The President of Conflict

Obama mural. France, 2011.

Barack Obama has delivered an address at the UN General Assembly that he can’t possibly believe. Obama’s argument is that US isolationism could leave a leadership vacuum that would be damaging to the peacefulness of global politics. Irrespective of his actual intentions, the President’s meditations are increasingly unhinged from reality.

That vacuum is already emerging. For decades, the United States has been unwilling to establish its hegemony through formal empire, and its understated attempts to do so, whether through covert efforts or military occupation, have mostly imploded. President Obama defended the idea of the United States being “exceptional” in his speech, but the era of that discourse is ending. And he has missed yet another opportunity to admit the world’s changing contours and the important role that the United States has to play in what comes next.

Obama was right to praise the United Nations and the pivotal role it has played in preventing catastrophic war between the Great Powers. Although proxy-wars, and other bloodshed, have left millions dead since its inception, this statement holds true:

The leaders who built the United Nations were not naive. They did not think this body could eradicate all wars. But in the wake of millions dead and (inaudible) rubble, and with the development of nuclear weapons that could annihilate a planet, they understood that humanity could not survive the course it was on.

Certainly. And he is correct to point out that the United Nations has indeed made a difference in efforts such as education and disease prevention. The problems begin when he outlines the nature of future American intervention in the Middle East, itself unusual considering the much-touted “pivot to Asia” that was supposed to mark a disengagement from the region. Syria, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict are all discussed in ultimately familiar terms, despite promising diplomatic progress with newly-elected Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani and some occasional updating.

For instance, this phrase would not have been uttered in an American president’s speech twenty years ago, at the beginning of US unipolarity following the end of the Cold War:

Sectarian conflict has re-emerged, and the potential spread of weapons of mass destruction continues to cast a shadow over the pursuit of peace.

But other things remain the same: a refusal to admit how the United States and Saudi Arabia have made predatory campaigns of Sunni incitement possible, the continued use of catchphrases such as “weapons of mass destruction,” and a praise for the bloody pursuit of a peace that never seems to be achieved. President Obama says nothing original about interstate violence by a Great Power in the Middle East, and joins a chorus that dismisses limits on such intervention as isolationism.

Interestingly, one of his franker complaints about those who criticize American interventionism could have been stated by a British Prime Minister generations ago:

In this way, the situation in Syria mirrors the contradiction that has persisted in the region for decades. The United States is chastised for meddling in the region, accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy, at the same time the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems and for showing indifference towards suffering Muslim populations.

The US leader’s frustration is understandable. Syria is yet another no-option-is-popular situation: not acting is morally indefensible, and yet, the results of acting are also indefensible. This must be especially aggravating for the US leader, who hints at his own views on the matter with this statement:

I do not believe that military action by those within Syria or by external powers can achieve a lasting peace. Nor do I believe that America or any nation should determine who will lead Syria. That is for the Syrian people to decide.

Ultimately, it is a difficulty of being a Great Power. It comes about when inadequately structured states are forced to court superpower backing for local change, which arises from deep failings in local and international systems. The only way to stop these situations from coming about is to push those systems in such a manner that “global leadership” is truly a global exercise. The role the United States has to play in that evolution in the Middle East is to reexamine its policy roots in the Carter Doctrine. It must move away from a cynical defense of its energy concerns, market interests, and obviously anti-democratic allies. It must also cease to use the war on terrorism as an impetus for preserving those structures. There is no present hint at that from the speech itself:

The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region. We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War. […]

We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends on the region’s energy supply and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy. […]

We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when it’s necessary, defend the United States against terrorist attack, we will take direct action.

As President Obama well knows, those affected by American policy, and indeed many Americans themselves, are exhausted with these commitments. Not only do they require an unsustainable allocation of human and economic capital, but also a moral degradation that attacks directly at his status as leader of the free world.

Obama as superhero. Presidential inauguration, 2009.
Obama as superhero. Presidential inauguration, 2009.

This moral decline is particularly relevant with the emerging trend of robotic warfare, which is defended by its capacity to minimize American casualties and financial expenditure. President Obama has presided over its expansion (the US drone fleet,) which is as shrouded in rhetoric of surgical precision as were smart bombs during the 1991 Gulf War. On the topic, we are treated with another byline:

The United States — these new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war footing. Beyond bringing our troops home we have limited the use of drones so they target only those who pose a continuing imminent threat to the United States where capture is not feasible and there’s a near certainty of no civilian casualties.

And yet, for removing the factors of economic catastrophe and American deaths which have galvanized anti-war sentiment previously, it is precisely drones that allow for a perpetual war footing. Robotic warfare makes endless war that much more tenable, for material reasons, as well as philosophical ones that approach military engagement as a though it were a video game.

It is also quite troublesome that he continues to echo tired statements about democracy and its current marriage to market-driven politics:

And we’ll continue to promote democracy and human rights and open markets because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity.

If the United States wishes to play any productive role in the emerging global order, then its leadership must admit that this fusion needs to be critically reexamined. There are many emerging examples of this actively eroding democracy, from the Egyptian military preserving its economic empire, to the ascendency of neoliberal development practices in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. Those who support open markets may purport to be democratizing the world as a consumer base, but they also begin to attack the very freedoms that they are supposed to be enshrining. As many in the Obama Administration are aware, activists in the Middle East have repeatedly pointed out this fallacy.

Perhaps that is the actual danger. President Obama, in a speech where he discusses the rights of Syrians living under civil war, more or less erases them with this statement:

The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues aback home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.

In Syria, as in the entire Middle East, the question is of who replaces the United States. Will it be a local power, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran? Will it be another Great Power, such as China? The belief is that the United States must be readily followed up by another hegemonic actor, as was its behavior in partially succeeding the collapsing European empires that inherited the mantle of the Ottoman Caliphate.

This is a speech in which President Obama reaffirms United States policy, and its commitment to democracy, particularly in the Middle East. And yet nowhere in the speech was an indication that the Middle East could possibly constitute itself.

The belief that a democratized region could set its own affairs without an overarching patron is often dismissed as an unrealistic fantasy. However, the real fantasy is to believe that the region can only exist peacefully while it is under the heel of some dominating authority. There has been far too much senseless violence as the result of the imperial era, autocratic strongmen, military occupations, and imposed state policies, for that point to be realistically argued. Barack Obama’s own errors in helping trigger a Tuareg revolt in Mali, and an Islamist uprising in Yemen, are the most recent evidence for this.

It is only when all these attitudes are abandoned that this statement will qualify as more than just talk:

I know what side of history I want the United States of America to be on. We’re ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges with you, firm in the belief that all men and women are, in fact, created equally, each individual possessed with a dignity and inalienable rights that cannot be denied.


Photographs courtesy of Thierry Ermann  and  Ekai. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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