"President Obama has inherited a tougher foreign policy inbox than any president has faced since Harry Truman; establishing priorities among dozens of conflicts and crises requires new understanding of the most critical regions, the most salient issues within them, and the issues ripest for new direction", so says the Carnegie Endowment website introducing a series of articles on ‘Foreign Policy for the Next President'.
The mess faced by US imperialism is well known: its military bogged down and stretched in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability spreading into Pakistan, the difficulty it faces with Iran and Syria, and last but not least the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The mess Obama faces
Israel's invasion of Gaza just before Obama took over the reins of power have left the population faced with an even more devastated strip of land and a tighter blockade. The invasion was no doubt timed to take place while Bush, whose support could be counted on, was still president, but under Obama the US continues to be closely allied to Israel and he kept very quiet while the slaughter was going on. Israel's inconclusive election added another complication to the divisions between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian prime minister Fayyad promised to step down in favour of a government of national unity, but this will remain an empty gesture unless one can be formed, and this is by no means a certainty with two factions that came to blows only two years ago. Despite the widespread anti-Americanism in Arab populations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have no love for Hamas since it is backed by Iran, which is not only Shiite but also pursuing a determined policy to become the major regional power, and to arm itself with nuclear weapons in line with its ambitions.
Iraq, which was overcome so quickly in 2003, remains unstable whatever the small effects of the troop surge. With 10% of world oil production coming from the Kurdish north, and with Iran having a great influence in the Shiite South, the country is still threatening to fall apart. Obama has announced the "draw down" of troops with the aim of leaving by 2010 (although up to 30,000 will remain), showing the USA's inability to impose its control over the situation.
Afghanistan is occupied by an international force, with the US at its head and providing the vast majority of the troops, but they control little more than Kabul and its environs - or as Major Morley, formerly of the British SAS, said of Helmand Province: "we are kidding ourselves if we think our influence goes beyond 500 metres of our security bases... We are not holding the ground." And instability threatens to overtake Pakistan, with the well-known links between the ISI security force and the Taliban, who have taken over the Swat Valley in agreement with the government. And in reaction to US bombing of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies - an action denounced by Islamic militants with a banner proclaiming "Bombing on tribes, Obama's first gift to Pakistan" - Pakistan's Prime Minister has emphasised his determination to defend the country's territorial integrity.
The USA's difficulty maintaining its status as sole superpower
After the collapse of the USSR the USA was left riding high as the world's sole remaining superpower. It has suffered a significant decline in the 20 years since. We have only to compare its ability to cajole all the world's major powers into supporting, or at least bankrolling, it in the first Gulf war in 1991, with the open opposition of France and Germany when it invaded Iraq in 2003; or contrast America's strategy in the early 1990s, openly defined as one aimed at preventing the emergence of any global or regional power that would challenge its imperialist hegemony, and the reality today when we have seen a whole series of powers challenge the US.
Already by the early 1990s Germany had made a bid for influence in the Balkans, provoking the war that raged there for most of the decade by supporting Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia. Around the same time, France was challenging the US in Africa, leading to the barbaric wars in Rwanda and Zaire/Congo. Today the US is facing further challenges.
Iranian imperialism's growing strength is a clear illustration of the difficulties faced by the US. Pushed by the threat of losing its global authority into massive displays of force like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, these acts of global bullying have actually strengthened hostility to America all over the world, but especially in the "Muslim" countries, with Tehran bidding against al Qaida and others for the ideological leadership of Islamic anti-Americanism. On top of which, the military overthrow of Iran's local rivals, Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan, has given Iran the space to expand.
Today the USA is also faced with the defiant attitude of a revived Russia, which it almost directly confronted over the war in Georgia, and the rise of China as an imperialist power. The latter's growing economic strength has given it the appetite and means to challenge for influence in Asia where Pakistan is a long term ally, and it is also establishing client states around it in Africa (Sudan, Congo, Angola, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Zambia). Even worse, it supports the pariah, "terrorist" states Syria, Iran and North Korea.
It is true that the USA remains the greatest military power by some considerable margin - China, despite its growth and ambition, has a military budget of a little more than a tenth of the USA's ($58.3bn compared with $547bn for the US) and slightly behind Britain's. Nevertheless even America's military resources are finite, and it cannot fight every conflict at once, particularly with a working class that has not been defeated and is not willing to sacrifice itself for the nation's imperialist adventures.
Obama's policy: adjusting to a changed situation
Faced with this weakening of American leadership, where it has to negotiate with North Korea and recognise China as a player in Asia, where its policies are contested by all and sundry, including its previously loyal allies, there is a need for an adjustment in policy to better defend its interests.
First of all, Obama has made Afghanistan and Pakistan the centre of his policy objectives. This is a very important strategic area with Iran to the West, the Caucasus and Russia to the North, China and India to the East. This will not be easy as the USA will have to withdraw from Iraq, taking the risk of letting it fall apart, in order to concentrate on Afghanistan. 17,000 more US troops will be sent to Afghanistan. And Obama has been a hawk in relation to Pakistan since he announced during the election campaign his intention to bomb and invade this ‘ally' in the war on terror whenever necessary. Iran is the second priority, and here again Obama has been among the most aggressive in his rhetoric - nothing, certainly not the military option - will be taken off the table.
The other policy change is a diplomatic offensive. The USA has found itself increasingly isolated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is no longer going to try and go it alone in the ‘war on terror'. Secretary of state Hilary Clinton has been sent on a tour of Asia, including Japan, Indonesia, China, and the Middle East for a ‘peace' conference in Egypt. Vice president Joe Biden announced in Munich that the US would have a new policy of listening. The Bush administration allowed the US to become dangerously isolated on a whole number of issues and the Obama team has a great deal of diplomatic damage to undo. Unfortunately, the basic need of US imperialism - to remain the world's only superpower - prevent it from ever really giving up the loneliness of power.
No let up in the growth of military barbarism
In the current situation the USA, while it remains the only military superpower, is facing greater and greater challenges from more and more directions. None of the actual or potential challengers, France, Germany, China, Iran.... has anywhere near the financial or military strength to take over the role of leader of an alliance, of an imperialist bloc to rival Washington. Nor does the USA have the strength or resources to prevent and destroy these challenges. In other words we can expect no peace, no hope, in American or any other foreign policy. On the contrary, each and every power needs to destabilise its rivals and will use any means at its disposal: short term alliances, wars, terrorism. In brief, we can see more death, more chaos, in all the areas of conflict throughout the globe. This is the expression of the decomposition of capitalist society on the level of imperialism.
The working class remains a barrier to world war because it is undefeated, but is unable to prevent the increasing barbaric conflicts around the globe until it takes its struggle to a higher level and is able to put an end to the whole capitalist system.