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Can the US empire strike back?

This article is over 16 years, 1 months old
Despite opposing the war, Obama is committed to US imperialism, writes Alex Callinicos
Issue 2105

Imagine, in a galaxy far, far away, an empire in decline. A disastrous military adventure and the rise of new powers have exposed its weakness. To cap it all, the emperor himself is generally despised as a provincial clod.

But now his successor has to be chosen. What better way to rehabilitate the empire in the eyes of others than to select as emperor an eloquent, dynamic, relatively young man – a man who, while being utterly safe, not only belongs to the group of imperial subjects who are victims of its greatest historical injustice, but whose father comes from a foreign country and who himself spent some of his childhood in another?

Maybe this seems too cynical a view of Barack Obama’s bid for the US presidency. The success of his campaign for the Democratic nomination has been driven by a huge popular revulsion against George Bush’s discredited administration and by the desire finally to heal the wound in US society caused by slavery and racism.

But the real power of the US president lies abroad. President John F Kennedy asked Richard Nixon in 1961, “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it? I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 in comparison to something like the confrontation between the US and Cuba.”

And, on foreign policy, there seems to be a big divide between the two presidential candidates. John McCain, the Republican nominee, is in favour of keeping US troops in Iraq for “maybe one hundred years”.

Obama, by contrast, gained his edge on Hillary Clinton in large part thanks to his opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is officially committed to withdrawing all US combat brigades from Iraq within 16 months of becoming president.

But, in judging what Obama would actually do in the White House, it’s essential to remember what presidential elections are really about. Dominated by money – Obama’s victory over Clinton was clinched by his superior fund-raising – they are about choosing the leader who can best look after the global interests of US capitalism for the next four years.

Long before President Jimmy Carter officially proclaimed it in January 1980, a key objective of US foreign policy has been militarily and politically to dominate the Middle East. The current surge in the oil price has made securing this objective even more important.

So it’s striking, as the Washington Post has pointed out, that “when Mr Obama opened his general election campaign this week with a major speech on Middle East policy, the substantive strategy he outlined was, in many respects, not very much different from that of the Bush administration – or that of John McCain”.

Obama made the speech to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the key pro-Israel lobbying organisations. He seems to have had two aims. The first was to ­reassure a suspicious audience that his opposition to the Iraq war did not in any way weaken his support for Israel.

“Let me be clear,” Obama said. “Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable, Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” He said he had been opposed even to letting Hamas contest the Palestinian elections in 2006 and promised Israel $30 billion US aid over the next ten years.

Secondly, Obama sought to toughen his line on Iran. He has been attacked by Bush and McCain for “appeasement” for promising to negotiate with the Islamic Republican regime in Tehran.

Not radical

Obama’s position isn’t exactly radical. The December 2006 report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by Jim Baker, pillar of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior, recommended negotiating with Iran as a way of getting out of the Iraq morass.

But Obama was determined not to allow McCain to outflank him. “I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he told AIPAC.

This would include “aggressive, principled diplomacy” backed up by tougher sanctions and the ultimate sanction of force: “I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel.”

This change in tone isn’t just about defeating McCain in the general election. The military surge hasn’t brought peace or stability to Iraq, but it has bought the US time to pursue its long term plans for the country.

The secret draft agreement for a “strategic alliance” between the US and Iraq revealed last week in Socialist Worker and the Independent indicate what these plans are – permanent US military bases in Iraq and the right for the Pentagon to pursue its operations without the say-so of its client regime.

Democratic senators have denounced the proposal. Nevertheless, it is absolutely certain that Obama will fill what the Washington Post calls “the gap in his Middle East policy” by watering down his proposal to withdraw all US troops in Iraq.

But if president Obama would probably offer only more of the same in the Middle East, what difference would he make overall to the US empire?

After the Cold War, commentators talked about “the unipolar moment” – about overwhelming US global power. The Iraq debacle has reminded the world instead of US relative decline – a perception reinforced by the economic rise of China and the credit squeeze engineered by Anglo-American financial speculation.

Instead of the swaggering arrogance of power symbolised by Bush, Obama would offer the world’s ruling classes a different face of the US – one ready to negotiate and to cooperate, and in particular to address the issue of climate change rather than pretend it doesn’t exist.

But this more open stance would still rest on US military power – Obama wants to increase the size of the armed forces. He would make an attractive black emperor but he would still have his legions massed behind him.

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