Relax, the Empire’s In Safe Hands

by Alexander Cockburn, March 19, 2010

Are they really bumblers? The establishment’s opinion columns quiver with reproofs for maladroit handling of foreign policy by President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, those who cherished foolish illusions that Obama’s election might presage a shift to the left in foreign policy fret about “worrisome signs” that this is not the case.

It’s true that there have been some embarrassing moments. Vice President Biden, on a supposed mission of peace to Israel, is given the traditional welcome – a pledge by Israel to build more settlements, plus adamant refusal to reverse the accelerating evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

Hillary Clinton, touring Latin America, was not greeted with gobs of spit, like vice president Nixon back in 1958, but she did get a couple of robust diplomatic slaps from Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Armorim, rejecting Mrs. Clinton’s hostile references to Venezuela and her call for tougher action toward Iran. Amid detailed news reports of butchered activists in Tegucigalpa, Latin Americans and even some Democratic members of the US Congress listened incredulously to Mrs. Clinton’s brazen hosannas to the supposedly violence-free election of Honduras’ new, US-sanctioned President Lobo in a process to which both the Organization of American States and the European Union refused to lend the sanction of official observers.

Meanwhile, China signals its displeasure at the US with stentorian protests about Obama’s friendliness toward the Dalai Lama. The PRC continues its rumblings about shrinking its vast position in US Treasury bonds. 

The Turks recall their ambassador from Washington in the wake of a vote in a US congressional committee to recognize the massacre of the Armenians in 1916 as “genocide.” Russia signals its grave displeasure at Mrs. Clinton’s rejection, in a speech at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, of President Medvedev’s proposal to negotiate a new security pact for Europe. “We object to any spheres of influence claimed in Europe in which one country seeks to control another's future,” she said. Shortly before this categorical statement, Poland announced that the US would deploy Patriot missiles on its territory, less than 50 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea.

Is this partial list a reflection of incompetence, or a registration that, with a minor hiccup or two, US foreign policy under Obama is moving purposefully forward in its basic enterprise: to restore US credibility in the world theater as the planet’s premier power after eight years of poor management?

Consider the situation that this Democratic president inherited. In January 2009, the world was reeling amid violent economic contraction. Obituaries for the American Century were a dime a dozen. The US dollar’s future as the world’s reserve currency was written off with shouts of derision. Imperial adventuring, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was routinely denounced as fit only for Kipling buffs. The progressives who voted Obama in were flushed with triumph and expectation.

Not much more than a year later, Obama has smoothed off the rough edges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and, indeed, widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945. 

Latin America? Enough of talk about a new era, led by Chavez of Venezuela, Morales of Bolivia, and other progressive leaders. So far as Uncle Sam is concerned, this is still his backyard. On the campaign trail in 2008, it was Republican John McCain who was reviled as the lobbyist for Colombia’s death squad patron, President Uribe. Today, it’s Obama who presides over an adamantly pro-Uribe policy, supervising a widening of US military basing facilities in Colombia. As an early signal of continuity, Honduras’ impertinent president Zelaya, guilty of populist thoughts, was briskly evicted with US approval and behind-the-scenes stage-management.

If ever there was a nation for whose enduring misery the USA bears irrefutable responsibility (along with France), it is Haiti. As noted by Noam Chomsky on CounterPunch.org recently, the hovels which fell down in the earthquake were those of people rendered destitute by US policies since Jefferson, and most notably by the man to whom Obama is most often compared, another Nobel peace-prize-winning US president, Woodrow Wilson. The houses that did not fall down in such numbers were those of the affluent elites, most recently protected by Bill Clinton who was second only to Wilson in the horrors he sponsored in Haiti. Yet under Obama, the USA is hailed as a merciful and generous provider for the stricken nation, even though it has been Cuba and Venezuela who have been the stalwarts, with doctors (in the case of Cuba) and total debt forgiveness (in the case of Venezuela). The USA refused such debt relief.

Israel? Not one substantive twitch has discommoded the benign support of Israel by its patron, even though Obama stepped into power amid Israel’s methodical war crimes — later enumerated by Judge Goldstone for the UN — in Gaza. Consistent US policy has been to advocate a couple of mini-Bantustans for the Palestinians and, under Obama, the US has endured no substantive opposition to this plan from its major allies.

With Iran, there is absolute continuity with the Bush years, sans the noisy braggadocio of Cheney: assiduous and generally successful diplomatic efforts to secure international agreement for deepening sanctions; disinformation campaigns about Iran’s adherence to international treaties, very much in the Bush style of 2002. In the interests of overall US strategy in the region, Israel is held on a leash.

No need to labor the obvious about Afghanistan: an enlarged US expeditionary force engineered with one laughable pledge — earnestly brandished by the progressives – that the troops will be home in time for the elections of 2012. The US and, indeed, world anti-war movements live only in memory. Earlier this week, Congressional Democrats in the House could barely muster 60 votes against the Afghan war.

Russia? Vice President Biden excited the foreign policy commentariat with talk of a “reset” in posture toward Russia. Outside rhetoric, there’s no such reset — merely continuation of US policy since the post-Soviet collapse. Last October, Biden emphasized that the US “will not tolerate” any “spheres of influence,” nor Russia’s “veto power” on the eastward expansion of NATO. The USA is involved in retraining the Georgian army.

China may thunder about the Dalai Lama and Taiwan. But, on the larger stage, the Middle Kingdom’s world heft is much exaggerated. The astute China-watcher Peter Lee hits the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that “the US is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the US, the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the US has: military reach — heft in the global financial markets (Beijing’s immense overexposure to US government securities is, I think, becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability), or a large slate of loyal and effective allies in international organization.”

The United States, as Lee points out, is also making “good progress in pursuing the most destabilizing initiative of the next 20 years: encouragement of India’s rise from Afghanistan through to Myanmar as a rival and distraction to China.”

All of this is scarcely a catalogue of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm — the first duty of all US presidents of whatever imagined political stripe.

Oscars in the Age of Obama

If you want a signifier of the changed image of empire, and imperial adventures in foreign lands, think about last Sunday’s six Oscars for The Hurt Locker, including ones for Best Movie and Best Director. The film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, said at the end of her acceptance speech, “I'd like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world and may they come home safe.”

Suppose Bigelow’s former husband, James Cameron, had won Best Director for Avatar. There is surely no way Cameron would ever have dedicated his Oscar to any soldiers, American or Canadian, serving as members of the imperial coalition – volunteers all – in Iraq or Afghanistan, unless they had defected to the other side or mutinied and been put in the brig or were facing a firing squad for treason. There is also surely no way that any movie about a serving unit in Iraq would have been in the running for an Oscar back in Bush time.

I hoped Avatar would get a big Oscar rather than the consolation ones for cinematography and special effects. It would have honored a truly uncompromising anti-war, anti-American-Empire movie. I haven’t seen The Hurt Locker and don’t plan to, having endured more than one bomb-disposal film in my movie-going career. Also, the circumstances of the movie’s filming seemed distasteful, with scenes shot in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. “We had these Blackwater guys that were working with us in the Middle East and they taught us like tactical maneuvers and stuff – how to just basically position yourself and move with a gun,” Hurt Locker actor Anthony Mackie told the New York Times’ Melena Ryzik. “We were shooting in Palestinian refugee camps. We were shooting in some pretty hard places. It wasn't like we were without enemies. There were people there looking at us, 'cuz we were three guys in American military suits runnin' around with guns. It was nothing easy about it. It was always a compromising situation.”

Jeremy Scahill writes an item in The Nation about Blackwater’s role, as disclosed by Ryzik and the author of The Hurt Locker’s screenplay, Mark Boal, made haste to contact him to deny that Blackwater had ever been hired in any capacity. Boal, apparently, supervised all such hiring of military and security consultants. Scahill asked him about comments made by the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow, in other interviews, mentioning the presence of Blackwater personnel on set, including as technical advisers. “It's possible,” Boal conceded, “that at some point somebody on set worked for Blackwater, but we never hired Blackwater.”

The New York Times writer Melena Ryzik describes how Mackie showed her how the Blackwater men trained him to hold his weapon. “If you're a trained killer,” Mackie told Ryzik, “you're very precise.” This is Blackwater-precision, as displayed by the panic-stricken contractors, when they mowed down 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007. But then, as Obama quoted in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from his favorite intellectual and unappetizing apologist for Empire, Reinhold Niebuhr, “To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”

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