Obama doctrine rehabilitates empire

Obama's National Security Strategy aims to salvage the US & global superiority, but will it succeed, asks Marwan Bishara


    The new US National Security Strategy (NSS) makes for a boring but important weekend read. I recommend reading it in full here .

    It is full of generic language, bombastic claims and at times wishful thinking - but, if you look hard enough, there is a sprinkle of silver lining.

    The structure is all too familiar: The world improves in the shadow of US leadership, but multiple dangers and threats lie ahead in hostile and challenging environments that require even more US engagement in the world.

    A reflection of Obama's speeches and policies, it mirrors the same combination of a pragmatic, cool and collected approach to US security with an infusion of optimism and pride.

    Since the NSS is required by law, every president is obliged to present his administration's vision and roadmap for safeguarding US national security and interests.

    A quick review of the National Security Strategy of his predecessors Clinton and Bush, for example, underlines the similarities in structuring and phrasing such documents. But it also highlights the emphasis and priorities of each president depending on his worldview and US domestic and international standing.

    The bottom line for the US establishment over the last few decades has remained the same despite (or as a result of) major international transformations.

    In each and every NSS we are to conclude that isolationism is bad for security and protectionism is terrible for prosperity.

    Expect the US to go beyond its borders to dominate new frontiers - not only geographically, militarily or economically as a traditional empire, but also cyber, space and other technological frontiers.

    Preserving continuity

    A president can speak eloquently and convincingly of change he, Americans or many around the world could believe in - and of which the US is in dire need - but when it comes to a shift in strategy, a superpower's turnabout resembles a tanker not a speedboat.

    To give him the benefit of the doubt, Obama admitted that he was "humbled" by the vastness and complexity of the US establishment after a few months in office.

    A quick learner, he adapted rather quickly to the realities of running a superpower - mostly at the expense of real change that makes a difference in peoples' lives in the US but also around the world.

    In fact, the continued militarisation of US foreign policy - including this month's appointment of a new cyber general - signals setbacks in the president's original promise of change.

    US militarising of cyberspace - and rejection of a ban on the militarisation of outer space - can hardly be conceived by the rest of the world as a serious shift.

    Today, the US military budget is the highest ever with an estimated 52 cents of every tax payer dollar going to military and war expenses of sort hardly the best way to re-jumpstart the US economy - a central instrument of Obama's NSS.

    The same goes for areas where Obama has distinguished himself from his predecessor. While Obama's NSS foresees no 'war on terror', he does underline a "war" on al-Qaeda and its affiliates around the world.

    But Obama acts no less aggressively than his predecessors in various countries around the Middle East and the world, as recently revealed by the US media.

    AmBushing Clinton

    One of the many familiar foreign policy themes is the underlining of the uniqueness of the US' role and leadership to underwrite global security.

    Like a 'benevolent empire', the US is a self-proclaimed promoter of democracy, freedom, opportunity and human rights - this has never ceased, regardless of its image around the world during or after the Cold War.

    In that way, Obama picks up from where his predecessors Clinton and Bush left off.

    Clinton, Bush and Obama differed less on the central themes of US national security and more on the best ways to implement them.

    For example, Obama's NSS emphasises the need to comprehensively "promote democracy and human rights abroad". That echoes to a large degree Clinton's NSS of "Engagement and Enlargement" - foreseeing expanding democracies and open markets as indispensable to US security and prosperity.

    And it is also a continuation of Bush's NSS emphasis on expanding "the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy"!

    To his credit, Obama has distanced himself from some of the illegitimate ways and means of his predecessor. He underlines his administration's commitment NOT to torture, NOT to forego legal rights and NOT to embark on covert secretive foreign policy.

    But from the little one can detect from US behaviour in Afghanistan/Pakistan or its over all counter-terrorism strategy in the greater Middle East, transparency and legality are not the words that jump out at you!

    Likewise, and contrary to experience, in theory and in writing Bush's NSS was also stuffed with claims of multilateralism, engagement, and opposition to wars of religion, rejecting any confusion between al-Qaeda's ideology and Islam. Well, I'll leave it up to you to judge.

    Multilateralism with teeth ...

    Is it optimism or wishful thinking that prompts the US president to think that other regional and world powers will 'play ball' according to Washington's wishes just because his administration recognises their influence and wants to engage them?

    Either way, Obama recognises the importance of new powers beyond the US' traditional NATO and G7 allies and partners.

    His NSS underlines his belief that it is indispensable for the US to engage fully with the likes of BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China (that count for 40 per cent of the world's population), as well as South Africa and Indonesia, and leading G20 economies that make up 80 per cent of the world GDP.

    If emphasis reflects US interest in other powers, one will notice that when BRICs are mentioned in the NSS they get 12, 11, 10 and eight lines respective to their influence. Even Indonesia gets five lines. No such 'honour' is accorded to the likes of France or the United Kingdom.

    But while the new NSS goes out of its way to make overtures to the 'new kids around the block', it does not show why those powers will play ball with the US what is in it for them and what the US will do if , say, China says no to multilateralism under US leadership.

    Rather the new doctrine foresees putting China's modernisation armament programme in check and in opening the way for an arms race to ensure that US interests and allies, regionally and globally, are protected! The US already spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined.

    Moreover, the Obama administration's outreach will go deeper into each and every region. The US will engage regional powers, regardless of their system of government, on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interest.

    But if US demands are not answered, the US will lead international efforts - drawing on "incentives and disincentives" - to "change repressive behaviour".

    The ultimate paradox

    Obama speaks of leading by the power of America's example rather than the example of its power. When choosing between being admired and feared, he wishes for the earlier when possible, the latter when necessary.

    In reality, he recognises that the US, and his predecessor in particular, have amplified the latter.

    Obama's NSS admits that the US' reputation around the world has been too closely and narrowly associated with the use of force.

    Instead, he insists on "principled engagement" with non-democracies and on "preserving security without compromising values".

    But it is that line between security and legality, interests and values, between the US' hard power and soft power that the empire has been continually trespassing and even erasing in favour of domination, unilateral intervention and illegal use of force.

    The US' best asset is not the strength of its military nor the power or size of its economy.

    Its greatest asset is championing a socioeconomic model that continues to dominate and proliferate globally with no other global alternative. Even US adversaries and enemies are slowly but surely adopting its model, at times selectively choosing its most vulgar and vicious mutations.

    So my question to you goes like this: Have past US National Security Strategies and policies advanced or hampered the humane and peaceful spread of freedom, democracy, opportunity and human rights around the world?

    You tell me ... these are serious times that demand a serious discussion ... what do you think?



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