Thursday, January 21, 2010

Obama: Defending the Interest of Empire

Obama: Defending the 'interests of empire'

Demba Moussa Dembele
2010-01-20, Issue 466

For those anticipating sweeping, immediate change from Barack Obama's election to the US presidency, the results of the president's first year in office will undoubtedly have proven profoundly disappointing, writes Demba Moussa Dembele. Just as his Accra address was rooted in patronising references to 'corruption' and 'tribalism', it should be always borne in mind that Obama operates and will continue to operate first and foremost in defence of the 'interests of empire', Dembele stresses.

The election of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States elicited worldwide enthusiasm and raised hopes for change, especially in Africa and much of the global South. One year later, what remains of that enthusiasm, of the immense hopes and even expectations that his election had raised? For sure, one year is not enough to assess the record of his administration. But some decisions and actions during the last 12 months may give an indication of the kind of policies he intends to conduct for the duration of his term.


One of the most important changes in the international arena has been the end of the contempt for the United Nations and the embrace of multilateralism in tackling world affairs. This is reflected in the recognition of a greater role for the United Nations in dealing with global issues. One illustration of this shift is the participation of President Obama himself accompanied by a huge US delegation in the UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen in December 2009. Another positive change is the new approach to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues. Instead of threats and intimidation, President Obama has given priority to negotiations and diplomacy, even if it may remain some hidden agenda.

Overall, with Obama, the United States is projecting the image of a country that is less arrogant and seeks to restore good or normal relations with other countries and peoples of the world. The Cairo speech, addressed to the Muslim world, is certainly one of the most important illustrations of that new image that the US is trying to project with Barack Obama. By extending a friendly hand to the Muslim world and by distinguishing between Islam as a religion of peace and those who are using it as a political tool, he opened the door to restoring trust between the US and large parts of the Muslim world.


But these positive changes cannot mask the big disappointments of the first Obama year, especially in Latin America and Africa. With Cuba, it is almost the status quo, despite some timid steps and Cuba’s gestures of goodwill and overtures. The goodwill displayed during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, with a handshake with President Hugo Chávez, was not followed by a real break from Bush policies with regard to Venezuela, Bolivia and other progressive governments in South America. The signing with Colombia of an agreement to station US troops near the border with Venezuela did not sit well with most Latin American countries, even with some 'moderates' like Brazil. Then, the coup in Honduras and its consequences dealt a big blow to the credibility of the Obama administration in the region. After condemning – mildly – the coup, the US finally remained indulgent with the illegitimate regime and hailed the elections organised by the coup leaders as 'step toward the restoration of democracy'.

The boycott of the Durban Review Conference on Racism held in Geneva in April 2009 was another big disappointment for all progressive forces inside and outside the United States. Several African-American organisations reacted very angrily to this boycott, which was seen as an ominous signal of how the Obama administration would handle issues of racism and discrimination inside and outside the United States.


Maybe one of the greatest disappointments is Obama’s attitude towards Africa. Several observers had expected to see Africa high on his administration’s agenda. But so far, there is more continuity with past policies than innovation.

The Accra address

The Accra address gave an illustration of that continuity. That address was supposed to outline Obama’s 'vision' for Africa. In fact, in Accra, he insisted more on the familiar clichés manufactured by Western imperialist ideology and mainstream media about Africa than on outlining a new vision for Africa–US relations. He spent more time condemning 'corruption', 'tribalism', 'bad governance' than talking about the real structural obstacles to Africa’s development, obstacles inherited from centuries of domination, plunder and exploitation by Western countries and corporations.

When he alluded to colonialism and Western responsibility in the current situation of the continent, it was to stress that this responsibility is secondary to Africa’s own responsibility. In his opinion, conflicts in Africa and weak economic and social indicators are all Africa’s fault. There was not a single word about the hand of Western powers – the US in the lead – in provoking and encouraging conflicts, staging military coups and assassinations in order to perpetuate the continent’s destabilisation and their control over its resources.

This position is consistent with Western countries’ attempt to convince public opinion – inside and outside Africa – that a few decades of neocolonial rule and imperialist intervention in all areas have erased centuries of destruction of the African mind, of genocide and of the looting of Africa’s wealth and resources.

Some Africans have praised Obama for insisting on 'good governance' and 'solid institutions'. But the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank have been preaching the same gospel since 1989.[1] When Obama said that Africa’s development 'depends on good governance', this is a code word for neoliberal policies to make African countries more 'attractive' to foreign investors and put in place an 'enabling environment' for the promotion of the private sector – a speech Africans have heard before from the World Bank and the IMF!

Even more importantly, his Accra address was noticeable for its omissions. For instance, he mentioned President Kwame Nkrumah just once and as a footnote. But even more puzzling was his total silence about a great African-American and companion Nkrumah, W.E.B. DuBois. There was not a single word for DuBois, who is buried in Accra, just a few yards from the US embassy! DuBois is one of the founding fathers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the oldest human rights organisation in the United States. He is also one of the fathers of Pan-Africanism, which explains why he went to Ghana to help Nkrumah after his country’s independence. But above all, DuBois is one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, which is why Harvard University has named an institute after him, to honour his scholarly achievements. And that institute is chaired by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whom Barack Obama calls his friend.

The shadow of AFRICOM

Obama’s visit to Ghana was dubbed as a premium to 'democracy' and 'good governance'. And the US government hailed the visit as an opportunity to 'strengthen the U.S. relationship with one of [our] most trusted partners in sub-Saharan Africa, and to highlight the critical role that sound governance and civil society play in promoting lasting development.'[2]

But in reality, the visit was about promoting the US interests in a region rich in crude oil and minerals. Obama has not abandoned his predecessor’s idea of installing the headquarters of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Africa. It is the pursuit of that strategy that led Obama to Ghana in the hope that this country may accept to host AFRICOM, given its 'stability' and proximity to the Gulf of Guinea.

Some US analysts have come to the conclusion that the Obama administration is even trying to enhance Bush’s policies toward Africa: 'While Africans condemned U.S. military policy in Africa under the Bush administration, the Obama administration has not only mirrored Bush's approach, but has in fact enhanced it. President George W. Bush established Africa as a foreign policy priority in 2003, when he announced that 25% of oil imported to the United States should come from Africa. Like the Cold War, the Global War on Terror establishes a rationale for bolstering U.S. military presence and support in Africa. Yet official pronouncement of U.S. policy is routinely presented as if neither of these two developments occurred.'[3]

While official statements tend to present the Obama administration’s policies toward Africa as only aiming at bolstering economic development and preventing conflicts, they are contradicted by actual policies. In the eyes of the same analyst, the agenda outlined by the US government for public consumption is different from the real agenda. He noted that the fiscal year 2010 budget 'doubles the size of AFRICOM's funds' and there has been the 'doubling of financial support for counterterrorism projects throughout the continent – including increased funds for weapons, military training and education at a time when US foreign aid money is stagnating'.[4]

In light of the above, it is fair to say that with regard to Africa, there is nothing new, there is no bold vision for a different type of relationship in the 21st century as some had expected. Apparently, his 'African blood' made no difference!


Of course, only those who are naïve may think that Obama’s 'African blood' would lead him to have a special agenda for Africa. This is why some of his most enthusiastic supporters on the continent, who were expecting massive flows of 'aid', are disappointed with his policies.

But what these people seem to ignore is that Obama was elected to defend and promote the interests of the United States. And those interests do not necessarily coincide with African interests. And to achieve this goal, he will resort to any means. In his Nobel speech in Oslo, Norway, on 10 December, he was very explicit about that by saying that he would not hesitate to use force to defend and protect the interests of the United States.

From that perspective, the decisions and actions of Barack Obama aim to promote first and foremost the interests of the empire, that is, the interests of US multinational corporations and banks, the interests of Wall Street, as well as the interests of the military–industrial complex. The election of Obama did not change the goals of the empire to hold on to world leadership by strengthening its hegemonic role in world affairs. So, behind the rhetoric lies the shadow of the empire, which as despotic, cynical and ruthless as ever.


It is difficult to see a shift in these policies in the medium term. In fact, the mid-term elections of November 2010 risk costing the Democratic Party if the economy does not show signs of recovery and if the situation in Afghanistan keeps deteriorating. The eventual loss of a majority in Congress would make Obama’s task even more difficult.

It is almost certain that if things don’t improve before November, especially on the economic front, Barack Obama will be confronted with a more complex situation and even more daunting challenges, at home and abroad. If a more hostile Congress emerges after the November elections, there will be little hope that the 'change' he advocated during his campaign may ever be achieved.


* Demba Moussa Dembele is the director of the African Forum on Alternatives and a member of the 2011 Dakar World Social Forum organising committee.
* Please send comments to or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] See Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth: A Long-Term Perspective Study. Washington, DC, The World Bank
[2] 'Straight Talk: Revealing the Real US Africa-Policy', Foreign Policy in Focus, Washington, DC, July 2009
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid

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