When Barrack Hussein Obama was inaugurated on January 20th 2009, he achieved something no other person of his race has ever done in the 232 year history of the United States. Obama become the first black man to take the oath of office and by doing so entered the history books as the 44th President of the United States.
Obama shattered the myth that a black person could not ascend to the most powerful office in the country and become the leader of the free world. But Obama is no ordinary politician, born to a black Kenyan father and a white American mother from Kansas, Obama has been shattering records all his life. The first black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a gifted orator a freshman Senator who was elected with over 70% of the vote in 2004 and who then become the only black person to gain the nomination of either major party. Fighting under the banner of "Change We Can Believe In", the Obama juggernaut didn't just win his party's nomination or the subsequent general election by defeating a number of lightweights. In beating Hilary Rodham Clinton, he defeated the greatest brand name in the Democratic party. In winning the general election, Obama beat a decorated war hero and one of the greatest US legislators and foreign policy experts of his time in John McCain.
The sheer symbolism of seeing a black man in the oval office of the White House cannot be denied, especially in the context of America's shameful history of treatment of its black minority. To understand the symbolism one needs to have seen the tearful reaction of many elderly black Americans to Obama's victory. When this generation was growing up, blacks couldn't vote, blacks had to sit at the back of buses, blacks couldn't eat in the same restaurants. In some states, Obama's parents mixed race wedding would have been illegal, such was the overt racism in American society. This is why it was no wonder there was an outpouring of emotional adulation from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Africa, from the Nevada desert to the Nairobi slums, from the streets of Chicago to the streets of Berlin. Barack Obama captured the mood for change.
Since taking office Obama has continued to point towards a change in approach in US policy, a change repeated again and again in many speeches. Many across the world, spurred on by the hope drummed up by US media, bought into his 'It's time for change' rhetoric whilst many others had become disillusioned with the Bush presidency, desperately hoping that some change will occur with a change in personnel in the White House.
As August drew to a close Obama's honeymoon period comes to an end, this would therefore be an appropriate time not just consider what foreign policy the Obama regime will pursue but what he has done and what he is doing. The first months of any US presidency are spent filling key positions and learning the levers of foreign and national security policy. There are also the first rounds of visits with foreign leaders and the first tentative forays into foreign policy.
For all those across the world who were hoping for change, aside from the naivety of such a position as US Presidents operate in a world of constraints and limitations the most remarkable aspect of Obama's foreign policy is it's consistently with the policies of former President George W. Bush. How else can one describe retaining Bush's defence secretary, Robert Gates and how can one explain running against the Iraq war and then appointing Hilary Clinton arch supporter of the Iraq war as your secretary of state.
Obama's continuation of Bush's failed policies can be seen by analysing US actions across the Muslim world:
Iraq - During Obama's presidential campaign Obama ran against the Iraq war. The centre piece of his position was that the war was a mistake, and that he would end it. Obama argued that Bush's policies alienated US allies. He charged Bush with pursuing a unilateral foreign policy, alienating allies by failing to act in concert with them. In doing so, he maintained that the war in Iraq destroyed the international coalition the US needs to execute any war successfully. Obama further argued that Iraq was a distraction and that the major effort should be in Afghanistan.
Obama inherited Bush's plan that called for coalition forces to help create a viable Iraqi national military and security force that would maintain central government's authority and Iraq's territorial cohesion and integrity. In the meantime, the major factions in Iraq would devise a regime in which all factions would participate and be satisfied that their factional interests protected. While this was going on, the United States would systematically reduce its presence in Iraq until around the summer of 2010, with only non-combat troops remaining.
Obama adopted the Bush administration's policy of a staged withdrawal linked to political stabilization and the development of Iraqi security forces. While he tweaked the timeline on the withdrawal, the basic strategy remains intact. He even retained Bush's defence secretary, Robert Gates, to oversee the withdrawal.
Afghanistan - The Bush administration had remained in a defensive posture in the belief that given the forces available, enemy capabilities and the historic record, that was the best that could be done, especially as the Pentagon was almost immediately reoriented and refocused on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Towards the end of Bush's administration they began exploring - under the influence of General David Petraeus, who designed the strategy in Iraq the possibility of a political accommodation in Afghanistan.
When Obama took office all the indications were that the US military and foreign policy establishment had already abandoned the neo-conservative objective of crushing the Taliban and remaking Afghanistan into a functioning democracy. America's Afghanistan policy fell into the hands of the realists, whose priority was maintaining a tractable and viable client in Kabul, keeping Afghanistan securely inside the US sphere of interest, holding on to a key asset in
Central Asia's "great game" of energy resources and pipeline infrastructure.
Obama's main foreign policy position was that Bush's adventure into Iraq has obscured the real threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which should be the priority. Obama publicly and repeatedly promised to escalate US military intervention in Afghanistan, increasing the number of US troops and expanding their operations and engaging in methodical, cross-border attacks. Obama declared that his regime would extend the ‘war against terror' by systematic, large-scale ground and air attacks on Pakistan, thus escalating the war to include villages.
Obama shifted US policy from a purely defensive posture to a mixed posture of selective offensive and defensive, and has placed more forces into Afghanistan. Obama's basic strategy has remained the same as Bush's: hold onto to Afghanistan until the political situation evolves to the point that a political settlement is possible, this is taking place through US proxies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan holding talks on behalf of the US with Mulla Umar's Taliban, and the numerous comments by US and UK officials who continue to reiterate talking to the Taliban and accommodating them into any future political settlement.
The US now views Central Asia and South Asia through the same lens. Condoleezza Rice confirmed in January 2006 that South Asia and Central Asia are high on her list of global priorities, and the State Department is adjusting its bureaus so that the same teams of experts and diplomats are focused on both regions. "One of the things that we did in the State Department was to move the Central Asian republics out of the European bureau, which really was an artefacts of their having been states of the Soviet Union, and to move them into the bureau that is South Asia, which has Afghanistan, India and Pakistan." "It represents what we're trying to do, which is to think of this region as one that will need to be integrated, and that will be a very important goal for us."
Afghanistan's importance to the US was outlined by geopolitical expert William Engdahl "Afghanistan has historically been the heartland for the British-Russia great game, the struggle for the control of Central Asia during the 19th and 20th centuries. British strategy then was to prevent Russia at all costs from controlling Afghanistan and thereby threatening Britain's imperial crown jewel, India. Afghanistan was similarly regarded by pentagon planners as highly strategic. It was a platform from which US military power could directly threaten Russia and China, as well as Iran and other oil-rich Middle East lands. Little has changed geopolitically over more than a century of wars. Afghanistan was in an extremely vital location, straddling South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East."
Bush's policy makers viewed Afghanistan through the lens of Central Asia and the threats posed by both China and Russia, Obama's policy shows there will be no departure from this.
Iran - US aims for Iran for some time have been the complete reversal of the Islamafication of the country. The Bush administration, for the most part, viewed Iran through the neo-con lens which was regime change through military action. However, the debacle of the Iraq war made such an option remote. Calls by the likes of Vice-President Dick Cheney for military action were drowned out by the realists in the Bush administration who managed to gain the upper hand and their preferred method of dealing with Iran was through multilateralism and diplomacy, as opposed to unilateralism and military intervention. Barack Obama had no plan to change such a policy however like the realists he is prepared to use overwhelming force against Iran to occupy its oil and gas fields if necessary. Obama emphasised that he would extend the hand of friendship to Iran if it "unclenched its fist", reiterating that he is for multilateralism and engagement with Iran as he favours aggressive personal diplomacy.
With Iran's general election out of the way and the controversy of rigged results subsiding in scale and scope the US will have to deal with Ahmadinejad. Obama has in reality continued the policy of the Bush administration adopted after the neo-cons failed to make a compelling case against Iran. Obama continues to demand an end to Tehran's nuclear program, and has promised further sanctions unless Iran agrees to enter into serious talks by late September.
Obama will in all likelihood accelerate US-Iran rapprochement as both nations need each other. It was Iran that rescued the US in the midst of an insurgency in Iraq which showed no sign of abating.
Iran through its proxy the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) a group created in Tehran with full backing in 1982 and through its supreme leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim who gathered the major shi'ah factions around him and brought stability to South Iraq, in effect leaving the US with an insurgency around Baghdad to contend with. In Afghanistan It is Iran that has secured North East Afghanistan and begun the redevelopment of the area once again coming to America's aid in its time of need. The US and Iran have virtually the same interests in the region and whilst there is much distrust between the two nations that goes back to the Islamic revolution, the reality in the region means Iran and the US will further cooperate.
Pakistan - Obama didn't just follow Bush in his policy for Pakistan but outshone him by leaps and bounds. As the Taliban made a comeback and made a mockery of so called US success in the country the Bush administration had concluded that Pakistan posed the primary obstacle to success in Afghanistan. As long as jihadists could freely infiltrate across the border shared by those two countries, victory in the Afghan war would remain elusive. "We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remarked, "But until we ... eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming." George W Bush built the case against Pakistan and Obama has executed the project now called the Af-Pak war. Obama publicly declared that his regime would extend the ‘war against terrorism' by systematic, large-scale ground and air attacks on Pakistan, he escalated the war to include villages, towns and cities deemed sympathetic to the Afghan resistance. Pakistan has become the new theatre for US imperial expansion and this is deemed necessary by Obama to win the regional war.
Guantanamo - Obama made a great deal about his intention to close Guantanamo Bay, yet there are other Guantanomo's such as the Bagram base in Afghanistan for instance or prisons in Iraq which he is not closing. There are many facilities in dark corners of the world where the US is holding thousands of prisoners with Guantanamo being the tip of an ugly iceberg. Even with respect to Guantanamo, the United States Congress and US popular opinion is against sending the inhabitants at Guantanamo to prisons in the US to face trial and Obama has already caved in by allowing military commissions rather than civilian courts to try these inhabitants. Indeed in its latest $106 billion dollar appropriations bill to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress refused the Obama administration's request for a paltry $80 million to begin the closure of Guantanamo.
There should be no doubt that Obama's "reaching out" to the Muslim world is merely, in his own words, "a more open diplomatic approach." The aims of the US remain the same and this is what Obama was elected for. He made this very clear in his inauguration speech when he said: "We will not apologise for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defence and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror ... we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."
Obama's Cairo speech should not be seen in isolation. This is a part of a deliberate diplomatic strategy of repairing America's reputation in the Islamic world after the debacle of the Bush years. Obama in conjunction with large sections of the US national security establishment realised that America cannot achieve her objectives using military means alone. Following the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, America's military is not only exhausted but her standing in the world has suffered to depths not seen in recent times. When America polls single digit favourable ratings in Turkey, a country with the most aggressive secular system in the Muslim world, you know you are in trouble. Therefore a new strategy had to be formulated which commenced with Obama's speech in Cairo and the net results of his vague speech remain unclear.
As Obama begin his family holiday on Martha's Vineyard resort off the Masschusetts coast the rhetoric of ‘change' has all but evaporated and what we are witnessing is ‘more of the same' with some tinkering. Obama has managed get through his honeymoon period without actually having to make an important decision which would have brought him into conflict with congress and the republicans.
Obama's main challenge is repairing America's battered reputation around the world, the US has thrown all ideas of justice in the bin with Guantanamo and extraordinary rendition. It has even abandoned key values such as the free market which for long were symbols of American success. The financial crisis and its subsequent fall out has further hampered US aims abroad and with a more assertive Russia who is challenging the US at every opportunity Obama really has an impossible task.
The US continues to bleed from two wars which have now lasted longer than WW2, the only consistency with Obama is the fact that he will continue with the policies developed by the same foreign policy experts of the Bush era and Obama has no plans to deviate from such a path.