The Limits of Change

As I write this, we are 24 hours away from the end of this seemingly endless presidential campaign, and all the signs point to a victory – some would say an overwhelming victory – by Barack Obama. I won’t make any predictions here, what with the Bradley Effect and other unknowns – including the possibility of a "hanging chad"-like situation – but, given the polls, it’s incumbent on me to give my readers an indication of what to expect from an Obama administration in the foreign policy department, and this is undoubtedly reflected in the personnel he’ll assemble on his foreign policy team.

So who’s up for major appointments? A number of names have been floated, some of them Republicans, for key positions like secretary of defense and secretary of state, notably the idea of keeping Robert Gates, the current defense chief, and bringing in Richard Lugar for secretary of state. Both possibilities underscore the essential continuity of our misguided and increasingly dangerous foreign policy of global intervention. Bill Richardson is also being mentioned for state, along with John "I Was For It Before I Was Against It" Kerry.

This particular appointment, however, doesn’t tell us much about the foreign policy favored by Obama. Recent secretaries of state have had minimal influence on actual policymaking and have often been at odds with the White House; look at Colin Powell. This is due to the ever-increasing power of the president over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, a realm surrendered to the executive by Congress, in principle, long ago. Under President Bush, the process accelerated and the foreign policymaking bureaucracy took on a distinctly monarchical flavor. The president’s national security adviser, the one with direct access to the king, became the key player. Condi Rice, with her personal friendship with Bush II, was perfect for this role, and the next national security adviser is liable to play a similarly important part in shaping Obama’s decisions.

The most troubling possibility here is Dennis Ross, a career foreign policy bureaucrat who was instrumental in shaping America’s Israel-centric policy in the Middle East under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He is a longtime associate of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the scholarly adjunct of AIPAC, Israel’s powerful lobbying organization in the U.S., which he co-founded.

The beginning of Ross’ career as a civil servant is a good indicator of what we might expect from him, and from the Obama administration when it comes to setting Middle Eastern policy. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he brought in Paul Wolfowitz to run the policy planning at the State Department, and Wolfie brought in his neocon buddies: I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Francis Fukuyama, Zalmay Khalilzad, James Roche, Stephen Sestanovich, Alan Keyes (yes, that Alan Keyes!), and Ross. In short, Ross has always been a reliable member in good standing of the neocon foreign policy cabal, the very same group that lied us into war with Iraq – and is now intent on doing the same with Iran. Although the neocons who came to Washington were mostly ex-Democrats, Ross stayed with his old party, although partisan allegiances seem not to mean much to him. He has served under three secretaries of state: James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright.

As special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, Ross was responsible for managing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, a process described by former negotiating team member Aaron David Miller as follows:

"With the best of motives and intentions, we listened to and followed Israel’s lead without critically examining what that would mean for our own interests, for those on the Arab side and for the overall success of the negotiations. The ‘no surprises’ policy, under which we had to run everything by Israel first, stripped our policy of the independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking. If we couldn’t put proposals on the table without checking with the Israelis first, and refused to push back when they said no, how effective could our mediation be? Far too often, particularly when it came to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, our departure point was not what was needed to reach an agreement acceptable to both sides but what would pass with only one – Israel."

"Without critically examining what that would mean for our own interests" – that’s the key phrase here, one that fully describes the effect (and also, perhaps, the intention) of our Middle Eastern policy, one that puts Israel, not America, first.

Ross recently signed on to a plan, being pushed by something called the Bipartisan Policy Center, that is nothing but a roadmap to war with Tehran. The report, written in the form of recommendations to an incoming president, says he must begin a military buildup directed at Iran from "the first day [he] enters office." The plan is to begin "pre-positioning additional U.S. and allied forces, deploying additional aircraft carrier battle groups and minesweepers, placing other war material in the region, including additional missile defense batteries, upgrading both regional facilities and allied militaries, and expanding strategic partnerships with countries such as Azerbaijan and Georgia in order to maintain operational pressure from all directions."

Yes, Georgia, America’s Israel of the Caucasus, is to be used as a forward base of operations against Iran. Then there’s the oil-rich tyranny of Azerbaijan, which is locked in a vicious ethnic war of attrition with Armenia (and its own Armenian population). The U.S. footprint, instead of shrinking under Obama, promises to grow even larger.

So you wondered why, during the debates, Obama was so belligerent on the Georgian question. Obama and McCain both hew to the War Party’s Orwellian view, which grotesquely inverts the truth, decrying "Russian aggression" when it was the Georgians who started that war. One would normally expect this of McCain, whose chief foreign policy adviser was, until very recently, a paid lobbyist for the Georgians, but Obama, too, refuses to acknowledge Tbilisi’s aggression against a "breakaway province." Ossetia has been de facto independent for more than a decade, and the supposedly smart Obama is no doubt aware of this – never mind the hundreds killed in the siege of Tskhinvali, the Ossetian capital city mercilessly assaulted by Georgian troops.

It gets worse, however. Underscoring the point we have long made at – that it is impossible to separate these various "theaters" of U.S. aggression, and that the Iraq and Afghan wars are bound to spread – the report goes on to note:

"The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan offers distinct advantages in any possible confrontation with Iran. The United States can bring in troops and material to the region under the cover of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, thus maintaining a degree of strategic and tactical surprise." [Emphasis added.]

Obama has long stressed he would immediately begin escalating the Afghan campaign, and perhaps open up a new front in Pakistan. Certainly the Bush administration has laid the groundwork for this eastward shift of U.S. military resources – and so the stage is set.

When Rachel Maddow asked Obama the other day why our intervention in Afghanistan wouldn’t end up like the Iraq war, or more so, he emphatically rejected the comparison, yet he never addressed her underlying concern. She just smiled, rather wanly, and went on to the next question. I have another question, however, and it is this: what if the Afghan "surge" is a feint, directed not at some vague Taliban-affiliated tribes in the godforsaken wilds of Waziristan, but at the mullahs of Tehran?

Under the pretext of going after Osama bin Laden, they can sneak enough troops into the region through the back door, then easily launch an attack from the east, and also from the north, where the Azeris and the Georgians are talking about entering NATO. (Obama, by the way, fully endorses Georgia’s NATO membership application, although he hasn’t said anything, as far as I know, about the Azeris’ ambition to join the club.)

Whether or not Ross gets the national security post, the fact remains that the War Party, far from being banished from Washington, will have an inside track in the new administration. What’s different about Obama, however, is that the other side also has a seat at the table – or, at the very least, isn’t completely locked out of the deliberations. I was astonished to learn that none other than Gen. Anthony Zinni, retired Marine commander and trenchant critic of the neocon influence on the making of American foreign policy, is up for the job. A 2003 Washington Post profile of Zinni reports:

"The more he listened to [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and other administration officials talk about Iraq, the more Zinni became convinced that interventionist ‘neoconservative’ ideologues were plunging the nation into a war in a part of the world they didn’t understand. ‘The more I saw, the more I thought that this was the product of the neocons who didn’t understand the region and were going to create havoc there. These were dilettantes from Washington think tanks who never had an idea that worked on the ground.’ …

“The goal of transforming the Middle East by imposing democracy by force reminds him of the ‘domino theory’ in the 1960s that the United States had to win in Vietnam to prevent the rest of Southeast Asia from falling into communist hands. And that brings him back to Wolfowitz and his neoconservative allies as the root of the problem. ‘I don’t know where the neocons came from – that wasn’t the platform they ran on,’ he says. ‘Somehow, the neocons captured the president. They captured the vice president.'”

I wouldn’t bet the farm on Zinni getting it, but the fact that he’s in the running at all is astonishing. If that’s the amount of change you want in American foreign policy, then you’ll be happy with the Obama administration – even as they escalate the conflict in Afghanistan, spread it to Pakistan, and prepare for war with Iran.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].