Obama Gathering a Flock of Hawks to Oversee U.S. Foreign Policy
In disc golf, there's a shot known as "an Obama" -- it's a drive that you expect to veer to the left but keeps hooking right.
In no other area has this metaphor been truer than Barack Obama's foreign policy and national security appointments. For a man who was elected in part on the promise to not just end the war in Iraq but to "end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," it's profoundly disappointing that a majority of his key appointments -- Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Jim Jones, among others -- have been among those who represent that very mindset.
As president, Obama is ultimately the one in charge, so judgment should not be based upon his appointments alone. Indeed, some of his early decisions regarding foreign policy and national security – such as ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, initiating the necessary steps for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and ending the "global gag rule" on funding for international family-planning programs – have been quite positive.
But it's still significant that the majority of people appointed to key foreign policy positions, like those in comparable positions in the Bush administration, appear to be more committed to U.S. hegemony than the right of self-determination, human rights and international law.
Supporters of Wars of Conquest
Though far from the only issue of concern, it is the fact that the majority of Obama's appointees to these key positions were supporters of the invasion of Iraq that is perhaps the most alarming.
Obama's defenders claim that what is most important in these appointments is not their positions on a particular issue, but their overall competence. Unfortunately, this argument ignores the reality that anybody who actually believed that invading Iraq was a good idea amply demonstrated that they're unqualified to hold any post dealing with foreign and military policy.
It was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law, and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a non-existent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.
Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration's manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMDs in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued that "In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein." Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMDs that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion "was the right vote" and was one that, she said, "I stand by."
Clearly, then, despite their much-touted "experience," these nominees have demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration's invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of U.S. military force.
Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally, and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice-president, chief of staff, secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq from the right-wing minority who supported the war.
But the Iraq War isn't the only foreign policy issue where these Obama nominees have demonstrated hawkish proclivities. In previous articles, I have raised concerns regarding the positions of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Below is a list of some additional foreign policy appointees who are troubling ...
A Friend of Death Squads Heading Intelligence
One of the most problematic Obama appointees is Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February 1999 to May 2002 as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest ranking U.S. military official in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration's belated efforts to end the repression, promote human rights and support the territory's right to self-determination. He also fought against Congressional efforts to condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human rights record.
In April 1999, two days after a well-publicized massacre in which dozens of East Timorese civilians seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Liquica were hacked to death by Indonesian-backed death squads, Blair met in Jakarta with General Wiranto, the Indonesian Defense minister and military commander. Instead of pressuring Wiranto to end his support for the death squads, he pledged additional U.S. military assistance, which, according to The Nation magazine, the Indonesian military "took as a green light to proceed with the militia operation." Two weeks later, and one day after another massacre, Blair phoned Wiranto and, rather than condemn the killings he "told the armed forces chief that he looks forward to the time when [the army will] resume its proper role as a leader in the region."
Blair's role in all this is well-known. The Washington Post, for example, reported several months later that "Blair and other U.S. military officials took a forgiving view of the violence surrounding the referendum in East Timor." I was interviewed on NBC Nightly News at the time and spoke directly to Blair's meetings earlier that year.
Combined with Obama's selection of supporters of Morocco's occupation and repression in Western Sahara and Israel's occupation and repression in Palestine to other key foreign policy and national security posts, perhaps it is not surprising that he would pick someone who supported Indonesia's occupation and repression in East Timor. That his pick for DNI would have acquiesced to massacres facilitated by U.S.-backed forces, however, is particularly disturbing.
A Super Hawk at the Pentagon
Obama's decision to Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was a shock and a betrayal to his supporters who believed that there would be a change in the Pentagon under an Obama administration.
Gates' record of militarism and deceit includes his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, where he apparently took part in the cover-up of the Reagan administration's crimes. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh expressed frustration that Gates – well-known for his "eidetic memory" – curiously could not recall information his subordinates, under oath, had sworn they had told him. The special prosecutor's final report noted, "The statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid." Indeed, the best the final report could say was that "a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies."
In addition, Howard Teicher, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration, submitted a sworn affidavit that Gates engaged in secret arms transfers to Saddam Hussein's regime during the 1980s in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. During this same period, according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who served as Gates' branch chief, Gates was personally involved in the apparent manipulation of intelligence regarding Iran and the Soviet Union in order to back up questionable policies of the Reagan administration.
The quintessential hawk, Gates advocated a U.S. bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984, according to the Los Angeles Times, in order to "bring down" that country's leftist government, arguing that "the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America" is for the United States to "do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out." Given there are today a number of Latin American countries under leftist governments more strategically significant than the tiny impoverished Nicaragua with which Gates was once so obsessed, one wonders how, as Obama's Secretary of Defense, he will advise the new president to deal with these countries.
As he has for most of his career, Gates has been far to the right not only of the American public, but even that of the foreign policy establishment, most of which recognized that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was of no threat to U.S. national security and that a bombing campaign would be a blatant violation of international law.
Unable to convince his superiors to bomb Nicaragua, Gates became a major supporter of the illegal supplying of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, a notorious terrorist group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. In choosing Gates to head the Defense Department, Obama appears to be giving a signal that his opposition to international terrorism is limited to those who target Americans and their allies, not to terrorism overall.
Another Super-Hawk at NSC
Recently-retired Marine General Jim Jones -– who, like Gates, is a Republican and was a supporter of Senator John McCain in the November election –-- has been named as Obama's National Security Advisor. A pragmatic leader who reportedly opposed the decision to invade Iraq and has questioned the unconditional U.S. support for some of Israel's more aggressive policies, Jones' appointment is nonetheless troubling.
As NATO commander earlier this decade, Jones pushed for an expanded NATO role in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps not coincidentally, he joined the board of directors of Chevron soon after his retirement from the military as well becoming president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy, which has called on the U.S. government to engage NATO "on energy security challenges and encourage member countries to support the expansion of its mandate to address energy security."
Jones opposed any deadline for a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, which sits on top of the second largest oil reserves in the world, declaring that "I think deadlines can work against us, And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest." A passionate supporter of the Vietnam War who apparently supported a U.S. invasion of Laos and Cambodia as well, Jones considered the war's opponents to essentially be traitors. More recently, he has used rhetoric remarkably similar to that of defenders of that war to call for a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan on the grounds that American "credibility" would be at stake if the United States withdrew.
The Nation's contributing editor Robert Dreyfus, who refers to Jones as Obama's "most hawkish advisor," quotes a prominent Washington military analyst noting that "He's not a strategic thinker," but he will certainly join other Obama appointees in pushing the administration's foreign policy to the right.
A Dangerous Pick for Special Envoy
Obama's choice for special envoy to perhaps the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy – Afghanistan and Pakistan – has gone to a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.
Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration's support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and the bloody counter-insurgency campaign responsible for the deaths of up to a quarter million civilians. In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department's East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju against the Chun dictatorship, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
In the former Yugoslavia, he epitomized the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. He brokered a peace agreement in Bosnia which allowed the Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict and imposed a political system based upon sectarian divisions over secular national citizenship. During the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia, Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back the Milosevic regime in suppressing the movement so to not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The young leaders of the pro-democracy movement, which finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.
Scott Ritter, the former chief UNSCOM inspector who correctly predicted the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that "not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy." Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds, "This does not bode well for the Obama administration."
The Mixed Record of Susan Rice
The post of U.S. representative to the United Nations, which is being treated as a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration, is now held by Susan Rice, a protégé of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perhaps the most impressive intellectual on Obama's foreign policy team, she was a Rhodes Scholar who studied under Oxford professors Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury at Oxford, strong supporters of international law and the United Nations.
Serving under President Clinton in the National Security Council and later as assistant Secretary of State for Africa, she helped reverse the decades-old policy of support for Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, she received praise from civil society groups in Africa for her support for human rights but also criticism for her strident support for economic liberalization and free trade initiatives.
Though seen by many as one of the most moderate of Obama's foreign policy team, she – like some of the more hawkish Obama appointees – is also handicapped by her tendency to allow her ideological preconceptions to interfere with her analysis.
Though, unlike most of Obama's other top foreign policy appointees, she has serious reservations about invading Iraq, she naively bought into many of the myths used to justify it. For example, back in 2002 – years after Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program – she declared, "It's clear that Iraq poses a major threat" and, despite the success of the UN's disarmament program, she insisted "It's clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that's the path we're on."
In February 2003, Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal and its nuclear weapons program and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of United Nations inspectors then in Iraq engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true and his transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You're No Adlai Stevenson.)
Rice, however, insisted that Powell had "proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them and I don't think many informed people doubted that." In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice's dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell's transparently false claims were "well-informed," while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.
What this means is that Rice will have a serious credibility problem at the United Nations, whose remarkable success at disarming Iraq she summarily dismissed. When Rice speaks out in important debates about international peace and security in the UN Security Council, including possible genuine threats, there will inevitably be some questions as to whether she should be believed. This raises the questions as to why Obama would choose someone with a potentially serious credibility in such a sensitive position just as the United States is trying to restore its influence in the world body.
Some Bright Spots?
There have been some somewhat hopeful appointments as well. One is that of Leon Panetta, former Congressman and the first chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to direct the CIA. He has been praised for his principled opposition to the abuse of detainees under the Bush administration and his forced resignation from the Nixon Justice Department for opposing the administration's opposition to school desegregation.
The major concern is that Panetta – a former Republican known as a centrist who tends to seek compromise more than he is one to shake things up – will likely find himself as simply another part of the center-right national team Obama is putting together, especially since he will be serving under DNI director Blair. As The Nation's Dreyfus put it, "He's no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he's no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities."
On the one hand, when the best that can be said of a nominee for an important national security position is that he opposes school segregation and believes that the U.S. government should not be engaging in torture, it is indicative of just how for down the bar has been lowered. At the same time, Panetta's appointment is a clear signal that the Obama administration will not tolerate the kind of abuses that occurred under its predecessor.
Another potentially positive appointment is that of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy. Though a hawkish supporter of right-wing Israeli governments during his days in the Senate, the report of his 2000-2001 commission on Israeli-Palestinian violence was surprisingly balanced and reasonable. Its failures rested in the limitations imposed upon it by the Clinton Administration and the failure of the Bush administration to follow through on its recommendations. The question now is whether Mitchell and President Obama will be willing to effectively challenge Israel's refusal to withdraw the bulk of its illegal settlements from the occupied West Bank to make a viable Palestinian state possible. (See my article: Is Mitchell Up to the Task?)
Obama as Commander-in-Chief
Even though many of Obama's key foreign policy appointments are not that different than previous administration, it is important to remember that Barack Obama will be a very different commander-in-chief than George W. Bush.
For one thing, unlike the outgoing president, Obama is non-ideological, very knowledgeable and highly intelligent. He was quite prescient about the irrationality of invading Iraq, even speaking at an anti-war rally at a time when most Americans supported going to war and – prior to becoming a national figure – he espoused a number of progressive positions on issues ranging from human rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In other words, even if Gates does call for bombing Venezuela, Obama is not going to do that. Even if Napolitano comes to him claiming that invading Iran is necessary to defend the homeland, Obama will recognize the folly of such a recommendation. Even if Clinton renews her attacks on the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, Obama is unlikely to go along with them. Even if Jones argues for sending in the Marines to capture Saudi oil fields, Obama will not take such a recommendation seriously.
It is also quite possible that all this is a shrewd political move on Obama's part of placing center-right appointees in visible positions to better enable him to pursue a more progressive foreign policy, not unlike Bush using the moderate Colin Powell to sell the Iraq war. Had George McGovern won the 1972 presidential election, he would have likely appointed a number of prominent figures from the hawkish Democratic foreign policy establishment to key positions to assuage skeptics as well, but that does not mean he would have abandoned the core principles which had been the basis of his campaign and his entire political career.
Another reason that an Obama administration will not likely be as far to the right as these appointments may imply is that his electoral base – energized by popular opposition to the Iraq War – is perhaps the most progressive in history when it comes to foreign policy. It is also the most engaged and organized base the party has ever seen. Once the relief of Bush's departure and the glow of Obama's inauguration has worn off, he will have to face the millions of people responsible for his election who will expect him to keep his word regarding "change you can believe in."
Indeed, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led in terms of a more progressive foreign policy. They have generally abandoned hawkish policies only after being forced to do so by popular mobilizations. From Vietnam to Central America to the nuclear arms race to South Africa to Iraq, Democratic leaders initially allied with the Republicans until they recognized their political futures were at stake unless they listened to the rank-and-file Democrats for whom they were dependent for their re-election. Then, and only then, were they willing to change course.
As a result, what may be most important will not be the people that Obama appoints, but the choices we give them.