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Obama Says He'll Reshape US Foreign Policy. But Can He?
The presidential hopeful opposed the Iraq war and spoke sense about Iran, but expect business as usual on the Middle East
Now that Barack Obama is almost certain to be the Democratic party's nominee, in spite of last night's expected Clinton victory in West Virginia, those who want to believe he may change America's foreign policy should turn to his pre-campaign biography. I don't mean the recent and obviously self-serving Audacity of Hope, but Dreams From My Father, which he wrote in his early 30s.
In four tight pages, before the main section about the dilemmas of being a person of mixed race in America, Obama recounts his 1960s childhood in Jakarta with an Indonesian stepfather and a white mother. Working in the US embassy, she found herself alongside "caricatures of the ugly American, prone to making jokes about Indonesians until they found out she was married to one".
Obama recalls how she picked up "things she couldn't learn in the published news reports": the role the CIA had just played in toppling the popular nationalist leader, Sukarno; the fact that half a million alleged communist sympathisers were murdered; the way the massacres were suppressed both by the regime and terrified survivors. Obama was only six, but his mother later told him of her shock that "history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets".
It's a beautiful book. One wonders whether any would-be US president has been so good a writer. More importantly, has any other candidate grown up with such a direct encounter with a country under massive political repression or seen the cynical face of the US empire? The Republican nominee John McCain accuses Obama of not having national security "experience", but what experiences do he or Hillary Clinton have which compare with Obama's? They were raised in the usual American cocoon of believing that the values behind the country's anti-colonial beginnings still guide its international behaviour. Obama, by contrast, knows the US has run a global empire for at least the past half a century. His mother taught him, he writes, "to disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterised Americans abroad".
This awareness of how many people around the world see the US is the bedrock on which Obama's approach to foreign policy is built. It is the opposite of the naive self-image of the US as a beacon on the hill. It explains his principled opposition to the Iraq war from its inception. It underpins his criticism of Clinton's threat to "obliterate" Iran if it considered attacking Israel. As he put it: "We have had a foreign policy of bluster and sabre-rattling and tough talk, and in the meantime have made a series of strategic decisions that have actually strengthened Iran ... It is important that we use language that sends a signal to the world community that we're shifting from the sort of cowboy diplomacy, or lack of diplomacy, that we've seen out of George Bush ... This kind of language is not helpful," he concluded coolly.
This does not mean Obama is a friend of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He calls him "reckless, irresponsible and inattentive" to the day-to-day needs of the Iranian people. He says the Iranian "regime is a threat to all of us", and supports sanctions to prevent it getting nuclear weapons. But, unlike Clinton, he criticises Washington's refusal to have direct talks with Iran, as well as Cuba.
Over Israel, sadly, Obama has chosen to make large-scale compromises. He saw how Hillary Clinton, in an earlier vintage, was bullied by the pro-Israel lobby after embracing PLO chairman Yasser Arafat's wife. Since first bidding for a Senate seat from New York, she has become ultra-conservative on the issue. Obama, too, has felt the pressure. After remarking in Iowa last year that "nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people", he was accused by a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of not supporting Israel. Obama now uses an ingeniously expanded sentence: "Nobody has suffered more than the Palestinian people from the failure of the Palestinian leadership to recognise Israel."
McCain may sneer that Hamas would cheer an Obama victory, but Obama's line is hardly distinguishable from the present administration's. The speech he made on race relations after the Jeremiah Wright issue erupted was widely regarded as a brilliant analysis of the psychology of black churches. But it included an alarming phrase that described the Middle East's longest conflict not in terms of land and forced displacement but as one in which Israel is an innocent victim of outside forces. Obama denounced the Rev Wright for having a "view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam".
This year David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, was quoted in the New York Times as wondering: "Does Obama feel Israel in his kishkas?" (the Yiddish word for gut). This sets the bar especially high, or low. Scrutiny now has to focus on candidates' entrails as well as their minds. But Obama has been working hard to oblige. In the current crisis over Gaza, Obama echoes the Israeli government's line. Before Clinton or McCain, he came out against a proposed UN security council statement that would have expressed concern over the Israeli blockade. He describes Israel's siege as "forced" by the Palestinian rocket attacks.
Although he repeatedly outlines a general principle that the US should talk to every important player without preconditions, he does not apply this in the Middle East. In 2006, Obama blamed Hizbullah for the war with Israel and did not join the appeals for Israel to accept a ceasefire. Last month he criticised Jimmy Carter for talking to Hamas. "We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel's destruction," he said.
Past presidents have greater freedom than future presidents, apparently. So the big questions remain: does Obama really want to change US foreign policy and can he, if he does? Having a black person in the Oval Office, and especially one with an understanding of US imperialism, would have a colossal international impact in itself. But would this merely result in even greater disappointment once the months go by and US policy stays the same? In my kishkas I feel Obama is our best hope. In my mind I prepare for business as usual.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008