The Emperor’s New Clothes

On January 20, 2009, 2 million Americans packed the National Mall to witness Barack Hussein Obama being sworn in as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America. Ten-fold as many were glued to their television sets across the world. A buoyant atmosphere prevailed from Nairobi to Karachi; Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” resonated with a world weary of the imperial belligerence of former President George W. Bush. But a year on, how much have the foreign policies Obama inherited from his predecessor actually changed, and do these policies really inspire much hope for a better world? This article briefly examines some major areas of American foreign policy and the continuities and changes therein after a year of Obama’s presidency.


Obama promised a “fresh start” on Russia. He had inherited relations strained by gradual NATO expansion to include the former Warsaw Pact countries and a push to include states of the former Soviet Union, the scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and plans to place anti-ballistic missile defenses in Eastern Europe. In this context, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plans to “hit the reset button” on U.S.-Russia relations seemed welcome. But reality belies the positive rhetoric.

In September, 2009, Obama did decide to scrap the missile defense systems that were to be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, these have been replaced by a sea-based configuration that will be able to play the same role. Further, U.S. supplies of Patriot Missile Batteries as well as joint training exercises with Poland are already in the pipeline. These will be viewed with growing concern in Moscow.

For it is NATO’s expansion and the presence of American military equipment and personnel in close proximity to its borders that Russia views with the greatest strategic wariness. It has also accused the U.S. of engineering the victory of pro-American forces in surrounding countries under the guise of “democratization”. That these measures are set to continue has been made amply clear by Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent visits to Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, and before then to Ukraine and Georgia where he announced they “have a right…to choose their own alliances” (read NATO). Biden has also added fuel to the fire by deriding Russia and calling its resurgence “not sustainable”. The alternative in Russian minds is the national disaster that unfolded in the 1990s when the dissolution of the Soviet Union and made-in-the-U.S.A. economic “shock therapy” nearly destroyed the country and paralyzed it on the international stage. This is not what Russia wants to “reset” to. Thus, save for the gloss provided by cosmetic changes and the tone of the statements issuing forth from the White House, Obama’s policies on Russia evince little positive change.


The Bush administration squandered historic opportunities for reconciliation with Iran and instead allowed relations with it to deteriorate sharply. It included Iran in its so-called “Axis of Evil” alongside Iraq and North Korea. It then proceeded to invade and occupy Iraq, thoroughly destroying the country in the process. Little surprise then that North Korea has since conducted nuclear tests and Iran is compounding the U.S. precipitated crisis by forging ahead with its own nuclear program.

In his inaugural speech Obama stated that he was ready to offer Iran “an open hand” if the country was willing to “unclench its fist”, a clear indication that he is willing to talk. But Bush was willing to talk to Iran too, provided Tehran gave up its nuclear program and its support for terrorism (on the definition of which there is an intense disagreement between the Americans and Iranians). For its part, Iran has also stubbornly held on to its position that any concessions must follow talks, not precede them. Obama’s offer of talks is not unconditional either. In fact, he placed identical preconditions on talks as Bush. Moreover, he has held to them even as the situation with Iran’s nuclear program and the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities have grown more serious. The clouds of war against Iran are growing in the shadow of Obama’s failed diplomacy. Through its support of Israel and control of Iraqi airspace – the logical route for any Israeli air strikes – America may yet inflict another terrible war on the region.

Israel and Palestine

Bush annihilated any pretense that the U.S. was an “honest broker” in supporting a real peace process between the state of Israel and the stateless Palestinians. His presidency was characterized by unstinting support of Israel and the refusal to condemn even its most brutal excesses, from the building of a separation wall that snakes through Palestinian territory to Israel’s latest invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and its 2008-09 razing of Gaza. By contrast, Obama raised hopes in the so-called Muslim World in a landmark speech in Cairo, where he admitted that relations with Muslims had been “severely damaged” during his predecessor’s presidency. He also declared his support of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his absolute opposition to the growth of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

But Obama has since backtracked on these commitments. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only begrudgingly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state (even though Netanyahu’s conception hardly possesses any traits of a sovereign country). He has announced only a temporary freeze of Israeli colonization of the Occupied Territories – and even then one that exempts East Jesrusalem and other settlements that are already under construction. This position has been accepted by the Obama administration, even winning praise from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The U.S. government also dismissed as “deeply flawed” the Goldstone Report. The UN-sanctioned Report – tepid as it was – found Israel (and to a lesser extent, Hamas) guilty of war crimes during Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

Emboldened, Netanyahu has recently announced that Israel will hold on to large swathes of the West bank “forever” and keep military forces stationed there even if there is a peace settlement with the Palestinians. He seems to recognize that despite the public rhetoric Obama in fact does not represent a break in the uncritical support for Israel that has been the hallmark of every American administration since at least Richard Nixon’s presidency. Obama’s support for Israel may be marginally more muted. But – to the great detriment of the Palestinians and everyone else that seeks peace in the region – it is not a shift in American policy.


On Iraq Obama has followed the parameters of Bush’s policy of a slow draw-down of forces. In a speech at the UN he pledged to “ending the war” and “to remove all American troops by the end of 2011” but “responsibly” until the Iraqis “transition to full responsibility for their future”. In his State of the Union address he seemingly shortened the 2011 deadline for withdrawal set by Bush to August, 2010. But this deadline is for the withdrawal of “combat troops” only, leaving the door open for a significant military presence far beyond this date. The Bush administration too had envisaged anyway that troop levels by August 2010 would hover around 30,000. Thus, Obama’s new announcement seems more like a reiteration of existing policy.

And Obama emphasized again that his exit will occur “responsibly”. Given the recent upswing in violence along barely suppressed ethnic and sectarian fault-lines, and the potential for a rapid deterioration in the country following the upcoming elections, this is a recipe for a continuing and long-term strategic commitment. Even though the occupation may rely on lower troop levels, this contrasts widely with his pre-election promises for a complete withdrawal, and is largely in keeping with Iraq policies already in place when Obama took office.

South Asia

Obama’s policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan follow the general blueprint left by the Bush administration but has broken with it only inasmuch as it has become more aggressive. Obama has escalated the war in both countries. The U.S. and NATO are pumping a further 40,000 troops into Afghanistan even as they shore up the illegitimate government of President Hamid Karzai. Overall, the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate as shown by the latest string of spectacular attacks in Kabul. Though Obama has announced a “draw down” date of 2011 for the mission in Afghanistan there are mixed signals on what this means and when the occupation will actually come to an end.

Obama has also continued Bush-era policies on Pakistan, particularly the air-strikes by remote-controlled drones armed with Hellfire missiles. In fact, Obama has hugely escalated such attacks. There were just under thirty drone strikes on Pakistan during Bush’s two terms as president. Under Obama there has roughly been one such attack per week killing over 700 Pakistanis. The tempo of the strikes has further increased since the attack on the CIA forward base in the Khost province of Afghanistan in late 2009. Obama also continues to insist that Pakistan “do more” and act on an American time-table regardless of the high costs that it is incurring. More than 12,600 Pakistanis died in militant violence and terrorist attacks in 2009 alone (a 1400% jump since 2006), and over 2 million citizens were displaced and 3000 Pakistani soldiers killed as a cumulative result of its anti-Taliban operations in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Pakistan’s role in the so called War on Terror is estimated to have cost it between $35 and $50 billion to date, with its recent anti-Taliban operations in Swat alone coming with a price-tag of nearly $3 billion.

In a marked break from Bush, prior to his election Obama had candidly spoken of the need to broker peace between nuclear armed India and Pakistan by urging a settlement on the disputed region of Kashmir. But all such mention has since receded, a predilection mocked in the South Asian media by reference to the dreaded “K” word. Instead Obama has continued along the trajectory set by Bush of priming India as a potential counter-weight to China. The result of such a policy has been the cynical arming of both Pakistan and India with billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry. Backed by hi-tech hardware, it is no coincidence that the hawkish diatribes between India and Pakistan – not to mention border clashes – are on a steady rise. The former recently revealed its new “Cold Start” military doctrine and extensive war-game plans that involve massive offensive thrusts against Pakistan (and China). Pakistan responded with a veiled but unambiguous threat that it would use nuclear weapons in the case of such a conflict. Just as terrifying as Pakistan’s response is that “Cold Start” actually anticipates a nuclear war. Thus, the South Asian region continues to teeter dangerously close to the precipice of an unimaginable conflict underwritten by American armourers.


Raising the stakes in South Asia forms part of American policy towards China. Despite Obama’s talk of China being a U.S. “partner”, here too policy follows Bush’s pattern. There is tactical cooperation between the two giants on specific issues such as the environment or the crisis of capitalist financial institutions. But China is still thought of as a “strategic competitor”, a future rising power with the potential to challenge American hegemony. Thus, Obama’s growing military alliance with India is aimed at counter-veiling China. This alliance includes continuing with a controversial and dangerous nuclear deal, originally signed by Bush, that recognizes India as a legitimate nuclear power and then some: India is the only nuclear armed country in the world permitted to conduct trade in nuclear materials without being a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only is this a major hurdle to the agenda of non-proliferation that Obama has ostensibly committed to, it demonstrates the price Obama is willing to continue paying to “contain” China.

On Human Rights, Civil Liberties and Democracy

There are also troubling themes that cut across America’s dealings with the rest of the world. Obama committed himself to respecting human rights and civil liberties; their steady erosion under Bush greatly damaged American standing in the world. He was quick to announce the closure of the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay. But the deadline for their closure has been indefinitely delayed. In other words, Gitmo is here to stay for the foreseeable future, as are the military tribunals that are to try most of the prisoners there. Not to mention that Obama has chosen to keep other CIA “black sites” that hold an untold number of prisoners in a legal black hole. All talk to ending the torture of prisoners is wishful and hypocritical while secret prisons, including the Bagram Internment Facility in Afghanistan, still do steady business.

Moreover, Obama’s commitment to substantive democracy abroad has also rapidly sagged. His predecessor attempted coups from Venezuela to the Palestinian territories and counted dictators like Pakistan’s President General Parvez Musharraf as his closest allies. The Obama administration has likewise supported virtual coups in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a very real one in Honduras. In sum, there is a vast gulf between the rhetoric and the reality of American foreign policy under Obama.

Imperial Hegemony

Obama seems to be attempting something unusual in recent American history. He is trying to change the world’s perception of the U.S. and thereby wring concrete concessions from other countries – be they foes or allies or somewhere in between – while maintaining the same policies of dominance that existed under the Bush administration. Thus, Obama’s skilful oratory and masterful use of rhetoric masks a more subtle exercise of American preeminence. It is an attempt to rebuild America’s flagging prestige and powers of moral persuasion without giving up the maintenance of its imperial hegemony.

But the American hegemon is not what is used to be. The U.S. can no longer count on the vast reservoirs of goodwill that greeted it (apart from the Americas) in the aftermath of World War II. Particularly from the 1960s onwards it has been more and more difficult to mask American imperialism for what it is. It is now too late to improve American standing simply with a dose of public humility. It requires not just a skilful turn of phrase but real change in policy and a reorientation away from imperial hubris. Much of world – especially where American grace takes the form of bombs, bullets and the support of repressive and regressive social forces – can see that for now the Emperor simply wears new clothes.

Shibil Siddiqi is a fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Politics and Power at Trent University. He is a contributor to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Znet and Foreign Policy in Focus. He can be reached at [email protected].


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