US fighting to stay on top

Challenged on every front, ‘smart power’ cannot save US imperialism.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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“Black man given worst job again” was the headline in a US satirical publication when Barack Hussein Obama was elected to be the 44th President of the United States of America. On the time-honoured principle that there is “many a true word spoken in jest” , the headline was surely not unreasonable.

Mr Obama did indeed assume office at a time of perhaps unprecedented crisis for US imperialism – sucked into a quagmire of unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the worst banking and financial crisis in at least seven decades, and beset by a whole host of other challenges, including the triumphant advance of democracy and socialism in its Latin American ‘backyard’ and the rise of China.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Arlington, Virginia, President George W Bush famously gave an ultimatum to the countries and peoples of the world, that “you are either with us or against us”. Such were Bush’s diplomatic skills that a substantial global majority pretty soon plumped for the latter option!

It is against this strategic imperative of the urgent need to address US imperialism’s increasing isolation and steadily mounting crises at home and abroad, rather than attributing a ‘new direction’ to any character attributes or even policy preferences, that one must primarily assess the emerging foreign policy direction and choices of the new Obama administration.

The war in Iraq

One factor that was undoubtedly crucial in securing for Obama the nomination of the Democratic Party and the presidency itself was his promise to end the war in Iraq by withdrawing US occupation forces. However, whilst he no doubt genuinely seeks to extricate the United States from a conflict it can never ultimately win, there is no change in US imperialism’s strategic goals, which include maintaining a chokehold on oil resources through perpetuating neo-colonial domination throughout the region.

Change, if any, belongs to the realm of tactics and presentation. Hence, on 27 February, President Obama made an announcement, claiming that most US troops would leave Iraq by August 2010. “However” , added the Financial Times , “troops will be withdrawn at a slower pace than Mr Obama promised during the election campaign and up to 50,000 US soldiers could remain in Iraq until the end of 2011.”

The report continued: “Mr Obama promised during the campaign to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office, with a residual force left behind to train Iraqi forces and target al-Qaeda. The plan announced yesterday sets back the deadline to 19 months and leaves behind more troops than anti-war Democrats had hoped.” (‘Obama adds time to troop drawdown’, Financial Times , 28 February 2009)

Another report in the same edition noted that, under Obama’s new plan, of the 142,000 US troops presently in Iraq, around 50,000 would remain “for the purpose of training the Iraqi security forces and conducting counter-terrorism operations [that is, waging war against the Iraqi resistance and the patriotic people] , with the possibility of keeping even more troops in Iraq “if violence started to increase” . (‘McCain leads way as party lines up behind new plan’, Financial Times , 28 February 2009) (For further background, see ‘Iraq: will Obama’s “change” be more of the same?’ in the last issue of Proletarian .)

Frank Helmick, a senior US general in Iraq, has estimated that Iraq “needs almost three years to prepare its security forces for a sustained fight against insurgents”. (‘US general stresses need for time’, Financial Times , 16 February 2009)

The same newspaper poured scepticism on claims that the forces of the Iraqi puppet regime could deal with the resistance on their own:

“There are lingering questions about whether the militias were defeated or simply melted away, and the operation [the so-called ‘Charge of the Knights’ declared by puppet prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, largely directed against the Mahdi Army forces led by Muqtada al-Sadr] highlighted the Iraqi security force’s weaknesses as well as its gains. Iraqi troops depended on critical help from coalition forces, not least vital logistics support as they ran low on food, water and ammunition, experts say. Both the army and police also suffered desertions, estimates of which vary from hundreds to more than 1,000.”

The article further quoted a puppet policeman: “They [militias] do nothing now … but they are only waiting for the lion [American troops] to leave and the rat to come back to their position again.” Or, as Comrade Mao Zedong famously and succinctly expressed the first principle of guerrilla warfare: “The enemy advances, we retreat.” (‘Stern test for local forces as coalition troops prepare to quit’, Financial Times , 17 February 2009)

But, to the extent that Obama is contemplating the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, it is not primarily to bring them home. As the Financial Times report put it:

“His plan maintained enough ‘forces and flexibility’ to help Iraq succeed, but insisted the US could no longer afford ‘to see Iraq in isolation from other priorities’ at a time of mounting challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and economic crisis at home.” (‘Obama adds time to troop drawdown’, op cit )


When it comes to Afghanistan, at least it may be said that Obama cannot be accused of breaking his campaign promises. He openly campaigned for office on a platform of intensifying the war in Afghanistan and expanding it more overtly to Pakistan than was already the case in the last period of the Bush administration.

Just over a week before he announced his proposals on Iraq troop deployments, Obama, according to the Financial Times , “approved the deployment of 17,000 new troops for Afghanistan as the US attempts to fight a growing insurgency by Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in the war-torn country.

“In his first big military decision as commander-in-chief, the president agreed to send 12,000 combat soldiers and marines and 5,000 support troops to bolster the 38,000 US troops in Afghanistan … The pace at which the president can increase the US presence in Afghanistan also depends on how quickly he withdraws troops from Iraq.” (‘Obama beefs up Afghan forces’, Financial Times, 18 February 2009) (For a full analysis of Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, see ‘Obama committed to a hopeless imperialist cause in Afghanistan’, Lalkar , March 2009.)


Iran is in many respects a pivotal country in the evolution of Obama’s foreign policy. Besides the litany of bilateral issues that essentially date to the victory of the islamic revolution 30 years ago this February, the more intelligent strategists of US imperialism realise that it is impossible to resolve the Iraqi and Afghan, as well as the Palestinian, situations without at least a modicum of cooperation from Tehran.

A central dilemma is, therefore, how to secure Iranian cooperation where the United States needs it, whilst continuing to constrain the country’s independent development and anti-imperialist orientation, not least in the realms of nuclear energy and Iran’s staunch support for the Palestinian and Lebanese liberation movements.

In turn, Iran’s anti-imperialist stance complicates the USA’s relations with both Russia and China, who are far more inclined to regard Iran as a friend and partner than as any sort of threat or adversary.

Some of these dilemmas were dissected by the chief international commentator of the Financial Times , Gideon Rachman, who based his assessment on a speech given in Israel by Gary Samore, shortly before he was handed the White House’s non-proliferation portfolio:

“Mr Samore said there was ‘a growing sense in the region and more broadly that Iran’s nuclear effort is unstoppable’. But he gave three reasons why an Obama diplomatic initiative might just work. The most important is the collapse in world oil prices, which makes Iran more vulnerable to economic sanctions. The second is that Mr Obama can make a credible offer of much better relations with the US. And third, Mr Obama’s popularity overseas will make it easier for him to line up international support for sanctions.

“But Mr Samore was far from sanguine that this would be enough. He noted that ‘Moscow and Beijing basically don’t share our concern about Iran’s nuclear programme’, and that Iran’s leadership ‘probably value the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability much more than better relations with the US’. He said: ‘We have to be realistic, and stopping Iran at this point is going to be a very difficult challenge.’ The Iranians, he predicted, would attempt to ‘drag out negotiations … while they continue to build up their enrichment capability’.”

Rachman continued his analysis (and, in quoting from him, it is important to note that the Iranian leadership has consistently stated that it is developing nuclear power solely for peaceful, not military, purposes, and not a shred of proper evidence has ever been produced to refute this insistence):

“An Iran with nuclear weapons could destabilise the region in numerous ways. It could back radical Islamist movements such as Hizbollah and Hamas with more energy and less fear of reprisals. It could threaten and intimidate the oil states of the Gulf. It could frighten more of the educated and mobile Israeli middle class into emigrating. And it could precipitate a destabilising arms race across the region – as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States and Turkey all rushed to go nuclear.

“All of those developments would be deeply unappealing. But is it worth going to war to stop them? That question, in turn, breaks down into a number of subsidiary questions. Would a military attack work – or would Iran be able to rebuild swiftly? Would Iranian retaliation lead to a broader military conflict across the Gulf region – the home of US military bases and much of the world’s oil? Would Israel attack if Washington held back?

“The US would have a much better chance than Israel of really setting back Iran’s nuclear programme, because – unlike the Israelis – the US could mount a sustained bombing campaign. But such a campaign would also be much more likely to broaden into a wider regional war. At that point, the war would have brought about the result it was launched to prevent – the destabilisation of the entire Middle East.

“The world has already had to learn to live with a nuclear Pakistan and a nuclear North Korea. If it comes to it, we will have to live with a nuclear Iran.” (‘Nuclear Iran? Decision time is here’, Financial Times , 23 February 2009)

But that, however, is very far from a desirable outcome for US imperialism. So far, therefore, Obama’s evolving policy towards Iran may be termed one of offering “a bigger carrot and a bigger stick” . (See, for example, ‘Brown to warn Iran over nuclear secrecy’, Daily Telegraph , 17 March 2009)

The United States has already invited Iran to participate in a regional conference on Afghanistan. With the resistance in Pakistan increasingly cutting off the occupation armies’ supply routes, and the government of Kyrgyzstan expelling the US base at Manas, the US has even thought aloud about asking Iran for assistance in providing supply routes into Afghanistan. (‘US thinks the unthinkable: asking Iran for help with supply routes’, The Times , 26 February 2009)

But the Iranian leaders are not stupid and have long memories. They recall, for instance, that, to a certain extent, Iran acquiesced in and facilitated the US-led overthrow of the previous Taliban regime in Afghanistan, only to be promptly branded as part of an ‘axis of evil’ along with Iraq and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This, in part, explains the extreme caution with which Tehran has rightly responded to Obama’s honeyed words.

Following the US president’s message on the occasion of Norwuz , the Iranian new year, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded in a speech delivered in the city of Mashhad: “They chant the slogan of change but no change is seen in practice … Have you released Iranian assets? Have you lifted oppressive sanctions? Have you given up your unconditional support of the zionist regime?” (Quoted in ‘Iranian supreme leader offers dismissive reply to message from Obama’, Financial Times, 23 March 2009)

Russia and China

Part of the ‘bigger stick’ that Obama has in mind if Iran does not play ball is intensified sanctions, focused in particular on Iran’s oil industry, as well as its international banking and financial services. And this, in turn, is a big factor in his administration’s efforts to recalibrate its relations with its two major strategic adversaries, Russia and China.

Relations with Russia headed towards the deep freeze in the last days of the Bush administration, particularly as a result of the brief Russo-Georgian war last August. Now, the United States says it wants to “press the reset button” in its relations with Moscow. In a bid to win Russian cooperation over Iran, “a recent letter from Mr Obama to … [Russian president Dimitri] Medvedev reportedly pointed out that, if the Iranian nuclear threat failed to materialise, there would be less need for new missile defences in Europe” . (‘Russia and America. And now for a nuclear remake’, The Economist , 12 March 2009)

The US threat to deploy ‘missile defence’ systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, under the pretext of countering a supposed threat from Iran, is regarded as a mortal threat by Russia as, by neutralising the country’s ability to retaliate, it would effectively put it at the nuclear mercies of Washington. On such a vital issue, it will take more than warm words to reassure the Kremlin.

US relations with China have, in recent years, become even more strategic and sensitive than those with Russia, on issues ranging from the financial crisis and China’s purchase of huge quantities of US Treasury Bonds, through climate change, to the Korean nuclear issue and Taiwan.

Making her first overseas visit as President Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Japan, China, south Korea and Indonesia in February. Speaking to the Asia Society in New York shortly before her departure, Ms Clinton attempted to cast relations with China in a largely positive light:

“Now, some believe that China on the rise is, by definition, an adversary. To the contrary, we believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribute to each other’s successes. It is in our interest to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared opportunities …

“Even with our differences, the United States will remain committed to pursuing a positive relationship with China, one that we believe is essential to America’s future peace, progress, and prosperity.

“An ancient Chinese story tells of warring feudal states, whose soldiers find themselves on a boat together crossing a wide river in a storm. Instead of fighting one another, they work together and survive. Now, from this story comes a Chinese aphorism that says, ‘When you are in a common boat, you need to cross the river peacefully together.’ The wisdom of that aphorism must continue to guide us today.” (‘US-Asia relations: indispensable to our future’, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, Remarks at the Asia Society, New York, 13 February 2009)

Ms Clinton largely stuck to this conciliatory and beguiling tone during her ensuing visit to Beijing, drawing rebukes in the process from both overt neo-conservatives and those who pursue their anti-communist crusades under such deceptive signboards as ‘human rights’.

But just three weeks after Clinton was exercising her charm in Beijing, and whilst Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi was in Washington to arrange Obama’s first meeting with President Hu Jintao during the London G-20 summit, a very different face of Sino-US relations was on display in the South China Sea.

In an incident 75 miles south of China’s Hainan Island, and well within the country’s exclusive economic zone recognised under the UN Law of the Sea, the USNS Impeccable sprayed the crew of Chinese naval ships with high pressure water hoses after they had approached near to the US spy ship. According to The Times :

“The Impeccable is one of five ocean surveillance ships that serve with the US 7th Fleet, which is based in Yokosuka, Japan. The ships use low-frequency sound to search for undersea threats including submarines, a US military official said.

“Hainan Island is the site of a Chinese naval base that houses ballistic missile submarines, according to independent analysts.” (‘China accuses US naval ship of illegal surveying’, The Times , 10 March 2009)

In response to the confrontation between the Impeccable and the Chinese vessels, President Obama announced the dispatch of heavily armed destroyers to escort US spy ships in the region. Commenting on the incident, The Economist wrote:

“A retired Chinese admiral likened the American navy to a man with a criminal record ‘wandering just outside the gate of a family home’ … It would all sound familiar to George Bush, who faced a similar spat with China soon after becoming president eight years ago. Then, as now, the argument is about American military activity in China’s vicinity. For Mr Bush, the mid-air collision of a Chinese fighter with an American spy plane in April 2001 became the first foreign-policy crisis of his presidency. For President Obama, a stand-off in the South China Sea between an American naval ship and five Chinese vessels is not such an emergency. In 2001, a Chinese pilot died and the 24 members of the spy plane’s crew were held for 11 days. No one was killed or captured this time. It is a reminder, however, that for all the talk of friendship China can still get very prickly … The Chinese say the Impeccable was on a spy mission. Detecting submarines is indeed one of her roles, and Hainan is home to Chinese submarine bases … A Chinese admiral said recently that it was ‘very necessary’ to build an aircraft-carrier – a move that would heighten American unease. Further close encounters in the western Pacific are inevitable, and could always, and quickly, turn nasty.” (‘China and America spar at sea. Naked Aggression’, The Economist , 12 March 2009)

The aim remains the same

That same observation might well be applied to US foreign policy in almost any part of the world. The US political scholar Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power”, arguing that the United States should seek to make greater use of non-coercive methods to maintain and expand its hegemony, in contrast to Bush and the neo-conservatives’ perceived over-reliance on “hard power”. In her Asia Society address, Hillary Clinton advocated a synthesis of the two, which she dubbed, in a classic example of the famed Clintonesque method of ‘triangulation’, “smart power”.

Obama’s foreign policy is still evolving, under conditions where every day brings a fresh challenge, but the “smart power” synthesis would appear to define its main thrust. This is a timely reminder that, if there is a change in the policy of US imperialism under Obama, it is – and can only be – a change in the methods employed to maintain and extend its hegemony and its enslavement of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The socialist countries, national-liberation movements, oppressed nations and the revolutionary working-class movement can and must respond with their own “smart power”, skilfully utilising all forms of struggle, and combining strategic firmness with tactical flexibility, to advance the anti-imperialist struggle to new victories, as US imperialism sinks both under the weight of its own contradictions and from the relentless blows of those whom it has oppressed and tormented for far too long.

> Iraq: will Obamas change be more of the same – February 2009

> Obamas victory and its significance – December 2008