United States

Obama Foreign Policy Speech: What is New? What is the Same?


“The Commander in Chief… has ruthlessly used nearly all of the antiterror tools bequeathed by his predecessor.”

That was the first comment of the Wall St. Journal editors on Barack Obama’s May 23 speech. In that speech, given at the National Military University, Obama summarized where he thought they were at regarding military struggles and his goals and strategy for the future. As such, and in reading the analyses from the Wall St. Journal, one gets a better view of the thinking and debates amongst the strategists for US capitalism.

The Obama Strategists

As one wing sees it, and as portrayed by Obama, US capitalism has basically won the war against al Qaeda (whatever that is or was). What remains are disparate little groups and individuals who pose a threat to “US interests” abroad and a threat to security at home. “Lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates. Threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad. Homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism,” is how Obama summarized the situation.

These challenges to the control and stability of US capitalist class at home and abroad must be fought, is Obama’s view. However, this continual fight poses certain dangers.

Capitalist Democracy

Domestically, Obama and the strategists he represents recognize that when a society is placed on long term war footing, it threatens capitalist democracy at home. As he said, we are “mindful of James Madison’s warning that ‘No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.'” It is not that these capitalist strategists have any commitment to capitalist democracy in principle; it’s just that this democracy has served the US capitalist class remarkably well over several centuries here in the US.

Indefinite War Losing Ground

On the other hand, he admits that this “war on terror” will continue indefinitely. “We will never erase the evil that flies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. What we can do – what we must do – is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger…” he said.

The speech was given in the background of the US military having basically lost or losing its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the US-installed regime is becoming ever closer to the Iranian regime, a disaster for US and Israeli capitalism if there ever was one in the region. In Afghanistan, the US troops are being pulled out after having failed miserably to stabilize the situation in a way that suits US capitalist interests. Obama’s speech never referred directly to this, but his strategy reflects it. This is why he basically called a halt to the “boundless ‘global war on terror.'” This was the strategy of the wing of the strategists of Corporate America under the Bush administration – an approach that the mainstream of Corporate America found wanting and, as a result, put Obama into office.

Targeted Strikes” or Generalized Terrorism?

Instead, Obama has been carrying out a policy of targeted strikes, mainly using drone warfare. Make no mistake, this is terrorism carried out en masse. In Pakistan alone, for instance, it is estimated that up to 880 “civilians” have been killed. Who is a “civilian” and who a “terrorist” in this dirty war is impossible to define. However, the effects of this drone warfare go far beyond the number killed or wounded; this drone warfare is terrorism against an entire people. To give an example, here is how a resident of North Waziristan (Pakistan) described the results of drone warfare in his area: “Believe me every one in Waziristan is suffering from mental disorders due to the drones flying non-stop over our heads. It has a very bad sound that pierces through the brain… We always worry when the drones are flying as we don’t know who is going to become the target. Every body felt insecure when the drones targeted funeral prayers and tribal jirgas.”  He continued to comment on a drone strike that killed his mother: “Some of the children were with their grandmother and others joined them after coming from school. My mother didn’t know anything about America. She was a simple woman who loved her children. Are the children injured in the drone strike terrorists,” he asked. “I wish President Obama could feel our pain. We did no harm to the US or President Obama. Why did they destroy our happy family?”

That the drone strikes are meant to terrorize and punish entire populations is shown by one simple practice: The use of “double taps”. This is the practice of striking a building twice in succession, one a couple of minutes after the other. The intent is to kill any “first responders” who come to help those trapped in the rubble of the first strike.

War Crimes

Unlike his simple-minded predecessor and that wing of US capital he represented – a wing which was drunk with its apparent power – Obama & Co. are mindful of the criticisms of these war crimes. On the one hand, he himself pointed out that these crimes are encouraging further hatred of US capitalism abroad. In addition, it is even causing rifts with the allies of the US regime. On a purely personal level, Obama is probably aware of the problems that some leaders of Israel are now having traveling abroad; they are being charged with war crimes and thus are endangered with arrest if they travel to certain countries. Obama does not want to risk such a fate.


For these reasons, on the one hand he has made the US Congress complicit in these war crimes. As he stated, “not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. That includes throne instance when we targeted an American citizen: Anwar Awlaki, the chief of external operations for AQAP.”  He is also mindful of the domestic criticism, as shown by his concern for “public confidence in the process” of deciding whom to kill.

Torture at Guantanamo

Obama showed a similar concern over domestic and foreign criticism of the prisoners being tortured in Guantanamo. (And make no mistake, extended isolation is mental torture.) This concern is being brought to a head by the hunger strike of over 100 of these prisoners. Should they start dying en masse, this will become a public relations nightmare, and so Obama is bringing forward – once again – a plan to close this mass torture center.

Recognition of Weakness

Time and again in his speech, from one angle and another, Obama showed that he and his wing of strategists understand that simple, mass, brute force cannot succeed; US capitalism must maintain working alliances and it must maintain a base of support of at least some wing of society in the Islamic world. This is why, for instance, he has reduced the absolute number of drone strikes from a high of 121 in 2010 to 23 so far this year. It is also reflected in his summary of his strategy, which he summarized as: “Targeted action against terrorists. Effective partnerships. Diplomatic engagement and assistance.”

What Obama’s speech signifies is a recognition of the weakened position of US capitalism globally. It has basically lost its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is losing its base of support in Pakistan. It finds itself unable to intervene in Syria, partly because it has no reliable allies amongst the opponents of the Assad regime and partly because of the rising power of Iranian and Russian capitalism in the region. The shift of US naval focus to the Pacific (to counter Chinese capitalism) has also weakened US capitalism’s influence and power in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas.

Make no mistake, though, the more aggressive and less thoughtful wing of strategists are waiting in the wings, ready to resume their relentless march whenever the time is right. This is shown by the Wall St. Journal’s Bret Stephens who writes the “Global View” for that paper. In a column entitled “The Retreat Doctrine”, Stephens distinguishes between retreat and a “nation in decline”. He points to the long term retreat of British capitalism after WW II, which he attributes to British capitalism being in global decline. He summarizes his view of the “Obama Doctrine” thusly: “To retreat isn’t to decline. But retreat can lead to decline, when a nation develops a taste for it, and when adversaries take advantage of it, and when disasters result from it. Britain had the U.S. at its back when it ceased being a power to be reckoned with. Should that day come for us, who will have ours?” 

In other words, there is no alternative in the capitalist West to US imposed order. And the recognition of the strategists of US capitalism that simple brute force is not successful amounts to a strategic retreat rather than a recognition of the objectively weakening position of US capitalism globally (and domestically).

Waiting in the Wings

No ruling class leaves the scene of history without a struggle, nor does any surrender its power voluntarily. The more aggressive wing of US capitalism is merely waiting in the wings until the more strategic wing’s views are also proven to be a failure. Then they – the more blunt wing – will return with a vengeance. Meanwhile, as the Wall St. Journal has pointed out, Obama has proven to be just as “ruthless” as was his predecessor.


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