What does Obama mean for the world?

By Barry Sheppard, San Francisco

January 23, 2009 -- More than 1 million people gathered in bitter cold in Washington DC to witness the historical inauguration of an African American as president.

The crowd was disproportionately Black, but majority white — and jubilant. Celebrations were held in Black communities throughout the country, and in other sectors of the population.

He was sworn in by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, itself historic. In the aftermath of the election, he enjoys overwhelming support according to polls, far higher than his margin of votes. This indicates a large swing of whites among those who voted for the Republican candidate John McCain.

Hopes are running high that he will do something to turn around the accelerating downturn in the economy. On “inauguration day”, it appeared that the crisis in the banks and other financial institutions was once again critical.

With rising unemployment, rising home foreclosures, falling wages, failing retail chains and US$1 trillion poured down what one economist called a bottomless pothole to apparently no avail, the working and middle classes have experienced a massive shock.

The “free markets will solve all” ideology is a dead duck. US people are demanding that the government take action. Obama has promised to do just that.

However, it is unlikely that his “stimulus” proposals can stem the downward spiral, even if they survive the inevitable watering down by Congress.


The economic crisis is worldwide and is intertwined with defeats that US foreign policy is experiencing. What will Obama’s foreign policy look like in face of the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli pulverisation of Gaza?

He will make some symbolic changes, such as gradually shutting down the infamous torture prison at Guantanamo Bay. He will seek to further diplomacy and reverse the Bush-Cheney policy of “to hell with the rest of the world.”

The abrupt Israeli pullout from Gaza looks like it was timed to avoid more images of mayhem and murder occurring during the inauguration. It’s likely Washington ordered it client state to withdraw.

Israel proved it could destroy the Gazan infrastructure and inflict more misery on its population over and above what its blockade accomplished.

It proved it would use the most despicable brutality, including demolishing schools and the university, attacking hospitals and ambulances, burning children with white phosphorus and bombing United Nations refugee sites.

But Israel has lost the war politically. Hamas immediately re-emerged as the authority in Gaza as Israel withdrew. It’s support has grown in Gaza and the West Bank, and that of West Bank-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has withered.

Other US clients in the region, the regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudia Arabia, have been weakened as they have been seen as anti-Palestinian and pro-Israel. Hezbollah has been strengthened in Lebanon. Syria and Iran have emerged stronger. The prestige of Israel has suffered worldwide, as has that of the US.

The reality of the Israeli siege of Gaza has been brought more into focus worldwide. This is true even in the US, in spite of the 100% support Washington gave to the Israeli assault, and the mass media’s following suit. One poll put opposition to the war at an astonishing 40%.

The pictures coming out of Gaza of the horror of the attack just couldn’t be squared with the official pronouncements coming out of Washington and Jerusalem, even though the mass of US people are ignorant about Israel and Palestine.

The fact that many in the US no longer trust what the Bush administration says was also a factor.

A new course?

What can we expect from the new Obama administration? There is hope throughout the world that a new course will be taken.

So far, however, indications are that there will be no basic change of Washington’s backing of Israel against the Palestinians.

Obama’s chief of staff for the transition has been Rahm Emanuel, a dual citizen with Israel and a right-wing Zionist. Hillary Clinton, the new secretary of state in charge of Obama’s foreign policy, stated in her confirmation hearings before the Senate that the US would never negotiate with Hamas unless it gives up.

Obama has reiterated his support for Clinton’s comments.

In the face of the Israeli political defeat, Obama may take some cosmetic changes, for example, re-opening the “peace” negotiations.

He will try to bolster Abbas, and push to have the PA to take over reconstruction aid to Gaza, in line with the European Union’s recent pronouncement that it would funnel aid only through the Abbas-run PA and boycott the elected Hamas-led government in Gaza.

Since Abbas cannot ride into Gaza on Israeli tanks, this stance amounts to no reconstruction aid from the US or EU and they will try to block aid from elsewhere.

Israel plays a central role in US imperialist policy in the Mideast. It is a garrison state, armed to the teeth by the US including with nuclear warheads and missiles, aimed at all the peoples of the region including central Asia.

There can be no peace with the surrounding states unless they agree to complete subservience to Israel and the US. Not only the Palestinians, but all the peoples of the region will continually upset such plans, so permanent war and conflict is on the cards for the foreseeable future.

The options for the state of Israel is continuation of apartheid in some form, or a democratic and secular state freed from imperialist control, with full and equal rights for all its subjects.

While the US will oppose this second possibility with all its might, revolutionaries the world over will fight for it.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Just as Israel proved it could pulverise Gaza, the US has proved it could destroy Iraq. But just as Israel has politically lost the war in Gaza, the US has politically lost the war in Iraq in the eyes of Iraqis and the world — including in the US where the vast majority wants Obama to live up to his promise to get out.

The Bush administration has been pulling back US forces from fighting as much as possible. That is why US casualties are down. Obama will continue this process, and will slowly draw down combat troops, hoping to salvage as much as possible and minimise the political fallout.

He has no alternative but to accept increased Iranian influence in Iraq and thus the region, while attempting to maintain some military foothold in Iraq.

At the same time, Obama is committed to keep his campaign pledge to intensify the war in Afghanistan with the introduction of 20,000 to 30,000 additional troops.

Top figures in the Pentagon recently said the US is losing the war there, and that without sealing the border with Pakistan, the addition of more US troops would accomplish nothing.

The US invasion of Afghanistan installed the “warlords” (actually the tribal feudal landlords possessing their own armies) of the Northern Alliance in power. These mutually hostile forces have re-established a thoroughly corrupt and unstable regime.

The Afghan people originally turned against these forces and supported the Taliban because it promised an end to corruption and some sort of stability. This is once again becoming the case, although what is referred to as the “Taliban” in the Western press is an umbrella term encompassing all resistance groups, including nationalist secularists as well as different groups calling themselves the Taliban.

As such forces are increasingly supported in the population, the US and NATO forces are compelled to attack “civilians”.

Thus Obama’s promise to intensify the Afghan war will dig the US deeper into the quagmire. It is a desperate attempt to save as much as possible of the war in Iraq by widening it.

Obama may widen the war further, into Pakistan, as he hinted during the election campaign — opening a new can of worms the consequences of which can only be imagined.

It could be argued that widening the war is not in the best interests of US imperialism and that the US should cut its losses and retreat. But imperialist regimes in the past have embarked on irrational courses when they were facing defeat.

This dangerous course should be opposed by all who value peace and democracy. Revolutionary socialists should be in the forefront.

Latin America

During the election, Obama indicated he would like to challenge the revolutionary government in Venezuela, and the shift to the left and greater independence from the “Northern Colossus” in Latin America.

However, his hands are tied in the Mideast quagmire.

Furthermore, the international economic collapse is increasingly hemming in imperialism’s choices. One pro-capitalist commentator said what is needed is a new world war.

This would destroy capital on a massive scale and set the stage for a new major capitalist recovery — just as World War II did, providing a way out of the Great Depression.

However, such a conflict would also destroy humanity.

The trillions the US government is pouring into the economy, and the downturn in production itself, restricts what it can do abroad. It seeks domination not only by military force, but also by investment and aid.

With investment contracting globally, and the US national debt at over $1 trillion and rapidly climbing, foreign policy choices are increasingly hemmed in — both militarily and economically.

The world’s masses of working people want a way out of the international depression and the misery it is inflicting. They want a way out of war, national oppression and imperialist domination. They don’t want to die in an ecological catastrophe.

The alternative of socialism or barbarism, or worse, is posed extremely sharply.

[Barry Sheppard was a central leader of the US Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party during the years 1960-1988. He is a contributing editor of Links. This article first appeared Green Left Weekly, issue #780, January 28, 2009.]