Photo: Damon Winter

False hope, broken promises: Obama’s belligerent legacy

  • January 11, 2017

Imperialism & Insurgency

When Obama received the Nobel Prize in 2009, the committee acknowledged his commitment to peace. He has since bombed eight countries.

Gigantic hopes were pinned on Barack Obama when he moved into the White House in 2009. Not just in the US, but across the globe people were simply fed up with eight unspeakable years of George W. Bush — with his nepotism, his belligerence and, yes, his sheer stupidity. The world was sick and tired of the “Cowboy from Texas.”

And then there came this highly intelligent, charismatic, eloquent  black  civil rights attorney from Illinois and everything was set to change. “Yes We Can” infected the whole world. “Hope and Change” were almost physically tangible to many. Yet Barack Obama has bitterly disappointed the world.

Dialogue and negotiations

In 2009, Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize — not for any concrete action but rather for his effusive optimism and, eventually, for his Yes We Can campaign. The Nobel committee acknowledged Obama’s commitment to peace and admired his diplomacy-focused aspirations: “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

Furthermore, the committee appreciated the fact that Mr. Obama had given people everywhere “hope for a better future.” The president himself felt “deeply humbled” and considered the award a “call to action.”

The outgoing president has since bombed eight countries, trumping his predecessor George W. Bush by two.

Bush infamously held his pathetic Mission Accomplished speech on an aircraft carrier, only a few weeks after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In October 2011, Obama finally declared the end of the war in Iraq and withdrew US troops from the country. While we shouldn’t shed any tears over Saddam, pre-war Iraq was a reasonably stable country back in 2003. In 2011 it was left behind by Obama as a failed state, a country in total chaos, deeply drowned in the bloodiest of violence. Today the country is a jihadist breeding ground par excellence. It is no longer possible to deny that the rise of the so-called Islamic State was a direct result of the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And so Obama, in 2014, after an absence of 2.5 years in Iraq, set out to “ultimately destroy” the jihadist legacy of his predecessor Bush  first with air strikes, then with a few hundred special forces, and now with approximately 6,400 soldiers and private mercenaries back on the ground.

Similarly, in Libya in 2011, the US and its NATO allies France and the UK misused UN resolution 1973, which aimed to establish a no-fly zone, and turned it into a pretext for an illegal war of aggression against Muammar Gaddafi. This led to the overthrow of the dictator, who was sodomized and executed by a lynch mob in the streets of his hometown of Sirte.

With his push for regime change Obama not only violated International Law, but US law as well, since the mandate for his campaign in Libya had already been withdrawn by US Congress in June 2011. Again, Libya was a reasonably stable country  until then the most advanced in Africa  that was thrown into turmoil and a bloody civil war. The so-called Islamic State used this chaos to their advantage as a way to build up its third biggest troop contingent, after Iraq and Syria. Post-invasion Libya has degenerated into a melting-pot of terrorists from across Africa and the Middle East.

As in Iraq, Obama once again used the terror threat generated after the orchestrated overthrow of an unpopular dictator to establish a permanent US commitment: renewed arms shipments, conventional air strikes, illegal drone killings, and, since May 2016, even US troops on the ground.

In Yemen, Obama not only bombed the country on his own  both with conventional and with drone attacks  but since March 2015 Washington has also actively supported a Saudi-led coalition with intelligence, logistics and massive arms shipments in its illegal war of aggression against the Houthi rebels. More recently it was revealed that there are US troops on the ground in Yemen, and that for the first time the US not only attacked al-Qaeda members but bombed facilities of the Houthi rebels as well.

The perfidious and shameless manner in which the Obama administration peddles falsehoods about its military misadventures is exposed particularly when looking into its activities in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Obama has supported different rebel groups in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. “Non-lethal aid” quickly gave way to the supply of heavy military equipment. Among the groups favored by the US there have been elements of he Free Syrian Army that later defected to ISIS or to al-Qaeda, taking Obama’s arms and money to their new masters.

Since September 2014, the US Air Force has been launching air strikes against ISIS troops in Syria. Obama, however, has repeatedly uttered the mantra that there would be “no boots on the ground in Syria.” Yet when US ground forces were eventually deployed to Syria initially a few dozen, then hundreds the government was so bold as to simply deny Obama’s previous promises: as the spokesman of the State Department put it, “there was never this ‘no boots on the ground.’ I don’t know where this keeps coming from.” Obama has actually been publicly quoted saying precisely that on at least 16 occasions.

A three-minute lesson in war propaganda:

The rule of law is overruled

But that’s not all. Every Tuesday, known as “Terror Tuesday,” a list of terror suspects from around the world is submitted to President Obama by his intelligence advisors. As former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden ostentatiously admits, quite often the entries do not even have names, but are based solely on metadata, like which SIM card is calling whom, when, and for how long.

Once a week, Obama signs this so-called “kill list” — leading to the extrajudicial execution of foreign and even US citizens through the president’s dramatically expanded drone program. The bitter irony herein is self-evident: the studied constitutionalist Obama is acting as prosecutor, judge and executioner at the same time, thus abandoning the separation of powers the cornerstone of a constitutional democracy.

Since the beginning of the US drone program in 2004, up to 8,000 people have been killed by drone strikes. The vast majority of them were authorized by Obama himself, and a few by his predecessor George W. Bush. Most victims were located in Pakistan (up to 4,000), Afghanistan (up to 2,300), and in Yemen (up to 1,300), plus around 400 more in Somalia.

In full knowledge of the consequences, Obama authorized the execution of people who often happened to be in their family circle or in public places when the drones struck. Time and again, the US has bombed wedding parties, as well as, most cynically, a funeral ceremony of drone victims. As an act of retaliation, the children of alleged terrorists are also killed by drones. As former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs once so despicably declared, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father.”

The proportion of civilians killed in drone strikes is inevitably extremely high. In Pakistan, for example, only 4 percent of casualties were confirmed al-Qaeda members. Because of this blatant injustice, drone killing are widely regarded to be the main recruiting tool for new terrorists. This is Obama’s legacy: he has made the illegal drone war the norm, and firmly entrenched it as an integral part of the “War on Terror.”

The clash of civilizations

So far, we have discussed seven of the eight countries attacked by Obama. The eighth country is the Philippines. In 2012, a US drone killed 15 people in the country, thereby further escalating the ongoing conflict between rebel groups and the government in Manila.

If we include cyber warfare in our list, we could even add Iran as a ninth country. In fact, from the very outset of his presidency, Mr. Obama waged an “increasingly sophisticated” cyberwar against the civil nuclear program of Iran, thus becoming the first president in US history to use “cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure,” as The New York Times reported in 2012.

Seven of the eight countries physically bombed by Obama are predominantly Muslim. The Philippines is the exception, but the 15 people killed there were all Muslims. Clearly this track record sits very uncomfortably with Obama’s carefully crafted image as a reconciler of religions. Just in February he made his acclaimed speech at a mosque in Baltimore.

Obama certainly did not initiate America’s ongoing war on Muslim countries — he is merely following a decades-old US tradition in that respect. But what Obama has done is to make the so-called “clash of civilizations,” which has long been a staple of foreign policy hawks in right-wing Washington think tanks, socially acceptable to liberals, normalizing it to an extent that would have been unimaginable under someone like George W. Bush. This, too, is his legacy.

The vision of a nuclear-free world

In his history-making speeches in front of the Siegessäule in Berlin in 2008 and in Prague in 2009, Obama proclaimed his goal of a “world without nuclear weapons,” an announcement that was followed by frenetic applause: “Yes, we can!” In his policy plan, he extensively addressed the issue of nuclear disarmament. To the Nobel Peace Prize committee, this point was extremely important — the announcement of his award specifically invoked his “vision of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But while the number of nuclear warheads worldwide was dramatically reduced from its peak of more than 70,000 in the 1980s to just over 15,000 today, with both Russia and the US in possession of about 7,000 each, the lion’s share of this disarmament took place immediately at the end of the Cold War.

During his presidency, Obama has only minimally reduced the US nuclear stockpile. Even George W. Bush kept his word and halved the US nuke arsenal. Added together, Bush Sr and Bush Jr dismantled a total of 14,801 nuclear weapons, while Obama managed to dismantle no more than 507.

It’s a funny thing,” Hans M. Kristensen, the luminary of nuclear disarmament research, says: “the administrations that talk the most about reducing nuclear weapons tend to reduce the least.” President Obama has decommissioned fewer warheads than “any administration ever.”

But it gets worse. When assuming office in 2008, Obama pledged that he would “not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons.” Then, in 2014, he announced the largest single item in the US budget for the coming decades: a jaw-dropping $1 trillion to be spent on a mammoth program to “modernize” the US nuclear arsenal. To put this in perspective: this means the US will spend roughly $4 million on nukes every hour  for the next 30 years.

The particular danger with this “modernization” of America’s nuclear infrastructure, the New York Times remarks, is that “the upgrades could allow a future president to rapidly expand the nation’s atomic forces.” With the megalomaniacal and unpredictable Donald Trump soon in the Oval Office, this danger looms especially large.

Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by 191 countries including the United States, obliges the signatory countries to pursue “effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race” and to “complete” nuclear disarmament. The milestone UN Resolution 1540 of 2004 reaffirms again that all member states are to “fulfil their obligations” to disarm all weapons of mass destruction. Obama’s trillion-dollar nuclear armament program blatantly violates both of these international treaties.

During the Cold War, there was a trend towards ever larger, more apocalyptic nuclear bombs. Under Obama’s administration that trend has been reversed with the development of so-called mini-nukes — small atomic bombs capable of destroying strategic targets instead of entire cities. One of the heads of Obama’s modernization plan called mini-nukes the “more ethical approach.” The misanthropy underlying this statement is difficult to bear. Reducing the size of nuclear warheads actually removes some of the deterrent in using them. Due to their small size, US generals have fantasized that the use of nukes is “no longer unthinkable.” This, too, is Obama’s legacy.

War has lost its indecency

There is no denying that Obama has made some positive achievements in his foreign and security policies during his tenure. In some fields he has actually advanced the US and the whole world. Here the nuclear deal with Iran comes to mind, which I have previously called “one of the most important global diplomatic agreements of the young century.”

Obama also pursued the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba and, after almost 90 years, he was the first US president to actually travel to the Caribbean country a historic milestone.

But at the same time, Obama has failed to close the concentration camp at Guantanamo; he has presided over the intensification of military tensions with China in the Pacific region; he holds a shameful record on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and his management of the Ukraine crisis has been disastrous, contributing — together with his intervention in Syria — to the emergence of a frightening new Cold War scenario, involving the largest build-up of US troops in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

All of this clearly goes to show how Obama blatantly squandered the opportunity to pursue peace, and instead has handed down the very opposite: a world of escalating conflicts and tensions. Obama may have started out with good intentions, but as John Pilger so strikingly put it, “his most consistent theme was never change — it was power.”

In a classified CIA analysis published by WikiLeaks in 2010, the Agency bemoaned the waning support for war among the population of America’s European allies. After eight miserable years under Bush, the Global War on Terror desperately needed paint job. Obama arrived as a godsend. With the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as commander-in-chief, America’s perpetual state of war lost its indecency. It was even raised up a notch under the illusion of progressiveness and wrapped in an aura of necessity.

This is Obama’s belligerent legacy.

Jakob Reimann

Jakob Reimann is the founder of the Germany-based left-wing blog JusticeNow!. He works as a freelance writer, editor and translator and lives between Israel, Palestine and Germany.

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