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Thursday, March 31, 2016

El Hermano Obama and Compañero Fidel

US President Barack Obama came to Havana with a cautiously crafted, calculated message to the people of the world, the people of the US, and the people of Cuba.
To the people of the world, Obama was signaling, on his part, a new posture towards the Republic of Cuba. His expressed desire to remove the blockade and to open up relations must be taken at face value and welcomed. How far he intends to pursue this goal and with how much energy is to be seen. That it is part of a carefully cultivated “Obama Doctrine” blossoming in the last year of his Presidency should be apparent.
In his confessional series of interviews with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic, he makes his posture towards Latin American anti-imperialism clear:
When I came into office, at the first Summit of the Americas that I attended, Hugo Chávez”—the late anti-American Venezuelan dictator—“was still the dominant figure in the conversation,” he said. “We made a very strategic decision early on, which was, rather than blow him up as this 10-foot giant adversary, to right-size the problem and say, ‘We don’t like what’s going on in Venezuela, but it’s not a threat to the United States.’ ”
Obama said that to achieve this rebalancing, the U.S. had to absorb the diatribes and insults of superannuated Castro manqués. “When I saw Chávez, I shook his hand and he handed me a Marxist critique of the U.S.–Latin America relationship,” Obama recalled. “And I had to sit there and listen to Ortega”—Daniel Ortega, the radical leftist president of Nicaragua—“make an hour-long rant against the United States. But us being there, not taking all that stuff seriously—because it really wasn’t a threat to us”—helped neutralize the region’s anti-Americanism.
If we substitute “anti-imperialism” for “anti-Americanism” (tellingly, Obama doesn't count Latin America as America), we can see that the Obama Doctrine is a more clever and, therefore, more insidious policy to maintain US dominance in the region; overt tolerance coupled with covert intervention promises more success than an earlier strategy of saber-rattling and brute force.
To the people of the US, Obama was underscoring what he hopes to be perceived as his foreign policy legacy, an opening to Cuba that will stand with Nixon's rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China and Reagan's overtures to Gorbachev's USSR. Like Reagan's move, Obama's Cuba trip was a charm offensive meant to sell the image of a benign super power putting aside long-standing differences in order to “open up” opportunities for business and bring Cuba back into the Western fold. But unlike his predecessors, Obama presses his initiative late in his term, leaving the heavy lifting to those who will follow. The fact that he never tackled the Helms-Burton act early in his service (and a host of other promises and expectations) when he inherited a super-majority in the legislative branch demonstrates both a slug-like caution and a shallowness of conviction, a less flattering part of his legacy.
To the Cuban people, Obama brought to Havana a caricature of past relations and the attitude of a friendly big brother. He made his point of selling market reforms, outside investors, and Western-style “democracy,” wrapping it with a ribbon of smarmy good-neighborliness.
While the Western media and liberals saw this as a moment of Obama's greatness and magnanimity, one man saw it differently. Charged with protecting Cuban sovereignty and dignity for the last fifty-six years, Fidel Castro Ruz wrote from retirement, reminding the world that while Cuba seeks normal country-to-country relations with the US, it neither forgets nor forgives the transgressions of the past. Nor does it trust the promises of the future.
In a not-too-subtle reminder-- direct enough for even the planners and speech writers in the State Department-- Fidel quotes Antonio Maceo, Afro-Cuban leader of the mambises in the liberation struggle against Spain: “Whoever attempts to appropriate Cuba will reap only the dust of its soil drenched in blood, if he does not perish in the struggle.”
Fidel offers “brother Obama” a history lesson in the long and relentless effort to overthrow the Cuban revolution by its “neighbor” to the North. Nor will he allow the neighbor to the north to shrug off the Cold War as merely a past misunderstanding. He reminds Obama that the Cold War battle lines in Africa divided colonialism and Apartheid from African liberation. Without embarrassing Obama with the fact that the US stood with those opposing African liberation, Fidel revisited Cuba's intense, principled and long support for Africa's freedom.
In contrast to the truncated, simplistic, and self-serving account of the struggle for racial equality in the US offered by Obama (“But people organized; they protested; they debated these issues; they challenged government officials. And because of those protests, and because of those debates, and because of popular mobilization, I’m able to stand here today as an African-American and as President of the United States. That was because of the freedoms that were afforded in the United States that we were able to bring about change.”), Fidel reminded the US President that the Revolutionary government “swept away racial discrimination” in Cuba and persistently fought manifestations of racism. Unlike in the US, the Cuban people fought racism along with their government, not against the government's promotion of it; where racism persists in Cuba, it is in spite of the government, not because of it.
Fidel, with a Marxist dedication to historical context, understandably views US overtures with some skepticism, doubting that the changes mark an epiphany from the long-standing policy of defeating the revolution. But as one its leaders and staunchest defenders, he makes his position clear: “No one should be under the illusion that the people of this dignified and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights, or the spiritual wealth they have gained with the development of education, science, and culture... We do not need the Empire to give us anything.”
Cubans should be filled with pride that they enjoy the wisdom and vigilance of one of the last century's greatest revolutionary leaders. We should all be appreciative of the exceptional commitment to truth and principle of this warrior for socialism and peace.
Zoltan Zigedy

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Peek behind the Curtain

Most US Presidents use their retirement to construct their interpretation of events transpiring during their service. They prefer to distance their more candid, more personal observations from the people, places, and activities that occupied their incumbencies. The mythology of the magisterial presidency demands that nothing tarnish the contrived imagery of sobriety, civility, and selfless governance. Therefore, it is uncommon for a President to air differences and confidences while still in office. That reticence makes President Obama’s recent comments, as told to Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg (The Obama Doctrine, April, 2016), even more interesting.

Now Goldberg is no leftist. His commentary accompanying his interviews shows him to be a reliable consumer and purveyor of the official, self-serving Washington line on good guys and bad guys, freedom-lovers and freedom-haters. For Goldberg, Ghaddafi, Assad, Hugo Chavez, Putin, and the others who defied US diktat personify evil, while despots who toe the US line get a free pass. The fact that Obama does not unqualifiedly endorse this simplistic picture makes the interview most interesting.

For the vast majority of the entertainment-driven, scandal-seeking media, Obama’s openly expressed disdain for those US allies that he labeled “free riders” served as blood-soaked red meat. They relished the gossipy blast at putative friends like Hollande, Cameron, Erdogan, and the Saudis. But they never stopped to develop the implications of his remarks, refusing to frame the comments in the context of a new balance of power and shifting alliances.

For a time, the Obama administration has been moving away from the triumphant unilateralist (one dominant super power) position emerging from the demise of the Soviet Union. Obama would like us to believe that this is part of a rational, measured policy that he describes as “realist” and “internationalist”—a rejection of both “isolationism” and “liberal interventionism.” In fact, it is a move imposed by events: the endless, unwinnable wars, the intensification of nation-state rivalries, economic stagnation, and the resultant international instability. The Obama foreign policy vision reflects these new realities more than it shapes them.

Obama was vetted and anointed by significant sectors of the ruling class, and subsequently elected because his youth, dynamism, différence, and “hope/change” slogan fit the needs of a country wounded by economic crisis, political dysfunction, and military blunders. Just as James Carter emerged as a clean, pure and decidedly different candidate to legitimize the Presidential myth after the Nixon fiasco, Obama was the best option to clean up the Bush mess. Obama obliquely concedes this when he characterizes himself as a “retrenchment” President.

He embraced the responsibility with gusto, attempting to replace open military aggression and occupation with bombs, drones and special forces. The goal of advancing US national interests (really, capitalist interests) is addressed best, he believes, with care and deliberation: “We have to choose where we can make a real impact.” Or as he put more crudely, “We don’t do stupid shit.”-- An obvious allusion to the foreign policy of his predecessor.

But it is not only the hyper-militarized foreign policy of the Bush administration that Obama rejects; it is also the shrewd, cynical Clintonesque foreign policy of “liberal interventionism” that he opposes.

Liberal interventionism-- sometimes known as “humanitarian interventionism”-- is the doctrine that disguises US regime change, aggression, and meddling as inspired by the promotion of human rights. Whether it's aiding in the dismantling of Yugoslavia, noxious policies against Cuba or Venezuela, saber-rattling in the South China Sea, threats to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a coup in Ukraine, or the wholesale dismantling of the state of Libya, the US hides its moves behind a hypocritical appeal to the cause of encouraging human rights and democracy. The self-serving US doctrine of exporting human rights and democracy is a US counterpart to the British Empire's previous mission of civilizing the non-European peoples; both are a transparent cover for imperial design.

Within the Obama Administration, the chief proponents of liberal interventionism were Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, and Antony Blinken, according to Jeffrey Goldberg.

When not sitting on an opportunistic fence, John Kerry will side with the “humanitarians.”

Goldberg traces Obama's “realist” foreign policy position to a speech the then senator made before an anti-war rally:
I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Certainly Obama deserves some credit for anticipating the strong and enduring resistance to an unprovoked invasion and occupation of a sovereign country. But it's important to note that it is not a defense of Iraq's sovereignty and right of self-determination that anchors his argument, but a calculation. Obama, like all bourgeois politicians, has not abandoned the imperialist project; he has only sought to improve it-- a point lost on those worshiping him in the run-up to the 2008 election.

The decisive event spurring Obama to settle accounts in The Atlantic interviews is the overthrow of Ghadaffi and the destruction of the Libyan state. It has become impossible to see the US, NATO, and Gulf states' war on Libya as anything more than a criminal enterprise and a strategic disaster. Obama is unconcerned about the criminality, but troubled by the debacle as a blemish on his record. Thus, he goes to great lengths to push responsibility onto his allies (Sarkozy, Cameron, etc.) and the liberal interventionists in his administration: tragic as the Libyan situation may be, it’s not our problem. The way I looked at it was that it would be our problem if, in fact, complete chaos and civil war broke out in Libya. But this is not so at the core of U.S. interests that it makes sense for us to unilaterally strike against the Qaddafi regime. At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”

Since we know from the Tony Blair phone transcripts (see my Journalists or Courtesans?) that on February 25, 2011-- barely two weeks after most journalists date the beginnings of the Libyan “uprising”-- the US and NATO were already threatening armed intervention, Obama's proclaimed reluctance to act seems less than convincing. But his determination to deflect the blame is certainly apparent. Despite his slipperiness, the fact is that the US vigorously bombed the Libyan government into defeat. 

Goldberg notes Obama's reflections:
When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong,” Obama said, “there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up,” he said. He noted that Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, lost his job the following year. And he said that British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things.” Of France, he said, “Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was taking in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure” for the intervention. This sort of bragging was fine, Obama said, because it allowed the U.S. to “purchase France’s involvement in a way that made it less expensive for us and less risky for us.” In other words, giving France extra credit in exchange for less risk and cost to the United States was a useful trade-off—except that “from the perspective of a lot of the folks in the foreign-policy establishment, well, that was terrible. If we’re going to do something, obviously we’ve got to be up front, and nobody else is sharing in the spotlight.”

With the Libyan fiasco as a backdrop, one understands Obama's subsequent hesitancy to bomb the hell out of Assad's Syria. Goldberg (and others) make much of Obama's turn away from his “red line” ultimatum on Syria: “History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war...”

But the truth is far more complicated. The rebuff of Cameron's partnership by the UK parliament, US opinion polls, Merkel's disapproval, and intelligence hesitance all played a large role in causing Obama to throw the question of war into Congress's reluctant lap. Rather than defying “Washington's playbook” and rebuffing his own liberal interventionists, the President got cold feet.

Nonetheless, in this election season, Obama's uncharacteristic criticisms of his Administration mates do not bode well for the post-Obama era. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive next President, departs little from the “Washington playbook” on Obama's reckoning, seemingly willing to unleash the bombers at the slightest provocation. In this, she differs little from the Republican bullies. Only Sanders, with little chance to win the nomination, shows some leaning toward Obama's “realism,” his “enlightened” imperialism.

Obama's pull-back from the Syrian intervention left many allies confused, angry, even disgusted. It brought many existing frictions to a new, more damaging level. The old Washington consensus-- a euphemism for complete and servile Washington hegemony-- has been unraveling for some time. The rise of new economic powers and power blocs, the scramble for recovery and advantage after the trough of the economic crisis, and the US continuing engagement in costly, multiple wars sharply challenges US dominance.

Obama's backing away from overt action in Syria and recent rapprochement with Iran left the Jordanian leadership unhappy. Similarly, Turkey's Erdogan, who Obama considers a failure and an “authoritarian,” now challenges US leadership and authority in the region.

But the long-standing Saudi relationship is nearly fractured; festering differences only deepened with the Syrian and Iranian moves. Criticism of Saudi actions in Yemen, the US jettisoning of Mubarak, and the oil wars preceded the current hostility. With US energy production nearing self-sufficiency, the Saudi grip on Obama's foreign policy was loosened. One might speculate that Saudi Arabia's decision not to put a floor on falling oil prices constituted a response to the new-found independence. The US responded by removing the ban on exporting US energy resources. For a recent account appreciative of Obama's candor regarding Saudi Arabia in these interviews see the always perceptive commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Patrick Cockburn, writing in Counterpunch.

Goldberg's interviews show clearly a growing exasperation with the US's traditional Middle Eastern allies and a yearning for new, more promising relations on the part of Obama. Israel and Saudi Arabia-- traditional loyal cops for US aims-- often defy US orders, adding to what Obama calls the post-Libyan “mess.”

Obama makes it clear that he he would like to get past his Middle Eastern mess, a task that he was elected to perform. He would like to focus on his Asia pivot. He would like to shift his attention to dampening Chinese influence and strengthening US economic links with other Asian countries-- the policy of isolating the PRC embodied in the Trans-Pacific Pact.

He acclaims his “restraint” in South and Central America as a formula for patient, but effective regime change, a formula that he hopes to exercise in his new relationship with Cuba.

If we take the Obama interviews as a kind of candid valedictory, we can say that he bitterly regrets failing to fulfill his mission of restoring a stability to the Middle East favorable to US corporate interests. We also can say that, after Libya, he came to the conclusion that tolerating the liberal interventionists in their knee-jerk military responses to advancing US imperial designs is a recipe for further entanglements and costly “messes.” He has arrived at an alternative, measured, “rational” imperialism in its stead, an imperialism that reflects the rise of new regional and international powers, the weakening of US hegemony, and the need to not be drawn into unconditional alliances.

Others have seen the Obama valediction for what it is: a step away from the New American Century war hawks and their “liberal” counterparts who hide their war mongering behind human rights. The Wall Street Journal responded to The Obama Doctrine with a scathing attack issued by Global View columnist, Bret Stephens (Barack Obama Checks Out, 3-15-16). Stephens agitatedly charges Obama with giving interviews to Goldberg “...that are.. gratuitously damaging to long standing US alliances, international security and Mr. Obama's reputation as a serious steward of the American interests...” Harsh words, indeed.

But even more troubling is the pack of rabid candidates seeking a chance to replace Obama. Neither Hillary Clinton nor any of the Republican candidates shares Obama's professed sobriety in pursuing imperial goals. All see military might and its ready exercise as the fulcrum of foreign policy. None share Obama's preference for drones and special operations over mass bombings and overt military operations. None would call out the “free-riders” and trouble makers. If one of them becomes President, we are back to the cowboy imperialism of Bush, the younger. Obama-imperialism is bad enough.

Zoltan Zigedy