About That Isolationism: How American Empire Made an Even Transition from Obama to Trump

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About That Isolationism: How American Empire Made an Even Transition from Obama to Trump

Less than two months into his slapstick farce of a presidency, Trump is reneging on his pledge to steer US foreign policy in a less psychotic direction. Pretty soon those of us who are squeamish about cynical military adventures abroad could be pining for the days of Barack Obama. This is a distressing thought. It was Obama, after all, who decided wrecking Libya was a price worth paying to reassert Western control over the region—said control having been attenuated somewhat by the unanticipated Arab Spring. For Libyans who saw their once-stable country reduced to warlordism and Islamist anarchy, Obama’s glib expressions of regret after the fact were probably difficult to stomach. Amusingly, histrionic reports about Russian “interference” in Libya are beginning to surface in Western media, as if Moscow could fuck up that country any more than we already have.

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s legacy is similarly deplorable in Syria, Honduras, Afghanistan and Yemen. The hapless citizens of these countries might be interested—or perhaps exasperated is the better word—to learn that, here in the West, Obama’s foreign policy is routinely derided as “hands-off” or “do-nothing.” In other words, he didn’t meddle enough, didn’t bomb enough, didn’t violate international law enough. For those with a dark sense of humor this is comical; for everyone else, it’s simply depressing.

In Syria, to briefly recap, Obama escalated the crisis by helping our regional allies arm, fund and train “moderate rebels” fighting alongside al-Qaeda and other terrorist outfits. He stood by while Turkey facilitated the flow of foreign jihadists into Syria—thousands of whom joined ISIS—only sealing its border when Kurdish militias, much to Ankara’s dismay, secured wide swaths of land across northern Syria. Nor did he rebuke, let alone sanction, the Turkish government for buying truckloads of oil from ISIS. In this case, Obama really was observing a “hands-off” policy in Syria, but of course this is not what the media are referring to when they use that term. Until ISIS started cutting off the heads of Western journalists and aid workers, Obama’s priority in Syria was regime change; fighting terrorism didn’t factor into the equation at all.

Thanks to a lack of adequate news coverage, many Americans are unaware of the important role played by the Obama administration in undermining democracy in Honduras. That the removal of elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 was a military coup is not up for debate. Hugo Llorens, then-ambassador to Honduras, was unequivocal on this point, writing in a cable to the State Department: “There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch.”

Far from joining the rest of the world in condemning the extralegal transfer of power, the US State Department—headed by Hillary Clinton—refused to even acknowledge a coup had taken place. In fact, they worked to consolidate it. US aid money to Honduras flowed forth while the interim government attacked the media and curtailed civil liberties. When the Organization of American States drafted a resolution demanding Zelaya’s return to power as a prerequisite for new elections, the US blocked it. Months later, a shoddy election—complete with violence and censorship—was won by right wing candidate Porfirio Lobo, and the horrorshow officially commenced.

“As the United Nations, Amnesty International and many other human rights groups have documented,” Dana Frank wrote in Al Jazeera, “state security forces [in Honduras] have committed vast human rights violations since the 2009 coup and continue to do so with near-complete impunity. Gangs, murders and drug trafficking have flourished given the breakdown of law enforcement.”

Since 2010, more than 120 environmental activists—people who protested destructive mines, dams, logging projects, etc.—have been murdered in Honduras. Thousands of people fleeing the violence and repression have attempted to migrate to the United States. Between October 2013 and September 2014, US Customs and Border Protection encountered over 67,000 unaccompanied children along the Mexican border. 27% of them came from Honduras. Good thing Donald Trump is building that wall.

Following his election in 2008, which promised to bring “hope and change” to America and the world, Obama wasted no time intensifying the war in Afghanistan, sending an additional 30,000 troops into America’s most hopeless military experiment. The infamous “surge” did virtually nothing to stabilize what Obama called “the deteriorating situation.” Indeed, the situation continues to deteriorate and the Taliban continues to gain strength, no doubt an expression of the lack of popular support for the government in Kabul. The purpose of 9/11, according to Bin Laden, was to bankrupt the United States by drawing it into a perpetual, unwinnable war in the Middle East. We’ve been more than obliging. As Mark Perry wrote in Politico last October, “the US has spent over $850 billion on the Afghanistan war, suffered nearly 2,400 dead and the Taliban are not only back in the field, they’ve made steady progress in wresting control of the country from the U.S.-backed Afghanistan government.” No wonder nobody talks about Afghanistan anymore; it’s bad for the ego.

In Yemen, since March 2015, a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia has prosecuted a reckless military intervention—cosigned by the United States—on behalf of embattled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who resigned and fled his country before changing his mind and deciding that he’d like to return. Various human rights organizations have condemned Western support for the Saudi air campaign, which, according to the UN, has killed several thousand civilians and led to mass famine. Said support is quite direct. Last September, Amnesty International “confirmed that a US-made bomb was used in the air strike on a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital on 15 August which killed 11 people and injured 19 others.”

The report went on to state: “According to independent weapons experts consulted by the organization who assessed photographs of a bomb fin taken by a journalist at the site, a US-made precision-guided Paveway-series aerial bomb was used in the attack.”

This is hardly aberrant. Human Rights Watch revealed in December that “remnants of US-supplied weapons [were found] at the site of 23 apparently unlawful coalition airstrikes, including more than a dozen attacks involving US-made cluster munitions.” Specifically, “US-produced weapons were used in two of the war’s deadliest incidents so far: the March 15 attack on Mastaba market, which killed at least 97 civilians, and the October 8 attack on a funeral hall in Sanaa, the capital, which killed at least 100 people and wounded more than 500. Both attacks appear to have been war crimes.”

Recall that in November 2015, seven months into the Saudi campaign, the Obama administration approved the sale of $1.29 billion in “smart bombs” to Riyadh. Not bad for a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The conflict in Yemen is almost always described as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthi rebels, we are told, are sustained by economic and military aid from Tehran. But as Patrick Cockburn explains, “there is little evidence that the Houthis get more than rhetorical support from Iran and this is far less than Saudi Arabia gets from the US and Britain.” In fact, the notion that Iran is providing significant material support to the Houthis defies logic, as “Yemen is almost entirely cut off from the outside world by Saudi ground, air and sea forces.”

Nevertheless, the Saudis justify their intervention—and the US justifies its support for that intervention—by citing Iranian “aggression” in Yemen. And lest you forget, Iran is also “the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism” (no evidence required).

This is the narrative underlying Trump’s apparent decision to escalate US involvement in Yemen. On March 8, the Washington Post reported that the State Department plans to continue selling munitions to Saudi Arabia, despite the documented atrocities. “We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region,” a senior US official said. “In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.” Iran’s “malign influence” is presumably to be contrasted with Saudi Arabia’s benevolent influence, to which starving civilians in Yemen can surely attest.

The disastrous outcome of the Navy SEAL raid in Yemen—Trump’s first big military maneuver—has been well documented. More than twenty civilians were killed, including several children. Killed also was Chief Petty Officer William Owens. Trump’s shameless exploitation of Owens’ death during his February 28 address to Congress was one of the most nauseating things I’ve seen in some time. Prior to Trump’s speech, the White House had used Owens to shut down criticism of the raid. After John “Insane” McCain refused to label the operation a success (because an American was killed), Sean Spicer told the press: “I think anyone who would suggest it’s not a success does disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.” Naturally, nobody asked him whether describing the bloody raid as a success might do a disservice to the twenty-nine Yemeni civilians who lost their lives as a result.

The raid itself was bad enough. Its broader implications are worse.

“It is in Yemen,” Cockburn writes, “that new policies are beginning to emerge as the Trump administration carries out its first counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda—if that was what it was—leading to the slaughter of civilians and a botched cover-up. Yemen may soon join Afghanistan and Iraq as wars in which the US wishes it had never got involved.”

The new policies can be observed in Syria as well. While Trump hasn’t yet resurrected the old Western demand that “Assad must go,” he has argued in favor of “safe zones” (read: American occupation of Syrian territory) and is quietly placing more so-called boots on the ground. Following the deployment of 400 Marines earlier this month, the number of American troops in Syria stands at 700.

This is more important than it may seem. Speaking to The Christian Science Monitor, Middle East expert Nicholas Heras emphasized that the recent dispatch of Marines is “a significant expansion of the US presence in northeastern Syria that entails all kinds of risks and complexities, not the least of which is the very complicated web of actors that are operating in the same space as the US.” The foremost danger is the likelihood that, upon helping to capture towns and cities from ISIS, the US will have “a mandate to hold and control a large area of eastern Syria.” That’s what the government talks about when it talks about “safe zones.”

Of course, there is also the fact that US military presence in Syria is illegal, a flagrant violation of Syrian sovereignty and international law, but then American officials can’t be bothered with such pedantry. Rules are made to be broken, after all. So too are promises, as Donald Trump continues to demonstrate.

Last year, candidate Trump announced that, with him in the White House, “the era of nation building will be brought to a very swift and decisive end.” Because of this comment and others like it, he was ridiculed by the foreign policy and media establishments as an isolationist who doesn’t understand America’s indispensable role in the world. The war evangelists, in other words, were getting nervous. But given what we’ve seen thus far—escalations in Yemen and Syria, renewed hawkishness toward Iran, a $54 billion increase in military spending—it appears they had no real cause for concern. They can breathe easy. The Empire is alive and well.

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