Support Obama in 2012? Part 1 The Policies So Far

Progressives are going to face a tough choice this coming November: should they vote for Barack Obama or not? Obama, who was a beacon of hope and change back in 2008, following the dark Bush era, seemed to hold out so much promise as the first African-American president of the USA. But time and again Obama found ways to disappoint progressives. For many it is tempting to believe that Obama actually means well, but that he simply does not have sufficient political power to do all that much. Some prominent voices, however (such as Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky), have argued all along that he never meant to introduce much change anyway and that progressives’ hopes in Obama were misplaced from the beginning.

To make an informed decision about whether it makes sense to vote for Obama this coming November, we first need to carefully review what, exactly, is at stake. Also, what is it that Obama promised and what did he deliver? If at the end of such a review it is clear that Obama delivered far less than he promised or that he was no better than the Republican he replaced, then we need to analyze how this is possible, whether this was merely a personal failing of Obama’s or whether there are concrete structural reasons for the failure. Finally, any decision about how to react to the Obama presidency must do so with a clear understanding of what is actually achievable in the U.S. political system and what could perhaps be done about changing the political system itself. In what follows I will first address Obama’s policies. The second part of this two-part series, will take a close look at the U.S. political system and at the strategic options for progressives in this system.


The Predecessor, the Promise, and the Reality

Foreign Policy

Obama was supposed to be the peace president, who even won the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, during the 2008 presidential campaign he capitalized on the unpopularity of Bush’s wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan by seeming to promise an end to these wars. After over one million killed Iraqis, over three million refugees, over five million orphans, over 4,500 U.S. and allied soldiers killed due to the war in Iraq, with over 500,000 disability claims from U.S. soldiers, and at an expense of somewhere between $1 to $4 trillion to the U.S. taxpayer (for both Iraq and Afghanistan), these wars have been an unmitigated disaster for all countries involved.

One of Obama’s campaign promises, in addition to criticizing Bush for having started the Iraq war, was to commit to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by May 2010, after 16 months in office. However, once he became president this was quickly forgotten and U.S. troops did not leave Iraq until the end of Obama’s third year in office, 36 months later, in December 2011. More distressing for peace activists who supported Obama, however, was that Obama never promised to withdraw from Afghanistan. Actually, during the campaign he suggested that he would intensify U.S. attention on that country and this is one promise he did fulfill, by sending in an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan once elected and then increasing them by another 33,000 in 2010, essentially tripling U.S. involvement there during his first three years in office. The U.S. war in Iraq finally came to an end now, with all U.S. troops removed from Iraq at the end of 2011, leaving behind an utterly devastated country.


However, it is still unclear how many troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the declared 2014 withdrawal of troops. According to some reports, as many as several thousand special operations troops might remain almost indefinitely. 

Realizing how unpopular all-out U.S. war has become, the Obama administration has now shifted strategies. One such shift is to rely only on a relatively short-term bombing campaign, as happened in in Libya in 2011. During the six-month bombing campaign of Libya, supposedly to protect the civilian population, but clearly meant to overthrow Qaddafi, the U.S. Air Force and other NATO air forces went on 26,500 bombing runs (sorties), which led to an estimated 30,000 deaths and 50,000 wounded (according to the successor government, the National Transitional Council). This is a death toll that is about 20 times greater than the deaths that took place before the bombing began, which had justified the intervention in the first place.

The second new strategy is to rely on special operations forces, such as Navy Seals and Delta Force, which are supposed to fight the “war on terror,” but essentially act as death squads in foreign countries, assassinating presumed enemies of the U.S. While during the Bush administration such forces had been operational in “only” 60 countries, Obama has increased that number during his time in office to 75 and plans on further expanding their coverage to 120 countries throughout the globe by the end of 2012. These troops either provide on-the-ground support for drone strikes or carry out their own clandestine assassination attacks, as they did when they killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The great advantage of this new strategy is that it allows the president to dispatch elite military units at a moment’s notice, without going through the troublesome process of informing Congress or the public. 

A third strategy development is to rely on drone attacks, which are currently being deployed in numerous countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Under Obama drone strikes have increased dramatically, for example against targets in Pakistan they rose from 52 under Bush to 275 under Obama. The total number of civilians killed, according to independent estimates, is between 480 and 830. As the New York Times recently reported, the Obama administration, however, does not count civilian casualties because it simply assumes that all deaths of adult males in such strikes are terrorists. While under Bush these presumed terrorists would have been “rendered” (kidnapped or disappeared) to a third country for “interrogation” (and torture), the Obama administration has found this to be too complicated and messy and instead simply targets these suspects for murder by bombing or death squad (“special forces”). According to the New York Times, Obama personally decides every Tuesday who is to be targeted or placed on the “kill list.”

The fourth new strategy (and probably not the last) is to use cyber warfare. While one assumes this is not as deadly as the other strategies, this strategy could become almost as dangerous as biological warfare. Apparently the Obama administration has been working with the Israeli government to introduce computer viruses into Iran’s nuclear energy program, so as to sabotage it. Other cyber attacks introduced computer viruses designed to spy on Iran’s computer systems. While such attacks might seem relatively benign, it is known that the Stuxnet virus, which disabled parts of Iran’s nuclear program, accidentally infected other computers and is now replicating itself throughout cyberspace. While this virus appears not to have caused any wider damage so far, it is quite conceivable that viruses designed to disable computer systems such as those of a nuclear facilities could end up causing far more serious damage, which then could release radioactivity or cause power grids or other vital systems, such as air traffic control systems, to fail. 

Also, such cyber warfare represents yet another attack on privacy and civil liberties. According to CNet, one of the largest technology websites, a recently discovered virus known as “Flame” was probably designed to spy on Iran, but is now found in computers around the world. “Flame can sniff network traffic, take screenshots, record audio conversations, log keystrokes and gather information about discoverable Bluetooth devices nearby and turn the infected computer into a discoverable Bluetooth device. The attackers can upload additional modules for further functionality.” It is thus not too surprising that the Russian government has proposed a ban on “cyberweapons.” As David Jeffers of PCWorld says, “A computer virus is the Internet equivalent of biological warfare.


One of the reasons that nations around the world entered into a treaty banning the development, stockpiling, or use of biological weapons was fear of what might happen if those weapons fell into the wrong hands, or if a catastrophe occurred that might unintentionally unleash biological agents against the civilian population.”

In addition to expanding secret warfare, continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expanding wars into Libya and Iran, the Obama administration has also deepened Bush’s foreign policy with regard to Latin America. Originally, a few months after taking office, Obama had promised Latin America “a new chapter of engagement” and “equal partnerships.” But this new rhetoric proved to be just as false as Obama’s rhetoric in other policy areas. Aside from pushing the same bilateral “free” trade agreements that Bush had pushed, passing new ones with Colombia and Peru, against majorities from his own party and with the support of the Republicans.

Similarly, Obama has continued Bush’s militarized war on Drugs, despite early promises to focus more on reducing U.S. demand for drugs. None of the demand reduction strategy has been implemented and instead Obama has extended Plan Colombia and the disastrous Merida Initiative (for Mexico) into Central America with the Central America Regional Initiative (CARSI). This “war on drugs” has led to a massive increase in violence, which has been especially hard on Mexico, where drug war-related killings claimed 50,000 lives in recent years and a murder rate that increased by 70% between 2009 and 2010. Without the Obama administration’s support for this “war on drugs” it is highly unlikely that Mexico would be in the situation it finds itself in today.

Not only is Obama continuing the Bush administration's failed war on drugs, he is also continuing his predecessor's policy of trying to isolate leftist governments in the region. However, unfortunately for Obama, since most governments in the region are leftist or left-of-center, it is the U.S. that is as isolated as it was under Bush. An early sign that Obama's "equal partnership" and "engagement" was just rhetoric was his support for the 2009 coup in Honduras, against Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. Although Obama at first criticized this coup, his administration's actions were all oriented towards ensuring its success. The most egregious action in this sense was that Obama recognized the presidential elections that were held under the coup government while there were massive human rights abuses taking place. Obama did this even though all other countries in South America stated very clearly that legitimate elections could only take place once democracy was restored.

An equally blatant effort to undermine democracy and to ensure U.S. dominance in the region was Obama's support for the ridiculously flawed 2010 presidential election in Haiti, which it supported, even though the country's largest political party, Fanmi Lavalas of ousted president Bertrand Aristide, had been banned from participating. As a result, only about 27% of the population participated in that election. The Obama administration, via the OAS, then put tremendous pressure on Haiti's election authorities to disqualify a more left-leaning candidate so that the run-off would take place between two right-wing candidates. In the end, the right-wing candidate Martelly was elected, even though only 4.3% of the voting age population had supported him in the first round.

The most recent overthrow of a left-of-center president, of President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, repeats the U.S. playbook of tacitly approving (if not actively supporting) such actions, while almost all other South American nations condemn it and are working on ways to put pressure on Paraguay to reverse it by suspending the country’s membership in regional institutions, such as UNASUR and Mercosur. It should thus come as no surprise that countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have had enough of Obama's empty promises and are staking out their own course and are actively undermining the Organization of American States (OAS) by forming a new regional body, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC in its Spanish initials). This new body includes all countries of the western hemisphere except for Canada and the U.S. and was officially launched in Caracas in December of 2011. Even the region's conservative governments, such as those of Mexico, Colombia, and Chile enthusiastically support CELAC.

There are more foreign relations policies that one could go into, where Obama is merely continuing Republican Party policies, but which would take too much space to get into here. For example, Obama’s (highly secretive) support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is yet another “free” trade agreement that is designed to increase the power of capital vis-à-vis labor and the environment in most of the countries that border the Pacific Ocean. Also, U.S. policies towards Iran and towards Israel are two more examples of Republican-Democratic policy continuity.


Immigration Policy

Immigration was one of the policy areas that also held out a lot of hope for progressive Obama supporters. Following Bush’s increasingly anti-immigrant policies, with the construction of a 700 mile wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and steadily increasing number of deportations of unauthorized immigrants, Obama’s promise to pass a law to at least provide a path to citizenship to an estimated 800,000 children of unauthorized immigrants was a ray of hope (the DREAM Act). However, Obama tried to negotiate for immigration reform via more draconian enforcement of existing immigration law. As a result, while deportations averaged about 200,000 per year under George W. Bush, the Obama administration managed to double this number, to about 400,000 per year. Meanwhile, the DREAM Act was defeated in the U.S. Senate in December 2010 because Democrats could not break the Republican’s filibuster when it got only 55 out of 100 votes, instead of the needed 60 out of 100.

Obama is probably not to blame for Republicans’ intransigence on this issue and therefore for the bill’s ultimate defeat. However, leaving aside the fact that Democrats do share responsibility with Republicans for allowing a Senate filibuster rule whereby a 60-vote majority is now needed to pass any legislation and a minority may thus block all legislation, the Obama administration is fully responsible for the massive increase in deportations, which have caused tremendous amount of suffering by tearing apart families and in many cases deporting people who have lived practically their entire adult lives in the U.S. 

The dramatic doubling of deportations under Obama has been achieved via a new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (aptly called “ICE”) program that the Obama administration has been aggressively implementing, known by the euphemistic name of “Secure Communities.” Under this program local police departments are required to automatically inform ICE and the FBI of all arrested individuals in the U.S. ICE then checks the arrested individual’s immigration status and if it suspects the person to be an unauthorized immigrant, they may issue a detention order once the issue for which the arrest was made has been resolved. That is, while the program was originally intended to deport only immigrants convicted of crimes, it now deports any unauthorized immigrant who is arrested. In August of 2011 Obama promised that ICE would review 400,000 deportation orders, but as of May 2012 fewer than 2 percent reviews have actually been completed.

Immigrant communities are now anything but secure, since any contact with the police can lead to deportation. For example, in one case, an immigrant woman whose husband was physically abusing her was arrested because the husband claimed she attacked him. She ended up being imprisoned (euphemistically referred to as detention) for violating immigration law, while her abusive husband remained with the children, who later ended up in foster care.

The fact that thousands of children end up in foster care because their parents are being imprisoned or deported is one of the cruelest aspects of the Obama immigration policy. According to Colorlines.com, at least 5,100 such children are currently in foster care. However, the number is probably far higher. For instance, according to another estimate, about 22% of all deported immigrants are parents of U.S. citizen children. This would result in 88,000 such parents deported per year. Even if 90% of these children did not have to be placed in foster care because one parent or relatives remained in the U.S. or because they returned to the country of origin with their parents, that would leave at least 8,800 parents whose children would enter the foster care system per year.

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