Think back to the election of 2008. Do you remember how one candidate had it easy? He had eight years of abject failure to run against. Eight years that included the launching of two dismal wars, the creation of a torture gulag with its crown jewel at Guanta'namo Bay, the ushering in of a program of robotic assassination missions and secret spying programs, all presided over by an administration that talked tough about silencing leakers and reporters who aided them, and a president who kept a list with mug shots of people he wanted bumped off. (When his triggermen killed one, he'd cross off his face.) The roster of the administration's "triumphs" reads like something out of dystopian fiction and people were tired of it. They wanted change, which was good news for the change candidate, because his rival was an old hawk who talked more of the same.
Fast forward to today. The candidate who won the 2008 contest expanded the country's war in Afghanistan, struggled to keep American troops in Iraq (before fulfilling his predecessor's pledge to withdraw), and oversaw escalating military interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere. The winning candidate failed to close Guanta'namo, radically expanded the robotic assassination program, continued and expanded domestic surveillance, vigorously pursued and used the Espionage Act against more governmental whistleblowers than all other administrations combined (but prosecuted no one else in the National Security Complex for illegal activities), and kept his own extensive kill list, personally okaying assassinations. Could it really be that the "change" candidate won? Could it have been any worse than if the old hawk had?
Another question follows. Almost four years later, are people happy about the types of "change" he ushered in? After all, as president, the change candidate killed public enemy number one and he's still fighting for his political life against a challenger whose own party once rejected him and now does little more than tolerate him. He, too, is now talking "change." Yet the type of change the challenger is speaking about includes even more profligate military spending, even more troops to send to war, and possibly the addition of a new war or two to the American agenda. So much change and yet so much remains the same. Confusing, isn't it? Luckily, TomDispatch regular John Feffer, author of Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam, makes some sense of this strain of American politics and what four more years under President Obama or four years under President Romney is likely to mean for us -- and the rest of the world. No matter who wins, be ready to lose hope and fear change. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which John Feffer discusses power -- hard, soft, smart, and dumb -- click here or download it to your iPod here.) Nick Turse
Dumb and Dumber
Obama's "Smart Power" Foreign Policy Not Smart at All
By John Feffer
Barack Obama is a smart guy. So why has he spent the last four years executing such a dumb foreign policy? True, his reliance on "smart power" -- a euphemism for giving the Pentagon a stake in all things global -- has been a smart move politically at home. It has largely prevented the Republicans from playing the national security card in this election year. But "smart power" has been a disaster for the world at large and, ultimately, for the United States itself.- Advertisement -
Power was not always Obama's strong suit. When he ran for president in 2008, he appeared to friend and foe alike as Mr. Softy. He wanted out of the war in Iraq. He was no fan of nuclear weapons. He favored carrots over sticks when approaching America's adversaries.
His opponent in the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton, tried to turn this hesitation to use hard power into a sign of a man too inexperienced to be entrusted with the presidency. In 2007, when Obama offered to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, Clinton fired back that such a policy was "irresponsible and frankly naÃ¯ve." In February 2008, she went further with a TV ad that asked voters who should answer the White House phone at 3 a.m. Obama, she implied, lacked the requisite body parts -- muscle, backbone, cojones-- to make the hard presidential decisions in a crisis.
Obama didn't take the bait. "When that call gets answered, shouldn't the president be the one -- the only one -- who had judgment and courage to oppose the Iraq war from the start," his response ad intoned. "Who understood the real threat to America was al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, not Iraq. Who led the effort to secure loose nuclear weapons around the globe."
Like most successful politicians, Barack Obama could be all things to all people. His opposition to the Iraq War made him the darling of the peace movement. But he was no peace candidate, for he always promised, as in his response to that phone call ad, to shift U.S. military power toward the "right war" in Afghanistan. As president, he quickly and effectively drove a stake through the heart of Mr. Softy with his pro-military, pro-war speech at, of all places, the ceremony awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama's protean abilities have come to the fore in his approach to what once was called "soft power," a term Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined in his 1990 book Bound to Lead. For more than 20 years, Nye has been urging U.S. policymakers to find different ways of leading the world, exercising what he termed "power with others as much as power over others."
After 9/11, when "soft" became an increasingly suspect word, Washington policymakers began to use "smart power" to denote a menu of expanded options that were to combine the capabilities of both the State Department and the Pentagon. "We must use what has been called 'smart power,' the full range of tools at our disposal -- diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural -- picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation," Hillary Clinton said at her confirmation hearing for her new role as secretary of state. "With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of foreign policy."
But diplomacy has not been at the vanguard of Obama's foreign policy. From drone attacks in Pakistan and cyber-warfare against Iran to the vaunted "Pacific pivot" and the expansion of U.S. military intervention in Africa, the Obama administration has let the Pentagon and the CIA call the shots. The president's foreign policy has certainly been "smart" from a domestic political point of view. With the ordering of the Seal Team Six raid into Pakistan that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden and "leading from behind" in the Libya intervention, the president has effectively removed foreign policy as a Republican talking point. He has left the hawks of the other party with very little room for maneuver.- Advertisement -
But in its actual effects overseas, his version of "smart power" has been anything but smart. It has maintained imperial overstretch at self-destructive expense, infuriated strategic competitors like China, hardened the position of adversaries like Iran and North Korea, and tried the patience of even long-time allies in Europe and Asia.
Only one thing makes Obama's policy look geopolitically smart -- and that's Mitt Romney's prospective foreign policy. On global issues, then, the November elections will offer voters a particularly unpalatable choice: between a Democratic militarist and an even more over-the-top militaristic Republican, between Bush Lite all over again and Bush heavy, between dumb and dumber.
Mr. Softy Goes to Washington