4. Obama's Foreign Policy

Obama did not campaign against the U.S.’s dominant imperial role in world affairs, but rather promised after the disastrous Bush years to restore U.S. leadership. Such leadership means the creation of a bi-partisan war cabinet committed to the maintenance and expansion of U.S. power abroad. Obama’s cabinet choices and other appointments place his government in the tradition of bi-partisan imperialism. Jeremy Scahill writes, “The assembly of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Joe Biden is a kettle of hawks with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic interventionism, neoliberal economic policies and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George H.W. Bush’s time in office to the present.”

Policies on Imprisonment, Rendition, and Torture

Upon taking office, President Obama ordered the closing of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and changed Bush policies on the interrogation of suspected terrorists, banning the CIA interrogation techniques best described as torture. He also initially ordered a halt to the trials of those held at Guantanamo, but then later reinstated the military tribunals. While the Guantanamo detention center is slated to be closed, Obama did not close the Bagram Air Base detention facility in Afghanistan and other such facilities, while habeas corpus will be denied to detainees in the U.S.’s extraterritorial prisons. Obama’s administration also attempted to maintain secrecy on the Bush regime’s torture memos, until that became politically and legally untenable. Most recently, he also blocked the release of photos documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that it would jeopardize U.S. service men and women.

Obama’s record so far, with the exception of the symbolic order to close Guantanamo, has been one of preserving and protecting the old system of unconstitutional, secret, military detention centers that also exist in violation of international laws and human rights standards. Congressional Democrats have not taken a stand against Obama’s policies, though liberal institutions such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have been critical. While movement activists are aware of this record, there has not been significant action to oppose it, which would most naturally make up part of a revived anti-war movement’s demands.

Wars and Occupations

While Obama’s domestic policy with its calls for regulation of the banks, economic stimulus, and EFCA does not much resemble that of President Bush, his foreign policy has far more in common with that of his predecessor. For those who voted for Obama as an “anti-war candidate” his policies actions since taking office should be deeply disturbing:

In January, Obama authorized further drone aircraft attacks on Pakistan.

In mid February, Obama announced that he would send an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan and by year’s end that number would increase to 30,000.

In late February, Obama announced that even after U.S. troops pulled out, he would leave 50,000 there to protect American interests.

These developments make clear that Obama has not ended the Middle Eastern wars and occupations, but that he is continuing and expanding them.

U.S. air strikes in Farah Province, Afghanistan in May, which killed 140 civilians, including 95 children, acted to catalyze concern about the war in that country. As reported by the New York Times in mid-May, some Democrats in Congress were beginning to feel uncomfortable with Obama’s plans for America’s foreign wars, even if they were not ready to move into opposition to it. Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, has won 76 members of Congress to support his call for an exit strategy for Afghanistan. This group is not yet in a position to resist the Democratic Party majority. Still, one sees the beginning of an opposition movement in Congress, which may ease the organization of an independent opposition movement in the streets.

The American public has not yet come to see the Afghanistan War as Obama’s war. So, in effect, it is as if the United States had just begun a new war, and so far the significance of the situation has not registered. Much of the public had until now accepted the Afghanistan war as legitimate, the country and its Taliban having been the hosts of Al Qaeda, while Iraq was seen as the illegitimate or at least the dubious war. No doubt it will take some time before the American people realize that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan form part of a whole, an imperial war for domination of the Middle East and Central Asia, its oil and its strategically important geopolitical space.

Middle East

The Obama administration has not fundamentally changed American policy in the Middle East, that is in Israel/Palestine. As he made clear during his campaign, Obama has adopted the historic U.S. policy of virtually unconditional support for Israel, while at the same time ignoring the demands of the Palestinians. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has said that the U.S. will not recognize or deal with Hamas until they accept the existence of Israel; this policy will keep Gaza and the West Bank divided and stop progress toward a two-state solution. However, if the situation became more acute, the U.S. would not necessarily support Israel in continuing the occupation.

With regard to Iran, Obama said the nuclear option is off the table, but that the U.S. had to be militarily prepared to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. In fact, Obama’s overtures to other Middle East powers represent an attempt to isolate Iran and lay the basis for future military action. Also flowing from this policy is Obama’s pursuit of an alliance with Vladimir Putin of Russia in order to pressure Iran from that side. The test for the Obama administration would be to say that the military option in Iran is off the table. That would represent a shift in policy that has not yet taken place, if it ever will.

Latin America: Mixed Record

In Latin America, President Obama has changed the style and tone of U.S. relations with countries in that region––even in some cases the substance. Still, the overall goals and objectives of U.S. foreign policy remain the same—i.e., U.S. domination of the region. Though with U.S. power declining and the influence of Europe and China growing in the region, and with the rise of Brazil and the increasing independence of many Latin American countries, other methods will have to be used. The situation has to be seen in the context of Latin American developments.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Latin Americans resisted neoliberalism in various countries through national general strikes, popular uprising, and attempted coups. By the late 1990s the struggle found expression in political campaigns. The continental shift to the left can be seen clearly in the series of elections over the last decade which brought to power in seven Latin American nations a series of presidents—Hugo Chavez, Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, Tabaré Vásquez, Evo Morales, Michelle Bachelet, Nestor Kirchner, Kristina Fernández de Kirchner, Rafael Correa, and Fernando Lugo–with politics described as ranging from populist, to social democratic, and, in some cases some claim, socialist. All of these Latin American presidents, with politics ranging from social democratic to radical—represent a rejection of the Washington Consensus that had such a devastating impact the region.

One of the most interesting and important developments during the recent period has been the transformation of the South American Community of Nations into the far more ambitious Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Founded in May of 2008, UNASUR brings together a dozen Latin American nations and two common markets—Mercosur and the Andean Community—to create a broader economic and political union. When Bolivia seemed to be on the verge of a civil war last September, UNASUR met and voted to back elected president Evo Morales and called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. UNASUR also rejected a proposal to take the issue to the Organization of American States (OAS), which has historically been dominated by the United States. The UNASUR resolution of the Bolivia issue, without the OAS or the U.S. represented an historic turning point in Latin America’s recent history.

Obama then cannot operate in Latin America as previous administrations have, still various developments provide openings for the United States. Four countries give a sense of the different policies being pursued by the Obama administration: Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico.

Obama is taking the first steps to improve relations with Cuba by making travel possible for Cuban citizens. Obama is able to do this because of the aging and dying off of the revolutionary era Cuban “exiles” in Miami and New Jersey who have been replaced by more moderate and pragmatic successors. The president is also responding to pressure from Cubans of all ages who want to be able to visit and financially support family there. The more important motivation is a response to the fear of U.S. banks, corporations, and farmers of exclusion from potential business in Cuba, while Spain, France, and Canada invest in tourism, oil and mining. The long-term goal of the Obama administration is to make possible U.S. investment in Cuba and along with that, to make the Cuban government amenable to American lobbyists.

While the world was captivated by the photos and films of U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, it should be remembered that less than a month before Obama had accused Chávez of “exporting terrorism.” Nevertheless, the global fall in oil prices could weaken the Venezuelan economy and thus the Chávez government, giving the U.S. an opening to both put pressure on Chávez to make changes in his foreign and domestic policy—such as his alliance with Iran and his nationalization of foreign companies—while at the same time offering support to the conservative opposition in the country.

In terms of U.S. relations with Colombia, Obama spoke out strongly against negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with that nation as long as violence against trade unionists continued. At the end of April, Obama asked U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to work with Colombia and Congress to resolve those issues and bring forward a trade agreement. So, at this juncture, it appears that Obama will support a FTA with stipulations about labor rights, though it seems unlikely that President Uribe of Colombia would actually ensure workers’ rights.

During his first visit to Mexico, President-elect Obama gave no indication of any major shift in U.S.-Mexico policy, rather praising President Felipe Calderón for his war on the drug cartels and pledging that he would work to strengthen the existing “the commercial ties, the security ties and the cultural ties that exist between the United States and Mexico.” Speaking with the press, Obama lauded Calderón for his efforts on all fronts, from energy policy to the drug war. President Calderón’s war against the drug dealers has involved the mobilization of 40,000 soldiers and has so far resulted in 5,000 deaths, reportedly mostly of drug dealers and their gunmen, though some civilians have also been killed in the crossfire. Human rights organizations have complained of soldiers committing human rights violations from killings, to rapes and robber.

Obama support for the Mérida Initiative, also known as Plan Mexico, which will eventually provide Mexico with $1.6 billion to fight the drug wars, has been criticized in Mexico as representing a threat to Mexican sovereignty, and in both countries because of concerns about human rights. Secretary of State Clinton appeared before Congress in late April to ask for more funds for Mexico for security, including three Black Hawk helicopters. The 2010 budget, now before Congress, includes $550 million for more security on the U.S.-Mexico border and $450 million for the Merida initiative. President Obama, though he says he is opposed to militarizing the border, also continues to consider putting over 1,000 troops on the U.S.-Mexico international frontier.

The only sign of any change to be found were Obama’s pre-election commitment to revisit labor and environmental standards in NAFTA, but only time will tell exactly what that means.