The Silent Violence Behind "Smart Power" in U.S. Foreign Policy

By Peter Baofu, Ph.D.

On January 27, 2009, the U.S. President Barack Obama told Al-Arabiya host Hisham Melhem that “[m]y job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy,” so as to reinforce what he already said in his inaugural address that “[t]o the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

This is what the Obama administration called the “smart power” approach to U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world, as the U.S. is now in a "damage control" mode for its image abroad, after the disastrous foreign policy experience of the Bush administration.

It has been about seven months now since Obama became the U.S. president. So, is his “smart power” approach producing any "real" mutual respect (not just cheap words) towards the Muslim world? The answer is that, although the rhetoric of "smart power" may help Obama's image in the short term (by manipulating those simple folks who are eager to believe in any promised hope), the violence towards the Muslim world as a result of U.S. foreign policy not only shows no sign of diminishing but also is on the rise.

This is true, even though Obama is different from George W. Bush (who, by the way, was ranked in a survey of U.S. presidential historians, conducted by the cable channel C-SPAN on February 15, 2009, as the 7th worst president in U.S. history -- and his vice president, Richard B. Cheney, was ranked by TIME magazine as one of the worst vice-presidents in U.S. history). To say that obama differs from Bush is trivial, however, since no two consecutive U.S. presidents have ever been identical anyway. After all, even twins do not behave exactly alike.

But the more important question now is how much Obama is really different from many of his predecessors, especially in the context of foreign policy. Just consider the following five foreign policy dealings (in the Middle East ) by the Obama administration so far. Although these five examples below are merely illustrative (not exhaustive), they show that Obama is not much different from his predecessors, contrary to his rhetoric of "mutual respect."

Firstly, Obama made the decision to have a major “surge” in U.S. military operation abroad, this time not in Iraq (as was the case in the Bush administration), but in Afghanistan. The initial planning was for 17,000 more (additional) U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan at the beginning stage (on top of the existing U.S. troops already put there by the Bush administration). But now, more troops are being considered to be sent abroad as the war drags on "for years to come," as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this year. Already, there was a leak, as reported by Norman Soloman, that "the Pentagon's top commander there [in Afghanistan ] will soon request 45,000 more.” This has become one of Obama's wars.

As the war drags on, many of those Afghans, including many civilians, who died in U.S. military attacks, have been time and again Muslims. On a weekly basis, there have been reports of killings of innocent civilians (by U.S. military attacks), time and again, for so long. For the U.S. , the lives of people in that region are not worth as much as Americans and do not mean much (except being dismissed as "collateral damage" in war, or any other slogan), and the killing continues.

After all, it is a standard procedure of the U.S. military that they do not count those whom they kill in foreign lands, because they do not want the country and the rest of the world to know the magnitude of their killing -- although they do diligently count every single American soldier who is wounded, killed, captured, or missing. Even the U.S.-imposed Afghan president Hamid Karzai had helplessly condemned, time and again, these attacks which often ended up killing so many more innocent Afghan civilians (than the few suspects) and injuring even many more, besides ruthlessly destroying the homes of these poor folks and the surroundings.

Secondly, during the Bush administration, the U.S. had violated many times the Pakistani territorial sovereignty with countless drone attacks on villages in certain parts of the country (like the North and South Waziristan regions), in spite of the helpless condemnation by the Pakistani government against the U.S. attacks which had also killed so many innocent civilians (and injured many more), besides destroying the homes of these poor folks and the surroundings too. Again, for the U.S., the lives of people in that region are not worth as much as Americans, and the U.S. military routinely refuses to count those whom they regularly kill in foreign lands, because they do not want the country and the rest of the world to know the magnitude of their killing.

But these U.S. drone attacks not only continue in the Obama administration but also have increasingly become the favorite hi-tech way to carry out the war effort. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who also served in the Bush administration) even confirmed earlier this year that these missile strikes would continue, until the war on terror in the region is won.

This is true, even though the Obama administration has started using some new slogans like "smart power," "mutual respect," "political and economic strategies," and other ones to replace this increasingly unpopular term like "the war on terror" left over from the Bush administration. John Brennan, Obama's chief counter-terrorism advisor, started talking with news slogans lately.

But when will "the war on terror" (or any new slogan by the Obama administration) be ever won by the U.S. ? Don’t be surprised, therefore, if more and more innocent civilian Muslims will be killed time and again by U.S. attacks in the coming months and years. It is no wonder that, in a recent a survey by the English version of AljazeeraNet in Pakistan (in early August of 2009), “almost six out of ten Pakistanis cite the United States as their biggest threat.”

Thirdly, in his symbolic phone calls to foreign leaders in the Middle East, Obama continued what his predecessors did before, to express the “appreciation” of “the spirit of partnership and warm nature” in his calls to the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah, and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank (a pro-Western faction, which is a rival of the Hamas in Gaza). And Obama, like his predecessors, did not call any of the top Hamas and Hezbollah’s leaders, and, for that matter, other regional players which the U.S. opposes.

But this, as Mark LeVine aptly observed, has perpetuated the U.S. foreign policy of supporting its “allies in the Middle East and North Africa ” which have remained “in power precisely through shackled judiciaries and corrupt and repressive police forces.”

Fourthly, Obama is slowly changing his mind about the U.S. full (complete) withdrawal of its massive troops from Iraq , although he promised the full withdrawal during his presidential campaign -- as revealed by Mark LeVine in a report earlier this year.

Instead, under the steady but increasing pressure of U.S. military and other leaders, Obama is now contemplating to withdraw some troops but to keep the rest in Iraq, especially at permanent military bases (outside urban areas) built specifically for U.S. troops to occupy Iraq on a permanent basis, by rephrasing the Status of Forces agreement with Iraq signed last November (under the Bush administration), so that, instead of having a full U.S. withdrawal by December 31, 2011, many U.S. troops would continue to occupy Iraq by stationing at those permanent military bases, under a different name called “support troops” (not “combat troops”), as proposed by Obama’s defense secretary, Robert Gates and others.

Does anyone still remember the same legal trick that the Bush administration used to torture foreign prisoners of war by calling them “enemy combatants,” not “prisoners of war,” so as to bypass the Geneva Conventions? Is this massive deployment of U.S. troops by another name, that is, “support troops” (not "combat troops"), in Iraq (to bypass the agreement with Iraq ) the new “smart power” in the new foreign policy of the Obama administration?

In a way, this is not news, since Obama is doing the same thing that the Bush administration did so many times before in Iraq, that is, to come up with ever new excuses to continue occupying Iraq ever since the invasion some years ago, as the U.S. has made ever new pretexts to stay longer as soon as each old deadline expires, with the recurrent proposal of a new one.

Fifthly, Obama decided to close the notorious Guantanamo base detention camp (within a year) where the U.S. troops tortured those whom they detained. Although a few of the detainees were released, Obama wanted to transfer many of them to somewhere else instead (even though many of them have still not been formally charged for years, and many human-rights organizations have pointed out time and again that many of them are innocent), nor is he willing to close all the “secret prisons” that the U.S. has held all over the world. In fact, Obama also does not completely stop the practice of “rendition to torture” that the U.S. has practiced for so long.

In fact, in a public report by ACLU about its lawsuit ”seeking justice for torture victims caught up in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program,” the “new Justice Department [under the Obama administration] urged a federal appeals court to dismiss [the]...lawsuit...based on the same 'state secrets' claim that the Bush administration had repeatedly invoked to avoid any judicial scrutiny of its actions. During the course of the argument, one judge asked twice if the change in administration had any bearing on the Justice Department’s position. The attorney for the [Obama] government said that its position remained the same” as the Bush administration.

Even worse, Obama also does not want to investigate the Bush administration for “war crimes,” as he thus said, in his own words: “My orientation's going to be to move forward,” although he is willing to “uphold the Constitution,” but he prefers “getting things right in the future as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.” What is not clear here is how he can uphold the U.S. Constitution for the rule of law but prefers to “move forward,” not “looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

This is true, even when Attorney General Eric Holder recently proposed (during the summer of 2009) “to appoint a criminal prosecutor to investigate alleged CIA abuses committed during the interrogation of terrorism suspects,” but Holder only “envisioned an inquiry that would be 'narrow' in scope, focusing on 'whether people went beyond the techniques that were authorized' in memos issued by the administration of former president George W. Bush,” according to a recent news update by Agence France Presse. In other words, they will try to make the issue go away by blaming a few tiny fish, but the big fish will not be touched.

Yet, in his inauguration speech in 2009, Obama wasted no time to lash out at other major powers when he spoke about how “earlier generations faced down fascism and communism,” “not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.” This “double standard” of Obama is all the more revealing, in light of his insistence “to move forward,” not backward (for a “witch hunt”). So, why did Obama not move forward too with these other major powers, instead of digging into the past and condemning them?

Even more hypocritically, when Israel slaughtered a few thousand Palestinian civilians (many of whom were children, women, and elders) in less than 2 weeks of massive bombings in Gaza in early 2009, with several thousands wounded, the entire city almost totally destroyed, and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis unseen in decades -- Obama refused to condemn the war crime, even after it had drawn emotional condemnation around the world.

At the beginning, Obama used the handy excuse that “there was only one U.S. president” and did not want to interfere with the Bush administration in governance, but it is interesting to note that, even during all those weeks before his inauguration, he had time and again spoke out publicly on the urgency to fix the economy with his massive economic plan (while remaining silent on the Israeli mass murder in Gaza), when he was not yet the U.S. president.

Later, Bush left office and was no longer the U.S. president for Obama to make the excuse. Even after that, Obama still refused to condemn Israel . Does this persistent “double standard” of Obama really support his rhetoric that America is not the enemy of the Muslim world in the Middle East , when so many innocent civilian Muslims are often killed mercilessly by an American ally which uses the deadly weapons supplied by the U.S. to do the killing and continues to be supported by the U.S. ? Moreover, Israel continued to carry out some more air strikes on Gaza shortly after.

This only perpetuates the notorious reputation of the U.S. foreign policy for its imperial Golden Rule of “Do as I say, not as I do.” In other words, when the U.S. (and its allies) commit torture and killing, the world is asked to allow the U.S. (and its allies) to “move on” and “look forward,” but when other countries (which the U.S. does not like) do the same, the U.S. and its allies insist that the world should hold those responsible for “war crimes” and put them on trial by “the International Criminal Court.”

It is not surprising, then, that Mahmood Mamdani recently argued that “the International Criminal Court” has been used as an instrument of Western major powers, especially the United States . International law has degenerated into a travesty of justice for the powerful against the weak. Is this what Obama meant by “respect” towards countless those who were killed and tortured by the U.S. (and its allies) in the Muslim world?

These five examples as described above are of course not exhaustive, as there can be many other cases, but they serve the illustrative purpose to outline the U.S. foreign policy towards the Muslim world in the Middle East under the Obama administration.

Now, every U.S. president has its own honeymoon period. But, in the case of Obama, the rest of the world has expected more from Obama’s America than what it could deliver. There are different reasons, of course, but two important reasons are worth mentioning hereafter, again for illustration.

The first reason is that much of the world (except a few extremist allies of the U.S.) are sick and tired of the excesses in the Bush administration which inflicted so much suffering and destruction in the world, both at home and abroad, in the last eight years. This is further compounded when Obama at times plays his “race” card, in that he is the first non-white (biracial) U.S. president, which then leads many naive common folks to fantasize that something extraordinary would occur to make a new America save the world, as if it were a miracle in the making. Unfortunately, to fantasize is one thing, but to be realistic is another. Those who thus fantasize, in hard times with desperation, will in due time wake up one day and becomes terribly disappointed, because of their naivety.

And the second reason is about Obama himself, in that he is partially responsible for all this euphoria about him, because of his political personality which induces him to indulge in rhetoric and tempts him to be so eager to please the crowd everywhere he goes. He simply loves the attention of people and their being charmed by him, to the point that he sometimes lets himself get carried away by it. This is the political sin that many professional politicians like him often commit.

Zadie Smith once made a rather interesting observation about Obama, in that he has learned over the years how to talk and act to different people in different ways, so as to charm them over: “Obama can do young Jewish male, black old lady from the South Side, white woman from Kansas, Kenyan elders, white Harvard nerds, black Columbia nerds, activist women, churchmen, security guards, bank tellers.”

In fact, when Obama spoke to Al-Arabiya host Hisham Melhem, he used the same trick by talking about his Muslim relatives, his brief sojourn in a Muslim country ( Indonesia ), and the need for respect towards those peoples. In other words, he tailored his speech and acted accordingly to a different audience, as he had done many times before to other peoples on different occasions. He used the same trick again, when he was in Turkey and later in Egypt earlier this year.

But what Smith did not understand is that this important mastery of acting and speaking to arouse the emotions of others is not unique to Obama. In fact, it is one of the most important skills that a “professional politician” in a liberal democracy has to master. Whoever does not master this will not go very far in the liberal democratic world of power competition. In fact, Bill Clinton, for instance, is well known for being gifted in knowing how to tailor his speeches and manners to different peoples on different occasions. Does anyone still remember that Clinton was regarded as "sleazy" and "sly" by his critics?

People who indulge in charming others like that (as "professional politicians") often have "sleazy" characters, albeit in different degrees, and cannot be trusted. This sleaziness applies to Obama too --, and his lack of good knowledge, deep experience, and great vision of world affairs does not make life easier for his administration in the next few years. And the problem is further compounded when all those in his inner circle belong to the same old establishment which has defined U.S. foreign policy for so long.

One will see a lot of déjà-vu actions in U.S. foreign policy during the Obama administration, just as the world has seen them since the last century or before, albeit with a new language and in a different way. This means that the U.S. will continue to pursue its own hegemonic interests, with its allies when possible, and at the expense of others when necessary, even if this is to mean “killing to victory,” whenever needed, as the end justifies the means, so its ideology goes. This is true, even though each new administration has its own distinctive way to govern, and no two consecutive administrations are exactly alike.

But this continuation of the quest for U.S. hegemony is no longer realistic at this time of history, as it is slowly but steadily confronting a new global reality, or the dawn of what I originally called “the post-post-Cold War era,” for a new world order that will remake history in the future that the world has never known, as already detailedly analyzed in my recent book titled "Beyond the World of Titans, and the Remaking of World Order" (2007).

And the new slogan of "smart power" is symbolic (which has its vital political function to fulfill), often in a new language for each change of the guard, to the pleasure of innocent political ears, as a fundamental landmark of the human political condition. If history remembers Bush’s newspeak of “compassionate conservatism” and “humble” foreign policy, it will likewise not forget Obama’s version of “smart power” and “mutual respect.”

But this is not the end of the matter yet. Stay tuned for more euphoric slogans to appear in the months and years to come -- with or without Obama in power.

About the Author: Dr. Peter Baofu is the author of 25 books in many different fields (with several new ones to appear in late 2009). His recent books on world affairs include “Beyond the World of Titans, and the Remaking of World Order” (2007), “The Rise of Authoritarian Liberal Democracy” (2007), the 2 volumes of “Beyond Democracy to Post-Democracy” (2005), “Beyond Capitalism to Post-Capitalism” (2004), “The Future of Capitalism and Democracy” (2002), and the 2 volumes of “The Future of Human Civilization” (2000).

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov