America's election and remote control

Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney creates limited space for movement in Washington's domestic and foreign policy, including over climate disruption. But the dynamics of a new style of war also act as a powerful force for continued militarisation.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
8 November 2012

In the event, Barack Obama was re-elected as United States president on 6 November 2012 with a comfortable majority of the electoral-college votes (303 to Mitt Romney’s 206, with Florida still to declare), if a much narrower majority of the popular vote (50.4% to 48%). He now faces a familiar combination of constraint and freedom: a divided congress and deep divisions within American society, yet a substantial period - perhaps two years - when his White House has room to be relatively innovative in domestic and foreign policy.

In the pre-election debate on foreign and security policy, many analysts commented on the closeness of the two candidates’ policy stances; at times indeed, Obama could seem the more hawkish. Much of that was owed to electoral pressures which required each to adjust his stance: Romney to avoid scaring the voters and Obama to convince them he was no soft touch.

In reality, there were divergences. Romney wanted to increase the military budget, had little commitment to an Israel-Palestine settlement, intended to play tough on Iran, and viewed China mainly as a threat to US power. Obama wanted to cut the military budget, was less supportive of Israel, cautious on Iran, and seeking to avoid military competition with China. There was some similarity of outlook over Afghanistan: while Romney charged Obama with a degree of defeatism over the withdrawal timetable through to 2014, it is very likely he would have abided by it if he had gained power.

The sharpest differences related to climate change. Romney opposed the Kyoto agreement and its follow-on negotiations, and wanted a rapid move towards US energy self-sufficiency by 2020 through aggressive exploitation of domestic coal, oil and gas reserves. Obama accepted that climate disruption (as it is more accurately called) could have potentially disastrous consequences; and while his administration’s policies were not nearly radical enough, its stance was modestly green and contained the promise of more.

The focus

Barack Obama’s re-election means he now has an opportunity to put serious pressure on Israel to make progress on the Palestine issue. He is also likely to approve informal negotiations with Tehran with a view to seeking a negotiated settlement on the nuclear question. The prospects for both are dependent on forthcoming election results in Israel and Iran, and it is certainly possible that neither government will respond positively to a diplomatic initiative from Washington; but there is at least more chance of progress under Obama than his rival.

This also applies to the worsening situation in Syria, where Romney would almost certainly have opted to arm the rebels with modern anti-tank and anti-aircraft guided weapons (even with the risk of them reaching radical Islamist paramilitaries). Romney would not have sought direct US occupation of Syria, but if he had imposed no-fly zones this could have led to further US military involvement - which, in the context of desperate defence by the Assad regime, helped by Iran, could well have escalated the conflict. Obama’s second administration will be far more cautious over Syria.

Indeed, it can be argued more broadly that Obama’s victory sets the United States on a generally more moderate path in the middle east and south Asia. This is most unlikely, however, in a context where war by remote control becomes the operating practice (see “Remote control, the new way of war”, 18 October 2012).

After the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the attempted large-scale occupation of rogue states is no longer an accepted or realistic policy for any US administration. It is Barack Obama’s fate to be in the White House at the time of the shift to remote control. This is popularly seen in terms of drones, though in fact goes much further: it includes an emphasis on low-profile special forces, private and largely unaccountable military units, and (when required) the ready use of conventional air-power.

Libya is a clear example of the use of conventional air-power, and of a conflict where unacknowledged special forces on the ground repeatedly directed the targeting. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are all now theatres of remote war, and Afghanistan will move more in this direction as  most foreign forces are withdrawn over 2013-14. In Mali, American and British special forces have already been operating in the struggle against Islamist forces, and there is every chance that - as west African forces move in to the conflict-zones, though primarily to act as garrisons rather than combatants - Mali will also be a focus of western-style drone warfare and special operations (see "Mali, and the next war", 1 November 2012).

The potential

It must be recognised that these trends are underway irrespective of the political leadership in Washington - and it is highly unlikely that Obama or any future president will chart a different course until there is a clear blowback directly affecting US interests. This may be an uncomfortable analysis at a time when many are greatly relieved by Romney's failure, but it is an accurate assessment of the current position.

Indeed, there is actually a connection between Obama using drones so widely in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his decision to downsize troops in Afghanistan so quickly; for it is precisely the latter decision, taken before post-war security in the country is assured, that has driven the increased reliance on drones and special forces (see "America's global shift: drone wars, base politics", 3 May 2012).

In one other area of security at least, however, there is a chance that the second Obama administration could make a difference: the issue of climate disruption. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, there is now a glimmer of recognition in the United States public sphere that something is not quite right. This means that those many Americans who take climate disruption seriously, including people high in the Obama administration, might have a better chance of convincing the body-politic that this is indeed one of the greatest challenges of our age (see "Climate change: time to transform", 17 August 2012).

Most of a decade’s response to climate disruption was lost under George W Bush. If Mitt Romney had been elected, at least another four years would have been. Here is one area where Barack Obama's victory really should be welcomed. This is a matter of potential only, however. It will take an immense political effort to bring to the forefront of policy the bold and radical measures required to meet the scale of climate disruption.

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