BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
Are they really bumblers? The opinion columns quiver with reproofs for maladroit handling of foreign policy by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Those who cherished foolish illusions that Obama’s election presaged a substantive shift to the left in foreign policy fret about “worrisome signs” that this is not the case.
It’s true that there have been some embarrassing moments. Vice President Biden, on a supposed mission of peace to Israel, is given the traditional welcome – a pledge by Israel to build more settlements, plus adamant refusal to reverse the accelerating evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.
At least Clinton, touring Latin America, was not greeted with gobs of spit, like Vice President Nixon back in 1958, but she did get a couple of robust diplomatic slaps from Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, rejecting Clinton’s hostile references to Venezuela and call for tougher action towards Iran. Amid detailed news reports of butchered activists in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Latin Americans and even some Democratic members of the U.S. Congress listened incredulously to Clinton’s brazen hosannas to the supposedly peaceful election of Honduras’ new, U.S.-sanctioned President Lobo in a process to which both the Organization of American States and the European Union refused to lend the sanction of official observers.
Meanwhile, China signals its displeasure with the U.S. with stentorian protests about Obama’s friendliness towards the Dalai Lama. The PRC continues its rumblings about shrinking its vast position in U.S. Treasury bonds.
The Turks recall their ambassador from Washington in the wake of a vote in a U.S. congressional committee to recognize the massacre of the Armenians in 1916 as “genocide.” Russia signals its grave displeasure with Clinton’s rejection, in a speech at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, of President Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new security pact for Europe. “We object to any spheres of influence claimed in Europe in which one country seeks to control another’s future,” she said. Shortly before this categorical statement, Poland announced that the U.S. would deploy Patriot missiles on its territory, less than 50 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.
Is this partial list a reflection of incompetence, or a registration that, with a minor hiccup or two, U.S. foreign policy under Obama is moving purposively forward in its basic enterprise: to restore U.S. credibility in the world theater as the world’s premier power after eight years of poor management?
Consider the situation that this Democratic president inherited. In January 2009, the world was reeling amid violent economic contraction. Obituaries for the American Century were a dime a dozen. The U.S. dollar’s future as the world’s reserve currency was written off with shouts of contempt. Imperial adventuring, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, were routinely denounced as fit only for Kipling buffs. The progressives who voted Obama in were flushed with triumph and expectation.
Not much more than a year later, Obama has smoothed off the rough edges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and indeed widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945.
Latin America? Enough of talk about a new era, led by Chavez of Venezuela, Morales of Bolivia and other progressive leaders. So far as Uncle Sam is concerned, this is still his backyard. On the campaign trail in 2008, it was Republican John McCain who was reviled as the lobbyist for Colombia’s death squad patron, Uribe. Today, it’s Obama who presides over an adamantly pro-Uribe policy, supervising a widening of U.S. military basing facilities in Colombia. As an early signal of continuity, Honduras’ impertinent president Zelaya, guilty of populist thoughts, was briskly evicted with U.S. approval and behind-the-scenes stage management.
If ever there was a nation for whose enduring misery the U.S. bears irrefutable responsibility [along with France], it is Haiti. The hovels that fell down in the earthquake were those of people rendered destitute by U.S. policies since Jefferson, and most notably by the man to whom Obama is most often compared, another Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. The houses that did not fall down in such numbers were those of the affluent elites, most recently protected by Bill Clinton, who was second only to Wilson in the horrors he sponsored in Haiti. Yet under Obama, the U.S. is hailed as a merciful and generous provider for the stricken nation, even though it has been Cuba and Venezuela who have been the stalwarts, with doctors [in the case of Cuba] and total debt forgiveness [in the case of Venezuela]. The U.S. refused such debt relief.
Israel? Not one substantive twitch has discommoded the benign patronage of Israel by its patron, even though Obama stepped into power amidst Israel’s methodical war crimes – later enumerated by Judge Goldstone for the U.N. – in Gaza. Consistent U.S. policy has been to advocate a couple of mini-Bantustans for the Palestinians, and under Obama, the U.S. has endured no substantive opposition to this plan from its major allies.
With Iran, there is absolute continuity with the Bush years, sans the noisy braggadocio of Cheney: assiduous and generally successful diplomatic efforts to secure international agreement for deepening sanctions; disinformation campaigns about Iran’s adherence to international treaties, very much in the Bush style of 2002. In the interests of overall U.S. strategy in the region, Israel is held on a leash.
No need to labor the obvious about Afghanistan: an enlarged U.S. expeditionary force engineered with one laughable pledge – earnestly brandished by the progressives – that the troops will be home in time for the elections of 2012. The U.S. and, indeed, world antiwar movements live only in memory. Congressional Democrats in the House could barely muster 60 votes against the Afghan War, last week.
Russia? Biden excited the foreign policy commentariat with talk of a “reset” in posture toward Russia. There’s no substantive reset – merely continuation of U.S. policy since the post-Soviet collapse. Last October, Biden emphasized that the U.S. “will not tolerate” any “spheres of influence,” nor Russia’s “veto power” on the eastward expansion of NATO. The U.S. is involved in retraining the Georgian army.
China may thunder about the Dalai Lama and Taiwan – but on the larger stage, the Middle Kingdom’s world heft is much exaggerated. The astute China-watcher Peter Lee hit the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that “the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach, moral leadership, heft in the global financial markets [Beijing’s immense overexposure to U.S. government securities is, I think, becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability], or a large slate of loyal and effective allies in international organization.”
The United States, as Lee points out, is also making “good progress in pursuing the most destabilizing initiative of the next 20 years: encouragement of India’s rise from Afghanistan through to Myanmar as a rival and distraction to China.”
All of this is scarcely a catalog of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm – the first duty of all presidents of whatever imagined political stripe.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through www.counterpunch.com.