World Relations: The ‘US empire’ after Bush

What will US foreign policy be after the election?

The ‘US empire’ after Bush

The two terms of George W Bush have been characterised by the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the brutality of Guantánamo Bay and ever increasing inequality in US society. Now, he is presiding over a deepening global recession. With the Democrat candidate, Barak Obama, clear favourite to win the race to the White House, what will this new situation mean for US foreign policy?

The US Presidential election campaign has opened a new chapter for US imperialism. The overwhelming opposition to the policies of the Bush regime and the onset of a deep and serious recession has seen a mass demand for ‘change’. Massive enthusiasm and high expectations have been aroused, especially among young people and Afro-Americans in the Democratic candidate, Barak Obama. At the time of writing, he is clearly ahead in polls and is the most likely victor. The enthusiasm and hopes of what his presidency will mean goes beyond the USA. In poll after poll in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, Obama is by far the favoured candidate.

While the outcome of the election to the Congress and scale of the Democrat majority, especially in the House of Representatives, will be important factors in determining what Obama actually does in some spheres of US intervention, one thing is clear: Obama is coming to power in an entirely different world situation than when Bush and the neo-cons took power in 2000. The question of US foreign policy in the post-Bush era is being posed sharply.

When Bush and the neo-cons seized power, they unleashed the economic and military might of the only real super-power which remained following the collapse of the former Stalinist Soviet Union in 1989-90. The ‘empire’, as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez dubbed it, tried to impose its massive military and economic power internationally. The invasion of Iraq, stepping up the intervention in Afghanistan, Plan Colombia, and others were the reality of the ‘unipolar’ world of the neo-cons. The catastrophes which have been rained down on the peoples of the world through these and other interventions, while demonstrating the power of US imperialism, have also demonstrated the limitations of that power. While a powerful ‘empire’ has been constructed, it is not like the Roman empire in its ascendancy. It has more in common with the period of decline of Rome.

The disasters that have followed the neo-con reign have revealed the fact that US imperialism, although it remains the largest economic and military power, is a historically waning power. The entry of emerging capitalist China onto the world arena poses a new challenge to it economically and militarily. Russia has also played a more assertive role than in the immediate period following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It has sought to establish its own sphere of influence which has brought it into conflict with the European Union states and US imperialism.

These conflicts between the main blocs of the US, EU, China, Japan and Russia represent a change in international inter-imperialist relations compared with the period following the collapse of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Such conflicts and clashes of interests are set to increase with the onset of a global recession. It is this trend, and the relative waning power of US imperialism, together with the legacy of the crisis left behind by the neo-con intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Asia, that will shape US foreign policy in the coming years.

Despite its reduced power, however, US imperialism remains by far the largest power. This is reflected in its military budget which stood at $547 billion in 2007, compared to $59 billion for China and $36.7 billion for Russia. China’s defence bill is estimated on current trends to rise to $360 billion by 2020. Yet it is unlikely that it will be able to achieve this and surpass the US given the onset of a deep, prolonged world recession which will have devastating consequences economically and socially in China.

Russia has benefited from the oil bonanza in recent years which has been partly used to retool and re-equip its military. The fall in world oil prices which is taking place inevitably will have devastating consequences and cut across its recent economic and military expansion. It remains a shadow of the power of the former Soviet Union. The fact that the US remains the largest imperialist power will compel it to intervene where necessary, albeit from a weakened position.

A waning power

However, the changed international background and the crises which have engulfed the neo-cons, together with the waning power of US imperialism, will mean that the new presidency will not be a mere ‘Bush mark II’ – even in the event of a victory for John McCain which, at the time of writing, seems unlikely. These new features will force the new incumbent of the White House to adopt a more ‘multipolar’ policy which is more ‘consensual’. The ideology of ‘liberal imperialist intervention’ is set to dominate the new administration. Even in the end game of the Bush presidency, the old unipolar doctrine of the neo-cons has been largely abandoned. The fact that the Bush regime was compelled to negotiate with North Korea, has failed, so far, to back an attack on Iran, and could not intervene in the Russia/Georgia crisis reflect this. The Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was advised by Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, not to attack South Ossetia. However, the Georgian government felt confident enough to go ahead, encouraged by some dissident voices in Washington who gave a ‘nod and a wink’. However, this intervention and Russia’s response illustrate the weakened position US imperialism finds itself in.

The current economic crisis also illustrates the change that has taken place since Bush arrived in the Oval office. That the main imperialist powers in the G7 were compelled to come together and agree a strategy to deal with the crisis reflected this. However, this does not mean that the US and other capitalist powers will not revert to breaking ranks and adopting protectionist or interventionist measures if they decide it is their own interests to do so. They will also adopt a similar approach towards foreign policy in their own spheres of interest if they are able to.

The waning power of US imperialism has been revealed by the abandonment of the neo-liberal, non-state intervention ideology which has dominated world politics for the last 25 years as the imperialist powers reacted to try and avert a catastrophe. Generally in the post-1945 era, US imperialism tried to impose its position and use its economic might on international economic policy. For example, it led the way in laying down the Bretton Woods agreement following the second world war. Significantly, it has been trailing the EU countries in agreeing to bank bail-out packages and the partial nationalisation of the banking system.

Throughout the neo-colonial world, as well as in Europe, hostility towards the USA as a consequence of Bush’s policies has increased dramatically. Bush will leave the White House with the international authority and credibility of the US at record low levels. The devastating failure of the US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the abandonment of neo-liberal policies when faced with the potential collapse of the world finance system, have encouraged the masses in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Having suffered the brutal consequences of the neo-con economic and foreign policy, the evident failure of them has boosted the morale of the masses in these continents as they see the imperialist powers plunge into crisis and Bush exposed as a ‘dead duck’ president.

High hopes in Obama

At the same time, there are undoubtedly high expectations and illusions about what an Obama presidency will usher in. In Europe, Obama is overwhelmingly the favoured candidate. The hope that a new Democratic presidency, especially a black president, will adopt far more radical, improved, ‘humane’ policies is overwhelmingly the view in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Although Obama will be compelled to adopt a ‘multipolar’, ‘consensual’ foreign policy, the crucial issue is what it will mean in practice for the masses on these continents. Such a change in policy will be done to try and more effectively defend the interests of US imperialism and capitalism in decline. The shift is being forced onto US imperialism as the limits of its powers have been revealed in the military and social catastrophes which have unfolded in the Middle East and Asia. In Latin America, the failure, until now, to remove Chávez in Venezuela, or defeat Evo Morales in Bolivia, represents a further setback and may result in a possible change of policy by the new US administration. The clear failure of US policy in Cuba, which has strengthened Castro’s regime, combined with the steps towards capitalist restoration by Raúl Castro, have also increased the pressure and demand for an alternative policy to be adopted there.

It is not the first time that such hopes have existed in what a new ‘radical’ Democratic presidency would mean. Indeed, it is possible that this is more pronounced in the neo-colonial world, at this stage, following the experience of two terms of George W Bush. However, there were also big expectations after the election of Bill Clinton, following the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. However, it should not be forgotten that the more ‘consensual’ approach from Clinton did not prevent US military intervention in Serbia or Somalia. Neither will Obama refrain from military intervention where it is judged to be in the interests of US imperialism and where it has the military capacity to do so.

As Obama put it: “We can neither retreat from the world nor try to bully it into submission. We must lead the world, by deed and by example…” Yet the masses of the world do not want to be led by US imperialism. If they cannot be convinced “by deed and by example”, Obama continued, “We must also become better prepared to put boots on the ground in order to take on foes that fight asymmetrical and highly adaptive campaigns on a global scale”. (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007) In the same article, he went on to call for the expansion of US ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 to the marines. The National Guard, he urged, should have sufficient funding to “regain a state of readiness”.

The ongoing crisis in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Iran, together with the worsening situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be at the centre of US foreign policy in the coming months and years. Bogged down in the Iraq quagmire, Obama has supported the withdrawal of US combat troops. However, the prospect of a full withdrawal is not a likely perspective due to the conflicts and divisions which have been opened up following the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Despite the recent claims of some commentators that the troop ‘surge’ has allowed US imperialism to stabalise the situation and reduce levels of violence, the situation remains extremely volatile with the prospect of an upsurge in ethnic clashes between Sunni and Shia peoples. At the same time, new conflicts have recently opened up. The outgoing commander of US troops, general David Petraeus, warned: The US still faces a long struggle in Iraq and recent security gains are not irreversible”. This is despite an apparent drop in sectarian violence and the number of US casualties. The US army is currently losing more troops in Afghanistan than Iraq.

While the Shia-led government, headed by prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, has strengthened its position, underlying tensions and conflicts remain which could erupt at any time. The government has pledged to integrate up to 20,000 armed Sunni fighters and take over the Sunni Awakening Councils, in which the US paid Sunni fighters to turn against the insurgency. Despite Maliki’s pledge, there are already signs that his regime is orchestrating a campaign to harass and intimidate many of them. Moreover, up to 100,000 Sunni fighters had been paid for by the US. The recent arrests of Sunni leaders have led to increased Shia-Sunni tensions and a spate of bombings. Fear of a reignited Sunni-Shia conflict was what lay behind Bush’s recent withdrawal of 8,000 troops – a lower number and at a slower rate than many commentators were anticipating.

In addition to these tensions, Maliki’s decision to send Iraqi troops into the mostly Kurdish town of Khanaquin – ostensibly as part of a broader military operation against al-Qaida forces – has inflamed the Kurds who saw it as a power play by Maliki and the Iraqi government. This intervention has made any prospect of a negotiated settlement over the status of oil-rich Kirkuk even more improbable.

The possibility of these conflicts erupting is further heightened by the world economic recession and the consequences it will have on Iraq and throughout the Middle East, especially with the fall in oil prices. Against this background, the prospect of the break-up of Iraq, or at least its fragmentation into a series of patchwork divisions of the Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and other peoples, is what the US and other imperialist powers are likely to confront in the near future. While a reduction of US troops from the current level of 140,000 is likely if the new occupant of the White House decides to escalate the offensive in Afghanistan, it will leave a series of heavily fortified garrisons in Iraq to protect US interests, especially the oilfields.

Downward spiral in Afghanistan

Obama’s objective of scaling down military intervention in Iraq while stepping it up in Afghanistan, and Pakistan if necessary, rather than strengthening imperialism in the region, is certain to become as big a disaster as Iraq, and probably worse. Even before a major reduction of US forces in Iraq, the Pentagon has planned to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan from 33,000 to 47,000 because of the clear failure of the intervention. Far from stabilising the situation, a renewed offensive will boost Taliban resistance even further. During 2008, the US has lost more troops in Afghanistan than at any time since the occupation began in 2001. All 16 US spy agencies agreed in a recent report by the National Intelligence Estimation (NIE) Afghanistan, the publication of which has been postponed until after the presidential election, that the US and NATO forces faced a “downward spiral”.

Overwhelming hostility to the US and NATO troops has given the insurgents greater support and sympathy. This has been re-enforced by the sea of corruption and nepotism which the government of Hamid Karzai is swimming in and by a collapse in security. With reports of local people having to go to the Taliban to receive ‘justice’ against crooks and thieves, because they cannot get it from the official state apparatus, the Karzai regime is rapidly loosening any confidence or legitimacy it may have had among big sections of the population. A desperate situation exists with a surge in violence and lack of security in Kabul and other cities. Rodric Braithwaite quoted Afghan journalists, former Mujahideen professionals: “They were contemptuous of president Hamid Karzai, whom they compared to Shah Shujah, the British puppet installed during the first Afghan war. Most preferred Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president. Things were better under the Soviets. Kabul was secure, women were employed, the Soviets built factories, roads, schools and hospitals… Even the Taliban were not so bad: they were good Muslims, kept order…” (Financial Times, 16 October 2008)

With warlords switching sides to the highest bidder, and with over 50% of national income coming from the booming opium trade, the British writer, Max Hastings, commented that, “the highest aspiration” must be for a “controlled warlordism”. (Guardian, 13 October 2008) Stepping up the military offensive will only result in a greater disaster which will drag US and NATO forces deeper and deeper into the swamp that is further destabalising the already explosive situation in neighbouring Pakistan.

Tensions between the US & Pakistan

The rotten Perves Musharraf was finally removed from power, much to the irritation of US imperialism which had rested on his regime as its main ally in the region in the ‘war on terror’. For nine years, US imperialism backed his regime, lavishing it with an estimated $11 billion aid in return for its support. This policy of Musharraf, who was a quisling of US imperialism, served to undermine his support. Pakistan, awash with grinding poverty, corruption and national oppression, has evolved into a virtual failed state. Pakistan is on the edge of an implosion and even a possible break-up as a consequence of the economic and social disintegration which is taking place. Many staple food prices have rocketed by 100% in a few months. Power supplies are frequently interrupted, causing devastation for the masses and crippling businesses which cannot function. The NIE concludes that Pakistan is “on the edge”. A US diplomat said that Pakistan has “no money, no energy and no government”. (Guardian, 17 October 2008) The new coalition government, headed by Asif Ali Zadari – renowned for corruption and known as ‘Mr 10%’ because of the bribes he has been accused of accepting – threatens to be short lived.

The border regions with Afghanistan, North and South Warizistan, overwhelmingly made up of Pashtoons, and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have become the main base for Taliban and other insurgent forces which operate in Afghanistan. Warizistan has become what one diplomat described as a “terrorism supermarket”, where Taliban forces arm, train and launch attacks into Afghanistan. In North and South Warizistan, the white pennants of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a local Islamist force, fly from government buildings. The capital of NWFP, Peshawar, was virtually encircled by its armed militias. In addition, an explosive situation exists in Baluchistan. When the murderous bombings that rock Karachi and the armed gangs and warlords which operate in the rural Sind are added to this, the scale of the disaster facing the peoples of Pakistan cannot be overstated.

The opposition to US imperialism among the masses in NWFP and North and South Warizistan has fuelled the growth of Taliban and other insurgent forces in these areas. The Pakistani security services, ISI, and sections of the army are riddled with sympathisers of the insurgents who oppose collaborating with the US and its ‘war on terror’.

It is against this background that Bush has authorised the use of special operations units and incursions from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, speaking to Congress on behalf of the chiefs of staff, along with defence secretary, Robert Gates, urged that these be stepped up. This strategy has been backed by Obama and the Democrats: “I will join with our allies in insisting – not simply requesting – that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban, pursue Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, and end its relationship with all terrorist groups”. (Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007)

This has raised tensions between the US and Pakistan’s new prime minister, Zadari. These incursions recently resulted in the Pakistani army opening fire on US forces. The dangers of US military operations on Pakistani territory were clearly spelt out in an article by lieutenant general Shahid Aziz, a former chief of staff under Musharraf. He accused Musharraf of “Inviting the Americans to fight their war on Pakistani territory, without consulting the army… Militants will multiply by the thousands. The Pakistani army will not be able to support US operations. Financial crisis and street unrest will create chaos in the country and the war will spread”. (Guardian, 16 September 2008) This policy is backed by Obama who raised the question of using US troops in Pakistan prior to Bush authorising recent incursions. The recent clashes have opened a deep rift in Zadari’s government. One coalition partner, Jamiat-Ulama-i-Islam, has even proposed that the Taliban address the parliament following a report being presented by the military.

A combination of the Afghan crisis and events in Pakistan threaten a nightmare for US imperialism and will have horrific consequences for the people of the entire area. Obama’s policy of putting more ‘boots on the ground’ will only fan the flames of the insurgency and make an explosive situation even more unstable.

An arc of crisis

To the crisis engulfing Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq must be added Iran which, together, embroil US and western imperialism in an ‘arc of crisis” spanning the entire area. When the plight of the Palestinian peoples is added, along with the prospects of the overthrow of the pro-western regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, as well as a series of upheavals throughout the Gulf and the Middle East, the scale of the problems facing US and western imperialism in this area alone are immense. Now, they are facing them from a weakened position.

There has been much speculation about the prospects of an attack on Iranian nuclear sites. The consequences of such a military strike would be to set the whole of the Middle East in flames. Moreover, the Iranian regime would certainly retaliate by blockading the Straits of Hormuz, thereby cutting off the lion’s share of oil supplies to the west. The consequences of such an attack, and the effort and resources being poured into Iraq and Afghanistan, have so far deterred the Bush regime from supporting such a strike despite intense pressure from Israel. The Israeli regime is determined to avert Iran developing a nuclear weapons programme and undertook a series of military manoeuvres to demonstrate its capacity to launch such an attack, although it would probably need assistance from the US to carry it out. Moreover, even Bush has been prepared to modify his stance, taking steps to establish low level diplomatic openings. These, however, have now been put on hold until after the presidential elections.

While Bush and his regime have so far been checked from unleashing a bombing raid, although not probable, it cannot be excluded that Israel could act unilaterally, at a certain stage. Social crisis in Israel can drive the Israeli ruling class to use this as a means of ‘rebuilding national unity’ against a common enemy. On the other hand, the threat of such a strike has been used by the Iranian regime to try and bolster its own support. Faced with such pressure, it is possible that Obama would apply his ‘consensual’ foreign policy and open up negotiations, either openly or behind the scenes. Yet, as he has warned, this will be backed up by the application of even tougher sanctions against Iran, the price of which will be paid for by the Iranian people.

A new era

However, in Latin America, it is possible that Obama will adopt a different approach to the neo-cons, especially in relation to Cuba and, possibly, Venezuela and Bolivia. This reflects the failure of US policy towards Cuba since the revolution in 1959 and the attempts by Raúl Castro to move towards capitalist restoration together with a more open attitude by a second and third generation of Cubans and Latinos in Florida and other US states. As part of the process, it is possible that the trade sanctions will be eased. Some commentators have speculated that this could be done in return for ‘free elections’ at some point in the future with no specified date. However, the onset of world recession will complicate further the process of full capitalist restoration in Cuba.

It is not excluded that Obama may make some overtures to both Morales and Chávez, both of whose governments will face increased pressure and turmoil as a consequence of the fall in oil and other commodity prices. At the same time, the determination of the right-wing in these countries to remove both governments and the prospect of even greater social explosions by the masses demanding more radical anti-capitalist policies than have so far been introduced, could easily derail Obama’s hope to ‘reopen a dialogue’ with these governments. Moreover, the prospect of even greater upheavals in other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, is certain to open up new conflicts with US imperialism as more radical, combative social movements emerge that can pressurise new governments to take even more radical measures that bring them into collision with US imperialism.

US imperialism is the only major imperialist power with a border directly with a neo-colonial country – Mexico. The Mexican government has been prepared to adopt pro-capitalist policies and collaborate with US imperialism. How long it can continue to do this is another question which will confront Obama. With 80% of Mexican exports destined for the US and $25 billion sent back every year by Mexicans working in the US, the developing recession is already having devastating consequences. The prospect of major social and class upheavals in Mexico will have important repercussions within the US itself.

The new inter-imperialist relations which are developing will open a new era, with growing tensions between the main blocs and within them, as has recently been shown in the EU during the economic crisis. The idea that is being propagated of a new Bretton Woods agreement does not correspond to the new realities which exist for global capitalism. The Bretton Woods agreement was undertaken when US imperialism was the clearly dominant world power. The existence of an alternative social system, the former Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, with planned economies ruled by bureaucratic dictatorships, provided a ‘glue’ which bound the other imperialist and capitalist countries together. With the collapse of these regimes no such glue exists today and the resources available to world capitalism in a period of deep recession are very different to those which existed following the second world war when an upturn of capitalism was taking place.

While temporary agreements are possible between the various imperialist powers, these will not offer a return to the relative stability which followed the Bretton Woods agreement. The bloody carnage in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caucasus cannot be resolved under capitalism and imperialism. Despite its weakened position, the US, as the largest imperialist power, will be compelled to intervene in some of these crises. The prospect of increased conflict and war is what the new era of capitalism and imperialism will mean – until the working class and others exploited by capitalism replace it with socialism, the only way to resolve the conflicts and horrors that are the product of imperialist intervention and capitalism.

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October 2008