The More They Promise Change…


A year and a half into the presidency of Barack Obama, any hopes that he would usher in a dramatic rethinking of U.S. foreign policy have been more or less definitively dashed.

Notwithstanding the wild-eyed warnings of right-wing hawks who see Obama as "the first post-American president", with a covert agenda that is part Saul Alinsky and part Frantz Fanon, the president has so far proven himself to have little inclination to break with the past when it comes to foreign policy.

If the George W. Bush administration introduced the U.S. public to names like Guantanamo, Fallujah, and Blackwater, it is in the Obama administration that counterparts like Bagram, Waziristan and Predator have become ubiquitous.

To be sure, this does not mean, as some disillusioned Obama supporters have suggested, that Obama is "no different" from Bush – particularly if it is the assertive and unchastened Bush of the first term that they have in mind – or from the likely alternatives.

While Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, for instance, has been largely uninspired – witness the great amount of energy devoted to passing sanctions that are simultaneously provocative and toothless – his administration has by all indications been working actively to avoid an outright war. This is more than one could say about the likely course under a President McCain or Palin.

Similarly, Obama has thus far caved in his confrontations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he has at the very least demonstrated an awareness that Bush-style blank-cheque support for Israel is untenable – as opposed to his Republican opponents, many of whom seem to fully endorse the Greater Israel ideology of the Israeli settler movement.

But if Obama has refrained from the most egregious excesses of his predecessor, he has nonetheless remained solidly within the mainstream of what Andrew Bacevich has termed the U.S. "ideology of national security" that has reigned since World War II. Whether this sort of caution has been the result of heartfelt belief or political constraints is largely beside the point.

The real question, however, is: should anyone be surprised? Was there any cause to believe that an Obama presidency would signal a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, or did Obama’s progressive supporters simply pin hopes upon the candidate that were unjustified by the evidence?

On some issues, like detainee policy, President Obama has certainly backpedaled on Candidate Obama’s promises, but on many others – most notably the escalation of the war in Afghanistan – he has simply followed through on his stated intentions.

In "The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s" (Haymarket Books, 2010), Tom Engelhardt provides a clear- eyed examination of U.S. foreign policy in the Bush and Obama years, and details unsparingly how Obama has inherited – and in many cases exacerbated – the ills of the Bush era.

While Engelhardt does not address explicitly the question of whether things had to be this way, he refuses throughout to fall into the satisfying simplifications of personalised analysis – to contrast Obama the Crusader riding into Washington to change everything with Obama the Cynic sacrificing principle for political expediency.

In doing so, he forces the reader to confront the likelihood that the forces that have made U.S. foreign policy what it is run far deeper than mere personalities, and conversely that changing the U.S.’s stance in the world will require far more than simply voting the "good guys" into power.

Engelhardt is best known as the man behind TomDispatch.com, the site that since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks has hosted some of the most trenchant criticism of U.S. foreign policy by analysts ranging from Bacevich on the right to Noam Chomsky on the left. His book collects some of his own essays written for TomDispatch from 2004 to 2010.

One striking feature of the book is how seamlessly it flows, despite the fact that some of its contents were written in the first Bush term while others were written only a few months ago. This, in itself, is one indication of how little has changed.

Engelhardt’s earlier book, "The End of Victory Culture", was a perceptive analysis of the ways that U.S. pop culture shaped the triumphalist narrative of the Cold War; here, too, he is especially good at demonstrating the ways that culture and the mass media influence what might ordinarily be considered the realms of high politics.

The first chapter examines how the Sep. 11 attacks have shaped the political landscape for the past decade in ways both obvious and subtle, but also the ways in which the attacks themselves found particular resonance with a population that had long been psychologically preparing for the apocalypse in film.

How different, Engelhardt asks, would the course of history have been if neither World Trade Centre tower had fallen in the attacks? Without the cinematic horror of the towers falling, perhaps politicians would have felt less need to respond with a full-blown "global war on terror".

Or perhaps the public thirst for revenge would have been slaked with the toppling of the Taliban, and the U.S. would not have proceeded to Iraq out of a perceived need to "go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something" in response (as Thomas Friedman put it).

Later chapters examine the progressive "garrisoning" of the earth as the archipelago of U.S. bases spreads across the globe, the ways that the antiseptic and allegedly "surgical" nature of air power has moved the carnage of war out of the sight and minds of the U.S. public, and the mangling of media language used to disguise the nature of the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The observation that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is by now a familiar one, but Engelhardt marshals an impressive amount of evidence to reveal just how far the twisting of language has gone.

The pieces on air power and the drone war are particularly good. One extended analysis of a single August 2008 incident in Azizabad, Afghanistan illustrates how a compliant media has conspired with the military to discredit and downplay reports of civilian casualties.

(After initially claiming that 30 "Taliban militants" had been killed in the incident after attacking coalition forces, the military was ultimately forced – following weeks of stonewalling and gradual backpedaling – to give credence to reports that the real death toll consisted of 90 civilians, including 60 children.)

And for all the talk of the "lessons learned" from Vietnam, Engelhardt expertly details how many of the features of the U.S.’s current wars – from the debates over body counts to the faddish embrace of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine as universal panacea – are throwbacks to the Vietnam era.

"The American Way of War" is, all in all, a very depressing read. But for that very reason, it is an important book for anyone hoping to understand how the U.S. arrived at its current predicament during the Bush years, and how it remains in this predicament despite Obama’s best efforts – or perhaps because of them.

 

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