In a recent largely flattering article/interview published on The Atlantic, titled ‘The Obama Doctrine’ President Obama came down from the lofty heights to dispel myths and offer an ostensibly candid self-evaluation of his presidency. In so far as it provided access into the mind of the most powerful man in the world, certainly it was a delightful read and a great triumph of journalism, and it revealed much not only in terms of what was divulged, as in terms of what was obfuscated.
Described as a man with a fatalistic Hobbesian understanding of human frailty, reluctantly at the helm of an enterprise hopelessly intermingled in various webs of deceit, treachery and violence, principally in the snake pit of Middle-Eastern power struggles- Obama is cast in a sympathetic light, perhaps rightly so, depending on how much he believes his own account of his foreign policy.
Throughout the piece Obama is described in contrast to his predecessors as a man who “wasn’t seeking new dragons to slay”, and who guided by an enlightened conscience was “horrified by the sins committed by the Syrian regime”. Elsewhere, and in line with this depiction of the President as a good man in a bad job, he goes on to assert that “The US is a force for good, we act less on the basis of naked self-interest”. To the observer of US foreign policy and its results on the ground, certainly such confidence in the idealism of the American mission may strike one as hagiographic, yet perhaps in the interests of charity one might concede that in Obama’s mind he may well be honest in his self-assessment.
Interestingly, the article at least highlights that in the presidential decision-making circle, there was a tangible distinction between those more cautious about direct involvement in wars, and the hawks eager to bomb their way out of situations unfavorable to US interests- the latter camp being occupied by Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power. Power being the main evangelist of the “responsibility to protect” rhetorical carte blanche which overrides any other consideration like national sovereignty, and Clinton being in many ways the muscle of the administration when it came to articulating where this idea would apply.
In light of the Wikileaks publication of Hillary Clinton’s email exchanges with her confidant Sidney Blumental however, a question mark hovers over Obama’s answers on these various foreign policy questions, where the rationale provided for his deliberations in some respects seems at best contradictory when juxtaposed with what the path the administration actually pursued in the real world.
Inconsistencies on Libya
In his interview, Obama appears quite aware of the constellation of unfortunate conditions which have led to the rise of ISIS and the subsequent spread of virulent Wahhabism in the region, and lucidly proclaims it is America’s mission to defeat it-while resigning himself to the probability that it was an unsolvable problem. How this played out in real terms however has been a different story, some emails suggest that while the Obama administration was conscious of the fact that aiding destabilizing forces to take hold in Libya for example, where Gaddafi maintained a robust anti-Jihadi policy, could inevitably lead to the dissemination of extremists – this was allowed to happen, and for reasons which simply cannot be said to be attributed to even misguided humanitarianism.
Contrary to Obama’s claims that the US doesn’t prioritize “naked self-interest”, as a Foreign Policy Journal article cogently revealed , America was happy to aid and abet French machinations against Gaddafi to proceed, for the stated purpose of precluding the Libyans from using a vast gold and silver reserve to be used to advance a gold-based currency that would rival the Franc in the Francophone countries. The Libyan designs on becoming a regional power that would replace France as the dominant influence in North Africa would it seems warrant American backing of a cynical variety of neoimperialism masquerading as humanitarian mission.
While this isn’t to say that Gaddafi was the most morally upright of leaders, nevertheless, this is no reason to blatantly disregard principles of national sovereignty and self-determination, and for purposes which are clearly stated to be within the realm of naked self-interest of former colonial powers. The tragedy of the Libyan situation becomes particularly acute once we dig into the details of what Hillary knew was unfolding by virtue of the intervention Western powers had sanctioned.
For instance, while mainstream media outlets quickly went on to regurgitate nightmare stories about Gaddafi’s ‘African mercenaries’ being used to massacre captive civilians the story on the ground was somewhat different. Blumenthal in another email discusses how “foreign mercenaries’’ continued to be summarily executed by rebel leaders. The identity of these villains however is interesting, seeing as most were foreign guest workers, fruits of Gaddafi’s latter day Pan-African overtures, who were being victims of a campaign of ethnic cleansing characterized by indiscriminate murder of blacks in Libya- in one case a whole town of 20,000 or so inhabitants, Tarwegha, was wiped off the map. Needless to say, these were poor candidates for the contrived image of ‘marauding mercenaries’ being propagated elsewhere.
If anyone was ever in doubt as to the motives behind backing up these rebels, the folk whom Samantha Power once described favorably as “drawn from the ranks of ordinary citizens”, and the general French mission, Blumenthal has been kind enough to spell out in no uncertain terms, what the priorities were:
“Sarkozy’s plans are driven by the following issues: a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production, b. Increase French influence in North Africa, c. Improve his internal political situation in France, d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world, e. Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa”
Perhaps then Obama wasn’t entirely mistaken in describing the US role in world affairs as not being purely driven by self-interest, as the Libyan story reveals, the US can be a generous ally in assisting the self-interest of France too. Contemporary reports, interestingly, had hinted at the French fingerprints on the Libyan crime scene too it shouldn’t be forgotten, after all, there had been rumors as to the direct involvement of French spies in the death of Gaddafi himself.
In any case, it’s obvious that pleasant stories about “organic civilian uprisings’’, or for that matter, all the bravado about counter-terrorism are fictions which bear no resemblance to reality. Years following the ‘humanitarian mission’ that took place in Libya, we now hear that the taking out of the Gaddafi regime has only allowed ISIS to fill the power vacuum left in the failed state.
These are ironic developments. In the Atlantic interview, Obama had commented on the problem of terrorism “when combined with the problem of failed states”, and here I suppose he must have been speaking about his own track record in making sure these problems were made worse.
Adding fuel to the Syrian fire
Obama, when discussing the seemingly intractable problems of the Middle-East which stand in the way of US benevolence, claims that “one of the most destructive forces in the [region] is tribalism”, going on to add that “it is literally in my DNA to be suspicious of tribalism”. Nevertheless, the Clinton emails reveal that when push comes to shove, Obama’s genetically-driven ‘suspicions’ were not enough to stop his administration from actively encouraging and cheering on the eruption of sectarian violence in Syria, provided this proved reassuring to Israel and weakened Iran.
As Blumenthal explains to Hillary Clinton “[If] the Assad regime topples, Iran would lose its only ally in the Middle East and would be isolated. At the same time, the fall of the House of Assad could well ignite a sectarian war between the Shiites and the majority Sunnis of the region drawing in Iran, which, in the view of Israeli commanders would not be a bad thing for Israel and its Western allies.”
It seems that for all of Obama’s posturing about not favoring belligerence for its own sake, or “seeking new dragons to slay”, when Israel is factored into the equation, all these considerations take second place, and counter-terrorism, or stability in a fragile region, or other such slogans begin to look empty to say the least. Another leaked email is more lucid as to the US designs for the region, “Bringing down Assad would not only be a massive boon to Israel’s security, it would also ease Israel’s understandable fear of losing its nuclear monopoly. Then, Israel and the United States might be able to develop a common view of when the Iranian program is so dangerous that military action could be warranted.”
Speaking to his Atlantic interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama affirms that Israel is however no sinister force to be feared, “My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel”- and this is true to some degree, at least in so far as Israel doesn’t act alone, but has the US there to actively stir up mayhem in the surrounding countries.
Bearing many similarities to the Libyan case, the Obama stance on Syria is characterized by the hollow sentimentalist rhetoric of the “responsibility to protect civilians”, coupled with the nods to unsubstantiated rumors implicating the villainous regime in atrocities- if in Gaddafi’s case it was the spurious ‘African mercenaries’, in Assad’s case it was the apparent use of chemical weapons , and after that was discredited, the administration stuck to the narrative about Assad being an illegitimate ruler, responsible for all manner of evil.
Driven by the same altruistic instincts of old, the Obama administration is hell-bent on doing whatever it can to topple Assad primarily for the purposes of undermining Iran and spiting Russia, not to mention propping up Israel. This has been a strategy that has also resulted in weapons and supplies ending up with the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida fellow traveler, and other Jihadi groups, as consequences, intended or otherwise, of the policy of arming “moderate rebels” in this effort- which once again, goes to show that counter-terrorism is low priority; when it comes to taking out governments the US doesn’t like, throwing money at Jihadist groups, who are then presented as perfectly ordinary civilians, is not a problem.
The consequences of this reckless clandestine interventionism are as evident as the contradictory and erratic logic which underpins it. As Noam Chomsky pointed out in recent times, it is impossible to fight ISIS while also attacking the states which keep it bay, like the Assad regime or the Iranians who are the principal stalwarts against Jihadi forces who have thrived by virtue of US-driven destabilization since the Iraq war.
Something that emerges as particularly troubling however, is that interviews like the Atlantic one which paint the Obama administration in such an unwarranted favorable light serve to indirectly influence the US voter to overlook the very real danger of the continuation of these 8 years of failed and contradictory policies. In so far as the mainstream media largely displayed an astounding indifference to the contents of the Wikileaks this election season, with some exceptions, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, a vigorous instigator of the various dubious foreign policy decisions noted earlier, remains unquestioned as the “reasonable choice” to the detriment of a true alternative (however flawed) put forward by Bernie Sanders, or even Donald Trump.
Considering the real fruits of the ‘Obama doctrine’, the displacement of thousands of Middle-Eastern religious minorities like Christians and Yazidis due to the advance of ISIS, the engineering of failed states like post-Gaddadi Libya, and the cynical destabilization of Iran and Syria for “humanitarian purposes”, among other unsavory consequences, ought to make US voters pause before being lulled by Buzzfeed-style political marketing stunts into abandoning all consideration and littering social media with hashtags #ImwithHer or #Hillary2016.