While we often complain about candidates not keeping their campaign promises, when it comes to difficult, complex issues, a campaign promise can become a ball and chain around a new President’s neck. This happened to Bill Clinton when he promised to immediately ban persecution of gays in the military during his 1992 campaign. Instead of working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to introduce a suitable shift in military policy, Clinton issued an Executive Order on his first day in office, abolishing rules against gays serving in the military. This placed him in a high-profile conflict with war hero and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. Clinton took an enormous amount of flack from right-wing and Congressional critics, Powell refused to buckle under Presidential pressure, and the public perceived Clinton as imposing an extreme “liberal” position on the highly praised military that had just won Gulf War I. The new President was forced to accept a humiliating defeat, agreeing to the ridiculous “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that actually made things worse for gay individuals in the service.
I bring up this sorry episode as a warning when we consider Obama’s repeated promises during the fall debates to hunt down Osama bin Ladin and kill him, with or without the help of the Pakistani government. It is unclear to me how he can carry out this promise without continuing the new American policy of unannounced cruise missle strikes in the mountainous areas of western Pakistan, a policy cooked up by the Bush administration this summer. Not surprisingly, these attacks on a sovereign country are destabilizing our relationship with the new Pakistani President and the country’s largest political party. To frost the cake, Obama also explicitly and repeatedly said he would send more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to defeat the Taliban. He has created very high expectations and will have a difficult time backing out of these commitments – commitments that could lead to the collapse of civilian rule in Pakistan and the creation of a new quagmire in the remote hills of Afghanistan.
Leaving aside the folly of adopting any policy created by the Bush Administration, I believe these Osama-Afghanistan promises are a classic example of how the Democrats have historically been drawn into defending the American empire. In the heat of an election campaign, Obama felt he had to show how tough he is, how he would be a vigorous Commander-in-Chief. Just like Kennedy and Johnson had to show how tough they were by keeping the commies out of Vietnam. These military promises are powerful because they fit right into the imperial job description that so many military, journalistic, academic, and political leaders attach to the Presidency. It is a job description that many Democratic and Republican voters believe in as well. As such, they are the policy equivalent of painting yourself into a corner and then claiming you are free to go anywhere you want. The appropriate response is – Yes, within your little box.
Of course, Obama is not as trigger-happy as McCain, but the criticism from Hillary Clinton this spring and then McCain and the media about his “credentials” to be Commander-in-Chief (see my posting in September) have forced him to become much more militaristic than he was when he started the campaign. We are actually watching, in real time, how the dynamics and pressures of empire shape individuals who become leaders. No matter what their pre-presidential ideas about foreign policy, the pressures of the political system puts them in a position where, in order to advance to the presidency, they must commit to defending the empire. In Perils of Empire, I explain in detail how the dynamics of the Roman political system consistently generated leaders who sought war and expansion of territory – and the American political system has been doing a similar thing since at least the end of WWII. Without a powerful peace movement that opposes wars and treaties the promote the empire, Democrats get pushed into the imperial system, even those who begin with good intentions.