Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obama's Pandering Problem & Foreign Policy

In the past few weeks, as the never-ending Democratic primary has finally run its course, and a nominee has emerged, there has been alot of jubilation. As a person of color, a man of mixed-race heritage who proudly calls himself African-American, the son of a partially immigrant past, and with a connection to the global world seemingly built into his gene pool, Senator Barack Obama stands poised to make history on several fronts. And the world is certainly taking notice.

From Europe to Asia to Africa, Obama-mania and fascination is high. Street vendors in Cairo follow his speeches while newspapers in Germany are abuzz with his name. Both here and abroad, Obama is being hailed as the best great hope for peace and global stability. Yet, one has to wonder if perhaps many of the world's citizens are setting expectations too high. Would a President Barack Obama be the figure who would single-handedly push back against American Empire, making the US a nation among equals? Would he stand with many of the powerless of the world who expect that his background and past make him a natural ally to their cause? Is the "change" he is promising to bring going to be so monumental that it will harken a new age?

Or are we all kidding ourselves?

Two recent speeches by the presumptive Democratic nominee may signal that for many initially caught up in the Obama euphoria, it may be time to "get real."

"Obama's AIPAC speech shocks Arabs"- so read the headline of the Middle East Times on June 5th. It was one day after Sen. Obama, following the formal end of the Democratic primaries, addressed the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Standing in front of a banner reading, "Built to Last," in reference to the long-standing relationship between the United States and Israel, Obama sought to shore up his image with the one lobby he couldn't reject. In what followed, the presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee engaged in a speech in which he assured Israel of its continued strategic importance to the US, promised to continue its military aid to the tune of $billions, scolded the Palestinians as if they were errant school children, warned against what he deemed the "threat" of Iran and--most glaringly--promised that Jerusalem would remain the "undivided capital" of the Jewish state. In the packed auditorium the Illinois Senator received repeated standing ovations and applause. Outside of that small hall however, much of the world cringed.

As the Mideast Times put it, the speech served as a "rude awakening" that any new leadership in Washington would continue the status quo--that is, favoring Israel over the rest of the Middle East, labeling Muslim countries in the region as the sole threats to peace, holding the Israeli state accountable for nothing and ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people. Arab newspapers and journalists in the region and elsewhere, seeming equally stunned, blasted the speech as blatant pandering:

"This cheap way of throwing himself at the feet of this lobby [AIPAC] harms American interests … and encourages violence and terrorism by giving justification to extremist groups, such as al-Qaida," -- Al-Quds Al-Arabi.

"Obama is gambling with his image and the widespread hopes that many had placed on him to change the face of America, its relations with the world, and getting out of its economic crises stemming from its failed and immoral wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." --Palestinian Daily.

"It was so sad. To see a grown tower of a man come to his knees. Just like everyone before him, the presumptive democratic followed the suit of all US political leaders before him and bowed down at the footsteps of the pro Israel lobby. What happened to the anti lobby nominee? ...America's black nominee who would have supported divestment on racist south Africa blasted international divestment calls on Israel, and libeled Arab oil producing countries by saying that "petrodollars are responsible for the killing of American soldiers and Israeli citizens. How pathetic." --Palestinian journalist and visiting Princeton professor Daoud Kuttab.

Even those in the mainstream US media scratched their heads in wonder:

"A mere 12 hours after claiming the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday -- and changed himself into an Israel hard-liner...As a pandering performance, it was the full Monty by a candidate who, during the primary, had positioned himself to Hillary Clinton's left on matters such as Iran. Yesterday, Obama, who has generally declined to wear an American-flag lapel pin, wore a joint U.S.-Israeli pin, and even tried a Hebrew phrase on the crowd." -- Dana Milbank, Washington Post.

One sarcastic blog headline summed up the odd timing of the speech, which coincided with the clinching of the Democratic nomination: "Obama brushes off change confetti and reveals empty suit in AIPAC conference speech."

For much of the Muslim world, and among the more progressive blogosphere, those who had become enamored with the prospects of "change" in an Obama presidency, were left to shake their heads in dismay.

It wasn't long before the criticism reached diplomatic levels, creating a minor international firestorm. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas latched onto Obama's Jerusalem statement as something to be "totally rejected." In angry condemnation, he went on to proclaim: "The whole world knows that East Jerusalem, holy Jerusalem, was occupied in 1967 and we will not accept a Palestinian state without having [East] Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state."

In Tehran, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini condemned the speech as propaganda that sought to destabilize and defame the Islamic Republic. "Such illusory and biased remarks are unacceptable. It is most evident that they are not a particle of truth and are very much divorced from the reality about Iran's nuclear activities," he said.

In less than 72 hours, as criticism mounted, Obama was forced to backtrack on his most incendiary statements regarding Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a CNN interview, seeking to clarify his points, the Democratic nominee stated: "Well, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations."

Though the AIPAC speech and its controversies reached the mainstream media, this was not however the first time Sen. Obama's foreign policy directives seemed to fall short of substantial "change." Back in late May, Sen. Obama gave a speech in Miami to the Cuban American National Foundation on his approach to Latin America. While reaffirming his long voiced openess to meeting with Cuban leaders, a progressive break with traditional US foreign policy dating back to the Eisenhower administration, Sen. Obama stated that he would nevertheless maintain the crushing 46 year-old embargo on the island nation as a form of "leverage." In his own words, "Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice and repression in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom. Never, in the lives of two generations of Cubans, have the people of Cuba known democracy ... I won't stand for this injustice ... I will maintain the embargo." Fidel Castro himself penned a rebuttal at his sense of disappointment at the seemingly simplistic portrayal of the communist country.

"This man who is doubtless, from the social and human points of view, the most progressive candidate for the US presidency, portrays the Cuban revolution as anti-democratic and lacking in respect for freedom and human rights," Castro stated. "It is the same argument US administrations have used again and again to justify crimes against our country. The blockade is an act of genocide. I don't want to see US children inculcated with those shameful values."

Indeed, in Sen. Obama's "New Partnership for Latin America," a policy guideline put out by his campaign, the foreign affairs approach to South and Central America and the Caribbean remains muddled with questions. On the one hand his stance on the IMF and the need for environmental cooperation seems promising, or at least a move in the right direction. On other matters however, there are continued plans for the funding of the right wing Colombian government war against FARC, with military aid in the form of the Andean Counter-drug program. The Colombian regime has long been accused of aiding right wing paramilitary death squads, and many have called the Andean Counter-drug program the new-age infamous "School of the Americas." Yet there seems to be no review by Sen. Obama of these long held US policies that masquerade under the heading of a supposed "War on Drugs."

"Many of us had great “hope” for the much-vaunted “change” in U.S. policy towards Latin America," Roberto Lavato wrote in a peice for Of America. "But listening to Barack Obama’s “substantive” speech on U.S. Latin America policy last week and reading his “New Partnership with the Americas” policy proposal, it’s pretty clear that Obama will do nothing to alter the basic structure of George W. Bush’s Latin America policy: trade backed by militarism."

On a key test of American diplomacy, the strained US relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Sen. Obama strayed little from his predecessors, parroting some of the worst rhetoric of the Bush administration and right-wing foreign policy hawks. In his speech the Venezuelan leader was depicted as undemocratic--even though Chavez was democratically elected president, repeatedly, by large swaths of his country's people. In the footsteps of the Bush administration, Sen. Obama utilized some of the same caricatures of Chavez as a "demagogue" with a "perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy." No where in his address did Sen. Obama point out that the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez, both supported and perhaps even directed by the Bush administration, may play a key role in any discordance in relations between the two countries. And any attempts at national programs that favor the poor rather than the country's wealthy oligarchs, were derided in Sen. Obama's words as nothing more than "the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past."

In his speech, Sen. Obama did place significant blame on the Bush administration. But it was not for their repeated attempts to destabilize Venezuela; rather it was for allowing its democratically elected leader, Hugo Chavez, to take what was termed his "stale vision" which had made"inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua." In repeating this bellicose language, Sen. Obama at once dismissed any legitimate attempts for Latin American economic independence, the empowerment of the popular will to choose political leaders of their liking--either in Venezuela, Bolivia or Nicaragua it would seem--and maintains the long held consensus that the hemisphere must be subservient to American will, both militarily and economic, rather than forge their own path.

To Latin American reporter Al Giordana, "change" was hardly the word for this address. "For those looking to see a continuation of destructive US policies in, and presumptions toward, Latin America from an Obama administration, his speech parroted some of the same bullheaded and divisive language that we’ve heard too much of already from Bush, Clinton and others before him." Giordana said.

Despite such dismal beginnings, there is however a bit of a silver lining to be found . For now, most of the world believes that these highly rhetorical speeches amount to little more than pandering--shameless yes, but *perhaps* not truly revealing of what a President Obama would do. If anything, as everyone from Palestinian reporters to Fidel Castro acknowledged, his speeches expose the sad state of American politics, where certain entrenched powerful lobbies and interest groups--be they AIPAC, Christian Zionists or hard-line Cuban nationalists--must be pandered to by anyone seeking the oval office. So in the case of Sen. Obama, a man who once spoke up for Palestinian rights and had dinner with the late scholar Dr. Edward Said, must sadly convert himself into a common right wing Likud-nik in order to assure skeptical conservative potential voters about where he stands.

But for those hoping for real substantial and progressive change in American foreign policy, the question that remains however is, where does the "pandering Obama" and the "real Obama" begin and end?

Certainly an Obama presidency would be light years more advanced than the current administration. And he shares vast differences on global affairs with the GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, whose own pandering has taken him to the fringes of the far-right and beyond. Even those critical of Sen. Obama's recent foreign policy speeches have been quick to point out as much. Yet this doesn't dull disappointment with his hawkish "more of the same" type rhetoric. To catch a glimpse of how a President Obama might act, one might need to look at his foreign policy advisors, who come from diverse backgrounds. They are former aides to previous Democratic leaders, human-rights advocates, retired generals and others. They aren't neo-cons by any means--all opposed the Iraq War early on. But sadly, neither can they be labeled progressives. Some, like his top adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, have pasts that are downright troubling. Most will likely offer the same foreign policy advice that so many previous American presidents have received, urging ways to further retain American power at the expense of others. They'll urge diplomacy yes, but not much else when it comes to meaningful change.

Yet, as in the case of the AIPAC speech recant, Sen. Obama has shown that if pushed he is willing to backtrack and step away from disastrous statements and choices. Given what we've seen in the past 8 years, that's a definitive change. And in a campaign that has sought to get the American voter "engaged," an Obama presidency would--and should--be held accountable to the people like no other. The hard truth is that those who want a more progressive approach to American foreign policy will have to push for and demand it. Voting and hoping a President Obama will just "do the right thing" is not enough; it's far, far, far from enough. His more progressive supporters will have to be willing to be watchful of anyone elected into office, and be just as willing to voice criticism as they were of the current administration . Otherwise that mantra of "change," might just end up being a hollow slogan we later look upon with disillusionment and regret.

Full text of Sen. Obama's AIPAC speech:

Latin American Speech:

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