Barack Obama and Intervention

Does Multilateralism

have a Future?

Geoff Martin

It is understandable that Democrats and many Independents, and indeed a majority of the world’s population, were pleased with the election this past November of Barack Obama as the 43rd President of the United States. A majority of US citizens, including many who voted for “the other fellow,” wanted to abandon the doctrinaire conservatism and messianic arrogance that characterized the eight Bush years, the majority of which were also a period of Republican control of Congress. People obviously responded very positively to President Obama’s message of “change” and “yes, we can!” The republic’s first African-American President seemed to suit an increasingly diverse country. The legacy of the Bush era is even more troubling than it appeared six months ago, not only because the US fighting two unpopular and intractable wars, but because decades of neoliberal deregulation have also greatly weakened the US economy. After many years of high fiscal deficits, the deficits are about to become unprecedented and the public debt seemingly unmanageable.

On the question of intervention and multilateralism, the Bush legacy is clear. George W. Bush was a strong supporter of US intervention in the world, through military means, chiefly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and one gets the sense that other countries, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea, might have made the list of victims had the two initial forays proven more successful.      And for the Bush Administration, this intervention, this “preventative war,” this aggression, was to be undertaken unilaterally, based on US elite judgment, without any genuine regard for multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Organization. One need only read the Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy to see the openness with which this policy was advocated, or before that, to see the members of the Project for a New American Century, many of whom would later work in the Bush Administration, advocate for US global superiority in an open letter to then-President Bill Clinton.

The key question at the moment is, to what extent will the Obama Administration be a departure from the Bush legacy, when it comes to intervention and multilateralism? To answer the question be must consider again the 2008 primaries and general election. For electoral reasons we may initially find it difficult to separate “spin” from reality. In a de facto two-party state, Barack Obama chose to run as the “change candidate,” while his opponent also ran on change albeit within a Republican framework. Obama raised something like $750 million for his campaign, reversed himself and refused public funding and spending limits, and was able to do so only because he appealed to both elite and “Main Street” donors. Once the economy failed, Obama had an inherent advantage because, as the pundits would say, as the incumbent party “it would have been hard for any Republican to win in ‘o8.” It was in the interests of the Democrats to claim that Obama represented change, and also for the Republicans to do the same thing.    Republicans knew they could only defeat Obama if they could convince voters that he represented (negative) change, as a candidate allegedly without experience, a consorter with “domestic terrorists” like Bill Ayers, and with an “America-hating” preacher like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright waiting in the wings. But this strategy totally blew up with the fall 2008 economic meltdown, and the weakness on economic policy of both John McCain and Sarah Palin.

The reality, I think, is that progressives will have less to celebrate and conservatives less to fear when we see the real Barack Obama in action. We’re seeing this already, even if we focus only on foreign policy. First, while Obama claims “he’s the change,” as a way of explaining  his choices for his senior appointments, those appointments are still troubling. His key foreign and defense policy advisors, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are occasionally Republican and at best clearly establishment figures coming from the centre-right “Democratic Leadership Council” constituency within the Democratic Party. In ways reminiscent of Bill Clinton, there is every reason to expect that President Obama will change the packaging even if he doesn’t change the product. So the US will close Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo, but there are no assurances that the US will no longer hold captured individuals indefinitely at “black sites.” The US will no longer declare these individuals “enemy combatants,” but it still reserves the right to hold them. And in February Hillary Clinton’s State Department signed a new $22 million deal to have the private military organization Blackwater, now being rebranded as “Xe” (pronounced “zee”), continue to work for the US in Iraq, even though Blackwater has been banned by the nominally sovereign government of that country.

Then there is the question of the “bad war” and the “good war.” President Obama will “pull out” of Iraq, though we should anticipate that there will be US forces permanently stationed there, and we have every reason to expect permanent US bases as well. This sounds like John McCain’s honest admission that the US will be in Iraq for 100 years. As for the good war, President Obama has committed himself to a “surge” in Afghanistan, apparently believing that he and the faltering United States of America, and its reluctant NATO allies, can “succeed”  where the British failed in the 1920s and the Soviets in the 1980s. Like Bush, we should not expect much US intervention in Darfur, where apparently there is no significant US self-interest.

To sum up, it does come down to self-interest, to the preservation and search for power and treasure. Electioneering and spin aside, the greatest continuity in US foreign policy over several decades is decision making based on the interest in power and treasure, both for Republican and Democratic administrations, advised chiefly by “realist thinkers” such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Bzrezinski, George Shultz, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. For them the United Nations and its Charter is a useful tool or worthy only of dismissal. As the sole superpower, the US will intervene as it sees fit, restrained only by its own faltering resources and domestic and world public opinion. Though there is every indication that the Obama administration will engage in much more acceptable rhetoric, there is likely to be little change in reality. Obama will continue to support unthinkingly the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and will continue to rattle sabres with Iran. There may be improvement in the US-Cuban relationship, but not necessarily a genuine US recognition in the right of the Cuban people to determine their own future.

Dr. Geoff Martin is a Part-Time Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mount Allison University.

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