Are Obama and Hillary Clinton really bumblers?

by Alexander Cockburn

Are they really bumblers? The opinion columns quiver with reproofsfor maladroit handling of foreign policy by President Obama and hisSecretary of State Hillary Clinton. Those who cherished foolish illusionsthat Obama’s election presaged a substantive shift to the left in foreignpolicy fret about “worrisome signs” that this is not the case.It’s true that there have been some embarrassing moments. VicePresident Biden, on a supposed mission of peace to Israel, is given thetraditional welcome — a pledge by Israel to build more settlements,plus adamant refusal to reverse the accelerating evictions of Palestiniansfrom their homes in East Jerusalem.At least Clinton, touring Latin America, was not greeted with gobs ofspit, like Vice President Nixon back in 1958, but she did get a couple ofrobust diplomatic slaps from Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim,rejecting Clinton’s hostile references to Venezuela and call for tougheraction towards Iran. Amid detailed news reports of butchered activistsin Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Latin Americans and even some Democraticmembers of the US Congress listened incredulously to Clinton’s brazenhosannas to the supposedly peaceful election of Honduras’ new, USsanctionedPresident Lobo in a process to which both the Organizationof American States and the European Union refused to lend the sanctionof official observers.Meanwhile, China signals its displeasure with the US with stentorianprotests about Obama’s friendliness towards the Dalai Lama. The PRCcontinues its rumblings about shrinking its vast position in US Treasurybonds.The Turks recall their ambassador from Washington in the wake of avote in a US congressional committeeto recognize the massacre of theArmenians in 1916 as “genocide.”Russia signals its grave displeasurewith Clinton’s rejection, in a speechat the Ecole Militaire in Paris, of President Medvedev’s proposal tonegotiate a new security pact for Europe. “We object to any spheresof influence claimed in Europe in which one country seeks to controlanother’s future,” she said. Shortly before this categorical statement,Poland announced that the US would deploy Patriot missiles on its territory,less than 50 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on theBaltic Sea.Is this partial list a reflection of incompetence, or a registration that,with a minor hiccup or two, US foreign policy under Obama is movingpurposively forward in its basic enterprise: to restore US credibility inthe world theater as the world’s premier power after eight years of poormanagement?Consider the situation that this Democratic president inherited. InJanuary 2009, the world was reeling amid violent economic contraction.Obituaries for the American Century were a dime a dozen. The US dollar’sfuture as the world’s reserve currency was written off with shoutsof contempt. Imperial adventuring, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, wereroutinely denounced as fit only for Kipling buffs. The progressives whovoted Obama in were flushed with triumph and expectation.Not much more than a year later, Obama has smoothed off the roughedges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and indeed widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945.

Latin America? Enough of talk about a new era, led by Chavez of Venezuela, Morales of Bolivia and other progressive leaders. So far as Uncle Sam is concerned, this is still his backyard. On the campaign trail in 2008, it was Republican John McCain who was reviled as the lobbyist for Colombia’s death squad patron, Uribe. Today, it’s Obama who presides over an adamantly pro-Uribe policy, supervising a widening of US military basing facilities in Colombia. As an early signal of continuity, Honduras’ impertinent president Zelaya, guilty of populist thoughts, was briskly evicted with US approval and behind-the-scenes stage management.

If ever there was a nation for whose enduring misery the US bears irrefutable responsibility (along with France), it is Haiti. The hovels that fell down in the earthquake were those of people rendered destitute by US policies since Jefferson, and most notably by the man to whom Obama is most often compared, another Nobel Peace Prize-winning US President, Woodrow Wilson. The houses that did not fall down in such numbers were those of the affluent elites, most recently protected by Bill Clinton, who was second only to Wilson in the horrors he sponsored in Haiti. Yet under Obama, the US is hailed as a merciful and generous provider for the stricken nation, even though it has been Cuba and Venezuela who have been the stalwarts, with doctors (in the case of Cuba) and total debt forgiveness (in the case of Venezuela). The US refused such debt relief.

Israel? Not one substantive twitch has discommoded the benign patronage of Israel by its patron, even though Obama stepped into power amidst Israel’s methodical war crimes — later enumerated by Judge Goldstone for the UN — in Gaza.

Consistent US policy has been to advocate a couple of mini-Bantustans for the Palestinians, and under Obama, the US has endured no substantive opposition to this plan from its major allies.

With Iran, there is absolute continuity with the Bush years, sans the noisy braggadocio of Cheney: assiduous and generally successful diplomatic efforts to secure international agreement for deepening sanctions; disinformation campaigns about Iran’s adherence to international treaties, very much in the Bush style of 2002. In the interests of overall US strategy in the region, Israel is held on a leash.

No need to labor the obvious about Afghanistan: an enlarged US expeditionary force engineered with one laughable pledge — earnestly brandished by the progressives — that the troops will be home in time for the elections of 2012. The US and, indeed, world antiwar movements live only in memory. Congressional Democrats in the House could barely muster 60 votes against the Afghan War, earlier this week.

Russia? Biden excited the foreign policy commentariat with talk of a “reset” in posture toward Russia. There’s no substantive reset — merely continuation of US policy since the post-Soviet collapse. Last October, Biden emphasized that the US “will not tolerate” any “spheres of influence,” nor Russia’s “veto power” on the eastward expansion of NATO. The US is involved in retraining the Georgian army.

China may thunder about the Dalai Lama and Taiwan — but on the larger stage, the Middle Kingdom’s world heft is much exaggerated. The astute China-watcher Peter Lee hit the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that “the US is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the US, the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the US has: military reach, moral leadership, heft in the global financial markets (Beijing’s immense overexposure to US government securities is, I think, becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability), or a large slate of loyal and effective allies in international organization.”

The United States, as Lee points out, is also making “good progress in pursuing the most destabilizing initiative of the next 20 years: encouragement of India’s rise from Afghanistan through to Myanmar as a rival and distraction to China.”

All of this is scarcely a catalog of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm — the first duty of all presidents of whatever imagined political stripe.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. ‘© 2010