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Barack Obama and the war presidency

By Sukrit Sabhlok - posted Monday, 29 December 2008

Every American president in recent memory has placed some emphasis on bringing about “change”. George W. Bush, during the 2000 campaign, promised that he would deliver a “humble” foreign policy that involved no “nation-building”. This was at a time when many Republicans had criticised Bill Clinton’s interventions in Kosovo and Somalia. But after 9-11, Bush broke his promise and began nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

During America’s recent presidential campaign, President-elect Barack Obama made similar promises in an attempt to distinguish himself from his rival, John McCain. Obama was widely perceived as the peace candidate, while McCain was seen as a warmonger. But those who think Obama will pursue a foreign policy significantly different from the Bush Administration are likely to be disappointed.

Like Bush, Obama will probably increase intervention overseas and we can deduce this from publicly available statements. Regarding Pakistan, Obama is on record as saying that he would be willing to invade that country to combat terrorism. A Reuters article, dated August 1, 2007, quotes his exact words: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.” His policy has already been adopted by the Bush administration, which in recent months has been violating Pakistan’s sovereignty (despite protests) to bomb suspected terrorists.


As for Afghanistan, it is common knowledge that Obama wants to send more troops to the quagmire over there.

And what of withdrawal from Iraq, a policy that formed the centrepiece of his anti-war rhetoric? This promise was a fraud from the beginning. Those who peruse the fine print will learn that Obama never promised to withdraw all troops from Iraq. He merely promised to take out combat brigades over a period of 16 months. This means that non-combat military personnel will still remain, as will most of the permanent bases. Moreover, he has made it clear that a “residual force” (i.e. an army numbering in the tens of thousands) will be left behind to conduct “targeted” operations against suspected terrorists. Obama placed withdrawal on even shakier ground when he said that he would be willing to re-invade Iraq if al-Qaida gained a significant foothold there.

Nor has Obama agreed to scale back the American empire. The US, which has hundreds of bases all over the world, is frequently the cause of tension in host countries, especially when American soldiers commit crimes against the local population. While the presence of large numbers of soldiers in other countries unnecessarily inflames anti-American sentiment, Obama has made no specific commitments in this regard.

If Obama really wants to revamp American foreign policy, he must be willing to place his re-election at stake by confronting the establishment. Ever since Harry Truman led the US into a war with North Korea in 1950, there has been bipartisan support for using the military to forcefully intervene in various places around the world. Over the years, these interventions have resulted in dependent client-states, such as Japan; and vested interests, such as military contractors, that regularly lobby the American government to “do more” for their particular interests. As a result, America is enmeshed in areas of the world that have little to do with its national security interests.

Every conflict threatens to become an international crisis, because America’s array of entangling alliances makes it susceptible to being sucked into obscure squabbles.

Little wonder then, that the US was one of the most interventionist nations of the 20th century. During the Cold War, the US intervened 16 times. In the post-Cold War period, by contrast, it intervened about 48 times (Ivan Eland, The Empire Has No Clothes). With the Soviet Union gone, American hegemony is now unchecked.


The institutional pressures of the presidency call into doubt many of Obama’s campaign pledges. There are also questions of credibility. Obama claimed frequently during the primaries to have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. Yet, the reality is that he continued to vote in favour of bills funding military operations in the region. A consistent anti-war candidate would have voted neither to authorise an invasion nor to fund an unjust war.

What is worse, Obama has appointed Hillary Clinton (who voted to invade Iraq) as his Secretary of State, and Robert Gates (a Bush administration hawk) as his Secretary of Defense. These two appointees are unlikely to offer a fresh perspective on foreign policy, as they have a long history of being Washington insiders.

It seems reasonable for Australians to expect that there will be more wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq under an Obama administration, although the regional location and justifications will probably differ. It is important that the foreign policy community discuss this virtual certainty now, lest they be caught unprepared to make informed contributions to future debates over the commitment of Australian troops.

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About the Author

Sukrit Sabhlok is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University Law School.

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