President Obama has mocked his Republican challenger Mitt Romney for having a foreign policy straight out of the 1980s (as well as economic policy from the 1920s and social policy from the 1950s). The jibe was prompted principally by the fact that Romney has described Russia as the principal challenger to the US. It focuses attention, quite reasonably, on Romney’s parochial ignorance of much in global affairs and his tendency to make gaffes.
But it is also an instance of Obama positioning himself as best-suited to offer leadership in the current period of US imperialism. The aim is to convey that Romney is stuck in the past, while Obama grasps what is needed to fight the ‘war on terror’. This narrow debate does not necessarily reflect American public opinion, as polling has repeatedly established domestic majorities believing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a mistake.
Continuity not change
Obama’s approach to world affairs is still largely stuck in the first decade of this century. There is far more continuity than change from the George W Bush era. The era that opened in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist atrocities – the War on Terror, more aptly characterised as a War of Terror – continues under different management.
Obama’s electoral victory in November 2008 was assisted by widespread popular approval for his anti-war stance over Iraq, but Obama-mania has long since dissipated – partly for domestic reasons, but also fuelled by a series of disappointments in US operations abroad.
As Seumas Milne wrote this week, ‘Whatever the personal views of the politician at the top, the US empire is a system, not a policy, underpinned by corporate and military interests.’ Washington is at the political centre of what is, in effect, a global empire. Barack Obama has made only minor modifications to the workings of that imperial system.
The ideology remains broadly the same: America is a champion of freedom and democracy, taking on ‘rogue states’ and ‘Islamist terror networks’, to liberate oppressed peoples in faraway lands. In such a climate, international law and respect for human rights are luxuries we can dispense with, while torture, rendition and targeted killing can all, at least obliquely, be justified.
Of course the real motivations – political and economic – were different to the fanciful rhetoric back in 2001. They remain different now. The US has sought to assert its superiority and strength in the Middle East and western Asia, areas of the globe that remain strategically important. The invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 were decisive moments in a broader project.
The last decade or so of war has unfolded against a backdrop of long-term relative economic decline for the US. There is, also, the rise of potential economic and geopolitical threats, most importantly China. Washington relies heavily on military dominance to compensate for the shifting dynamics of the global economy. An iron fist enables it to punch harder.
The US massively outstrips other states on arms spending. It continues to maintain a network of military bases that helps ensure global military dominance, with a special focus on the Middle East.
Washington can also deploy the economic strength the US does still maintain through imposition of sanctions on troublesome states. The sanctions on Iran are currently having a brutal, destructive toll on ordinary people, not those running the country who are supposedly their targets. Sanctions, it should be remembered, can be a prelude to war not an alternative to it. The threat to Iran is ever-present.
The development of targeted killing, or drone warfare, in the last few years – primarily an Obama-era phenomenon – enables the US to intervene in countries it hasn’t attacked, invaded or occupied. The aim is ‘control without occupation’, minimising the costs both financially and in terms of US troop fatalities. There has in fact been a geographical expansion of the war since Obama became president, with drone deployments in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The War on Terror
Since 2001, then, the US has asserted itself militarily in the hope this will compensate for declining economic status. Armed force is its greatest asset. US ‘foreign policy’ directly affects the populations of many countries, not just those like Iraq and Afghanistan which have endured direct occupation.
The post-2001 phase of US imperialism has had a number of elements. In addition to wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has been continued funding of Israel (as a loyal colonial-settler ally in the region); reliance on viciously repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and (prior to the revolution) Mubarak’s Egypt; and threats or sanctions against countries, most notably Iran.
During the Obama era we have not only seen a huge increase in drone warfare, but also the use of direct military intervention when feasible, as seen in Libya, and more covert means, like liaising with elements of Syria’s popular movement, when that isn’t feasible.
Since 2001 we have also seen a shifting of the boundaries in what kinds of state surveillance and coercion are deemed acceptable: rendition, torture, erosion of civil liberties, the growth of surveillance. Obama promised to close Guantanamo Bay. It hasn’t happened.
Islamophobia – associating Muslims as a whole with images of terrorism, characterising Muslim communities as an ‘alien’ or ‘backward’ threat within Western societies – has accompanied all this. It remains a potent ideological weapon.
An impasse for US armed force
Almost every aspect of Bush-era global relations has therefore been maintained. But none of this should suggest the US and its allies have got it all their own way.
The withdrawal from Iraq reflected the disastrous impasse that had been reached (as well as the impact of massive anti-war protests globally). Afghanistan – unstable, violent and riddled with corruption – is no more of a success story. There are political tensions in both Washington and London over the timing of withdrawal, with growing calls for troops to be brought home much sooner than planned.
The Arab revolutions have shaken US influence in the Arab world, most importantly by bringing down the Mubarak regime – one of the three most important US allies, alongside Israel and Saudi Arabia – and through the spread of popular uprisings to traditionally stable Gulf states. Ideologically the uprisings have shattered the myth that Arabs need external intervention – in the form of Western bombs or tanks – in order to overthrow or challenge an oppressive order.
The US, together with allies including the ever-faithful UK, would undoubtedly like to bomb Syria, but have struggled to build a global alliance. Russia and China oppose a UN resolution, having been unhappy with the way their support for a resolution on Libya was used to sanction a sustained – and devastating – bombing campaign that escalated the death toll in that country to around 30,000 and ensured long-term political instability and social chaos.
The Western powers, and regional allies like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are instead attempting to buy off sections of the Syrian movement, those who they can ‘do business with’, in an effort to shape a post-Assad Syria that is favourable to Western interests. This fits into a bigger context. Since March 2011 – when the bombardment of Libya began and Saudi forces, with a nod from Washington, crushed Bahrain’s popular movement – the US has sought to re-assert its influence through a combination of co-opting the Arab revolutions (with mixed results) and continuing support for centres of counter-revolutionary repression like Saudi.
The US and its allies are, therefore, in some ways weaker than in 2001. Profound problems with overt military interventions have encouraged a turn to more covert means, from the deployment of drones in Pakistan, to arming some of the Syrian rebels, to imposing sanctions on Iran.
What happens in the future depends more on what we do than whether Obama or Romney sits in the White House. We must broaden the parameters of debate, sustaining and developing our critique of US imperial belligerence, but also mobilising to end the occupation of Afghanistan and stop further wars.
In response to both austerity and war, there is – on both sides of the Atlantic - public appetite for a different set of values and priorities. In this country, slogans like ‘fund education not war’ and ‘cut Trident not public services’ were raised on the 20 October anti-cuts demonstration.
Millions of people across north Africa, the Middle East and western Asia have also shown their capacity for mass protest. This has been seen in the Arab uprisings, in Palestinian resistance (and solidarity movements elsewhere), and in the popular rejection by Iraqis and Afghans of foreign colonial occupation of their land. Combined with anti-war movements based inside the imperialist countries, popular mobilisations in these parts of the world can be a counterweight to imperialist intervention, whatever form it may take.