Fighting For Obama

The art (and business) of cajoling others to fight America’s battles

by Gordon Campbell

The killing of Osama Bin Laden has revamped President Barack Obama’s image as a foreign policy wimp to that of ’warrior President’ and gifted him with his best approval ratings since 2009. Only days before the OBL mission, Obama also appointed General David Petraeus (the driving force behind the US military effort in Afghanistan) as the new director of the CIA. With Bin Laden dead and the irritatingly optimistic Petraeus promoted upstairs, Obama is now free to bring forward the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. If he chooses, Obama could also seek re-election next year on a “Mission Accomplished” platform, based on eliminating OBL and bringing to an end the longest foreign war in US history.

Such issues only serve to obscure a third and less publicized aspect of his presidency. Under Obama, the US has spectacularly ramped up its foreign sales of military hardware, surpassing even the heady levels achieved by the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. We can’t say we weren’t warned. While Candidate Obama would occasionally chide the Bush administration for treating international problems as being ‘amenable to military solutions’ it is now evident that Obama’s disagreement was not with the goals but with the self defeating ‘go it alone’ means that Bush had used to try and achieve them. Could Obama do it better ? Yes, he could.

Unlike Bush, Obama promised to work smarter, and act collectively with the military allies of the US. On his campaign website in 2008, Obama promised that co-operation would be a hallmark of the policies he would pursue during his presidency. As he said back in 2008 :

Enhance Military to Military Cooperation, Particularly in the Muslim World :An Obama administration will strengthen and expand our global network of military to military cooperation, in order to build a climate that can defuse tensions when they arise. Existing U.S. programs of military to military exchanges, joint training, education, and human rights programs must be reoriented from their current Cold War standards to reflect new strategic priorities and ethical standards. Relationships that reassure potential future competitors both of America’s goodwill and its strength may help dissuade emerging powers from becoming threats. An Obama administration will also prioritize the strengthening, training and working relationships with the next generation of military leaders in allied states in the Muslim and wider developing world, in order to build professionalism and respect for rights and democracy, as well as open and sustain unofficial channels of communication and influence.

The most effective way of enhancing those “ channels of communication and influence” is to sell, sell, sell US military hardware abroad. Or conversely, use the related leverage for foreign policy purposes by threatening to withdraw the hardware – as the US did earlier this year, when it strongly and successfully advised its proteges in the Egyptian military not to take violent action against the demonstrators opposing the Mubarak regime, lest they lose access to US military hardware, technical assistance and co-operation in future. Every tool of American diplomacy – up to and including Obama’s pressuring of India’s military and political leaders to Buy American during his visit to that country late last year – would be brought to bear to that end. As Scoop reported last December.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates was more than happy to carry out a similar Pentagon sales job (“ buy one helicopter, get an extra one free !” ) during his 2010 trip to Turkey. Here’s the key part of the relevant Wikileaked cable :

During his meeting with Gonul, SecDef advised that Turkey had opportunities to increase its military capabilities while gaining economic benefits by selecting U.S. companies in currently open tenders. First, Sikorsky, was prepared to guarantee that for every helicopter produced in Turkey and bought by Turkey, Sikorsky would produce a second helicopter in Turkey for export. SecDef explained that in addition to providing modern equipment for Turkey, this offer would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in export revenue.

The Obama Arms Bazaar. The thrust of Obama’s foreign policy/military policy is to outsource the projection of military force – and to deploy friendly surrogates and unmanned technology (wherever possible) in lieu of putting US troops on the ground in foreign conflicts. To that end, the US Department of Defense advised Congress of some $103 billion in weapons sales to foreign buyers during 2010 – an extraordinarily steep rise from the average of $13 billion a year between 1995 and 2005. As veteran defence consultant Loren Thompson told Fortune magazine in February : ” Obama is much more favorably disposed to arms exports than any of the previous Democratic administrations.”

The reasons, Fortune explained, are simple. For starters, it means good business for US defence industry giants and innovation leaders like Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, and more fulltime high tech jobs for US workers at a time when the US domestic economy is still in the dogbox :

For the administration, robust international arms sales advance domestic goals, like bolstering exports and supporting a defense workforce of more than 200,000. Weapons transfers are also a subtle yet potent form of diplomacy: By arming its allies, the U.S. can spread the burden of policing hot spots (the Middle East, the Korean peninsula). And arms exports give Obama’s State and Defense departments tremendous negotiating clout with buyers.

Of course, it can be dangerous to provide advanced weaponry to friendly dictators who are facing strong internal movements for change – as we’ve seen this year already in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. Ironically, the US found itself urging its military friends in Egypt not to use the very same Abrams tanks, tear gas and other military knicknacks against the protesters that the US had sold them and trained them to use. Not an entirely new problem, either. Fortune again :

When friends become foes, arms exports become a liability. The government sold dozens of F-14 fighter jets to Iran in the 1970s before the Shah was deposed. Since then the U.S. has systematically destroyed F-14 parts to keep them out of Iran’s hands.

Obama the Warrior? Surely not. The apparent conflict between the expectations of Obama and his actual performance in office has been based on a misunderstanding of his true intentions :

Weapons proliferation watchdogs expected the volume of exports to decline when Obama became President; instead the reverse has happened. [Defence consultant Loren] Thompson pins the surge in large part on the recession. Production lines for Boeing’s F-15, Harpoon missile, and Apache helicopter are sustained by exports, which support thousands of high-paying, highly skilled manufacturing jobs. But Thompson also believes that the President has other motives for supporting foreign arms sales. “It’s about U.S. alliances, it’s about maintaining jobs, and it’s about America’s broader role in the world — and what you have to do to maintain that role.”

Right. But it isn’t simply driven by expedience, and a desire to limit the political impact of the unemployment numbers. It is also consistent with his worldview, given that Obama’s brand of multilateralism always did have a very strong military component. It simply wasn’t seen that way, initially. During Obama’s early visits to Europe as candidate and as President, the world preferred to see his potential for peace-making.

After years of unilateral military adventurism under the Bush administration, Obama’s approach to foreign policy did mark a genuine advance. The promise of consultation, the commitment to nuclear disarmament, the patent desire to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…. all of this fostered an impression of Obama as someone who would be disinclined to use American military power for strategic purposes. It was a wrong impression, and one not due to deception on his part, either. The world merely saw the Obama that it wanted to see, and disregarded the evidence to the contrary.

The Deals The biggest arms deal on Obama’s watch has been the $60 billion package deal with Saudi Arabia, which included 84 F-15 fighters, 70 Apache helicopters and sundry technical back-up. Mindful of the sensitivities of Israel, the F-15 warhorses on offer had certain long range weaponry removed beforehand – and almost simultaneously, Lockheed Martin announced it would be selling 20 of its far superior new F-35 fighter jets to Israel. Which would suggest that the potential target of this Saudi airpower surge is Iran, not Israel.

What else? India has been a repeat customer, with a big bankroll. The $900 million sale of six C-130J SuperHercules jets to India.came on top of a $2.1 billion deal in 2008, for eight P8 surveillance planes. India has also made preliminary commitments to a $4.1 billion deal for 10 Boeing C-17 transport jets and – after additional negotiations, signed up for some 22 Boeing helicopters. Given the rocky state of US relations with Pakistan, India’s traditional enemy, such deals give the US additional leverage on both sides of that conflict. However, one of the really huge prizes has just eluded the US, though not for want of trying. In late April, India dropped both the US defence contenders (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) from its shortlist for an estimated $10 billion contract to supply 126 fighter jets to the Indian Air Force. The rejection has left US officials feeling almost comically sad and disappointed about India’s refusal “to really take our defence partnership to the next level.”

Such setbacks are the exceptions that prove the rule. The deals that have been clinched under the Obama administration have been substantial investments, and mark an extension of the already prominent role played by US arms suppliers. This New America Foundation study reported that by 2008, the US was selling weapons in over 174 states and territories, up from 123 at the beginning of the George W Bush presidency. Moreover, U.S. weapons “had played a role in 20 of the world’s 27 major wars in 2006-07,” and 13 of the 25 leading U.S. clients were either undemocratic and/or guilty of human rights violations, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Korea, Kuwait, Egypt, and Colombia.

The policy framework that accompanies these sales deals is couched in language that has been a familiar refrain in New Zealand defence circles as well – interoperability, burden sharing, stepping up etc The New America Foundation study cited the strategic role served by these terms :

..Weapons exports and military training can be utilized to increase interoperability (the ability to fight together in a coalition) among U.S. and allied forces; to reward partners in the fight against terrorism, including countries fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq; to gain access to foreign military bases; and to strengthen allies against internal and/or external threats. Politically, arms and training can be used as leverage for everything from gaining preferential access to oil and other strategic resources to persuading other countries to vote with the United States in international and regional bodies like the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

As mentioned, Obama has never found much reason to quarrel with any of these goals. The fresh element he has brought to the mix is the tactic of US military disengagement. In its place, New Zealand and other friends and allies will be induced and cajoled into fighting America’s battles on its behalf. Fortune, again :

Stepping up — or “burden sharing,” as military types like to call it — is the theory that arming allies with U.S. weapons will lighten the load for U.S. troops. “There is a belief in the region that the U.S. is gradually disengaging,” says Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “The U.S. is trying to transfer some of the defense responsibility to the regional states — most of these deals are supposed to be delivered between 2015 and 2020.” Another buzzword is “interoperability,” which refers to the military’s capacity to coordinate attacks with its allies. It is a useful selling point for contractors. China, Russia, and the U.S. are vying to sell Turkey missile launchers worth up to $4 billion, but only Raytheon’s Patriot system can seamlessly communicate with other U.S. launchers in the area.

While government officials deny using weapons for quid pro quo arrangements, defense experts say they are effective carrots. Simply put, countries tend to do what the U.S. wants before — and after — major arms deals. Weeks after Obama left India, the country increased sanctions on Iran. Saudi Arabia and India, two of the biggest buyers of U.S. arms last year, are reportedly planning to hold joint military exercises.

Note : the term is “ disengagement” which – to the Obama administration at least – is not the same thing at all as isolationism. Rather, it is an attempt to shift away from having Americans at risk – partly because of the political impact of body bags etc on the public, and partly because the visibility of a US military presence in foreign countries is now recognised to be somewhat self defeating, diplomatically speaking.

Outsourcing the military risk to allies is therefore a practical solution to a pressing problem. Outsourcing also makes sound economic sense for the US in a situation where two major wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) are winding down. The related need to correct the dire US deficit is eroding the argument for spending up large on US forces and weapon systems. The obvious solution is the one that is commonly taken by business when the domestic market dries up – go global, and to that end, clear away any residual policy and regulatory obstacles under US law to the business of arms exporting. The Obama administration has been more than happy to oblige.

So where does New Zealand figure in this brave new world where the US will be asking its very, very good friends to do more in the way of quote, “burden sharing” unquote? We seem to be more than willing to oblige, or so it would seem. Last year, the Defence White Paper tried to make a case for New Zealand being the most reliable, least questioning volunteer for any task that the US might ask us to perform in future. Here’s what Scoop had to say back then :

Superficially, this dog whistling (and friendly tail wagging) to our old ANZUS allies is the most striking thing about the White Paper. In a misty-eyed resurrection of the neo-colonial past, the document talks about fostering bilateral relations with ‘like-minded’ states…grounded in common traditions, experience and values..” Lest there is any doubt who we are talking about, the White Paper lists them (2.18) as Australia, the US, the United Kingdom and Canada.” New Zealand describes itself as “ an engaged, active and stalwart partner of the US” and (most alarmingly) the document adds that our relationships with ‘like-minded states’ should be ‘made concrete with the sharing of risk in operations around the world.’

In other words, the sharing of risk with our old imperial allies is depicted as an obligation that we must shoulder, as part and parcel of our existing ties. Hard to see the difference between this and the old ‘where Britain goes, so goes the Empire.’ stance. Given this mindset of dutiful subservience to the ‘sharing of risk in operations around the globe’ it seems obvious that the Key government would have made New Zealand part of the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq – with all the attendant ‘risks’ from terrorism that this would have entailed, and despite the related negative impacts on our trade and diplomatic efforts across the Middle East, and beyond. Such a stance might be tolerable if there were some balancing expressions of the need for independence, and some sign that we intend to define and pursue our own strategic interests – but such expressions are noticeably absent from a White Paper that reads just like an ANZUS- era document. The tone is subservient, the language is of dependence and obligation.

John Key will no doubt, be very happy to offer New Zealand as a willing burden sharer if and when he finally gets his invitation to the White House. (The best we can probably hope for is that he will not actually sit on Obama’s knee.) Meanwhile at home in the US, the beat goes on. Coming up over the horizon is this circa $55 billion deal for a new generation of radar evading bombers.

Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed Martin will be vieing for a contract that is reportedly expected “to provide jobs and decades of work for Southern California’s aerospace industry.”