Obama’s Choice

There was little doubt even before John McCain’s concession speech on the evening of November 4 that in January 2009 Barack Hussein Obama would become the 44th President of the United States. McCain was the "hold your nose" choice of the party that had inflicted Bush the Lesser on America and the world, and rejected a return to actual republican (lowercase "r") values offered by Ron Paul. Much has been said, and much yet will be, about how this was a historic election for race relations in America. While that is certainly the case, and without belittling Obama’s success, one must keep a sense of perspective; after Bush II, the Democrats would have won with just about anyone.

"Elation" was the word used to describe reactions around the world to Obama’s election. Angered, frustrated, intimidated and most of all disappointed in the past decade of arrogant, callous American imperialism, millions around the globe hope for Obama’s America to be different. In this they are as guilty of projection as the adulating American masses hailing Obama as their secular Messiah. The President may be Emperor in practice, but he is not God.

Empire by Any Other Name

After a dreary Bushian world of perpetual war for perpetual dominance, many seek change. They will get it, if nothing else in the tone of American policy once Obama steps into the White House. The crucial question right now is whether there will be a change of content as well.

One should recall, however, that the Empire did not start with Bush II, but with Bill Clinton. Bush’s style, for which he was rightfully condemned (and not nearly enough) was naked aggression cloaked in self-righteous rhetoric of "war on terror." Clinton’s style was, appropriately, slicker – he sent troops, bombers and rogue diplomats to intervene and interfere around the world in the name of "humanitarianism." Those who died in wars arranged so that Washington would achieve hegemony over the world hardly appreciated the difference, though.

There is no doubt Obama expects to be more than a chief magistrate of a republic, come January. But what kind of Emperor will he be? The "elation" over the coming change may end up being short-lived, if the change turns out to be a shift from Bushian belligerence back to Clintonian cunning.

Chains of the Past

It may be true that Obama received a mandate to end Bush’s wars. Then again, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected in 1916 on a promise to stay out of the Great War. Obama is on the record advocating more troops for Afghanistan and a more belligerent policy towards Russia. His foreign policy team is filled with relics of the Clinton Age such as Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Even Richard Holbrooke managed to sneak in somehow, late in the game. There is no word on whether Samantha Power, who resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a "monster" earlier this year, will be back on board. Power is best known for her advocacy of U.S. imperialism in the name of "stopping genocide." Not surprisingly, she tends to see genocides everywhere, just like Bush officials saw terrorists under every bed.

Obama’s Vice President will be Joseph Biden, a long-term Senator from Delaware who has chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee. Biden was a noted hawk in the Balkans, and has pointed that out with considerable pride. He also talks too much. Just two weeks ago, Biden told a crowd at a fundraiser:

"It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. […] Watch. We’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."

The thing is, there is always a crisis within six months of a new President’s term, more often than not generated by that very President to show the world and America that he is strong, determined and, well, "presidential." Imperial presidency simply demands a demonstration to the world of who the "Alpha dog" is.

Now, there is always a possibility that Biden was chosen as a concession to the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party, and that he will be a harmless benchwarmer like most previous VPs. After Dick Cheney, though, who arguably had a far greater influence in running America than Bush II, will Biden be willing to dwell in obscurity? Both the Cheney precedent and Biden’s own limelight-seeking personality argue against it.

Monster to Destroy

Finally, there is the matter of precisely what Obama will be taking over in January. When Bush II entered the White House, courtesy of the SCOTUS, he found a full treasury, bases and vassals all over the world, and little or no opposition to American hegemony. Obama is facing a prospect of a world in which opposition to and resentment of the American Empire are substantial; vassals are few and unreliable; and the government debt so big it defies comprehension. The American economy is tottering, while foreign governments that were willing to fund U.S. credit expansion are increasingly reluctant to continue doing so.

In 1821, John Quincy Adams warned:

"…[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force…. She might become the dictatress of the world…"

Everything that Adams warned of has come to pass. The "dictatress of the world" has governed not with the force of argument, but with the argument of force. That means, however, that once the world stops fearing America, and once American power is shown not to be absolute, the Empire won’t have a leg to stand on. Far from being an example to the world, the U.S. is now a shining beacon of warning: this is what happens when good ideas go terribly wrong.

There is a strong pragmatic argument that perpetuating an Empire of bases and satrapies around the world is choking the life out of the American economy. But the Empire does a lot more. Every act of violence abroad, every resort to tyranny and abuse in the name of expediency and national interest translates into a blow against liberty at home, to the point where this country has become something its founders would have only envisioned in their worst nightmares.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that to save America, the American Empire will have to go. Otherwise, neither has much of a future. Understanding this will be the biggest challenge facing President Obama – that, and the realization that if he is to help save America, he will have to give up being Emperor. If he is capable of doing this, he may yet be deserving of the masses’ adulation and near-religious belief.


Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.