Small change from Barack Obama

Obama's rhetoric of change may have been seductive during his 2008 campaign, but American foreign and national security policy has remained much the same as it was during the Bush years. By Frank Groome.

President Obama won the 2008 presidential election on a platform of change - change from the aggressive and arrogant foreign policy of the Bush era and a change from the vested interests and lobby groups deeply embedded within the American political system. This image of change was a powerful symbol that, when combined with Obama’s rhetorical style, seduced even the most ardent critics of American military and economic strength.

The inspiring symbol of change that Obama projected during the campaign still resonates persuasively for many people around the world today, and its enchanting effect was evident in the recent visit of the U.S. President to Ireland. The warm welcome that Obama received from the public stands in stark contrast to the widespread protests across the country when President Bush was in Ireland for the EU-U.S. summit in June 2004. The power of the president’s beguiling rhetoric is made all the more conspicuous by the fact that American foreign policy under Obama has remained relatively consistent with the Bush administration – the major point of concern for most protesters back in 2004.

Of course, there is no doubt that the rhetorical style and tone of President Obama’s language on important international issues represents a massive shift from the brash and self-righteous language employed by President Bush - a shift that has had done much to repair the image of the U.S. around the world. However, on foreign policy and national security issues, the Obama administration has retained a significant level of strategic consistency with the Bush administration. An overview of the Obama administration’s activities in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay reveals this strategic uniformity - a level of uniformity that is worth examining.

Afghanistan is perhaps the clearest example of where Obama has pursued warlike policies consistent with his predecessor. Throughout the presidential campaign, he often declared Afghanistan as “the right war”. He viewed Iraq as a distraction; like President Bush he believed that the war in Afghanistan was “absolutely essential”.

Imbued by this vision of a just war, Obama took the decision to increase troop levels in the country when he entered the White House. Two and a half years on, however, it is now clear that the administration did not fully appreciate the scope of the “nation-building” exercise in Afghanistan - a process that has been complicated by the President’s illegal unmanned military drone attacks in Pakistan that have killed scores of innocent civilians.

The President’s decision to employ a military “surge” tactic in Afghanistan - akin to the military “surge” employed by Bush in Iraq - has not achieved the administration’s objectives in the timeframe anticipated. Indeed, arguably the administration’s efforts to build a pro-American Afghan military and security force and win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people have failed. Today there is evidence to indicate that the insurgency has become more violent and life for Afghani citizens has become more dangerous. Moreover, information from the U.S. military’s own “CIVCAS” database shows a 19% increase in the number of civilians killed year-on-year in 2010.

There are few commentators on Afghanistan that anticipate success for the administration in the near future. The war remains ongoing in the South of the country and there are signs that the Taliban is consolidating a stronger hold in the North and West. In addition, more U.S. troops have now died in Afghanistan under Obama’s watch than under Bush’s.

Obama’s bellicose rhetoric on Afghanistan stands in stark contrast to his “anti-war” rhetoric on Iraq. The President often declared his opposition to the Iraq invasion during the campaign and believed the war diminished American security and standing in the world. He even stated his belief that “voters should demand a clear plan on how to end the war from all…candidates.”

Today, a 50,000 strong “non-combat” American military force is still on the ground in Iraq. This “non-combat” nomenclature belies the fact that these troops are involved in military activity almost on a daily basis. In addition, Obama has implemented no change in U.S. policy regarding airstrikes and bombings in Iraq and Obama has actively continued the Bush administration’s counterterrorism operations in the country.

While the President’s decision to continue to reduce troop levels in Iraq - a process that started under the Bush administration - is commendable, its full benefit has largely been offset by his willingness to facilitate the influx of U.S. private military contractors into the country, who by some estimates now outnumber U.S. troops at a ratio of 1-to-1.25 (up from 1-to-1 in summer 2010). Even Obama’s declaration that the U.S. would fully withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 has been contradicted by a number of senior adminstration officials - including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates - who have pointed out that the date set for withdrawal is subject to the “conditions on the ground.” The problem is that it is not clear what conditions Obama is looking for. Some U.S. commentators on Iraq now believe that Obama will aim to renegoitate the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government to ensure a post-2011 U.S. military presense.

If there is a legitimate security reason why Obama has maintained strategic elements of President Bush’s military aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, on Guantanamo Bay the President was free to define his own policy. Indeed, he set out to do just that.

The closing of the Guantanamo Bay military detention centre was one of the President’s core campaign pledges; a decision he argued would return America to the "moral high ground" in the war on terrorism.

This campaign pledge appeared to be fulfilled early in his presidency when he signed an executive decision ordering the closure of the facility within a year. In taking the decision to close the facility the President declared that he was restoring “the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war." For many Americans, this act championed the type of change that the country needed.

Today however, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open and Obama has recently signed a Defense Authorization Bill which prevents the transfer of prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. mainland. While the President decried the detainee-related provisions in the Bill and has made efforts to try some detainees before civilian courts – an effort that has been thwarted by Congress - the signing of the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill de facto legitimizes the illegal policy of detention started by the Bush administration and represents a huge u-turn on a central and popular campaign pledge.

Back in 2004, a majority of Irish citizens were against the Presidential visit to Ireland, with many denouncing Bush as a warmonger and calling for an end to American military flights though Shannon. With Obama maintaining many of the same bellicose policies of his predecessor and with U.S. military flights still landing in Shannon, it occurs to me to wonder if the same ingredients that drove people out into the streets in 2004 are not present in 2011 – albeit couched in a diplomatic façade.


Dr. Frank Groome is an associate of the Clinton Institute for American Studies at University College Dublin


Image top Will Merydith.