You have remarked that you see little substantive difference between the Bush administration’s and the Obama administration’s foreign policies. How are Obama’s policies similar to, or different from, the Bush administration policies?
Well, to be precise, I think there are significant differences between the first and the second Bush terms. And I think Obama’s policies are fairly continuous with Bush’s second term. In the first Bush term, the administration simply went off the spectrum. US foreign policy has a very narrow spectrum, but the Bush administration departed from it. In fact, they were quite harshly criticized right within the mainstream for doing extreme harm to major US interests. During the first term, the image of the United States in the world sank to probably the lowest point in history. Everything they touched turned into disaster, from the point of view of the interests that they represent.
Invading Iraq turned out to be as expected. It was anticipated that it would increase terror, which—of course—it did, beyond what was expected. What sensible analysts understood was that it would probably strengthen Iran, which it did. Iran was the victor of the US invasion of Iraq. The invasion destroyed the country. That was true for case after case; just about everything they touched turned into calamity.
The second term, they more or less moved back toward the centrist mainstream. Some of the more extreme figures like Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others were sent away. They couldn’t eliminate Cheney because he was the administration. They became somewhat more accommodating to negotiations. Rather than kicking people in the face and telling them, “you are irrelevant unless you do what we say,” they became a more normal administration. And the Obama administration continued on that path. I don’t see any fundamental changes from the second Bush administration.
Both US and international media outlets have applauded Obama for showing sensitivity and ability to understand other cultures, especially when he visited the Middle East. Do you think that Obama’s different rhetorical approach to engaging foreign policy could translate into substantive policy changes?
As you know, Obama won the award from the US advertising industry for the best marketing campaign of 2008. His team beat Apple computers. Advertising industry executives were euphoric and talked openly to the business press about how they have been selling candidates like toothpaste ever since Reagan and how this is the greatest achievement they have ever had. Yes, Obama is very effective at marketing.
I don’t happen to like it, but a lot of people seem to like his rhetoric. He gives the impression of being an understanding person, sometimes so much that it’s almost comical. He went to Israel—it must have been in June 2008—and Shimon Peres reported to the Israeli press that Obama was a wonderful guy. He said that Obama agreed with him on everything, so they were going to get along fine. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is about the opposite extreme from Peres in the narrow Israeli spectrum, came back and said that Obama was a marvelous guy who agreed with him [Netanyahu] on everything. That is Obama’s technique. He says: “I really like you; I understand you; I am sympathetic with you.”
So yes, it is true: it is a feeling. In Europe, there was almost euphoria, partly because Obama wasn’t Bush. The Bush administration was coming straight out and saying literally, “you do what we say, or you are irrelevant.” Obama says, “we are partners we are friends, we will listen to you,” and so on and so forth. There is no “irrelevant.”
Actually, there is a nice comment about this from 40 years ago, making the essential point. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy intellectuals were making plans that they knew perfectly well might lead to the destruction of England. They were apparently thinking of implementing plans which, in their own minds, might have led to a Russian retaliation, which would have destroyed England. It wouldn’t have reached the United States, but it would have destroyed Europe. They didn’t tell the British about it. The British prime minister had no idea what they were doing, except for what he could find out from British intelligence. At that point, one of the senior Kennedy advisors commented on what they called their “special relationship” with England. The special relationship meant that Britain is our “lieutenant;” the fashionable word is “partner.” Of course, they like to hear the fashionable word.
The same was true when Obama went to the Middle East, which you mentioned. The impression in the Middle East was that they finally have somebody who understands them, someone who is going to pay attention to their concerns and interests. And he’s going to bring democracy and freedom. If you bothered to pay attention to what Obama said, you couldn’t have such illusions. For example, on his way to Egypt, he was asked what he would say about the “authoritarian” nature of the Egyptian regime. That was kind of an understatement: Egypt is a brutal, harsh dictatorship. Obama’s response was something about how he doesn’t like to use labels for “folks.” When a politician uses the word “folks,” you wait for the next horror that’s coming along. Obama said that he wouldn’t call Mubarak authoritarian. He’s a person who brings stability and does good, and he is our friend.
How do you think anyone in the Middle East who is thinking for a minute can take seriously what he says about human rights violations in Iran? If he thinks Mubarak is a nice guy who does good…
Then, the same is true with everything. If you read Obama’s speech in Cairo, the content is, basically: “Yes, we understand you, there shouldn’t be war, and we should work together.” Then the policy stays the same or even becomes harsher. And in fact, this does lead, of course, to disillusionment. When people construct illusions and they later see that the illusions had no basis, they see that the illusions were ill-founded and often become even more hostile.
Has Obama made any progress on the Israel-Palestine issue?
He’s actually made one major speech about it. Shortly after he came into office, he introduced George Mitchell as his negotiator. And it was very interesting to see the way in which he did it. Obama is an intelligent person—I assume he means what he says. He said that it was a good choice. George Mitchell had a good record, and the choice makes good sense. He was also a Clinton appointment. Obama said that we are now in a position where things can really be done because there are constructive proposals on the table. He singled out the Arab League Plan and said that it was a good basis for proceeding.
But notice how he described the Arab League Plan. He said to the Arab states, in effect: “This is a good plan, and you should proceed with it. You should proceed to normalize relations with Israel.” But as he surely knew, that’s not what the Arab League Plan said. What the Arab League Plan said was that the Arab states—once again, as before—endorsed the international consensus on a two-state settlement. And in that context, they will go even further, further to normalize relations with Israel. But Obama totally ignored the content of the plan and kept to the corollary. He said: “Yeah, you [Arab states] proceed to normalize relations with Israel”—meaning, by omission, without a political settlement.
So is Obama’s stance on the Israel-Palestine issue identical to that of previous administrations?
As far as a political settlement is concerned, he just repeats what Bush said. His only comment to Israel was that they should stop extending settlements. First of all, that’s repeating Bush. Second, it’s just repeating the wording of the so-called “roadmap,” which was signed by the Quartet (of United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations) and which, theoretically, the Israelis and Palestinians accepted. (In fact, Israel rejected it right away with 14 reservations, which undermined it.)
However, when the press asked whether Obama would do anything if Israel continues to expand settlements, his spokesperson said no; it was purely symbolic. He said that we wouldn’t do what George Bush, Sr. did. He [George H. W. Bush] imposed very minor penalties if Israel continued to expand settlements. Bush withheld loan guarantees to the extent that Israel used the funds for settlement expansion. Obama said that we won’t go as far as Bush, Sr., that the statements now are purely symbolic. That’s telling Benjamin Netanyahu to do whatever he likes. That’s a wink. We say “stop expanding settlements,” but we wink to say they can go ahead and do it.
It proceeds like that. In fact, the whole talk about expanding settlements is largely beside the point. The issue is the actual settlements, all of which are illegal, as was clearly understood by Israel in 1967. They have been constructed with US support in a way that was designed to make a meaningful political settlement impossible.
In what specific ways have US attitudes helped thwart the development of a two-state settlement in Jerusalem?
Israel immediately expanded Jerusalem from 1967 and annexed it illegally. This is not only a violation of international law but also a violation of explicit UN Security Council orders. The construction going on there is an effort to ensure that Israel will control the Greater Jerusalem area and that the Palestinians—remember this is the center of commercial, economic, educational life, and so on—essentially are excluded. The United States has expressed reservations, but continues to provide support.
Meanwhile, there’s a corridor going from Greater Jerusalem to the east, including the, by now, quite substantial town of Ma’aleh Adumim, which has borders that extend, virtually, to Jericho. It was planned in the 1970s by the Rabin government and developed over the years with the support of Clinton and others.
If the United States gives an order, Israel follows it. So the United States has prevented Israel from building in what is called the E-1 corridor, the corridor that goes from Greater Jerusalem to Ma’aleh Adumim. But Israel is doing it quietly and slowly, not visibly. Just a couple of weeks ago, Israel opened up a huge police station in the E-1 corridor, which it turns out was not funded directly by the government; it was funded by a number of rich Jewish billionaires. This is all the traditional “building facts”: build the facts on the ground slowly, and the paymaster in Washington will pretend that he doesn’t notice. Obama is taking the same position as Clinton and Bush, but he does it in a way that at least superficially makes people think that he’s doing something nice for them, that he understands them, and that he sympathizes with them. But there is only so long he can play that game.
Where else in Obama administration policies do you see parallels of such political maneuvers based on rhetoric?
It’s much the same domestically. We just saw a very dramatic example. Obama was essentially put into office by the financial institutions—the core of his funding. The financial institutions preferred him to John McCain, and they are a big part of the American economy. Before the financialization of the economy from the 1970s, they were much smaller, but now they account for almost a third of corporate profits. That’s very powerful. They essentially put him into office and expected a payoff. That’s the way politics works, and they got it. That’s why you got the huge bank bailout, the buyout of AIG securities, which is just a huge gift to Goldman Sachs. If the government hadn’t done it, Goldman would have tanked. So the government provided this crucial support, and the banks are happy with big bonuses and huge profits.
The population is angry, very angry. They can see it all over the place. They may not know all the details, but they can see that the bankers who basically caused the crisis are making out like bandits, stronger and richer than before, while they themselves are suffering. Unemployment is very high, and manufacturing industries are at the level of the Great Depression. The jobs are never going to come back because of the policies of hollowing out productive industry and shipping it abroad. It’s more profitable. So the people are angry.
The anger reached the point where Obama had to do something because there was just too much popular anger. So there was a rhetorical shift. Obama started talking about bad bankers, and there were some mild proposals like the Volcker Rule, which of course the banks didn’t like. The bankers didn’t waste a minute in sending instructions to him. They immediately announced very openly—front page of the New York Times—that they were shifting their funding. If Obama continued to talk like that and act like that, they were just going to shift their funding to the opposition. And they started to do it. In fact, that helped swing the Massachusetts campaign. Right toward the end of the campaign, a lot of money made it in from the financial institutions around the country to help swing the campaign.
Obama got the message. Within a few days, he gave an interview to the business press. Speaking specifically of the heads of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and other big banks, he said that I know these guys, they’re really good people. Look, I’m speaking for the American people when I say we understand that they deserve the bonuses and rewards that they’re getting—which infuriate the American people he was speaking for. But he was telling the bankers that he got their message, that he is going to be a good boy now, and that he will do what they want him to do. It’s not a criticism of him; I mean, that’s the way the political and economic system works. Of course people are angry; they don’t know what to do, and many are going off into political movements that in fact are undermining their own interests.
So is the Obama administration simply kowtowing to more powerful agents?
Well, these are some of the realities of the social and political system, and it shows up in foreign policy too, of course. It’s not considered a staple of international relations theory, but as Adam Smith pointed out about England, the “architects of policy” are the people with economic power. In England, they happened to be the merchants and manufacturers. He said the merchants and manufacturers are the principal architects of policy, and they make sure that their own interests are “most peculiarly attended to,” however “grievous” the effects on the people of England.
Today it doesn’t happen to be merchants and manufacturers; it is financial institutions, multinational corporations, energy corporations, and so on. But Smith’s basic truism remains the case. Obama’s policies, like his predecessors’ policies, essentially keep to Smith’s maxim, which applies domestically as well. You can carry off the game of illusions and rhetoric and adoration, winning prizes from the advertising industry, but if you carry on for too long, after a while it’s going to fade. You have to have something substantive, and it’s not there.
If President Obama called you for advice on the Israel-Palestine issue, what would you offer him in response?
Very straightforward advice. It has been known for 35 years. There’s been a very broad international consensus ever since the mid-1970s on a political settlement of the Israel-Palestine problem: a two-state settlement on the international border with minor and mutual modifications. That’s the phrase from official US policy up until the time when the United States divorced itself from the world on this topic. That’s the consensus. Almost everyone agrees, including the Arab states. In fact, in 1976, the Arab states—Egypt, Jordan, and Syria—introduced a resolution at the UN Security Council calling for a two-state settlement on the international border. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite perfect, but the US could have modified it in some ways. But instead the United States just vetoed the resolution. And in fact, since that time, without running through all the details, the United States has just blocked the settlement.
There are one or two exceptions. One real exception was in the last month of Clinton’s term. In December 2000, he evidently recognized that the proposals that the US and Israel had made at Camp David could never be accepted by any Palestinian. So he modified them. He formulated what he called his “parameters,” which were somewhat vague but more forthcoming. He then gave a speech in which he said that both sides had accepted the parameters, and that both expressed reservations.. They [the two sides] met in Egypt in Taba to try to iron out the differences. They came close to a settlement that is pretty much in accord with the international consensus. In fact, in their final press conference, they said if they had another couple of days, they might have been able to reach a complete settlement. That’s the one real exception.
What is interesting is that if a US president is willing to accept a political settlement, it can be reached. There were no protests from the Israeli lobby or anyone else. Clinton said that was what we wanted, so they proceeded. Obama just avoids the core issue: a political settlement on the international border. And he keeps funding the settlements. In fact, his long-term budget breaks precedent in the amount it offers Israel.
The issue of nuclear weapons is another major problem that threatens global security. What advice would you give President Obama so as to reach a satisfying resolution with respect to nuclear weapons?
Obama says he wants to do something about nuclear weapons. There are a few ways to do that. One way to do it would be to oppose proliferation. There are three states which have never signed the nonproliferation treaty: Pakistan, India, and Israel. All three have nuclear weapons. All three have been significantly helped by the United States. Last September, the Security Council passed Resolution 1887, in which they called on all states to join the nonproliferation treaty and to settle all their conflicts without threat of force.
What did these three states do? India announced at once that it can now produce weapons with the same yield as the United States and the Soviet Union, thanks in part to the US-Indian agreement, which allowed them to transfer technology to nuclear weapons. Obama reacted by informing the Indians that the resolution doesn’t apply to them.
When India develops more powerful weapons, of course Pakistan responds. The escalation continues. Pakistan’s weapons are largely a gift to the world from Ronald Reagan, who pretended he didn’t know they were building weapons. But of course Washington did know.
What did Israel do? Well, at the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution calling on Israel to join the nonproliferation treaty and open up its facilities for inspection. That was scarcely reported in the United States. If you want to read about it, read the Mexican press or others. Europe and the United States tried to block the resolution, and when they failed, they voted against the resolution, but it passed anyway. Obama immediately informed Israel that the resolution doesn’t apply to them; they are just going to keep to the convention of secrecy, and we are going to pretend we don’t know about the Israeli nuclear weapons. He reassured them about that.
What did Obama himself do? Under the Bush administration, there was a beginning of a proposal to develop huge bombs—deep-penetration bombs, they are called. They are the biggest weapon short of nuclear weapons and are supposed to go through thousands of feet of concrete. The program sort of languished under the Bush administration. When Obama came in, he stepped it up, and shortly after that, just about the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Pentagon announced that delivery is being accelerated; they will be in place a couple years early. Everyone knows exactly what these weapons are aimed toward. They are aimed toward bombing Iran. Obama’s response to Resolution 1887 was that we will build up the threat of military force against Iran. This was right around the time when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons, right after Resolution 1887, which said that there should be no threats of force and that we should enforce the UN charter system. Most of this never gets published, or you find it in some arcane place. But it’s all happening.
So if we want to eliminate the threat of force and of nuclear weapons, there are things to do: the opposite of what we are doing. And that’s by no means the only thing.
What concrete steps can the world—and the United States in particular—take to resolve the threat of nuclear weapons?
One of the main steps is establishing nuclear weapons-free zones in the world. That’s not a total solution, but it’s a step forward. A couple of months ago, the African Union (AU) finally agreed to ratify a nuclear weapons-free zone for Africa. But there’s one problem with it: the United States wouldn’t accept it because it includes the island of Diego Garcia, which the AU regards as a part of Mauritius. Britain expelled the population a couple years ago so that the United States could build a big base. Well, the United States wants to maintain that base, where they have nuclear submarines, probably store nuclear weapons, and to continue to use it as one of the main bases for military action in the Middle East. So the United States wouldn’t accept the nuclear weapons-free zone.
There is a South Pacific nuclear weapons-free zone. That one was held up by France because it wanted to use the islands for nuclear tests. Now, it’s being held up by the United States because it uses the region for nuclear submarines and probably nuclear weapons.
Most important of all, if you want to deal with whatever problems Iran poses, you would try to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. There is very strong support for that: the regional support is overwhelming (apart from Israel), and the US population seems strongly supportive of it. Even Iran claims to support it—and the only way to find out whether they mean it is to try it.
The United States and Britain should be deeply committed to it, for reasons that are not reported. When they attacked Iraq, they did try to construct a thin legal cover. From 1991, the United States and Britain claimed that Iraq was in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 687, which ordered them to dismantle the weapons of mass destruction programs. The United States and Britain said that they were not living up to it, so therefore we invaded. But it turned out to be false. Read Resolution 687, and take a look at Article 14. It commits the signers to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Therefore, Britain and the United States have a special commitment to this. It has various problems—verification problems and so on—but they are not insoluble. It would take a commitment.
Despite the strong support for the idea of nuclear weapons-free zones, what may hinder the establishment of such areas in reality?
The United States is not going to do it. For one thing, it wants to store and use the nuclear weapons for itself. For another thing, its client state of Israel is one of the major nuclear powers. That’s the reason why nobody in the Middle East who thinks for a minute can take seriously what the United States is saying about Iran. Add that to the human rights issues: if you praise Mubarak and say you don’t like the repression of Iran, people are going to laugh.