It is a myth that Barack Obama is guided by public opinion or is a President of the people
As we approach United States President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, attention must turn to the (now very) old question: why has Obama maintained the principal planks of the foreign and national security policies of the George W. Bush administrations, despite having promised radical change? In their haste to explain, most commentators cling to what are now ‘old favourites’: Obama’s legacy of wars and financial crises; his lack of experience in foreign affairs; his personal insecurities at being commander-in-chief but having served in no wars. None of those arguments are without merit but they remain wedded to arguments suggesting that had this or that been different, Obama would have transformed U.S. policy and power. This is patently false.
An article in a recent pre-election issue of Foreign Affairs, the house organ of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, unwittingly (almost) hit the nail on the head: “Obama is the Republican candidate,” it declared. Actually, Obama was the Establishment candidate — and the real Establishment is bipartisan, welcoming millionaires from both its wings in the Democratic and Republican parties.
Obama’s most recent nomination of former Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, as Defense Secretary illustrates this perfectly: variously described as a liberal realist or internationalist, or a Republican realist, Hagel is endorsed by the big guns of the Establishment: Colin Powell, Robert Gates, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others, who have rushed to defend him against the neo-con charges of anti-semitism and weakness on Iran, Syria, etc.
Hagel supported the Iraq war. He supports full-blooded aid to Israel. He just thinks military power isn’t always the answer to every problem. This makes him, to neo-cons, weak on national security.
Obama’s pick for Secretary of State is Senator John Kerry — another pro-Iraq war advocate, as was Hillary Clinton, the hardline and hawkish State Department head, and current Vice-President Joe Biden.
Withdrawn from nomination for the post of head of CIA in 2008, John Brennan is Obama’s choice for that role in 2013. Brennan’s complicity in the use of torture, in supporting the Guantanamo facility and the secret prisons programme, escalated drone strikes i.e. illegal assassinations with plenty of civilian casualties, is well known or widely suspected, but hardly thoroughly investigated. He is likely to sail through the Senate hearings to which all nominees to top posts are subject.
Obama promotes those who backed the most absurd American war since Vietnam not because he is insecure, inexperienced, lacking knowledge of foreign affairs, or because he inherited a mess. He is a member of the Establishment, fully bought into the American global power programme, and who sees all problems through the prism of U.S. Establishment interests.
It is not public opinion that drives U.S. foreign policy: it is the Establishment and its myriad think tanks, foundations, and other experts and financial backers from Wall Street and other prestigious addresses, who are responsible for the global financial crisis and the pushy character of U.S.’ power, dressed up as exporting U.S. core values.
Who is the “Establishment”? Long ago, Godfrey Hodgson, the keenest British observer of American political life, provided an excellent definition: they are, he argued, the power behind the throne, the people who know the right people who get things done, those operating outside the U.S. Congress and mainly as appointees in the executive branch, whose power is often exercised outside of the constitutional forms.
The power to block the people who don’t belong and promote those who do. Wall Street, not Main Street, runs America. When White House incumbents say that “millions stand behind me”, they are referring to big bucks from Wall Street banks and American multinationals like Lockheed Martin, arms firms at the heart of the military-industrial complex that continue to wield massive power in the U.S.
In this, his second term, Obama should have been able to break free from anxiety and inexperience and speak with his own voice, if the usual critics had it right. That he is not doing so is not because he is obtuse: it is because he’s bought into the programme. Obama’s record in dealing with issues that were not inherited legacies gave the game away long ago: the President who would not do coercive regime change supported it in Libya; who professed friendship to the people of the Middle East and provided record levels of aid to Israel; who won the Nobel Peace Prize and dramatically increased drone strikes across the world and escalated the war in Afghanistan; who believed in democracy and backed Hosni Mubarak’s oppressive regime in Egypt until it was clear that he was yesterday’s man; who backed Saudi intervention in Bahrain against citizens fighting for their democratic rights; and so on.
Despite the great achievement that President Obama represents as the first African-American chief executive, it is important to remember that he is not a man of the people, let alone of black people. He has dropped any pretence of dealing with the structural and historically-rooted problems of racial and social inequality; and has paid his dues to the Establishment that placed him in the White House in 2008 to pick up the pieces of crisis-ridden American power after eight years of George W. Bush.
So militaristic is Obama’s foreign policy programme that he out-manoeuvred the neo-conservative-backed Mitt Romney and gave him no place to go but increased rhetorical stridency. This has proved embarrassing to liberals who tend to remain quiet on Obama’s military escalations; it has also helped him outflank the neo-cons who harp on without credibility about America’s weaknesses.
Neither liberals nor neoconservatives have a vested interest in recognising the truth of Obama’s record: it is one of which George W. Bush would have been proud.
(Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of politicial science at the City University London; President, British International Studies Association; and Chair, Obama Research Network, U.K.)