In response to major military and political losses as well as new opportunities, the White House is fashioning a new doctrine of imperial conquest based on intensified aerial warfare, greater extra-territorial intervention, and, when circumstances allow, alliances with collaborators. This includes the arming and financial backing of retrograde despotic regimes in the Gulf city-states, fundamentalists, opportunist defectors, and mercenaries willing to serve the empire for a price.
Obama took his lead from the Bush administration and ran with it. He expanded war budgets to over $750 billion; increased ground troops by 30,000 in Afghanistan; expanded expenditures on base building and mercenary troop recruitment in Iraq; and multiplied U.S. air and ground incursions in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya. As a result the budget deficit reached $1.6 trillion, the trade deficit reached unsustainable levels and the recession deepened. Public support for Obama and the Democrats plummeted. Parallel to Obama’s skyrocketing external imperial expenditures, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars on dozens of internal security agencies, further depleting the treasury. Greater debts abroad and deficits at home were accompanied by the trillion dollar bailout of Wall Street while ten million homes were foreclosed and unemployment reached double digits.
The Reality Principle
The reality of massive expenditures in losing wars and faltering support at home and abroad finally penetrated even the most dogmatic and intransigent militarist ideologues in the Obama regime. Nationalist Islamists were a “shadow” government throughout Afghanistan, inflicting increasing casualties on U.S.-NATO forces even in the capital, Kabul. In Iraq even the puppet regime rejected a minimum U.S. military presence, as warring factions prepared for a post-colonial showdown between willing colonial collaborators, resistance fighters, sects, tribes, death squads, ethnic separatists and mercenaries. Despite U.S. military threats and economic sanctions, Iran gained influence throughout the region, eroding U.S. influence in Iraq, Syria, western Afghanistan, the Gulf, Lebanon, and Palestine (especially Gaza).
The fall of major U.S. client regimes in Egypt and Tunisia (Mubarak and Ali) and mass uprisings threatening other puppets in Yemen, Somalia, and Bahrain finally forced the Obama regime to acknowledge that the Israeli model of war, occupation, and colonialism was not viable. Obama-Clinton were not custodians of an expanding empire, but the masters of imperial defeats. Nowhere was the decline of the U.S. more evident than in Latin America where new nationalist reform and developmental regimes secured divergent policies on key foreign policy issues, generated high growth, collaborated with new trading partners, decisively rejected several U.S.-backed coups and repudiated Geithner’s recycled free market dogma.
As the reality of the deficits, losses, and discontent entered the consciousness of key policymakers, a new imperial policy agenda took shape.
The Making of the Doctrine
The first and foremost “recognition of reality” among the Obamites was that in a world of sovereign states, colonial land wars led to prolonged resistance, extended budget overruns, continuing casualties, and were definitely not “self-financing.” The hard choice facing the Obama regime with regard to Iraq was whether to admit defeat and retreat. The retreat and defeat reality is now rationalized as a “repositioning” of 20,000 troops in the tiny city states run by despotic Gulf monarchies and the posting of war vessels in the Persian Gulf. Obama-Clinton claim the troops, war ships, and aircraft carriers would re-enter Iraq if the current regime falls and a new nationalist movement comes to power. This is a doubtful proposition as any “re-entry” would return the U.S. to a prolonged, costly war. The main purpose of the repositioning is to protect the Gulf client dictatorships from their internal pro-democracy movements and to launch a joint U.S.-Israeli air and sea attack on Iran.
The relocation of troops to petrol-despot mini-states is a downsizing of the U.S. presence and a move to prop up vulnerable and corrupt clan-based despots. Since the U.S. can no longer afford an unending large troop presence and cannot secure a “residual force,” its retreat to the Gulf states is making a virtue of necessity, a fall-back position to retain a launch pad for the next aerial war.
The Libyan war marks the key imperial formula for retaining Obama’s imperial pretensions. The pretext for the war was just as phony as the cause bellicose in Iraq: in place of weapons of mass destruction, in Libya, charges of genocide and rape were fabricated. A UN resolution claiming the right to militarily intervene to “protect civilians” was cooked up, and NATO launched an 8-month war of nearly 30,000 air attacks, to overthrow the established government and destroy the economy.
Obama’s Libyan policy was based on air and naval bombardment and Special Forces advisers; the use of a mercenary army and client ex-pats as the “new leaders”; and a multi-lateral coalition of European empire builders (NATO) and Gulf state petrol-oligarchs. In contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan, sustained massive air attacks took the place of a large invasion army. Already Obama’s military strategists have embraced and promulgated the Libyan experience as a new “Obama doctrine” for successfully rolling back independent Arab regimes and movements. Despite massive propaganda efforts to puff up the role of the mercenary “rebels,” the fact is that Gadhafi loyalists were only defeated by the combined air power of the NATO military command.
Obama-Clinton’s celebration of the Libyan victory is premature: the means to victory involved the thorough destruction of the economy—from ports to irrigation systems to roads and hospitals—and the disarticulation of the labor force, with the forced flight of hundreds of thousands of sub-Sahara African workers and North African professionals. In other words, it was a “pyrrhic victory”: Washington defeated an adversary, but it has not won a viable state.
Even more serious, Washington’s client mercenary ground forces include an amalgam of fundamentalist, tribal, gangster, and opportunistic clan and neo-liberal operators who have few interests in common. And all are armed and ready to carve up competing fiefdoms. The parallel is with Afghanistan where the U.S. armed and financed drug traffickers, clan chiefs, war lords, and fundamentalists to fight the secular pro-Soviet regime. Subsequent to destroying the regime, the same forces turned against the U.S. and proceeded to spread a kind of pan-Islamic mobilization against pro-U.S. client states and the U.S. military presence throughout South-Central Asia, the Gulf states, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Obama’s Libyan formula of using disparate mercenaries to achieve short-term military success has boomeranged. Islamic fundamentalist militias and contrabandists are sending tons of ground to air missiles, machine guns and automatic rifles seized from Gadhafi’s arms depots to Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and all points east, west, south and north. The volatile social and military conflicts among the collaborator “rulers” in Libya has all the markings of a failed regime. Neither NATO bases nor oil companies can pretend to establish firm bases of operation and exploitation.
The resort to missile warfare—especially the drone attacks on insurgents challenging U.S. client regimes which figure so prominently in the “Obama doctrine”—have succeeded in killing a few local commanders, but at a cost of alienating the general public in targeted countries. Drone missiles are killing hundreds of civilians and causing relatives and ethnic kinspeople to join resistance groups. Up to the present, after 3 years of intensified “missile air warfare,” the Obama regime has not secured a single major triumph over any of the targeted insurgencies. The data available demonstrates the opposite. In Pakistan, not only has the entire northwest tribal area embraced the Islamic resistance but the vast majority of Pakistanis (80 percent) resent U.S. drone violations of national sovereignty, forcing even otherwise docile officials to call into question their military ties with Washington. In Somalia and Yemen, drone and Special Forces’ operations have had no impact in weakening the mass opposition to incumbent client regimes. Obama’s long distance, high-tech warfare has been an ineffective substitute for failed large-scale land wars.
The third dimension of the Obama doctrine, the heavy reliance on “third party” military intervention and/or multi-lateral armed interventions was not successful in Afghanistan and Iraq and was of limited effectiveness in Libya. The European multi-lateral forces retired early on in Iraq, unwilling to continue to spend on a war with no end and with virtually no support on the home front. The same process of short-term, low-level, military multi-lateralism took place in Afghanistan: most NATO soldiers will be out before the U.S. withdraws. The Libyan experience with “multi-lateral” Air Force collaboration in defeating Libya’s armed forces destroyed the country, undermining any post-war reconstruction for decades. Moreover, “aerial multi-lateralism” followed the formula of “easy entry and fast exit”—leaving the mercenary predators in control on the ground, with a documented record of excelling in rape, pillage, torture, and summary executions. Only a brainless and morally depraved Hilary Clinton could sing the praises and dance a jig celebrating the victory of a knife-wielding sodomist torturing a captured president as “a victory for democracy.”
The fourth dimension of the Obama doctrine—the use of foreign mercenary armies—has been tried and failed in a number of cases where incumbent client rulers are under siege from resistance forces. The U.S. financed the Ethiopian dictatorship’s armed invasion of Somalia to prop up a corrupt, isolated regime holed up in the capital. After a prolonged futile effort to reverse the tide, the Ethiopian mercenary forces performed no better. They were followed by the entry of the U.S.-backed, Kenyan armed forces, which has only led to massacres and starvation of hundreds of thousands of Somalian refugees in Northern Kenya and Southern Somalia and deadly ambushes by the Islamic national resistance. U.S.-backed “Third Party”-mercenary armed interventions in Bahrain where Saudi Arabian military forces put down a majoritarian uprising, has temporarily propped up the despotic monarchy but without dealing with the underlying demands of the pro-democracy mass movements. These third party-mercenary invasions have totally failed to secure the puppet regime; in fact they have aroused greater nationalist opposition.
The fifth dimension of the Obama doctrine is to use highly trained “Special Forces” (SF) contingents of 500 or more to assassinate insurgent leaders, terrorize their rural supporters, and “give backbone” to the local military officials. Obama’s dispatch of a brigade of SF to Uganda is a case in point. Up to now, there have been no reports of any decisive victories, even in this tiny country. The prospects for future use of this imperial tactic is probably limited to locales of limited geo-political and economic significance with weak resistance movements. And only as a “complement” to local standing armies.
The final, and probably most important, element in the Obama doctrine is the promotion of civil-military mass uprisings and the reshuffling of elite figures to co-opt popular pro-democracy movements in order to derail them from ending their country’s client relationship to Washington.
Washington and the EU have incited and armed movements aimed at overthrowing the authoritarian nationalist Assad regime in Syria. Playing off of legitimate democratic demands and harnessing fundamentalist hostility to a secular state, the U.S. and EU, with the collaboration of Turkey and the Gulf states, have engaged in a triple policy of external sanctions, mass uprisings and armed resistance against the secular civilian majority and nationalist armed forces backing Basher Assad. Obama policy relies heavily on mass media propaganda and the exploitation of regional grievances to gain leverage for an eventual “regime change.”
Parallel to the “outsider” political strategy in Syria, the Obama doctrine has adopted an insider strategy in Egypt and Tunisia. Faced with a nationalist pro-democracy, pro-workers social upheaval in Egypt, Washington financed and backed a military takeover and rule by an autocratic military junta which follows the basic foreign and domestic policies sustaining the economic structures under the Mubarak dictatorship. While cynically evoking the “spirit” of the Arab Spring, Obama and Clinton have backed the military tribunals which prosecute, torture and jail thousands of pro-democracy activists. A similar process of “internal subversion” financed by the EU has put in place a coalition of “Islamic free marketers” and pro-NATO politicos who have more in common with the White House then they have with the original pro-democracy mass movements.
In the immediate period the Obama doctrines’ use of external and internal civilian-military subversion has succeeded in derailing the promising anti-imperial movements that erupted in the early months of 2011. However, the great gulf that has opened between the recycled new client rulers and the pro-democracy movements has already led to calls for a second round of uprisings to oust the opportunists “who have stolen the revolt” and betrayed the democratic principles of those who sacrificed to oust the client dictators. All the conditions which underlay the Arab Spring are in place or have been exacerbated: unemployment, police repression, crony capitalism, inequalities and corruption. The experience of successful rebellion is still fresh and alive among the increasingly disenchanted youth. Like all of the new Obama imperial policies, the propping up of co-opted officials does not promise a reconsolidation of empire.
Conclusion: Diplomatic Losses
Undercover of political euphemisms the Obama regime understates the scale and significance of its political and diplomatic losses: the forced withdrawal from Iraq is presented as a “successful mission in regime change,” notwithstanding the burgeoning civil and regime violence between rival sectarian and secular factions. The U.S. “withdrawal” from Afghanistan, is in reality a military retreat as the Taliban, and related forces, form a shadow government throughout the country and the huge mercenary army funded by billions of Pentagon dollars is infiltrated by Islamic-Nationalist militants.
The “drone attacks,” presented as a successful new counter-terror weapon crossing frontiers, is hyped as a cost-effective alternative to large scale ground invasions subject to prolonged armed resistance. In fact the “drones” and killings mainly provide sensational propaganda and public relations successes—having little impact in revising the larger political reality.
On the diplomatic front U.S. imperial decline is even more dramatic. The UN General Assembly voted against the U.S. on Cuba and the UNESCO vote on the admission of Palestine were overwhelmingly hostile to the Obama regime. Totally isolated, Washington’s “retaliatory” posture of cutting off financial resources further reduced U.S. institutional leverage. As Obama prepares a military attack on Iran, even NATO refuses to follow suit.
The great danger of the Obama doctrine is that it looks at short-term local consequences. Air and sea power can successfully bomb Iranian nuclear and military facilities, but what is overlooked is the military capacity of Iran to close the world’s most important waterway (the Strait of Hormuz) shipping oil to Europe, Asia, and the U.S.
The Obama doctrine of extra-territorial air wars with impunity turned against Iran would provoke a catastrophic conflagration, which would far surpass the disastrous outcome of the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama doctrine is in reality a set of improvised policies designed to deal with specific sets of circumstances based on a common overall problem: how to retain imperial domination in the face of failed colonial-occupation policies. The tactical success in the air war against Libya and the opportunities opened by the Muslim-led uprising in Syria has given rise to the need to formulate a new overall strategy. Local collaborators are central to that strategy, especially those with an institutional power base (Egyptian military) or with levers of regional influence in civil society (Islamic movements in Syria).
The attempt to generalize these tactical gains into a general offensive strategy, however, founder on the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness.” Iran is not Libya. It has the military power, geographic proximity and economic resources to demolish the weak and vulnerable peripheral U.S. client states. Israel can start a war against the Islamic world, but it cannot win it. Netanyahu’s losses in the UN cannot be explained away as 193 “anti-semitic” countries. U.S./Israel can rant and rave and even precipitate an apocalyptic war, but Obama and Netanyahu are increasingly on the margin of world changes. Their policies are reactions to popular movements envisioning historical transformations, which have begun to enter the center of empires: Wall Street and Tel Aviv. Ultimately the Obama doctrine is doomed to failure as it is incapable of recognizing that the problem of decline is not simply a problem of tactics, but a basic systemic breakdown of empire building as the cracks and fissures abroad have ignited revolts at home.
James Petras is a former professor of sociology at Binghamton University, New York, and co-author of Globalization Unmasked.