Blood spilled, treasure wasted: Can Obama move America off its “permanent war footing”?

For those concerned with the future of  international relations, global issues, and Canadian foreign policy, President Obama’s January 28th State of the Union address contained some critical new commitments.

The President pledged to avoid “open-ended conflicts”, to “give diplomacy a chance to succeed” and to put an end to the United States’ “permanent war footing”.

But can he deliver?

To answer that question, I am reminded of an axiom familiar to many political scientists: watch what governments do, not what they say, and follow the money.

The record to date suggests that if Obama is restore  the reputation of his presidency, radical course corrections will be required.

Under the dark rubric of the Global War on Terror, Obama inherited multiple international policy disasters from his predecessor, George Bush. Although under Obama’s leadership the US has extricated itself from one war and is winding down its engagement in another, the net results have been mixed.

Iraq is chronically violent and unstable in the wake of the US-led intervention, and the situation on the ground is worsening. The country has fallen under Iranian influence, and – most ironically – it now serves as a regional base for the spawn of Al Qaeda. That contagion has also infected Syria, complicating and aggravating the already desperate situation there.

In Afghanistan, good governance and the rule of law are conspicuous for their absence. The state is failing, the Taliban are resurgent, and ethnic militias are re-forming. Seeing the writing on the wall, many members of the NATO/ISAF coalition, including Canada, are scrambling for the exits. The stage seems set for a resumption of civil war following the pull-back, if not complete withdrawal of US-led forces later this year. Neither security nor development has been achieved. Indeed, the incidence of civilian casualties is up markedly and the areas of the country considered safe for aid projects and workers has contracted dramatically.

Even if Iraq and Afghanistan were removed from the calculus, the pursuit of other key elements of the Global War on Terror, perhaps unfolding under another name and using different tactics, continues unabated.

Torture has been outlawed, but extraordinary rendition and harsh interrogation techniques practiced in black sites around the world continue. Guantanamo Bay prison, an open sore on the face of the Republic which Obama first declared he would close in 2008, remains open for business. Large scale occupations and shock and awe  may have lost their appeal, but they have given way to an emphasis on special operations, selective assassination, drone warfare  and cyber aggression. All of these have been on the upswing under Obama, and although the President has undertaken to limit the use of drones, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere this remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains a vast network of military bases around the world. The number of troops involved in commando style units such as the Navy Seals, Army Rangers and Green Berets, and many other formations has grown as fast as the number of countries in which they operate. The U.S. government continues to spend more money on defence research than it does on health, agriculture and all other forms of other forms of scientific research combined. And there are still more musicians in the uniformed marching bands of the American armed forces – and more lawyers in the Pentagon –  than there are diplomats in working the State Department.

These resource misallocations and distortions did not arise out of nowhere or materialize by accident. Fifty three years ago in his farewell address President Eisenhower – himself a former general and Supreme Allied Commander during WWII – warned of the perils surrounding the rise of the military-industrial complex. Today that combine, buttressed by legions of lobbyists and a well-funded phalanx of right-wing think tanks, enjoys unprecedented power and influence, not least in the Congress where Obama faces some of his most trenchant and determined opposition.

In short, the shared interests which underpin the status quo represent a huge institutional impediment to reform. If president Obama is to move the USA off it permanent war footing, he will he have find a way around that formidable obstacle.

In an increasingly heterpolar world order, and one in which the comparative advantage of the USA vis-a-vis its competitors is increasingly military rather than economic, this will be a very tough trick to turn.

Are there implications for Canadian policy, and possible openings to build on Canada’s strengths as the globalization nation?

Much will depend on Obama’s performance going forward. Should he somehow manage to translate his lofty intentions into reality, some sensible possibilities for Canada could include:

  • Re-investment in diplomacy and development, after years of retrenchment and cuts,  with significant opportunities for a return to progressive internationalism and enlightened diplomatic activism
  • A re-orientation of the Canadian military’s force structure, away from an expeditionary war fighting capacity and in favour of civil defence,   peace-keeping and UN-mandated multilateral deployments
  • The strategic re-positioning of Canada as a bridge between North America and both Europe (the Quebec connection plus Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement) and the Asia Pacific (the source of most new Canadian immigrants and emerging centre of the world economy)

With negotiations on Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and Israel/Palestine all on the front burner, it won’t be long before the Obama’s avowed re-discovery of a preference for talking over fighting receives some rigorous bench-testing.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months, the most enduring proof will be contained in the slower-cooking political pudding to be baked over the course of the President’s remaining three years in office.

In a post 9/11 era of reduced civil liberties, eroded constitutional rights, and the machinations of an almost completely unbridled national security and surveillance state, let’s hope that he can finally find that elusive recipe for change.

Such an outcome would certainly be good for Canada.

And for the world, it would be even better.