Derek Shearer, a US Democrat insider in town to work the local lecture circuit, told The Age last week:

I don’t know what the Australian population thinks in detail about Senator Obama, but I think it would be a mistake to see him as some kind of peacenik from the 1960s. He’s certainly not that. He could well, if he were president, call on Australia to do more in Afghanistan. Hopefully that would not come as a shock and surprise to the Rudd Government — it shouldn’t.

He’s right. An expansion of the war in Afghanistan under a Democrat administration shouldn’t surprise anyone, since Obama has repeatedly promised to send more troops.

But, as TS Eliot said, human kind cannot bear very much reality, and so Obama has been hailed as the anti-Bush, even as his policies (pro death penalty, pro warrantless surveillance, pro Chicago School economics) become more and more Bush-lite.

On the level of personality, Bush and Obama might seem very different. Barack Obama worries about carbon emissions; George Bush likes to fart.

But the Bush presidency hasn’t been the work of a single idiot. There’s plenty of smart people behind W., making decisions that by and large reflect the concerns of the US elite. Had a Democrat occupied the White House for the last two terms, US policy might have been sold better, but it’s doubtful that decisions have been very different.

Pick any of the Bush administration’s most heinous policies and you’ll implicate a Democrat. “Extraordinary rendition”, for instance, was pioneered under Clinton, with that cuddly environmentalist Al Gore playing a leading role.

“That’s a no-brainer,” Gore reportedly said. “Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his a-s.”

Bill himself was never averse to a spot of ultraviolence.

We’re not inflicting pain on these f–kers. When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers. I believe in killing people who try to hurt you. And I can’t believe we’re being pushed around by these two-bit pricks.

That might have been George on Iraq. It was actually Bill on Somalia.

As for Iraq itself, that war was a long time in coming. Back in the nineties, Clinton signed off on the Iraq Liberation Act, making regime change official US policy — explicitly on the basis that Saddam’s WMDs posed a threat to the world. Many people know that Clinton implemented crippling sanctions on Iraq. It’s less often remembered that he subjected the country to the longest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam.

Where does Obama stand on Iraq? The Boston Globe notes that he spoke out against the war in 2003 when campaigning for the Senate, promising “unequivocally” to oppose an additional $87 billion to pay for it. Yet in office, he voted for more than $300 billion in war appropriations and against a Kerry proposal to remove most combat troops from Iraq by July 2007.

Since then, Obama has selected Joe Biden as his running mate — and Biden wanted to unilaterally invade Iraq as early as 1998.

Again, this confluence between Republicans and Democrats needs to be understood in structural terms, a reflection of strategic interests at home and abroad. Writing for the SMH, Geoffrey Garrett puts it well:

Whoever is the next US president will have simply no choice but to make his highest priorities expanding the scope of the war on terrorism and turning around the US economy in a way that calms middle America’s anxieties.

An elite US consensus is emerging on the way forward in Iraq: a South Korea-style long-term garrison rather than a hasty Vietnam-style retreat. Less Iraq, more Afghanistan will happen under either Obama or McCain. But victory in Afghanistan will be at least as hard to achieve as it has proved in Iraq, and will involve a new focus on unstable and increasingly anti-American Pakistan. The US will also have to confront the spectre of a nuclear Iran as a regional threat to Israel and American interests.


The next president may not be able to do much about an economy affected more by global markets, technology and the Federal Reserve than anything he can do. But he will have a crisis hurting Main Street as much as Wall Street.

Thus the US cannot be expected to champion global economic integration or a global deal on climate change in 2009. It will look inward, focusing on energy independence rather than reducing greenhouse gases, and protecting the middle class rather than reducing barriers to global trade and investment.

Of course, the election of a black man would make a symbolic difference, not only in the US but throughout the world. Salon’s fantastic compilation of Obama songs illustrates the hopes invested in Obama’s candidacy throughout (especially) the African Diaspora.

But listen carefully to some of the lyrics in that list. Jamaican dancehall star Mavado, for instance, recut his classic On the Rock as We Need Barack. The original calls for salvation on Haile Salaissie, the former Ethiopian dictator worshiped by Rastafarians; the new version transposes that hope to Obama.

That’s not an assessment of policy but, more or less explicitly, an expression of faith. Yet it’s no more mystic than the belief of Australian liberals that a centrist Democrat will radically change American politics.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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