Contextual Content

Obama and the Cold War mentality

Historian and author Gareth Porter discusses with Pepe Escobar the positioning of Senator Barack Obama relative to the power of the national security establishment in the US; the legacy of JFK; the feasibility of the US refusing to occupy Muslim lands; and what it takes to be elected president of the United States. (Jointly produced by IPS/TRNN/AP Video)

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Story Transcript

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST: I’m here in Washington with Gareth Porter, historian and author, and we’re going to talk about Iran, Iraq, Obama, McCain, and the ramifications of Obama and McCain’s foreign policy. Gareth, let’s start with the war in Iraq. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran emerges as the big regional power in Southwest Asia. The US gets rid of the Taliban in east of Iran and gets rid of Saddam Hussein west of Iran. Basically what Bush and McCain have been saying and preaching all along is that they will never accept it, the emergence of Iran as a big regional power. Obama, on the other hand, maybe we could say that he’s a following a tradition that starts with Truman, goes through Ronald Reagan, and gets to George Bush I. It’s basically a Cold War mentality. It’s American hegemony in the end. But at the same time, Obama wants to get rid of all US troops in Iraq, bring them back home. What are we facing here? Isn’t this an enormous contradiction, like Cold War mentality, being progressive and antiwar in the case of Iraq?

GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN, MILITARY POLICY ANALYST: And the answer is both. And that’s because he is a contradictory figure in a political system which is profoundly dysfunctional in terms of what it produces on many fronts, but particularly on national security policy. I mean, this is a society that has long since lost—and arguably never had in the first place—the capacity to really have a serious debate about any national security issue, for the simple reason that the terms of any public discourse on national security are so heavily weighted in favor of the national security bureaucracy’s point of view that, you know, the media, news media, essentially carry only one side, and therefore only a small minority of people in the United States are going to have the opportunity to access a point of view that is different from the point of view of those people who’ve been making the wars of the past and still making the wars of the present. And therefore there’s no surprise here that someone who is as intelligent and in many ways as progressive as Obama is, you know, remarkably so within the context of the Democratic Party, let alone the political system in general, is a captive of what you call—and I think correctly so—Cold War mentality, that is to say, a mentality that begins with a whole set of assumptions that have very little to do with reality, particularly in the case of Iran, to suggest that, you know, Iran is a threat because of the allegations that have to do with Iraq or with the nuclear program that are not based on, you know, reality at all. You know, this is simply a function, for the most part, of where he gets his information, who advises him, and where they get their information. The whole system is completely tilted, so extremely tilted towards the warlike point of view, that even somebody who does have a great deal of intelligence, relatively speaking, and a desire to make change, relatively speaking, is hogtied, in a way, to try to do anything about it.

ESCOBAR: So is Obama playing a very clever game here? Is he trying to play along the lines of a Cold War mentality, of an hegemonic US mentality?

PORTER: I think there is definitely an aspect of his political strategy which is to position himself just to the left of McCain. This is almost standard issue Democratic Party electoral strategy, if you will. I mean, and it reminds me very much of John F. Kennedy, although Kennedy actually ran slightly to the right of Nixon, in fact, but the point being that Kennedy presented himself as much tougher against communism than he really was in his own understanding. And Kennedy hid the degree to which he was prepared to try to deemphasize the hostility to the Soviet Union, the degree to which he was interested in trying to find ways to reduce tensions with the Soviet Union, as well as with China, even. I think there’s a lot of that in Obama as well. I think that he has an understanding that does certainly transcend the extreme rhetoric, the extremes of rhetoric, which I think he’s been capable of in the past. On the other hand, I also think that he has a very limited capacity to imagine where we could go, where he could go, from where he is right now. In other words, I think his ability to sort of have an alternative policy that’s really meaningful in terms of calling for fundamental change is quite limited.

ESCOBAR: So this means going against the Pentagonization of American life? And this is something that no American president can do?

PORTER: It does. It means that he has to stand against a set of policies that have been embraced by the military services, by, you know, successive secretaries of defense and state, by national security advisors, the whole national security elite, which transcends party—you know, it’s got both Democratic and Republican parts to it, and they’re slightly different, but not very much different. And so, you know, the people who surround him, even though they may have their differences with the Bush administration—obviously they do have differences with it—are still going to be embracing a great deal of the assumptions of that national security elite. And let me give you an example, the one that’s, I find, most telling. I’ve been asking some of Obama’s advisers—really I started doing this some months ago—whether they would support a change of policy with regard to the whole idea of occupying Muslim countries, occupying Muslim lands. I asked them, shouldn’t an Obama administration take the position that the United States will no longer occupy Muslim lands, just as a basic principle, to present ourselves as really different, to present that government as different from the ones that had come before. None of them would say yes to that. They all sort of hemmed and hawed and found reasons why they really couldn’t say yes to the proposition that we shouldn’t occupy Muslim lands in the future, a commitment not to do that. And basically it comes down to, "Well, you just don’t give up any options." And this is such a fundamental assumption, a fundamental plank of the national security elite in this country that nobody can sort of be a member of that elite and sort of renounce that principle.

ESCOBAR: So what you’re saying is that basically it’s impossible for an American president to try to change the system from the inside.

PORTER: I think that it probably is impossible to change the system from the inside. It would require a president who is ready to go down in flames on the basis of his understanding of what needs to be done, and the willingness to essentially defy his entire national security bureaucracy, which no president is going to do, because you’re not going to get elected having that sort of mentality.

ESCOBAR: And American voters would never elect such a personality, character, and vision.

PORTER: Exactly. This is too conservative a country to elect anybody that has that kind of vision.

ESCOBAR: So this would explain why John McCain, who seems to be unprepared at all levels of governance, whatever he says and whatever he does, he has at least 41 to 45 percent of American voters.

PORTER: Exactly. There’s an automatic 35 to 45 percent of the electorate that will support somebody who is viewed as being sort of warlike and tough without knowing anything else. That’s all they need to know, and essentially it plays into that bias in US culture, which is very fundamental.

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