Obama, Hagel and the Asian Pivot

Allan Ruff and Steve Horn on Obama’s imperial strategy to control the energy resources of Eurasia

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

President Obama was inaugurated into his second term. He spoke about the economy, but he also spoke a little bit about U.S. foreign policy. Here’s a couple of clips of what he had to say.

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BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.

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JAY: Now joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss whether the next four years of President Obama’s foreign policy will be any different than the last four, first of all, is Allen Ruff. He’s a U.S. social historian and a freelance writer for publications like Counterpunch and Truthout.

And Steve Horn. He’s a Madison, Wisconsin, based research fellow of DeSmogBlog and a freelance investigative journalist. He’s written in The Guardian and The Nation and other publications.

Allen, there wasn’t really much reflection of President Obama’s real strategic vision. There is this comment that he’s—you can have security without perpetual war, that—there’s a suggestion that the United States has to work with other countries. But what do you make, based on what you know of President Obama, the last four years, how he sees the world and American interests?

ALLEN RUFF, US SOCIAL HISTORIAN AND WRITER: Well, first of all, Paul, we have to say that security has always been touted by every president across the 20th century, certainly, as the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. We have to ask what security means and for whom.

Certainly, security for corporate investment and involvement abroad, security for U.S. national security, national interest abroad, is the motivator. And while they talk about [unintel.] soft power, they’ll also readily back that up with force when and wherever possible. And force can be in the terms of direct military intervention and engagement, warfare. It can also be sanctions. It can also be isolation of those that don’t toe the line for U.S. imperial interests.

So in that sense Obama strikes—for me, anyway—a continuity, that there’s no break here. It’s most telling right now as he spoke in Washington. One of the things that’s going on is the revival for public consumption of the so-called global war on terror as the main reason for U.S. involvement in Africa, as an example.

JAY: Now, the appointment of Chuck Hagel—I shouldn’t say appointment. President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the secretary of defense, what does that tell us about President Obama’s vision, especially towards Iran, and then towards other things in the bigger picture?

RUFF: Well, perhaps the most significant thing about Chuck Hagel, from my perspective, something that hasn’t been talked about at all, is that Chuck Hagel is an insider to the extent that he currently chairs the Atlantic Council, described by some as the major think tank for NATO. That is, they’re very much concerned—the Atlantic Council is hosting—even in the past few months, it’s hosted a number of, as an example, Eurasian energy—strategic energy conclaves that have brought people from the private sector, government, and, you know, the NGO imperial think tanks to talk about solidifying U.S. interest in the oil- and gas-rich Central Asia republics, the former Soviet republics.

JAY: Well, this goes back to sort of Brzezinskian thinking of the grand chessboard. If you want to be the global power, you need to control the energy resources of Eurasia. But just before we dig into that a little further, just step back one. Do you not think the Chuck Hagel nomination is a sign that Obama does not want to go to war with Iran, that he thinks it would get in the way of this greater vision?

RUFF: Well, obviously, there’s enough people with enough brainpower, shall we say, in Washington in these various think tanks and circles that understand that a major open conflict with Iran, a war, would lead to a larger conflagration of the entire region. It would exacerbate the whole Persian Gulf interest.

You know, from the time of the Carter doctrine, Jimmy Carter’s administration, they’ve defined the Persian Gulf as fundamental to U.S. global interest, that is, the Gulf as the major outflow of oil, gas in the region. Some of that now, of course, is being bypassed through the construction of these east-west pipelines coming out of Central Asia, going under the belly of Russia, across the Caspian and so on, right to Turkey and into Western Europe—Eastern Europe. But, again, the—what it would mean for the rest of the entire Muslim, the Arab world, and so on would be massive.

JAY: So, I mean, is Obama signalling, then, that while Israel may be very preoccupied with Iran, and so some of the other Middle Eastern powers as well—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, but particularly Israel—that the broader strategic U.S. interests, in the sense of Brzezinski and being able to maintain the United States as the dominant global power, it’s really far more about Eurasia, and a war with Iran doesn’t help that?

RUFF: Yeah, I think you’re right, Paul. The—again, there’s a lot of people who like to argue that the Israeli tail wags the American dog, but we don’t buy that, and we understand that U.S. “national interest”, in quotes, predominates. Certainly they’re moving away from that kind of unilateral neocon Bush-era attack mode and trying to at minimum cover their—provide themselves a fig leaf of legitimacy across that part of the world by talking—certainly talking multilateralism.

JAY: As people that are familiar with Brzezinski’s book—The Grand Chessboard, I think it’s called, something like that—the strategic vision is really all about energy resources, and that’s certainly—has to be President Obama’s preoccupation. What do we know about his thinking on this?

STEVE HORN, RESEARCH FELLOW, DESMOGBLOG: Sure. So if you look at a December report disseminated by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was, I guess, edited or sort of overseen by senator—or once-Senator Dick Lugar, that report makes the strong argument that (A) U.S. shale gas, which is obtained via the process called fracking, much of it should be exported to NATO allies as a means of getting NATO E.U. countries off of—Eastern European countries off of gas that comes from Iran and Russia. So it’s one huge thing.

And then the other big piece of this puzzle is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and I think by extension the Obama administration) sees Azerbaijan, located off the Caspian Sea, bordering Iran, they see Azerbaijan as the anchor for energy and especially for gas in the region. And that’s a key. They want that gas to be exported to E.U. countries as a means of further isolating Iran and Russia.

So it’s—I think it’s going to—that’s a central tenet in both global energy policy, at least in terms of how the United States sees it, and how NATO countries see it, and also a central piece of U.S. foreign policy.

RUFF: Some of the lines in the speech today almost rang—to me it almost sounded like Woodrow Wilson promising, you know, peace, that we won’t be into any major conflicts, that we’re going to avoid them. You know, he kept us out of war—that whole traditional liberal Democratic line of the war party of the 20th century.

Most revealing for what Obama promises or promised today at the inaugural has to do with the proclaimed Pacific pivot, this reorientation of U.S. military strength and power, the projection of U.S. power back into the Pacific, as if to suggest that the previous administration, the neocons and the Republican [inaud.] too much emphasis on the Middle East and Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on, that the Pacific is where U.S. interests lay and where it always has.

The U.S. forces have returned to Subic Bay in the Philippines. One of the great ironies of the new period is the fact that U.S. has a port of call, the U.S. military has a naval port of call at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. They’re moving now some several thousand—I believe the number is 6,000 U.S. troops to Australia.

And why is this? They see, they understand that the major adversary in the coming period, in the coming years, will be China. And they’re—and the Chinese understand it as well. They see themselves as much akin to how the Soviet Union viewed itself decades ago as being encircled by the U.S.

To the West, the U.S. is assisting places like Kazakhstan in the development of their hard power and, through soft-power diplomacy, the weaning of a place like Kazakhstan, oil-rich and gas-rich, away from Russia. Now, the Kazakhs, of course, under the dictator Nazarbayev, who the United States has no problem with, is also playing his China cards and Russia cards. But, again, the Pacific is going to take up a lot of U.S. resources and a shift militarily into that region.

JAY: So this is a different vision than the Bush and neocons who want regime change. They want—you know, they’ve always said they wanted Syria, they want Iran. They had others on their list. I guess Gaddafi was on their list earlier, although they did—they were playing nice with Gaddafi in the more recent years. But this is what the Democrats like to call smart power. Is that his vision?

RUFF: Sure. Well, look, you’re not going to get regime change in China.

JAY: Well, it’s more about friendly regimes all around China, isn’t it? U.S.-friendly regimes, isn’t it?

RUFF: Yeah, and friendly regimes to which the United States promises ultimately a backup of real power if push comes to shove. The opening of relations in Myanmar—Burma—is very revealing, that suddenly there’s been that—again, in a sense a soft-power regime change in outlook, certainly, toward Myanmar, which was on the bad-guys list for—for how long?

So, yeah. I mean, they’re lining up clients across the region, not only, you know, in East Asia, in the lead South Korea, Taiwan, and so on, but to the west of China as well, in the former Soviet republics, though what’s often referred to as the former Soviet space.

JAY: And to what extent do you also think this is a response to Arab Spring, meaning popular democratic uprisings that could also be taking place in many other parts of the world, not just the Middle East? In fact, I understand there were many in Africa that were quite brutally suppressed. So it’s not just about China, but to a large extent it’s about suppressing movements within these countries that would want more control over their own resources.

RUFF: Well, I mean, obviously the most striking example that comes to mind is the hypocrisy, the double standard when it came to crushing the Arab Spring, the popular movement in Bahrain, where with a U.S. green light and assistance, really, the Saudis went in to assist the Bahraini monarchy in suppressing that movement.

In a place like Kazakhstan right now, there’s been this year-long, you know, ongoing repression and closing down of opposition parties, opposition press, the jailing of union leaders, you know, following over a year ago the murder by state security forces of striking oil workers in the Caspian Sea region. But it’s sold in terms—if you look at the press coming out of the region, it’s sold in terms of these people are terrorists and aiding and abetting terrorists.

The revival of the so-called global war on terror as the main [troUf], the main, you know, selling point for interventions, whether it be right now in places like the Sahil in Saharan Africa, right across all the way to, say, the Philippines, is part of the whole fabric.

HORN: And you could say that this—sort of all this—all these mechanisms of control of democratic uprisings have come straight home if you look at what’s happened in the past year and a half with the Occupy movement, with the FBI and local police departments in concert with the Department of Homeland Security, as various Freedom of Information Act requests by various news organizations and law firms have shown, that all these things have also happened here at home using the same mechanisms. So it’s a global phenomenon, and you could say that that’s what counterinsurgency is.

RUFF: Yeah. I mean, certainly there’s—repression at home has always come hand in hand with imperial adventures abroad. That’s been the history, again, the longer history of U.S. involvement globally, and to have the client regimes keep order so that again the flows of capital, of energy, of resources, of weapons, of spending go unimpeded. When they talk about stability, stability means primarily that, that is, the continuation of those flows that must go on uninterrupted. And when they do, then force will be used, despite what Barack Obama may have said about hope for peace and deescalation and nonmilitary means.

JAY: Right. Okay. Well, this is just the beginning of a discussion. So we will come back to it soon. Thank you both for joining us.

RUFF: Thank you.

HORN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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