W's mumble-mouthed, stumbling inanities to a silky-smooth speech, words rolled together in perfect congruity. This is not to our advantage, since a great orator can explain away a lot of guilt and allow even more room for disastrous ignorance.
Think what a tongue of silk combined with dangerously foolish ideas can do to a nation. Peter the Hermit, one of history's greatest orators, preached Holy War and ignited the Crusades in 1096 — a series of wars that decimated much of Europe and the Middle East, which, almost a millennium later, will take up a large part of Obama's time.
Obama wonders if "men and women are capable of learning from history" (2006, p. 322). It really doesn't matter if we are capable; what matters for the next four years is if he is capable. He's got the Ivy League pedigree. Nobody denies Obama is an intelligent man. We're about to find out if he is a wise one, too. So far, the indications are not good.
To all the people from Djibouti (wherever that is) to Kandahar (ditto), God bless, good luck, and I'd recommend you continue to keep your heads down. With a foreign policy and ideological outlook almost indistinguishable from his predecessor, this newly launched Age of Obama, when all is said and done, may have us look back upon the Age of W with nostalgia.
Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.
———. "Renewing American Leadership." Foreign Affairs 86, no. 4 (2007): pp. 2–16.