Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Just Another War President: Why This Progressive Lost Faith In Barack Obama

I was one of the millions of Americans full of hope and excitement during the 2008 Presidential campaign. I had never bothered to vote before that, because I personally never believed in the American political model. I detested the dominance of the two Party system, and believed that politicians primarily served the interests of the rich and powerful, to the detriment of ordinary citizens. It was not only the prospect of having a Black President, although as a man of color myself, this was quite significant. My decision to vote in 2008 was not really driven by race. I would much rather have a white President who believes in the same core progressive principles and who shares a worldview similar to my own, than a black President who represents establishment politics. The most important draw for me was the prospect of having a President who believed in real Progressive values and who would offer a real alternative to the status quo. I had high hopes for a new America and a new kind of politics where you did not have to be rich to have your voice heard and your vote counted. The most important thing to me at the time was that candidate Obama seemed to put forth a new vision for Americas role in the world. So I gave him my vote, full of excitement and hope that something would change.

Five years later I find myself regretting that vote. By 2012, I had lost faith in President Obama. I realized that I had been duped. I gave my vote to the Green Party candidate Jill Stein. This was, in part, a protest vote. Obama was not competitive in my State anyway. But part of my vote reflected the fact that the Green Party candidate represented my interests far more than this President. Obama, for me, had gone from a great inspirational figure to the least bad of two bad choices.

The President’s domestic record has been mixed. There are certainly accomplishments that he deserves credit for. Healthcare reform was a noble effort, although insurance companies were left with too much power. A universal system, like that of Canada, may have been a better approach, but the Healthcare Reform Act at least offers an improvement over the status quo. Saving the auto industry will definitely be a highlight of the Obama Presidency for years to come. Legal protections for women and immigration reform are also noble efforts. However, the Obama Administration’s finance reform was soft on banks and let Wall Street off the hook. Obama’s attachment to the likes of Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, insiders described by Progressive economists and analysts as being part of the problem before and during the financial crisis, raised eyebrows with me.

Obama also failed to do enough to help ordinary Americans in the wake of The Great Recession. There was not enough of a push to get resources where they were needed most - down to Main Street. More could have been done to create jobs. Obama has also been too willing to put important social programs on the table and abandon core Progressive principles, while getting little in return. I understand compromise is important, and I am open to practical, common sense ideas to correct the nations finances, such as some form of means testing for social security. But such compromises should require the other side to give up something as well. It’s true that, for the most part, Republicans will not even play ball when it comes to compromising to get something done for the Country. Obama clearly could have achieved more on the domestic front if Republicans had not built a wall of obstruction to prevent any form of real progress. But I need a President willing to fight a little harder for core values and to make the case more effectively. Obama’s support for Bush’s Patriot Act also didn’t help his cause domestically. All in all, I would give the President a C+ at best on his job performance at home.

But domestic issues, while important, have never been my main concern. Foreign policy is the Achilles Heel of the Obama Administration. During both of his Presidential campaigns, Obama promised to “turn the page” on war and to focus on nation building at home. Investing in clean energy, education, infrastructure, and research in science and technology is key if the U.S. is going to be competitive. But unfortunately when President Obama took office he turned his foreign policy over to pro-war interventionists Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, both of whom are establishment Democrats. Hillary Mann Leverett, a former member of the NSC and an expert on the middle east, became a critic of Clinton’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, pointing out the lack of an even-handed approach. Leverett is also critical of Clinton’s hawkish approach on Iran. She has described the Hillary Clinton worldview as not much different from the neoconservative worldview. It is a worldview that emphasizes American hegemony and a overdependence on the U.S. military to project American power. For the war hawks in the Obama Administration, America’s role as global cop must not only be maintained, but expanded. Obama knew this was Clinton’s worldview and would not have chosen her if he did not believe in her positions.

In a poignant piece for the Atlantic entitled “How Perpetual War Became U.S. Ideology“, James Joyner describes the U.S. as being stuck in a ‘perpetual state of conflict’ and points out the similarities between the two parties. While he describes conservative pro-war hawks as neo-cons, he also points out that pro-war hawks - which he calls “liberal interventionists” - also dominate the progressive side:

    “Are neoconservatives and liberal interventionists really so different? Neoconservative bastions like the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies are passionate advocates of spreading American values. In Iraq, the toppling of Saddam Hussein and discovery that there was no WMD program to speak of were both accomplished in the first weeks of the war and with a relative handful of American casualties. If these had been our chief concerns we would have left immediately; the apparent U.S. goals in staying on so many years were democracy promotion and nation-building, both ideals the neoconservative White House leadership shared with liberal interventionists.

    Further, while neocons are doubtless less patient than liberal interventionists when it comes to exhausting diplomatic options and achieving international consensus, what does it really matter if the end result is the same either way: military action.”

Dr. Stephan Walt made a similar point on U.S. foreign policy in an outstanding Foreign Policy magazine article entitled, “What Intervention in Libya Tells Us About the Neocon Liberal Alliance”  :

    “The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance. Both groups extol the virtues of democracy, both groups believe that U.S. power — and especially its military power — can be a highly effective tool of statecraft. Both groups are deeply alarmed at the prospect that WMD might be in the hands of anybody but the United States and its closest allies, and both groups think it is America’s right and responsibility to fix lots of problems all over the world. Both groups consistently over-estimate how easy it will be to do this, however, which is why each has a propensity to get us involved in conflicts where our vital interests are not engaged and that end up costing a lot more than they initially expect.

    So if you’re baffled by how Mr. “Change You Can Believe In” morphed into Mr. “More of the Same,” you shouldn’t really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing. I’m not saying their attitudes were identical, but the similarities are probably more important than the areas of disagreement. Most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has become addicted to empire, it seems, and it doesn’t really matter which party happens to be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Unfortunately the U.S. never learns any lessons from previous mistakes. It did not learn from Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan. The hunger for war on the part of politicians in this country always seems to outweigh what little common sense they may have. The result is that the U.S. always seems to find itself in senseless wars, even when the signs leading up to them scream “don’t do it”.

The Obama Administration has embraced an assertive foreign policy. This was particularly evident under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and it is now being carried forward under Secretary John Kerry. It was Clinton, Rice and Kerry who pushed for intervention in Libya. Much of the same crowd has pushed for intervention in other  parts of the globe. This is why I refer to U.S. foreign policy under this Administration as neo-con lite. Barely out of Iraq and still mired in a pointless, futile, wasteful war in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has continued to instigate conflicts between countries and raise tensions around the world. Despite the need for American retrenchment, as Barry Posen has suggested in his work “Pull Back” (suggested reading), the Obama Administration shows no signs of giving up the role of global cop.

This administration has continued most of the core Bush foreign policies that Democrats have slammed since 2004, such as pre-emptive war, the use of drones, Gitmo, missile defense, immigration enforcement & deportations, Iran and North Korea. NATO expansion and policy towards Israel, which both parties support, are policies that are also bad for the interests of the U.S. There is really no real substantive difference between Obama Administration foreign policy and the previous Bush policy on almost all of the big international issues. In fact, Obama has intensified many of the policies set forth by Bush and the neocons - deportations and drone use are just two examples.

Western governments, including the Obama team, have been extremely sympathetic to anti-Assad groups in Syria and have been looking for any reason to intervene militarily in that civil war. Secretary of State Kerry has already deepened America’s commitment there by allocating more money and resources to opposition groups and opening the door to direct supplies of weaponry and other assistance in the future.

Despite pledges during the campaign to utilize soft power as a leading part of American diplomacy, the Obama Administration has rarely followed through. The fact is, President Obama has not been honest with the American people about his foreign policy. I feel as though I have been lied to by this President on a number of issues, but foreign policy ranks near the top. On one hand he has proclaimed several times, including within the last few weeks and months, that America had turned the page on more than a decade of war and would be looking to rebuild and reinvest at home. However, while making these proclamations about “turning the page” away from war, President Obama was simultaneously committing the U.S. to more wars in the near future, particularly in the case of Iran. President Obama has already made a commitment to Israel, promising that the U.S. would attack Iran within the next year or two. This promise was repeated during the President’s March trip to Israel. So Mr. Nobel Peace Prize is a walking contradiction. On one hand he slams George Bush and the Republicans for dragging the nation into wars that it didn’t need, yet he is continuing the same approach to global affairs. Obama has only intensified Bush’s cowboy diplomacy rather than abandoning it.

The same script that we saw leading up to the war in Iraq is being replayed, and just like before, the media is not only dropping the ball in its role to be skeptical and inquisitive, but it seems to be complicit. The American people are also as clueless as ever, and they are falling for the same strategy. Sadly most Americans have no idea that Obama has already committed the nation to war. People are more concerned with their X-boxes, Reality Television, and the latest stupid trend on social media.

According to recent news reports, the U.S. military is making final preparations for an attack on Iran. This attack will be carried out despite the fact that experts and analysts believe that it would be a huge mistake. The attack is not likely to meet the objective of destroying Iran’s uranium enrichment program and it is not even clear that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Working with uranium is allowed under international law and the rules of the Non Proliferation Treaty or NPT. At most, an attack would only delay Iran’s uranium development by a couple of years.

This would not be an issue for any Western country. The only reason that this is an issue in this case is because Iran is a Muslim nation and an enemy of the United States and Israel. The legal basis for making demands of Iran on this matter has always been shaky.

Israel wants the U.S. to launch a war based on what a country (Iran) may do as opposed to what it has actually done. This is a fundamental change to American foreign policy. If the U.S. or Israel carries out an attack, the hypothetical, possible threat with turn into a definite one. Iran will surely push for a nuclear weapon once it is attacked. Furthermore, any air attack will almost certainly have to be followed up by a ground invasion, which would require upwards of 500,000 U.S. & western troops and massive amounts of equipment. It would require an amount of blood and treasure that we cannot afford to give. The cons outweigh the pros ten to one. The cost/benefit analysis is completely lopsided in the direction of not attacking.

By attacking Iran, the U.S. would do for Iranian dictators what they have not been able to do in 33 years since the revolution - unite the Iranian people around them. It appears that the Iranian leadership recognizes this and would like to exploit this standoff. Some in the regime would welcome a U.S. attack on the country. It would validate all of the Iranian propaganda that paints the U.S. as The Great Satan. The Obama Administration is playing right into the hands of the Iranians. Yet, the U.S. is going down this road anyway, primarily because Israel is telling it to. This brings me to another reason why I am so disappointed in Obama. He has become a tool for Israel, much like every other President since Truman. But Obama seems to work even harder at this role, possibly because he is overcompensating for being an African American President. He seems to bend over backwards to please the Israeli leadership and the Israeli lobby in this Country (AIPAC). But in doing so he is putting the interests of Israel over the best interests of the U.S. He has gone as far as saying that a deterrence strategy for Iran is not an option. In other words, if negotiations fail, we must go to war. Keep in mind that Iran is 3 times the size of Iraq both in terms of land and population, and it has a military that is better trained, much better equipped, much more determined and more effective than the military fielded by Saddam Hussein. This is part of why former U.S. officials describe an attack by the U.S. or Israel as a disaster. Such an event could create a conflict that could spread and put the U.S. on the brink of hostilities with Syria, Russia, or China. The decision to go to war in this case would be hugely illogical.

On the issue of North Korea, we see the Obama Administration taking a tougher line than even the Bush Administration. Mr. Nobel Peace Prize refuses to sit down and talk with the North Koreans, demanding that they first abandon their nuclear weapons. But this is not likely to happen, and the Obama Administration knows it. If they don’t know it, then they are incompetent. Once again the U.S. is focused more on military posturing, and less on soft power or smart power. The U.S. could have made significant progress on North Korea under the Obama Presidency. North Korea actually wants a comprehensive peace treaty and wants better ties with the U.S. and the west. It wants global investment and wants to modernize its economy.

The U.S. approach on North Korea has not been working. Doubling down on the same bad strategy isn’t going to magically change the situation there. The Obama Administrations strategy of not talking to North Korea until it gets rid of its nuclear weapons shows that Obama is once again listening to the more hawkish advisors in his inner circle - Susan Rice being a prime example. The fact that the hawks are guiding the ship is scary and means we are headed for a darker period of instability and conflict. This approach also shows that Obama and his Administration has their heads in the sand. North Korea is banking on nuclear weapons because (being in the isolated bubble that it is in) it is convinced that the U.S. is a danger and intends to invade. North Korea has seen what happened with Panama, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other countries and it doesn’t’ want to be next. Under these circumstances, North Korea is not likely to give up what it sees as a deterrent crucial to its survival.

Instead of taking diplomatic steps to calm the situation, the U.S. has done more to instigate. The U.S. refusal to talk to the North Koreans unless it is on American terms, its refusal to sit down in one-on-one talks, the strategy of flying bombers near North Korea, holding live fire exercises near the border and taking other military steps is not working and will not work. Engaging in a tit for tat game of one-upsmanship with North Korea, responding to every action they take, is only making matters worse. It is only heightening tensions. Secretary of State John Kerry has been mostly absent and ineffective. When he has made public statements, he has usually engaged in tough talk, ratcheting up tensions even further.

The three sides have behaved like petulant children, arguing about who is the toughest and who has the biggest toys to fight with. The U.S. usually plays the role of adult and mediator in these conflicts. But not this time. Strangely enough, China has behaved more like the mature Superpower.

To de-escalate tensions, the U.S. and South Korea may have to make the first gesture. There has to be a trust building move. Someone has to be the adult. The North feels that it has been burned once when (based on their perception) the U.S. didn’t live up to previous agreements. In Asian culture, especially Chinese and Korean, the word of a person means everything. So trust building must be part of the process. The U.S. must offer one-on-one talks and a non-aggression agreement in the short-term. In such an agreement, the U.S. could declare (with the UN and several nations as witness) that it will not invade. Live fire exercises near land and sea borders would come to an end, communications could be restored, and military exercises in the south would be scaled back. A non-aggression pact would make it easier for the North Koreans to lower their rhetoric, cut back on missile development or scrap it altogether, and put their nuclear program on the table. The goal of such an agreement would be to end the immediate crisis, and set the stage for a comprehensive peace treaty at a later time. A comprehensive peace treaty would replace the armistice agreement. Economic development, diplomatic ties, trade and food assistance would be key parts of a comprehensive peace deal.

The 6-party model has not worked and will not work. Dragging in the old ethnic, and historical hatred & animosity between North Korea, Japan, and South Korea and making settling those differences a condition for talks makes it impossible to reach agreement. It’s a way for the U.S. to sabotage the process before it can even get started. A new approach is needed. There should be a push to continue reunification. The Kim family could be given a role in a future Korea, perhaps the creation of a monarchy and title of head of State (with real power being held by a Democratic government). An envoy like President Clinton or Gov. Richardson along with a diplomatic team could meet with the North Koreans to open dialogue. Out of the box thinking is required to make progress on the Korean Peninsula. However, Obama’s rigid approach does not leave room for necessary diplomatic flexibility.

China must also be given reassurances. One reason China props up North Korea is because it wants to maintain a buffer to keep the U.S. military and a Democratic Korea at a distance. The U.S. should offer a non-aggression pact with the Chinese. In such an agreement, the U.S. could limit the number of troops in a reunified Korea, and could agree to not base troops or certain military hardware above a certain point. A neutral zone or buffer could also be established between China and a new hypothetical Korea, perhaps 10 miles, that would be administered by the United Nations. These out of the box approaches could be enough to put the Chinese at ease.

The U.S. refusal to do all it can on the diplomatic front is complicating the situation unnecessarily. The U.S. won’t even accept an offer of Swiss help to mediate. This stalemate increases the possibility of a miscalculation and/or an accidental conflict erupting in the region.

Indeed Barack Obama has turned out to be a huge disappointment for me. The man who offered so much hope and who offered the possibility of a better America where war & military adventurism did not dominate American foreign policy, turned out to be just another establishment Democrat.

Under the circumstances, I am not hopeful for the future. If nothing changes, America may be headed for stormy seas. But if the media does its duty and asks questions, and if citizens say no to anymore wars… the Obama Administration may listen. I’m hopeful but not optimistic.


Brian Edward is a blogger from St. Louis Missouri. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Management & Leadership Studies from Webster University and has also completed graduate work in International Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. He has been a political observer for more than 20 years.

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