Barack Obama’s Foreign & Military Policies: Old Wine in a New Bottle?

There is eagerness in the United States for a new face, for healing words, and for a new vision of the country’s role in the world. Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is understandably positioning itself around these needs.

There is also a tradition of a large sector of the U.S. peace movement identifying with and being co-opted by what it perceives to be the most liberal and/or charismatic presidential candidate. As we saw in the first years of the Carter and Clinton presidencies, there is often a felt need to believe that with a Democratic president in office, there is little need to take a critical view or for mobilization.

For these reasons I think it is important that people take a hard look at Barack Obama’s major foreign and military policy speech which he gave yesterday in Chicago. It can be found at

Reading it has confirmed my worst fears. It differs little than the formulas being presented by Hillary Clinton, lacking even the boldness of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s (Founding Director of the Trilateral Commission and National Security Advisor to president Carter) recommendations for a "second chance" to restore U.S. imperial dominion in the Post-Cold War era. I found the number of his positive references to Republican Senator Lugar indicative of Obama’s agenda and deeply disturbing. While Obama speaks in terms of the need for "a new vision", his rhetoric is rife with America-first chauvinism, rejects "the notion that the American moment [read global hegemony] has passed", an insists that the U.S. once again fill "the position of leader of the free world.", and building a "21st century military."

Would that he spoke truths that we need to hear: that with its National Security Statement and invasion of Iraq the Bush Administration has precipitated a comprehensive imperial crisis; that in addition to profoundly alienating the United States from most of the world and breaking the U.S. military, that with its twin towers of deficit (national and trade) the economic foundations of our and future generations’ real security is being undermined. When the rising waters of global warming threaten to drowned our cities – the pillars of our civilization and economy – we will not have the hundreds of billions of dollars we need to build our version of Dutch dikes.

Obama’s speech does including a few hints of limited reform: reducing [not eliminating] the number of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert; nodding to the recent Kissinger, Shultz, Perry & Nunn article on nuclear threats; increasing U.S. foreign aid; reducing the U.S. addiction to oil, and the U.S. talking leadership in reducing green house gases because we are the world’s larges producer of these global warming pollutants. (By the same logic he should be calling for U.S. leadership in completely eliminating nuclear and conventional weapons.)

Obama says that "There are five ways America will begin to lead again when I’m president." Here they are with a few side comments from yours truly:

1. "bringing a responsible end to this war in Iraq and reinforcing on the critical challenges in the broader region."

a. Note the use of the word "responsible." His "plan" calls for phased withdrawal of all combat troops by March 31, 2008, with U.S. troops remaining in Iraq and "over-the horizon" to "prevent chaos in the wider region and to fight Al Qaeda. This is a reaffirmation of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and of the use of Iraq as "host" for U.S. military bases, and as Phyllis Bennis has pointed out, could leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq.

b. He notes that "Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain." (There is no mention of Israel’s continued occupation of much of the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem, the Wall, or Israel’s nuclear arsenal which contributes to Iran’s belief that it "lives in a dangerous neighborhood."

c. Obama raises the fear of the "challenge of Iran" and the centrality of the war in Afghanistan (where the U.S. is backing war lords, Karzai remains the mayor of Kabul, and negotiation with the Taliban continues to be ruled out.)

2. To build "the first truly 21st century military…we must maintain the strongest, best-equipped military in the world." This includes the "ability to put boots on the ground" while there is no mention that U.S. military spending already equals that of the rest of the world’s nations combined, and that basic human needs in this country are being sacrificed on the alter of military spending and the military-industrial-complex, Obama says "I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines" – nearly 100,000 more U.S. warriors!!

Obama goes on to say that "No President should ever hesitate to use force – unilaterally if necessary – to protect ourselves and our vital interests" (Middle Eastern, Caspian Sea or Venezuelan oil??) He then uses the 1991 Desert Storm war as the multi-national model for the "use [of] force in situations other than self-defense…"

He also describes "effective diplomacy and muscular alliances" as essential to "the full arsenal of American power and ingenuity", complementing "our" military to "ensure that the use of force is not our sole available option." While this is not the Bush II "romance of ruthlessness", it gives primacy to military frames of reference, seeing diplomacy as complementing U.S. military power and not (as a non-pacifist liberal might expect) the reverse.

3. On nuclear weapons, after his wink in the direction of the Kissinger-Shultz-Perry-Nunn manifesto, he presents a rehash of Kerry 2004: the greatest threat of nuclear war comes from non-state terrorists and rogue states (which challenge U.S. hegemony….) The fact that the U.S. has prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear attack at least 30 times since Nagasaki, and that its massive nuclear arsenal, nuclear threats, and disregard for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is the most powerful structural forces encouraging nuclear weapons proliferation is not mentioned.

a. His first priority is security "all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years." – a worthy goal

b. He wants to negotiate a "verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material." The term "verifiable" is important and a significant improvement over the smoke and mirrors version the Bush Administration has put forward

c. While not ruling out funding for the development of new U.S. nuclear weapons, he said that "We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads," reiterating the myth that U.S. first-strike nuclear policy is rooted in deterrence, but giving himself a hedge against further fueling nuclear weapons proliferation through the development of yet another generation of U.S. nuclear weapons.

d. "[T]he world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and work to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program…In pursuit of this goal, we must never take the military option off the table." Like President Bush, Senator Clinton and former Senator Edwards, Obama has reiterated that "all options" must be on the table – which includes by definition nuclear attack and which at this writing is backed up by the presence of two nuclear-capable aircraft carrier task forces in the Persian Gulf. Obama is reasserting that we can enforce the hypocritical and very dangerous doctrine that we can possess and threaten other nations with thousands of thermonuclear weapons, that we can permit our friends (India, Pakistan, Israel) to obtain nuclear weapons outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and makes no mention of the U.S.NPT commitment to negotiate the elimination of its and other nations’ nuclear arsenals.

e. To "deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons" Obama says that "the

United States and Russian must lead by example" and "remove as

many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status."

How many is "as many as possible"? What about the United States’ Article VI commitments to eliminate nuclear weapons? What about Russia’s proposal that when the START I Treaty expires in 2009 that the U.S. and Russia be required to reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1,000 weapons each, and the need for demobilized nuclear weapons be destroyed, not stockpiled. That, in turn, could provide the foundation for bringing the world’s lesser nuclear powers into negotiations for their complete elimination.


4. "[T]he fourth way America must lead is to rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats."

While it is necessary to building partnerships and greater collaborations to prevent non-state terrorism, to reverse global warming and prevent epidemics like AIDS, Obama also spoke in terms of maximizing U.S. "power", hearkening back to the Cold War (!!) with the statement "Leaders like Harry Truman and George Marshall knew that instead of constraining our power, these institutions magnified it." [Emphasis added.]

Like Bill Clinton and W. Bush’s National Security Statement before him, Obama warns that while China’s rise "offers new opportunities for prosperity and cooperation" it also means "new challenges for the United States and our partners in the region" (including the extreme right wing government in Tokyo which is reaffirming militarist values by refusing to acknowledge the sexual slavery of Asian and Pacific women during W.W.II, is preparing to undo the country’s pacifist constitution; and leading members of which, are raising the possibility of Japan become a nuclear weapons state.) Like President Clinton, Obama promises to "forge a more effective regional framework in Asia that will promote stability" – enforced, of course, by hundreds of U.S. military bases, more than 100,000 forward deployed U.S. troops, the Seventh Fleet, missile defenses, nuclear weapons and the weaponization of space…

5. "The fifth way American will lead again" Obama tells us "is to invest in our

common humanity" with significant increases in the United States paltry commitment for foreign aid. Rather than have U.S. Americans "turn inward", he stresses what he learned while visiting "The Horn of Africa’s Combined Joint Task Force which was headquartered at Camp Lemonier in Dijbouti." His belief is that the U.S. can reverse "Al Qaeda’s progress in recruiting a new generation of leaders" through the U.S. military, diplomats and aid workers in "operations to win hearts and minds," supporting sustainable democracy and providing "the world’s weakest states…what they need to reduce poverty, build healthy and educated communities, develop markets and generate wealth."

Much of this could be helpful if the U.S. military were not involved, Recall that resistance to the presence of foreign militaries is not limited to Third World nations. Our own Declaration of Independence decried the "abuses and usurpations" that are inherent to the presence of foreign military forces. Over and above the importance of providing increased and appropriate foreign aid, is the need to address the structural and policy rift (a Grand Canyon) between the U.S. and Islamic nations. This means casts aside the doctrine of "Full Spectrum Dominance" in the Middle East and beyond and opting for Common and Human Security. It means making negotiation of a just Israeli-Palestinian peace – consistent with U.N. General Assembly Resolutions 242 and 338 – the first priority of U.S. Middle East policy.

We are in a very fluid situation. The belief that the U.S. is somehow the best and the model for all peoples, that the U.S. must always lead, threatens our future as well as those with whom we share the planet. The 2008 presidential campaigns will have an enormous impact on who lives, who dies, and how. Like the people who are bird dogging candidates in New Hampshire and Iowa, we must be both imaginative and dedicated in bringing ALL U.S. troops home from Iraq now, and developing Common and Human Security visions and policies that can secure the future for us all.

The old saying has it that "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." Let’s do it!

This is a personal analysis and does not reflect official opinions or views of the American Friends Service Committee. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs of the AFSC in New England and author of Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.