In January 2003, headlines such as "American Empire: Get used to it" seemed commonplace. In the wake of 9/11, the United States had already invaded Afghanistan, was weeks away from invading Iraq and in the middle of a "global war on terror." Since then, many Americans have indeed gotten used to American Empire. The most disappointing among them is President Obama, who once railed against the empire's blackest outrages — from torture to perpetual imprisonment without trial. Instead, Obama is about to enter his second term as heir of George W. Bush's imperial strategy unless his latest foreign policy appointments signal significant change.
While following through on some key promises, such as withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, Obama has often simultaneously deepened his commitment to the empire. In some cases, he pursued his promises, proposing to close Guantanamo and launching a plan to give terrorist "detainees" civilian trials, and then quickly backed away as his political foes attacked.
When in office, Obama ignored warnings about getting trapped in the Afghan quagmire. Pushed by his handpicked advisers, including Hillary Clinton and Republican holdover Robert Gates, and generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, he tripled the number of U.S. troops there. By 2011, the United States was spending $110 billion on military operations. Even as the president announced a slight acceleration of the planned 2014 pullout, it is unclear what long-term impact Obama's Afghan "surge" will have.
Elsewhere, Obama quickly became the world's leading drone warrior, employing more predator drones in his first nine-and-a-half months in office than Bush had in the previous three years. The results are mixed. He managed to decapitate much of al-Qaeda's leadership, but these attacks fueled jihadist recruitment. In Yemen, al-Qaeda had up to 300 members when Obama's drone campaign began. It now has 1,000. When the judge asked Pakistani-born "Times Square Bomber" Faisal Shahzad how he could target innocent women and children, he countered that U.S. drone strikes "kill women, children; they kill everybody." To Shahzad, the victims were human beings. Drone operators referred to them as "bug splats."
Obama claimed the right to murder, without judicial review, anyone he deemed a threat to U.S. interests, making him judge, jury and executioner, and far exceeding Bush's surveillance without judicial review (which also seems to have expanded under Obama). He personally selected the individuals to be targeted who were put on "kill lists." Before 9/11, the U.S. had condemned targeted assassinations. Now, they are Obama's signature foreign policy initiative, one that many other nations have prepared to emulate.
Often, Obama's efforts to expand America's imperial role are obscured by Republican demands that he go further. Obama has been hard on Iran, tightening sanctions and threatening military action if it pursues a nuclear weapons program that the intelligence community has consistently said it abandoned in 2003, and soft on Israel, whose government's recalcitrance and expansion of settlements undermine the prospects for a two-state solution.
In Asia, the U.S. is transitioning to a more confrontational role, dubbed the "pivot" as outlined in Secretary of State Clinton's November 2011 Foreign Policy magazine article titled "America's Pacific Century."
China Cold War
The U.S. has followed up with moves intended to encircle and contain China, disturbingly reminiscent of its Cold War efforts to contain the Soviet Union. Rather than constructively engage China, the U.S. has been militarizing the region with arms sales, joint naval operations, strengthened military alliances, deployment of troops to Australia, and a growing naval presence.
Even Obama's rhetoric has been disconcerting. Though he has not gone as far as Bush in announcing a crusade to wipe out "evil" in the world, he has echoed Woodrow Wilson's post-World War I description of "America as the savior of the world." "Unlike the old empires, we don't make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it's right," Obama told troops returning from Iraq. He might better recall the words of long-serving Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who wrote, "Everyone knows: The Iraq War is largely about oil."
For all the credit Obama receives for withdrawing from Iraq and his plans to vastly reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, he has not challenged U.S. perpetuation of the most powerful and far-reaching empire in human history with an estimated 700 to 1,000 foreign bases and a military presence in 2008, according to scholar Chalmers Johnson, in 151 of the 192 U.N. member states.
Nor has he repudiated the attempt to achieve full spectrum dominance, including weaponization of space and militarization of cyberspace.
There are, however, a few signs of hope that Obama's approach is changing. Nominating Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense — with his criticism of the Israel lobby, sensible approach toward Iran, opposition to the surge in Iraq and repudiation of nuclear weapons — and John Kerry as secretary of State represents a major break with the hawks who populated Obama's first administration.
Reversing course and embracing progressive ideals would help restore the faith of his most fervent supporters, who saw his first election as a transformational moment.