Robert Parry recently wrote about “Obama, the Neo-Cons, and Liberal Interventionists” (Consortium News, August 21, 2014, reposted on Portside.org). Parry describes the two, sometimes competing, factions among the foreign policy elite that dominate United States foreign policy today. The neo-conservatives, derived from Reagan era militarism and institutionalized in the Project for a New American Century, advocate the American use of military power virtually everywhere to create pliant regimes and quiescent populations. Their theoreticians, including William Kristol and Robert Kagan, argue that President Clinton in the 1990s and President Obama today have failed to use U.S. military superiority to create a world order that serves U.S. interests.
The neo-conservatives captured the White House in 2001 and Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the second level of administrators went about launching two brutal wars, dramatically increasing military spending, and establishing a military presence, soldiers, private armies, and drone-type technologies all across the “arc of instability.” The “arc of instability” constituted nations from northern Latin America, North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and the Pacific. Their vision was to reestablish a U.S. global empire.
The Clinton era “liberal interventionists,” sometimes called the “humanitarian interventionists,” also desired a new United States global hegemony. They believed, however, that the goal could not be achieved by unilateral militarism. Empire required alliances, international institutional collaboration, and the selective use of force. Military tools, preferably aircraft, drones, and selective assassinations, while avoiding “boots on the ground,” would limit backlash from a skeptical citizenry who are tired of U.S. wars. Preferably military interventions could be justified on humanitarian grounds, not to achieve conquest but to save beleaguered populations.
President Obama, Parry pointed out, since taking office in 2009 has “pursued conflicting strategies mixing his penchant for a less belligerent ‘realism’ with Official Washington’s dominant tough-guy ideologies of neo-conservatism and its close cousin, ‘liberal interventionism.’”
During his first two years in office Obama dialogued with leaders of the G20 countries, shook hands with former President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, condemned the military coup in Honduras, withdrew most soldiers from Iraq, and agonized before he decided to send more troops to Afghanistan while promising to end the U.S. military involvement there in a short time frame.
Unfortunately, in the face of increased international conflict, pressures from dangerous allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, and domestic pressures from both neo-cons and liberal interventionists, Obama tilted to a more aggressive foreign policy, increasing drone attacks on human targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia who were claimed to be terrorists, and returning to traditional interventionist policies in the Western Hemisphere.
Over the last several months, and in part a response to his efforts to partner with Russia to reduce civil war in Syria and improve relations with Iran, Obama has been under increased pressure to send more arms to Israel. In addition, neo-cons in his administration worked covertly with Ukraine dissidents to overthrow the elected government in Kiev. They now are encouraging Obama to intervene militarily to protect the Kiev government threatened by Russian backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. With the emergence of an Islamic fundamentalist army (ISIS) occupying large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria, both neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists have lobbied for U.S. military action. Obama, skeptical of recreating Cold War with Russia, and getting more bogged down in the Gulf, is moving cautiously but at the same time toward war policies that would be disastrous for the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Gulf, and the United States
The conflict between foreign policy elite factions today is reminiscent of similar conflicts in the Carter administration, 1976-1980. As historian Laurence Shoup wrote years ago, Carter, a modestly “anti-establishment” candidate for president, ran on a campaign promising no more Vietnams. He promised that United States foreign policy would be governed by human rights. He also promised to respect the sovereignty of countries of the Global South. Some of the key foreign policy advisors he assembled lobbied for a less interventionist, more human rights oriented foreign policy.
During the first two years of Carter’s term, he tilted in their direction. But, largely as a result of the shocking revolution overthrowing the impregnable ally the Shah of Iran in January, 1979, Carter was convinced by other advisers, global militarists, to return to Cold War. The issue for them, of course, was not an alleged escalated Soviet threat but rather the loss of U.S. control of the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.
President Carter, tilting toward the militarist wing of his administration, reintroduced draft registration, increased military aid to Egypt and Israel, increased funding for NATO, launched a research program to create a “neutron bomb,” and perhaps most significantly, began a covert funding program for rebels fighting against the pro-Soviet government of Afghanistan before the Soviets sent troops to that country. This funding of what would become the predecessors of the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS planted the seeds of the spreading global resistance to the West today.
In both the Carter and Obama administrations, the presidents sought to establish a set of policies that were a little less militaristic, more supportive of diplomacy, and modestly respectful of nations and peoples of the Global South. Both these presidents won the presidency because they positioned themselves against the more militaristic aspects of traditional U.S. imperialism. Peace movements influenced these two presidents to be more “realist” than many of their advisors.
However, both of these presidents encountered sectors of the foreign policy elite who, despite modest differences, favored war. Both these presidents had at least a vague sense that United States hegemony could not be reinstituted militarily.
The recognition that foreign policy factions exist does not negate the basic assumption that imperialism is the priority goal of foreign policy elites, including presidents. But factions differ as to tactics. They differ as to the amount of pain and suffering U.S. militarism causes in the world. And they differ as to the impacts such policies have on the working people of the United States itself. Therefore, whether United States foreign policy is defined and administered by neo-cons, liberal institutionalists, or realists, like Presidents Carter and Obama, matter. If the realist presidents move away from their initial positions, they should be challenged and they should be defended when they do oppose neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists.