The biggest obstacle to the success of the antiwar movement right now is the Obama cult – the fealty of his followers and well-wishers who want to give him the benefit of every doubt, and yet wonder why our foreign policy of perpetual war continues, virtually unchanged. After all, he seemed like he represented “change,” and he said he represented “change,” sincerity oozing from every pore, and yet …
And yet a year and some months into his presidency, the US has escalated its “war on terrorism,” extending its reach and pouring yet more resources into what is surely a bottomless pit. George W. Bush, after all, ordered only one “surge”: as commander-in-chief, Obama has so far ordered two. So why are his ostensibly “antiwar” supporters cutting him so much slack?
The answer varies with each individual, but a lot of the reasons have been helpfully summarized by Stephen Walt in a recent blog, in which he gives every excuse in the book and then some to explain why Obama seems so much like a Bush rerun in the foreign policy realm.
As long as Obama’s been in office, Obama’s progressive supporters “and even some sensible conservatives” have been “surprised and dismayed” that his military and diplomatic posture seems nearly identical to that of his predecessor in the White House. Was he merely a good actor, or are there hidden factors chaining him to the “missteps of the Bush White House? Has he cracked, or is he “trapped”?
Walt believes the latter: “I don’t really blame Obama,” he writes. The President “can’t simply wage a magic wand,” after all, reverse course and “get the rest of the government to fall into line.”
Let’s stop right there and ask: why, exactly, not? It’s true there are various factions within the administration with goals that might conflict with his own, but why can’t he do what George W. Bush did and simply ignore their advice?
After all, how many times in the run up to the invasion of Iraq were we confronted with reports of dissident CIA analysts, who challenged the administration’s evaluation of the intelligence; how many diplomats, generals and military experts disputed the wisdom of trying to export democracy to a region that had never known it? How many people marched against the war all over the world in a vast and vocal expression of impassioned protest? Yet President Bush – having more power than any Roman emperor ever dreamed of – ignored their good advice, and launched the invasion anyway.
Why can’t this President be as single-minded in his alleged virtue as his predecessor was in the service of evil?
Well, avers Walt, there are “powerful structural forces that inhibit any president’s freedom of action. Or to put it more simply: he’s trapped. Even if Obama wanted to chart a fundamentally different course (and I’m not at all sure that he does), he wouldn’t be able to pull it off.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, Walt’s telling parenthetical remark, let’s look at some of these “structural forces,” a vague and awkward phrase (“force” implies energy, yet “structural” connotes matter) of the sort one nearly always runs up against when an author is being dishonest with his readers, and himself. What – or who – are these “structural forces”?
To begin with, Walt lists “America’s current global position.” We’ve been such a boon to the world, providing “collective goods” – open trade routes, oil supplies, “regional stability,” etc. – that the minute the flow of free goodies stops, there will be consequences:
“The problem Obama faces, however, is that it would be neither easy nor cost-free to liquidate these commitments quickly. This is essentially a variation of the familiar ‘hegemon’s dilemma‘: having occupied a position of primacy and taken on a vast array of global responsibilities, trying to disengage from them is like dismounting from a tiger. Once you begin to disengage, you may invite some short-term instability that actually makes things look worse.”
He hedges by inserting the modifier “short term,” but what Walt is saying here, and throughout the rest of his piece, is that the effort to reduce America’s overseas footprint is a futile crusade, and perhaps even the wrong thing to do. While acknowledging that the US should have ceded the “responsibility” of its hegemonic position after winning the cold war, and ascribing our present course to laziness, “hubris,” and worse, he nonetheless sees no way out of the imperial conundrum short of unleashing that dreaded “instability” on a world otherwise spinning blissfully in perfect equilibrium.
The idea that the we must prevent all signs of “instability” – that the very manifestation of any disruption in the status quo is an affront and a challenge to our national security – is one of the conceits of empire that will have to be dashed on the rocks of realism before we can move forward. This is the same mindset that made George H. W. Bush decry the fall of East Germany and worry aloud over the “destabilization” the demise of the Soviet empire would let loose.
Since Walt brings up the issue of maintaining oil supplies, I would suggest that the tenuousness of these supplies might cause us to seriously begin developing alternative energies. Our hegemonic position has retarded our economic and even technological development, and the sudden – even abrupt – possibility that oil supplies might be interrupted would give the markets a major shove in the right direction: that is, in the direction of economic realism.
I would also dispute Walt’s tiger analogy. The Soviet Union – armed as it was with nuclear weapons, and also with a competing ideology that had universal appeal – was a tiger. The jihadists are more akin to a swarm of fleas. We can kill them individually, but they just keep multiplying as long as they enjoy the right conditions. We have, however, the power to deprive them of those favorable conditions,which are largely made possible by our own actions, i.e. by our interventionist foreign policy, which brings them recruits in droves.
If we can maintain an empire of bases all around the word, and support a vast bureaucratic-military army to administer and guard it all, then we can use those same resources to build an impregnable defense for the continental United States: we can keep out the fleas while keeping out of other countries’ business. The swarms of jihadists will then dissipate for lack of ideological sustenance.
Yet this is a long range goal, Walt would argue, and in the meantime there will be signs of instability that will be seized on by the GOP, and those fearsome neocons over at the Weekly Standard, as “cowardly” and evidence of “appeasement.” Yet Obama was never going to win these people over in any event, on any issue: they’d call him an appeasing coward, or, at least, someone with a “Kenyan anti-colonialist” outlook no matter what he did. Does the President of the United States really have to ask Bill Kristol’s permission before he decides to do the right thing for once?
Okay, but there’s yet another “structural force” standing in the way of Obama doing what he knows in his heart is right: “the foreign policy establishment.” Walt’s indictment of this supposedly formidable Establishment is incisive – perhaps a bit more so than he intended. Because he inadvertently homes in on the reason why we should blame Obama, and blame him personally:
“For the most part, debates within mainstream foreign policy circles run the gamut from A to B, from neoconservativism at one end and hawkish liberal interventionism at the other. As I said a few years ago, if neocons are essentially liberals on steroids, then most liberal internationalists are just kinder, gentler neocons. They agree on the virtues of American primacy, the need to prevent WMD from spreading (while keeping most of our own), the desirability of spreading democracy nearly everywhere, and the value of nearly all of the United States’ current alliances.”
Yet the President is very much a liberal interventionist, as his policies over these many months has made all too clear. He is also very much a creature of Washington, where the bipartisan consensus Walt decries is made and enforced. He’s a kinder, gentler neocon, who is widening the “war on terrorism” even as his administration renames it – and never was anything else. Surely his continuation of the Afghan occupation and the extension of the war into Pakistan should come as no surprise: he said he’d do as much during the election campaign and he meant it.
I talk about the “Obama cult” because it is indeed a cult in the classic sense, i.e. a group of fervent believers who project their own image of the Leader onto what is, after all, a pretty ordinary kind of guy – in this case, a pretty ordinary variety of semi-hawkish liberal interventionist. Whenever the Leader does something inconsistent with their idealization, they say “Oh, he doesn’t really mean it,” or “He doesn’t really believe that.” In advanced cases of cult-induced blindness, one constructs a more complex apologia, i.e. positing“structural” obstacles to the implementation of the Leader’s will. Obama is Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians within his own party and administration.
I don’t buy it. One consequence of the triumph of interventionism over the traditional foreign policy of the Founders has been the bloating of presidential power until Americans have come to talk about “the imperial presidency” as if it were no big deal. Well, then, what’s to stop the occupant of the White House from using that imperial power to start downsizing the imperium? The present occupant clearly has no intention of doing so, but there’s nothing to prevent a future President from pursuing that goal.
As US troops rampage through Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, collecting gory “trophies” and terrorizing the hapless citizens of those unfortunate countries, it is none other than Obama who personally bears full moral and political responsibility. As the commander-in-chief and chief executive of the mighty American empire, it is in his power to stop the post-9/11 wilding engaged in by the US military worldwide. He has done no such thing because he believes in what he’s doing. Along with the leadership of both parties, the major think-tanks, the national security bureaucracy, and all the other “structural” bogeymen who are supposed to have “trapped” him, President Obama is content to ensure the continuity of American foreign policy as it has been practiced since the days of Harry Truman – with America “leading” the world.
Change can and will come once the American people realize they’re being led over a cliff – because there are many “structural” obstacles to the continuation of that policy, first and foremost the looming bankruptcy of the American empire.
And when we are wrecked on the shores of national insolvency and social disintegration, will I blame Obama? I sure as heck will, and rightly so.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I’m taking my show on the road this autumn, to campuses around the country, talking about some of the ideas expressed in last Wednesday’s column on “Anti-Interventionism: The Left-wing Tradition.” My talk is entitled “Why Has the Left Sold Out the Antiwar Movement?” – which is sure to provoke a controversy, or at least that’s the hope.
If you’re interested in booking
me at your campus, write email@example.com, or call the Antiwar.com office, at: 510-217-8665.