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Barack Obama: Neocon Despite Himself

09/23/2010 09:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Never mind what people thought they voted for in 2008; that's ancient history. How about what they voted against? That would be, among other things, the foreign policy contrived by a gaggle of still unindicted war criminals, the neo-conservatives. Could people have been deceived about that too; could Barack Obama be a neocon himself? It's too soon to say for sure, but it sure is looking that way.

He is not a true believer, of course; he is not so foolish as to think he can reshape the Middle East to make it safe for "democracy" (neocon for America and Israel). But then Bill Clinton wasn't ideologically committed to deregulation or dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs either; it was his limitless opportunism that moved him to take up those Reaganite causes. For his lack of commitment, the true believers gave him only grief. But he did more to implement "the Reagan Revolution" than any other president. He was more effective than the dastardly Gipper himself.

Obama's electoral posturing is less opportunistic. But, for whatever reason, he seems incapable of resisting, much less reversing, the neocon tide. To be sure, he inherited problems exacerbated by his predecessors' incompetence. Still, it is striking, nearly two years into his administration, how little he has done even to try to reverse their foreign policy program.

Conventional wisdom has it that the left is all but useless for implementing its own objectives; that a political leader needs impeccable right-wing credentials to change course in a progressive direction. This is how we think of Nixon in China or Begin negotiating a peace treaty with Anwar Sadat. However, in these cases, the changes registered advanced causes those titans of the Right championed. Establishing diplomatic relations with "Red China" helped in Vietnam, it helped in the Cold War with Russia and perhaps unintentionally, it helped undo the anti-war movement and, more broadly, the left, not just in the United States but in all capitalist countries. By establishing a cold peace with Egypt, Begin effectively neutralized the most powerful enemy country on Israel's borders, at the cost only of some occupied desert of little interest to Zionist ideologues.

Thus what the Nixon and Begin examples illustrate is strategic flexibility, not profound changes of direction. For examples of the latter, one would have to look to the other side of the political spectrum. Clinton's turn against New Deal and Great Society liberalism is the most conspicuous American example, but there are dozens of others throughout the world. From at least the time of the outbreak of the First World War, capitalism's best defenders in Europe and elsewhere have been socialists. They did their job so well that in many countries they have all but disappeared.

Barack Obama is falling into this inglorious tradition. He took office talking a good line on the Muslim world, including Iran, and he is still dabbling in good words on Israel/Palestine. But there has been, so far, a radical disconnect between his words and his deeds. Allowing for changes in circumstances, Obama has continued the policies the Bush administration pursued in its final four or five years, once it became clear even to the most ideologically committed Bush functionaries that more aggressive neocon adventures would only result in abject failures.

The Obama administration has done nothing to force Israel to stop blocking a two state solution, though it continues to proclaim support for one; and it has resumed the neocon-Israeli campaign against Iran. Even in Iraq, the erstwhile peace candidate is doing just what the Bush administration would now be doing: ending overt combat operations in populated areas, while leaving tens of thousands of troops and countless "outsourced" mercenaries in some half dozen military bases - to be used as needed in Iraq or Iran or wherever else proximity makes them useful.

Then there is Afghanistan. That unfortunate country never loomed large in the neocon imagination; it was just a venue for revenge killing after 9/11 and for practicing "regime change." But the neocons were so clueless of the facts on the ground that the war there never ceased. Meanwhile, candidate Obama, wanting to look strong on "defense," proclaimed Afghanistan the good war. For that reason and because he fears the military he officially commands, Obama stumbled into a situation from which nothing good can come. He seems to understand that Afghanistan is not just a wrong cause, but also a lost cause. But, without a backbone, he has no way out. Thus, inadvertently, the neocon dream lives on through him. His Afghanistan War is where the neocon action now is.

Arguably, the jury is still out on whether Obama is a neocon in the way that Clinton was a Reaganite because it isn't yet proven beyond a reasonable doubt that his good words are only just words. They plainly reflect an intelligence beyond the horizons of the true believers; a fact that appalls Tea Partiers while leading "reasonable" people to continue to cut him slack. This too is remarkable: do these gentle souls not think it worse to do harm while knowing better than to do harm, as Bush and Cheney did, out of genuine conviction?

But it is the political, not the moral, bearing of Obama's foreign policy that renders him most culpable. It should be clear to all by now, after nine dreadful years, that the neo-conservative program is a recipe for murder and mayhem; and it should be clear as well, after two profoundly disappointing years, that competence - or rather less incompetence -- won't make it better. Just as it took a "liberal," Bill Clinton to turn the furies of Wall Street loose, will it fall to the great progressive hope of 2008 to unleash horrors beyond the means of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush and to call forth?

I'd feel more optimistic if I thought that the coming elections would force Obama and the Democrats to change for the better; if it would teach them a lesson. But if the past is any guide, the elections are more likely to have the opposite effect - making them even more Bush-like than they already are. The tragedy is that, facing the prospect of a Tea Party state, who will fight back? This is why, no matter what happens November 2, it is not just on the economic front that bleak times lie ahead.