A Big Week for Liberal Imperialism


Tonight, Barack Obama will solemnly declare the need to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan for reasons that, as Chris Maisano has already observed, make little sense.

Though depressing, this is hardly surprising, since escalation in Afghanistan was actually one of Obama's campaign promises. That can't be said, however, of Obama's newfound love of trying suspected terrorists by military commission, nor of his unwillingness to close the Guantanmo Bay prison. It may be true, as Matt Yglesias likes to say, that Presidents will always be strongly inclined to defend the powers of the executive regardless of their political orientation. But Obama's reversals nevertheless demonstrate that the Bush era permanently altered the American state, legitimizing forms of authoritarian rule that would have seemed at least a bit outlandish in the Clinton era.

However, the least noticed bit of international policy of the last week is the one which is perhaps the most consistent with longstanding traditions of American imperialism. In Honduras, the Obama administration has joined a lonely handful of countries in endorsing a corrupt, violence-plagued election which was endorsed by the military for the purpose of whitewashing their recent coup against the elected president.

At least since the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. presidents have reserved the right to preserve hegemony in Latin America by whatever means are necessary. In that respect, what happened in Honduras is utterly unremarkable.  However, the way the administration went about its business in Latin America is worth noting, as it demonstrates the distinctive imperial style of liberal Presidents.

The Bush administration favored bellicosity and grandstanding in foreign affairs. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as though they were willing to engage in aggressive imperial posturing even at the expense of actual American power. Take, for example, the coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. American officials immediately embraced and supported the transparently anti-democratic coup plotters, which only drew attention to the U.S. role in fomenting the coup, and ultimately forced the adminstration to retract its words when the coup was immediately turned back by the pro-Chavez forces.

Like the coup against Chavez, the removal of Honduran President Zelaya was a reaction of the established oligarchy against a populist upstart. And had they been in power, it seems that Republicans would have approached the Honduran coup the same way as the Venezuelan one. However, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were clever enough not to take such a crude approach. Instead, they initially condemned the removal of President Zelaya, which served to placate liberals and move the story off the front pages. However, as Political Scientist Gregory Weeks notes, "the Obama administration argued that Zelaya’s removal was a coup, though not a 'military coup,' which would have automatically carried sanctions."

This cleared the way for the administration to support the coup-laundering election, and now the United States has joined only Panama, Israel, Costa Rica and Peru in endorsing the results--even though the deposed President and his supporters called for a boycott. This is a powerful testament to the usefulness of, in the words of another famous American imperialist, "speaking softly and carrying a big stick," in contrast to the sound and fury of the Bush era.

It was always too much to hope that the excesses of Bushism would lead liberals to be permanently skeptical of U.S. imperialism and the national security state. But it still disheartens me how quickly we've moved away from that brief moment when "imperialism" was something talked about in the mainstream news pages. Now it is once again the job of the left to make the argument that imperialism is a bipartisan problem, and that Obama's foreign policy is in many ways a continuation of Bush's--even if its methods are more subtle.

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