by Ellen Isaacs
Appearing on Counterpunch, 12/06/2019
It is the era of disavowal of Trump. Long despised by anti-racists and humanists of many stripes, his foreign policy has now even offended US empire builders, leaving us with an overlap of interests between those who wish to scuttle Trump’s overt policies of hate and those who hate to see US power decrease in the world. Whether via impeachment or election, the time has come for a new carrier of the torch. That person will almost certainly be a Democrat, one who is “liberal” enough to appear to support human rights, justice and democracy but who is also committed to the maximization of US economic and political influence, just more nicely done.
This apparent marriage of liberalism and imperialism has just recently worked so well under Obama, a personable, intellectual black man who managed to deport millions, prosecute foreign wars, build the US military machine, militarize the police, save the banks and ignore growing racism while inducing well-meaning humanists to adore him. With his election, the movements against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq almost ceased, police violence got a pass for several years, immigrants left in silence, and animosity focused only on George W. Bush (W). Oh if only that could come to pass again and a new standard bearer be found. Can it be done again? Will we be suckered again into seeking a Democratic savior or will we build movements we need to truly challenge the bases of capitalism and imperialism?
It is a good moment to pause and reflect about the actual aims and policies of Obama and contrast them with the rhetoric and rationalizations with which he won widespread support. We need to apply the lessons learned to evaluating the new left and liberal candidates who are now vying for our loyalty. Whether they are more or less sincere in their proclamations is less important than what their true class allegiances are. Do they oppose the maintenance of US hegemony in the world or not? Do they believe that the economic system should continue to be based on profits, ie capitalism? Elizabeth Warren is an overt capitalist, who wishes to decrease inequality, but basically supports the liberal world order established after WWII in which US interests dominate the world. Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist in favor of workers power, but workers’ power, as Sanders or the Democratic Socialists of America describe it, means little more than a militant trade union movement. The actual question of who holds power and how is not addressed. It is a fantasy based on the hope that corporate capitalists and the ruling class and its military would sacrifice profits for the good of workers, here or abroad (https://jacobinmag.com/2019/10/foreign-policy-bernie-sanders-elizabeth-warren-2020-presidential-campaign). It is only Sanders that will be sacrificed, long before he gains any electoral foothold. Meanwhile, the energies of millions will be wasted in the vain hope they can neutralize the awesome power of the US ruling class with a swipe in the election booth.
How Obama Promoted Ruling Class interests
Before Obama’s first election in 2008, two great crises were shaking the nation—the financial crisis and the failure of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tired of W’s smirk, his disastrous prosecution of foreign wars and the economic debacle, voters flocked to Obama in droves.
Although sometimes labeled as beginning with the failure of Lehman Brothers on 9/15/08, the financial crisis had been building for years and was by no means something new, unexpected or entirely undesirable. As Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon declared at the onset of the Great Depression of 1929, “During depressions, assets return to their rightful owners,” by which he meant the capitalist ruling class. By the 1970s wages and benefits had risen to an all time high and unemployment was low – all bad for profits. So in the 1980s, interest rates were raised to induce a recession, and labor unions were attacked by President Reagan, who fired air traffic controllers en masse. In 1982, at the height of that recession, 60 percent of unions agreed to pay freezes or cuts. In Congressional testimony in 1997, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan explained that resurgent capitalist profits were the result of “atypical restraint on compensation increases” and “mainly the consequence of greater worker insecurity.” In 1991, as he pointed out, 25 percent of workers feared being laid off. By 1996, that number rose to 46 percent. In explaining how Ford “tamed the monster,” namely the United Auto Workers, the Wall Street Journal gleefully reported how “massive layoffs” and “outsourcing” had forced “increased cooperation” among workers now willing to work harder for less.
Since the inception of modern capitalism, bankers have controlled vast pools of money that they then disburse and use to control domestic capitalist enterprises and foreign economies, and keep cash on hand for such needs as building up the military. The crisis of 2008 actually helped straighten things out for the capitalist class. The share of wealth held by the top 10% of US households increased from 49% in 2005 to 56% in 2009.
The problem Obama faced was that things had gotten a little out of hand, with unregulated banks acting so greedily that they did not have enough real money or value to sustain themselves. Financial institutions were buying up debt, such as home mortgages that borrrowers could not repay, and then lending theses assets to other banks or institutions at high interest rates. There wasn’t any real value, enough cash at hand, to back up the system. As this disproportion increased, business confidence collapsed and there were huge layoffs, wage cuts, home repossessions and decreases in trade. Ultimately, money was taken from the taxpayers and given back to the financial institutions to rescue them. Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail and Bear Stearns was sold, but Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, JPMorgan, Chase, Bank of American, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley and the large auto firms were all rescued.
So what role did Obama play in all this? While campaigning in March, 2008, he made promises about funds for home refinancing, as well as increased spending for education, broadband, and college tuition reductions, and having the government “put Americans to work” in green jobs and rebuilding infrastructure. But these promises quickly went by the wayside. As soon as he was elected, Obama appointed Wall Street operatives such as Timothy Geithner, as his Treasury Secretary, and Larry Summers, who saw saving the banks as the primary agenda. The program to buy back toxic bank assets excluded the mostly black subprime borrowers and made rescue of the financial system the main priority. Obama engineered a settlement with banks nationwide that shielded them all from charges of fraud and helped them hide the extent of their losses. This approach reflected his belief that the market’s “power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched”( https://jacobinmag.com/2019/05/obama-white-house-financial-crisis-hundt) He engineered a freeze on strikes at General Motors and Chrysler and froze the wages of federal workers, who are disproportionately black.
Obama and Racism
It was surprising and reassuring that Americans could elect a black man as president, even one as moderate as Obama. But that was about as far as it was to go in overcoming racism, although, according to the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, over 25% of people perceived that there was less racial discrimination after Obama’s election (https://isr.umich.edu/news-events/insights-newsletter/article/obamas-election-reduced-perceptions-of-racism-but-boosted-opposition-to-race-related-policies/).
However, not only were there many overt racist attacks on Obama himself, such as the birther movement, but mass incarceration of men of color, racist police shootings, and the gutting of voting rights enforcement by the federal government were steps backward that Obama did not oppose or opposed only very passively. In his book The Audacity of Hope he supported Clinton’s severe welfare cutbacks. He created an organization, My Brothers Keepers, to help poor black boys, but from the perspective that the problems of racial inequality arose within the black community. “Oftentimes racism, historically in this society, sends you a message that you are less than and weak,” Mr. Obama said. “We feel like we got to compensate by exaggerating certain stereotypical ways that men are supposed to act, and that’s a trap that we fall into that we have to pull out of.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/23/opinion/my-brothers-keeper-obama.html). He expanded the militarization of the police and was quick to distance himself from outspoken supporters of racial social justice like Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Overall, Obama cut non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest levels since the 1950s, including cuts to black colleges and $8.7 billion in food stamps, causing 850,000 households to lose $90/month (https://tcf.org/content/commentary/why-obama-just-cut-food-stamps-by-8-7-billion/?session=1). Black median income decreased by 10.9% compared to 3.6% for whites during his reign and, for the first time, the absolute number of black children living in poverty was greater than whites. (Obama’s Unending Wars, p74)
One of his few positive accomplishments to offset inequality was the Affordable Care Act, but even that was deeply compromised. The “public option,” which would have allowed some decrease of insurance company influence was quickly dropped, while deductibles and premiums remained high for many. Only some, like those with previously uncovered pre-existing conditions, markedly benefited.
A Violent and Imperialist Foreign policy
By the early 2000s, US supremacy on many fronts was threatened. China was outstripping US manufacturing and inserting itself into the development, trade and financing of Asia and Africa. Russia was rebuilding military strength and signing treaties of cooperation with China. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, designed to assure US control of oil and its distribution, were to be but openers in the eventual control of many Middle Eastern nations, including, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya. He would also have to turn back the “pink tide” sweeping Latin America, and appear do it all under the umbrella of humanism and democracy.
In Obama’s Unending Wars, Jeremy Kuzmarov documents the extensive war-making, death and destruction wrought by Obama. By 2016, the US dropped 26,171 tons of bombs in seven countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia), equivalent to nearly three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day. Special forces could be found in 138 countries, a jump of 130 percent from the previous Bush administration. Obama further brokered more arms deals than any other president since the Second World War, with a 54% increase over Bush, sanctioned more entities and authorized over ten times more drone strikes. More money was allocation for war-related initiatives under Obama than under Bush ($866 billion to $811 billion) and more bombs were dropped(100,00 tons to 70,000). Obama’s defense budgets also outstripped those of Bush by an average of $18.7 billion per year (p19-20). During the 2008 election, he received more money from military giants General Dynamics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin than did his opponent John McCain. During his administration he supported expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary forces, torture, extraordinary rendition and global assassinations, claiming that all such programs were aimed at preventing mass atrocities and genocide by others. All such aggression was skillfully cloaked in the rhetoric of internationalism and idealism, much as Woodrow Wilson had sold World War I as a struggle to make the world safe for democracy. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama described the half century after WWII: “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous aspects of weapons.” But this is not exactly what the US really did, carrying out over 50 military interventions and regime change operations during the Cold War and sponsoring death squads, mass killings and bombings(Kuzmarov, p48).
Some of Obama’s increased US military commitments and economic involvements in Africa were:
*Doubled funding for AFRICOM, the US military command in Africa
*Expanded the US base in Djibouti nearly 6 fold
*Created the African Growth and Opportunity Act giving trade preferences to 39 countries which emphasized the export of resources and imports of American manufactured goods
*Promoted population control in Africa , especially the long acting contraceptive DepoProvera, while cutting the global HIV budget
*Provided clandestine arms to Somalia to fight Islamic nationalists in order to control shipping routes in the Horn of Africa and control underdeveloped oil and gas reserves
*Gave massive military aid to corrupt Ugandan dictator Museveni
*Trained and supported murderous Rwandan dictator Kagame and Congolese dictator Kanambe in exchange for lucrative mining rights
*Supported the independence of South Sudan in an unsuccessful bid to take control of its oil resources from China
*Built and staffed bases in Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso to secure mineral, oil and gas resources
By the end of 2016, the US had 60 military outposts in Africa and was running daily military missions and training local troops. Terrorist incidents greatly increased during this period, likely largely in response to the growing American presence.
In Libya, the US had long been irked by Qaddafi, who came to power in 1969 and sat on reserves of oil, silver and gold, but was more interested in Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism, making deals with China, and escaping the control of the dollar currency than he was in cooperating with US desires. In 2011, the US led a NATO invasion of Libya, justified by atrocities largely exaggerated and engineered by the West, but never succeeded in setting up a stable pro-US government or claiming control of the nation’s resources.
Asia and the Middle East
Drones became Obama’s weapons of choice as soon as he took office, a way to “fight terrorism” and accomplish imperialist ends without having to field a large land army. He ordered 563 drone strikes while in office, ten times more than W, and killed over 1100 civilians, not counting “Afghanistan (p146). He also sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. By 2012, there were 88,000 soldiers and over 117,000 contractors in that country. Although he initially opposed the war in Iraq, Obama was still sending more troops there in 2014, trying to guarantee US access to oil and pipelines. None of these tactics has actually succeeded in winning either political or economic supremacy for the US in those countries.
Obama and Hillary Clinton also initiated a pivot to Asia as China changed from being a source of cheap labor to a huge export market and provider of military and economic control around the world. Thus the US naval presence in the South China Sea, which sits atop huge oil reserves, was vastly increased and defense ties to 29 local allies increased, from Vietnam to Australia, the Philippines to Singapore. In 2014, Obama engineered the coup in Ukraine that replaced the Russian oriented leader with one friendly to NATO, in an attempt to complete the encirclement of Russia with Western-friendly governments.
Despite Obama’s famous Cairo speech in 2009, in which he promised a new engagement with Middle East nations based on respect and human rights, he continued massive military aid to Egyptian dictator Mubarak, Tunisia’s dictator Zine el Abadin ben Ali and to Israel. As the Arab Spring took hold, the US, through the National endowment for Democracy (NED) and George Soros’s foundation, trained 10,000 Egyptians to maintain control of that movement. The US wholeheartedly supported the Israeli’s devastating attacks on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Protective Edge in 2014. Saudi Arabia, seen as the crucial ally against Iran, received record arms sales of $115 billion and support for its invasion of Yemen. Yemen not only lay along a crucial shipping lane for oil to China, but contained reserves of minerals and petroleum not yet much exploited. In Syria, Assad’s rejection of an oil pipeline that would pass through his country from Turkey to Qatar, at the expense of Russia and Iran, caused the CIA to begin funding opposition groups at the outset of the civil war.
Lastly, in Latin America, the US opposed the widespread pink tide. Although relaxing relations with Cuba, Obama supported a coup that ousted Zelaya in Honduras, supported war against the FARC guerillas in Colombia as part of the “war on drugs”, established seven new military bases in Colombia, and severely sanctioned the regime in Venezuela. The US built two new bases in Panama, one in Chile, Argentina, and one off -shore from the Dominican Republic. The Alliance for Progress gave tax breaks for corporate investors funds, pipelines and resource extraction throughout the continent. Obama prevented return of ousted reform President Aristede of Haiti and manipulated 2011 election towards pro-US candidate Martelly. The US supported the coups that ousted Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and leftist Lugo in Paraguay.
As this election year approaches, we must remember that power, military might and economic control, resides in the capitalist ruling class, no matter which party is in the White House or Congress. There are differences amongst capitalists over to what extent they wish to exert control over the entire world and what tactics to use to control workers, such as racism versus reformism. Right wing isolationists like the Koch brothers and Trumpers promote overt white supremacy and banning immigration as ways to divide and weaken workers. The liberals talk about justice and equality, while pursuing imperialism abroad, and claim to oppose racism and inequality at home, while actually allowing it to grow. One good current example is Lori Lightfoot, the new black Mayor of Chicago, who talked about many education reforms and then fought the teacher’s union as it struck to demand their implementation. If one wishes to actually remove the profit motive as the driver of production, war and foreign or domestic policy, it is necessary to actually remove the capitalist class from power. They will not go quietly. And between escalating war and climate disaster, the survival of the planet and billions of workers is at stake. But revolution will never be on the ballot.