The arrival of the Obama administration will not fundamentally alter the course of military expansion accelerated during the Bush era. The origins of these policies do not lie uniquely in neoconservative ideology. While the election of President Obama may offer new opportunities for progressive forces to delimit the damage, their space for movement will ultimately be constrained by deep-seated structural pressures that will attempt to exploit Obama to rehabilitate American imperial hegemony, rather than transform it.
Indeed, the radicalization of Anglo-American political ideology represented by the rise of neoconservative principles and the militarization processes of the 'War on Terror', constituted a strategic response to global systemic crises supported by the American business classes. The same classes, recognizing the extent to which the Bush era has discredited this response, have rallied around Obama. Therefore, as global crises intensify, this militarization response is likely to undergo further radicalization, rather than a meaningful change in course. The key differences will be in language and method, not substance.
Obama and National Security: “It’s the Oil, Stupid!”
This became increasingly clear as Barack Obama’s administration appointees became known – individuals whose political and ideological positions are largely commensurate with neoconservative ideals particularly on security matters, and whose social and intellectual connections link them to neo-conservative think-tanks and policy-makers.
A glance through Obama’s national security team also raises eyebrows, but we should focus on his selection of former Marine General Jim Jones as his National Security Advisor. Jones was previously appointed to the NATO post of Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Commander of the US European Command (COMUSEUCOM) under the Bush administration. The thrust of Jones’ imperial vision of US national security can be seen from a UPI article describing his work in 2005:
“NATO’s top military commander is seeking an important new security role for private industry and business leaders as part of a new security strategy that will focus on the economic vulnerabilities of the 26-country alliance. Two immediate and priority projects for NATO officials to develop with private industry are to secure the pipelines bringing Russian oil and gas to Europe… to secure ports and merchant shipping, the alliance Supreme Commander, Gen. James Jones of the USMarine Corps said Wednesday… A further area of NATO interest to secure energy supplies could be the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast, Jones noted... Oil companies were already spending more than a billion dollars a year on security in the region, he noted, pointing to the need for NATO and business to confer on the common security concern.”
In summary, Jones’ national security strategy privileges US military control over regions containing substantial underexploited oil and natural gas reserves, in Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, the Black and Caspian Seas, and the Persian Gulf. This drive also allows the US to consolidate European dependence for its energy security on NATO, thus solidifying EU support of the wider US geostrategy to control global energy resources and transportation routes.
Obama and the Economy: Déjà vu?
As for Obama’s ambitions for tackling the financial crisis, even a scathing New York Times editorial noted that President Obama’s economic team, put together to tackle the economic and financial crisis, consisted of the very same people who had “played central roles in policies that helped provoke today’s financial crisis.” These include Tim Geithner who as president of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York “helped shape the Bush administration’s erratic and often inscrutable responses to the current financial meltdown, up to and including this past weekend’s multibillion-dollar bailout of Citigroup”; and former World Bank chief, Larry Summers, who “championed the law that deregulated derivatives, the financial instruments – aka toxic assets – that have spread the financial losses from reckless lending around the globe.”
Obama and the Transnational American Business Class
One needs to look beyond the rhetoric to get an idea of what Obama really means for the world. Analysis of Federal Election Commission data on the largest financial donors to both the McCain and Obama presidential campaigns reveals that they were almost entirely sponsored by the same banks, financial institutions and corporations (except Obama received significantly more corporate financing than his rival McCain). This suggests that US policies have, and will continue to, broadly represent the insecurities and interests of Anglo-American capital – and further, that American business classes actually favoured Obama and provided him the finances and expertise to produce a power-house media and publicity campaign.
Obama Shuts Down ‘War on Terror’… Not
So what should we make of Obama’s opening measures, almost as soon as he was inaugurated as President, to close Guantanamo Bay, de-legitimize torture and challenge CIA practices of extraordinary rendition? Firstly, we should of course welcome any such public condemnations of these practices, particularly by the new American President. But this should not blind us from critically examining what Obama’s Executive Orders actually meant.
While around the world, Obama’s measures were interpreted as completely reversing the Bush administration policies of torture, extraordinary rendition and secret prisons – starting with the declaration of the complete closure of Guantanamo Bay – deeper inspection of the details of his Executive Orders suggests, unfortunately, that cries of joy are slightly premature.
First, it should be understood that regardless of what elected US governments have said or left unsaid about the practice of torture by military intelligence services, torture is, and always has been, endemic and officially sanctioned at the highest levels. Declassified CIA training manuals from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, prove that the CIA has consistently practiced torture long before the Bush administration attempted to legitimize the practice publicly. This means that what made the Bush era distinctive was not the systematic practice of torture by US military intelligence agencies, but rather the US government’s open and widely known endorsement of such practices, and insistence either on their obvious legality, or otherwise of the irrelevance of law in the context of fighting terrorism.
This means that Obama’s public disavowals of torture do not actually represent the end of the systemic practice of the CIA's traditional interrogation techniques, conducted without public scrutiny for decades. Rather, they portend a sheepish return to secrecy – or in other words, a return to the obvious recognition that open declarations of covert US practices such as torture as official policy are detrimental, not conducive, to US hegemony.
Closer scrutiny of President Obama’s first Executive Orders reveals that they were designed less to transform illegal US military intelligence practices, than to allow them to continue in secret without legal obstruction, by redefining their character (while retaining their substance):
1) While Obama demanded the harmonization of interrogations in line with a purportedly Geneva Conventions-compliant US Army Field Manual, unaddressed revisions to that manual in 2006 – “in particular, a ten-page appendix known as Appendix M” – “go beyond the Geneva-based restrictions of the original field manual.” Indeed, the Manual accepted 19 forms of interrogation and the practice of extraordinary rendition. Further, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama’s director of national intelligence, told a Senate confirmation hearing that the Army Field Manual would itself be changed, potentially allowing new forms of harsh interrogation, but that such changes would remain classified.
2) Obama’s supposed banning of the CIA’s secret rendition programmes did not actually prevent the CIA from extra-judicially apprehending and detaining innocent civilians without evidence or due process, but only emphasized, in the words of one White House official: “There is not going to be rendition to any country that engages in torture.” The problem here is that rendered detainees have already been sent to countries across the EU that do not officially sanction torture, where they were nevertheless tortured. Secret CIA detention facilities have been hosted in, for instance, Poland, and were previously justified by the Bush administration’s State Department under exactly the same notion that Poland did not engage in torture. Even Obama’s own counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, had insisted that rendition is “absolutely vital.”
3) Finally, while purportedly banning the CIA’s use of secret prisons, the prohibitions “do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Yet without specifying an actual time-limit clearly defining the meaning of “short-term” and “transitory”, Obama’s injunctions effectively still permitted indefinite detention, as long as the CIA would officially re-classify the period of detention as designed to be short-term and transitory.
The end result was a successful re-configuration of the public presentation of US military intelligence practices, coupled with nominal legal caveats permitting them to continue relatively unimpeded – essentially a giant PR exercise. Meanwhile, the vast post-9/11 domestic national security apparatus denying habeas corpus, undermining due process, and facilitating mass surveillance as well as intrusive social control powers brought in by the Bush administration was not repudiated, but retained.
Not One to Waste Time
Abroad, the Obama administration began its first days in office by committing more troops to Afghanistan, intensifying military pressure on Pakistan, stepping-up covert warfare on Iran, and deepening military-political penetration of Central Asia and West Africa. The overarching motivations for these policies are US domination of energy reserves and transportation routes, exemplified in the appointment of oil-obsessed ex-NATO Marine Gen. James Jones as Obama's national security czar. Rather than reversing the pattern of attempting to intensify state power, these policies will severely exacerbate the potential for geopolitical competition and violent conflict.
Regime Rotation: Hegemony Rehabilitation, Systemic Stabilization
After the Bush administration’s record of essentially trampling on any semblance of half-decent PR, leading to the very concept of US world leadership being vehemently opposed or incredulously ridiculed around the world, the arrival of Obama is set to rehabilitate American hegemony and restore some sense of credibility and even respectability to US military and financial power. After Obama's powerful inauguration speech, enough to make even a grown non-American man such as myself (nearly) weep (ok I'm exaggerating, but you get the drift...), Americans and even the entire world, can for the first time in perhaps a decade feel proud and satisfied that all is going to be taken care of.
Yet this sense of jubiliation is symptomatic of the fact that the Obama administration will pursue (and has already pursued) policies of hegemony rehabilitation and systemic stabilization. This will not involve a meaningful change of course, but rather a perpetuation of existing structures in the global political economy. In other words, not changing the system, but protecting it – violently if necessary, but this time with greater attention to PR.
So there will also be sharp ostensible differences with Obama’s predecessors, for instance, greater concern for a multilateralist approach; avowing respect for international law and institutions; reliance on more covert methods of extending influence rather than overt military confrontrations with all those who are "not with us" and therefore de facto "against us"; etc. -thus allowing the US to return to the moral high ground so completely eroded by the Bush administration’s open policies of unilateralism, endorsement of torture, and unabashed violations of international law. In effect, this will involve removing, relabeling or simply concealing practices that have served to undermine US authority in the eyes of its allies, and the world.
The outcome has already been disturbing: while neutralizing and thoroughly confusing progressive social and anti-war movements in and outside the West, the arrival of Obama has allowed the US government to rally unprecedented popular support behind it, for whatever it intends to do.
We will see, in this respect, a marked shift in the language and rhetoric of foreign policy, a return to more diplomatic strategies, as well as military policies couched in the discourse of humanitarian intervention and aid. Unfortunately, for a while, this shift will seem more convincing coming from Obama, as opposed to Bush. More than ever, therefore, progressive movements will need to up their game in understanding and accurately critiquing the new administration’s policies, if they are to prevent processes of imperial militarization from intensifying.