Friday, March 12, 2010

Cockburn is Wrong

I've enjoyed Alexander Cockburn a great deal over the years, but lately he has come off crotchety and depressed. In his latest column, he suggests anxious establishment opinion that Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are bungling foreign policy is misplaced:
"Obama has smoothed off the rough edges of Bush-era foreign policy, while preserving and, indeed, widening its goals, those in place through the entire postwar era since 1945. ...All of this is scarcely a catalogue of bumbledom. Obama is just what the Empire needed. Plagued though it may be by deep structural problems, he has improved its malign potential for harm."

There are two issues here. The first is whether Obama marks a significant departure for US foreign policy. Here Cockburn is correct. So far, he does not. Although a few early signals--his forthright discussion of the US role in the Iranian coup of 1954 in his Cairo speech, shaking hands with Hugo Chavez--raised hopes, so far, everything else he has done has dampened those same hopes. Most significant have been the Obama administrations backing for the coup in Honduras, the continued martial drumbeat in Iran, and the troop surge in Afghanistan, along with the extension of that war into Pakistan. But Cockburn seems to overrate the prospects for continued US power when he quotes Peter Lee:
"Peter Lee hits the mark when he wrote recently in Asia Times that“the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone. By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs. It offers economic partnership and cash. What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach … heft in the global financial markets.""
The problem is that, because of its ideological isolation, all the other mechanisms of US power are misfiring. Lula well captured an element of the international mood when he testily told Clinton to lighten up on the drive for sanctions against Iran. However much the European Union, and maybe (maybe) Russia can be dragooned into this cause, there is widespread suspicion of the largest nuclear power in the world declaring Iran can't have weapons while winking at Israel (or more recently India). Much of the left wishes China, or perhaps the EU, would directly stand up to the US and engage in some sort of hegemonic showdown. The Soviet Union tried this, and it bankrupted itself with endless commitments and an inability to set effective priorities. These days, the strategy of many of the rising 'semiperipheral' states is to speak softly while reaching out in many directions. This is true not only of Brazil and China (and Russia) but many other states, such as Turkey or South Africa. the goal is not to provoke the US, but loosen its centrality. Much of the establishment in the US senses that less and less attention is paid to the US. And so they lash out at the 'bungling' of Clinton or Obama. But there is little that could be done. Perhaps some elements of US power could be prolonged with a new strategy in which the US listened to Latin America, shifted its friendship in the Middle East towards Iran, etc. But this is inconceivable. Instead, expect more charges of 'bungling' as US power drifts downwards, and the search for the scapegoat intensifies.

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