By William Pfaff
HEIDELBERG, Germany—U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has completed his national security team, and its composition confirms that nothing fundamental is likely to change in American foreign policy.
“Fundamental” is the key word, meaning change in the goals pursued and the assumptions that underlie policy. One expects an end to the blatant contempt for international law and institutions displayed by the Bush administration. The torture, illegal seizures of individuals and secret imprisonments, and flaunting of generally accepted norms of human rights will probably end, although the records of all the new appointees are not entirely clear on this subject.
However, the war on Muslim radicalism will go on. The evidence suggests that American policy under Obama will be a continuation of the neoconservative foreign policy of the Bush administration, given a human face.
According to Obama’s own intention to carry the war against al-Qaida into the Pakistan tribal territories, the current American attitude toward national sovereignty remains unchanged.
As early as 2003, Condoleezza Rice condemned the Westphalian system of state sovereignty as leading to competition and war, calling for its replacement by an alliance or federation of the democracies, under U.S. leadership, to keep order in the world.
The same idea was argued by John McCain in his presidential campaign, and Obama endorsed it. The preceding Reagan and Clinton administrations displayed little compunction about invading or bombarding small countries. (Ronald Reagan had to be stiffly reminded by Queen Elizabeth that she was the queen of Grenada, a Commonwealth country he had chosen to invade in 1983.) A Pentagon official recently said that sovereignty extends to what you can defend. Implied was that territory a country cannot defend is open to whatever the U.S. chooses to do there.
In June 2008, the Defense Department, acting on the authority of Robert Gates, issued a new version of its National Defense Strategy. This presented a list of requirements meant to compel removal of military, political and international legal obstacles to American attacks on terrorist targets, and to American interventions to replace regimes.
The New York Times last Sunday carried a major article based on information from an unnamed source among the Obama planners, who said that a “vastly expanded” number of military officers, diplomats and aid people will be prepared for projects dealing with the aftermath of conflict and to rebuild “failed states.”
The informant said “the U.S. and its allies (will) use their varied tools to build government capacity in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines and beyond. Grand strategists may imagine a new global architecture, but the real global architecture of the future will emerge organically from these day-to-day nation-building operations.”
According to Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, planning includes “increasing the size of the State Department, building a civilian corps that can do development in dangerous parts of the world, creating interagency nation-building institutions, helping local reformers build governing capacity in fragile places like Pakistan and the Palestinian territories, and exporting American universities while importing more foreign students.”
Last summer, Secretary of State Rice declared that the Bush government was mistaken in its initial hostility to nation building. She wrote (in Foreign Affairs) that “democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest. ... It is absolutely clear that we will be engaged in nation building for years to come.” She said that this reflects “a uniquely American realism” that teaches “it is America’s job to change the world, and in its own image.”
The war on terror, which began in reaction to an attack on the United States by a small group of nationalist and Islamist Muslims, outraged by the presence of American military bases in close proximity to the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia, has now become a war against radicalism itself, disorderly states, other conflicts and failures in the non-Western world, poverty and social disorder (“breeding grounds” for terrorism), and “rogue nations,” meaning those that want to have nuclear weapons in order to deter attack by foreign enemies.
Simon Sefarty, a senior figure in the Washington policy community, listing what were “increasingly agreed” with the European allies (in summer 2008) to be the “nontraditional” threats to Europe and America, began with the threat of “terrorist groups of global reach and potential access to weapons of mass destruction,” and continued with “WMD diversification and proliferation, failed states, organized crime, access to energy, climate change, pandemics and more.”
He urged a “complex mixture of military and civilian capabilities along with a combination of institutional tools, both national and multilateral” to resolve the threats. His list left out resurgent superpowers (presumably traditional threats), but otherwise would seem to include the failings of most of the non-Western world.
This same war to make other states “into the American image” has been waged repeatedly during the last 50 years: in Vietnam, in Laos and Cambodia, in Nicaragua, in Iraq where “victory” (whatever that would be) still eludes the U.S., in Afghanistan in a war now spreading into Pakistan, in Somalia (through an Ethiopian proxy), and against Hezbollah and Hamas.
It invariably has failed, at heavy cost to the societies involved, and little or no benefit to the United States. The rule long ago empirically established is that intervention in other countries to remake them invariably inflames and sustains nationalist resistance to the invader. But Barack Obama and his team seem ready to try again.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.