A Change in War Policy?

Mark Vorpahl

Two back-to-back victories, from the point of view of those in power, has left some commentators speculating that U.S. foreign policy has turned a page towards a less militaristic approach under the guidance of President Obama. These events are the killing of Colonel Qaddafi, leading Libya’s new leaders to declare liberation, followed by Obama’s announcement that all U.S. troops in Iraq will be back home by the end of the year.

Those claiming that these events mark a shift away from the militaristic approach adopted by former President Bush justify their position with a superficial analysis. For them U.S. foreign policy is determined by the cleverness and stated intentions of leading government officials, looking at leaders such as President Obama in isolation from the powerful economic interests they represent. History is reduced to a parade of personalities rather than the play of larger social forces that appear in the political realm today. Consequently, starting from a superficial premise, they end up with wrong conclusions regarding the significance of historical events. This approach sheds no light on what is happening in Libya and Iraq, but it is useful for President Obama’s re-election campaign.

Like former President Bush, President Obama’s first and foremost preoccupation is pursuing a foreign policy that increases the power and profits of U.S. corporations on a global scale. Any tactical shift in approach must be viewed with this in mind. The ends justify the means in foreign policy and in order to understand recent developments, we must comprehend how this policy serves the wealthy interests behind Obama.

The Iraq War Ends?

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is a partial concession to public sentiment that is overwhelmingly opposed to this war. Continuing the Iraq occupation on the scale it has been pursued can only be a source of political instability in this country. At the same time, however, the withdrawal of U.S. troops is a concession to the people of Iraq, since their hatred for the U.S. military prevented Iraqi government officials from offering immunity to U.S. soldiers from prosecution for crimes they commit in Iraq. Had the public sentiment been different, the Iraqi government would have been glad to offer the immunity. However, this withdrawal has only occurred after Iraq’s oil industry has been privatized, allowing U.S. companies to snatch up the lion’s share, and a government has been cobbled together that is dependent on maintaining this and other business arrangements conducive to U.S. corporate profits and control.

At best, after the destruction of Iraq’s once strong infrastructure, the killing of an estimated million and a half Iraqis, the deaths of 4,400 Americans, and the squandering of nearly $1 trillion during a time of economic crisis, President Obama’s announcement is more bitter than sweet. Yet, on closer inspection, it is far from an end to the occupation it is being touted as. Sixteen thousand “civilian employees,” who are largely armed independent contractors, will remain. Whi
le this is useful for securing corporate interests, it will be a continuing source of violence and instability in Iraq. What is more, this presence will act as a foot in the door for again escalating the presence of U.S. troops, should the need arise.

Regime Change in Libya

In Libya, Gaddafi’s killing is being proclaimed as an event marking that nation’s liberation and an example of how President Obama’s approach of creating coalitions and making partnerships with other nations such as France, Italy, and England can help rid the world of dictators. In order to be convincing, such arguments depend on social amnesia. The execution of Saddam Hussein did nothing to stabilize and liberate Iraq. In fact, his supporters launched a series of bombings shortly thereafter. More importantly, however, such arguments attempt to justify a policy of “regime change” that is consistent with the Bush Administration.

This policy has nothing to do with liberation or humanitarian concerns, as is peddled to the public. It is entirely based on the cold calculations of geo-political politics guided by the interests of corporate profit and the intimidation of anyone who tries to impede these interests. In the case of Libya, it is not difficult to determine what is involved in these calculations.

Libya is also a major exporter of oil, pumping out 1.6 million barrels of oil a day before the civil war. When Qaddafi came to power, he nationalized much of the state’s economy, creating an obstacle for unfettered corporate plunder. It is primarily for this reason that Qaddafi was branded a pariah by western powers. Over the last ten years Qaddafi managed to shed this label, particularly when he began to implement neo-liberal policies, opening up Libya to multinational corporations.

However, this move led to falling living standards and growing inequality which, in turn, greatly contributed to the discontent that sparked the uprising against Qaddafi. This uprising was part of the Arab Spring that has overturned U.S. friendly regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and posed a potential threat to European and U.S. business arrangements in the region. It was necessary for these powers to find a foothold in diverting the Arab Spring away from challenging these profitable relations. Seeing that Qaddafi was unable to control the internal situation in Libya, the U.S. and some NATO member states orchestrated military incursions to secure their own interests and to make sure to remind those rebel Libyans who was really in charge.

NATO was quick to recognize the self-proclaimed National Transitional Council (NTC) as the new leadership of Libya. Many of the grassroots groups involved in the uprising against Qaddafi regard the NTC with justified suspicion. It is largely composed of former officials in Qaddafi’s regime and others who want to accelerate the same economic policies Qaddafi was pursuing. While these policies promise greater profits for multinational corporations, this enrichment will come at the cost of working peoples’ living standards. Because of this continuing conflict, nothing is settled in Libya. President Obama’s policy has not achieved democracy and liberation, only a different means of achieving the same aims of making bigger corporate profits through grinding exploitation, as was the aim of the Bush Administration.

The attitude of the Obama administration towards events in Libya could not have been more chillingly revealed than in a recent CBS interview with Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. In it she says of Qaddafi’s murder with unguarded sadistic laughter, “We came, we saw, he died.” This is a threatening attitude to send out to the world; run afoul with U.S. interests and you may face the same fate as Qaddafi. It goes without saying that such murderous arrogance could also be applied to popular elected leaders who defy U.S. dictates, such as President Chavez in Venezuela and President Morales in Bolivia.

Peace and Occupy Movement

President Obama’s foreign policy does not represent a fundamental shift away from the Bush Administration. At best it is a tactical temporary maneuver based on conjunctional considerations.

If a fundamental change is to be made regarding a less militaristic foreign policy, the powers behind the presidency will have to be confronted. Wars abroad, though used to divert the people in the U.S. from their real enemies, are also an extension of the war on workers at home. They are the byproduct of a system geared to enrich a tiny elite at the expense of those whose collective labor produces all wealth.

This is why the Occupy Movement and its re-energizing of the unions presents such a potential force for ending the wars and mobilizing working people to defend themselves against corporate attack. By placing the interests of all working people and their allies in direct opposition to Wall Street, this emerging movement is challenging the forces that profit from war and is establishing the basis for genuine international solidarity.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org