[Prefatory Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared on March 2, 2016 in The Progressive Magazine. It tries to explain the entrapment of liberal Democrats in an iron cage of militarism when it comes to international security policy. The explanation points in two directions: the militarized bureaucracy at home and the three pillars of credibility constraining elected political leaders—unquestioning support for high Pentagon budgets, opposition to stiff regulation of Wall Street abuses, and any expression of doubts about unconditional support of Israel.]
Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail
For six years (2008-2014) I acted as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and found myself routinely and personally attacked by the top UN diplomats representing the U.S. Government. Of course, I knew that America was in Israel’s corner no matter what the issue happened to be, whether complying with a near unanimous set findings by the World Court in the Hague or a report detailing Israeli crimes committed in the course of its periodic unlawful attacks on Gaza. Actually, the vitriol was greater from such prominent Democratic liberals as Susan Rice or Samantha Power than from the Republican neocon stalwart John Bolton who was the lamentable U.S. ambassador at the UN when I was appointed. I mention this personal background only because it seems so disappointingly emblematic of the failure of the Democratic Party to walk the walk of its rule of law and human rights talk.
From the moment Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office he never tired of telling the country, indeed the world that we as a nation were different because we adhered to the rule of law and acted in accord with our values in foreign policy. But when it came down to concrete cases, ranging from drone warfare to the increasingly damaging special relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia, the policies pursued seemed almost as congenial to a Kissinger realist as to an Obama visionary liberal. Of course, recently the Republicans from the comfort zone of oppositional irresponsibility chide the government led by a Democrat for its wimpy approach whether in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, China’s moves in the Pacific, and especially the emergence of ISIS. The Republicans out of office want more bombs and more wars in more places, and seem content to risk a slide into a Second Cold War however menacing such a reality would undoubtedly turn out to be.
How are we to explain this inability of Democrats to follow through on a foreign policy that is linked to law and ethics, as well as to show respect for the authority of the UN, World Court, Human Rights Council, and above all, the UN Charter? Such a question can be partly answered by noticing the gap between Obama the national campaigner and Obama the elected president expected to govern in the face of a hostile and reaction Congress and a corporatized media. In effect, it is the government bureaucracy and the special interest groups especially those linked to Wall Street, the Pentagon, guns, and Israel that call the shots in Washington, and it is expected that a politician once elected will forget the wellbeing of the American people as a whole on most issues, and especially with respect to controversial foreign policy positions, if he or she hopes to remain a credible public figure. The boundaries of credibility are monitored and disciplined by the mainstream media, as interpreted to reflect the interests of the militarized and intelligence sectors of the government and the economy.
Obama’s disappointing record is instructive because he initially made some gestures toward an innovative and independent approach. In early 2009 he went to Prague to announce a commitment to work toward a world without nuclear weapons, but there was no tangible steps taken toward implementation, and he kept quiet to the extent that his hopes were shattered. He will finish his presidency no nearer that goal than when he was elected, and in a backward move he has even committed the country to modernizing the existing arsenal of nuclear weapons at the hefty cost of $30 billion. The only reasonable conclusion is that the nuclear weapons establishment won out, and security policy of not only this country, but the world and future generations, remains subject to nuclearism, and what this implies about our unnecessarily precarious fate as a species.
Obama gave a second visionary speech in Cairo a few months later in which he promised a new openness to the Islamic world, and seemed to acknowledge that the Palestinians had suffered long enough and deserved an independent state and further, that it was reasonable to expect Israel to suspend unlawful settlement expansion to generate a positive negotiating atmosphere. When the Israel lobby responded by flexing its muscles and the Netanyahu leadership in Israel made it clear that they were in charge of the American approach to ‘the peace process,’ Obama sheepishly backed off, and what followed is a dismal story of collapsed diplomacy, accelerated Israeli settlement expansion, and renewed Palestinian despair and violent resistance. The result is to leave the prospect of a sustainable peace more distant than ever. It was clear that Zionist forces are able to mount such strong pressure in Congress, the media, and Beltway think tanks that no elected official can follow a balanced approach on core issues. Perhaps, the Democrats are even more vulnerable to such pressures as their funding and political base is more dependent on support of the Jewish communities in the big cities of America.
Occasionally, an issue comes along that is so clearly in the national interest that Israel’s opposition can be circumvented, at least temporarily and partially. This seems to have been the case with regard to the Iran Nuclear Agreement of a year ago that enjoyed the rare support of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. Yet even such a positive and sensible step toward restoring peace and stability in the tormented Middle East met with intense resistance at home, even being opposed by several prominent Democratic senators who acted as if they knew on which side their toast was buttered.
It seems pathetic that the White House in the aftermath of going against Israel’s rigid views on Iran found it necessary to patch things up by dispatching high level emissaries to reassure Israel that the U.S. remains as committed as ever to ‘the special relationship.’ To prove this point the Obama administration is even ready to increase military assistance to Israel from an already excessive $3 billion annual amount to a scandalous $5 billion, which is properly seen as compensation for going ahead with the Iran deal in the face of Israel opposition. Even the habitual $3 billion subsidy is in many ways outrageous given Israel’s regional military dominance, economic wellbeing, without even mentioning their refusal to take reasonable steps toward achieving a sustainable peace, which would greatly facilitate wider the pursuit of wider American goals in the Middle East. It is past time for American taxpayers to protest such misuses of government revenues, especially given the austerity budget at home, the decaying domestic infrastructure, and the anti-Americanism among the peoples of the Middle East that is partly a consequence of our long one-sided support for Israel and related insensitivity to the Palestinian ordeal.
True, the Democrats do push slightly harder to find diplomatic alternatives to war than Republicans, although Obama appointed hard liners to the key foreign policy positions. Hilary Clinton was made Secretary of State despite her pro-intervention views, or maybe because of them. Democrats seem to feel a habitual need to firm up their militarist credentials, and reassure the powerful ‘deep state’ in Washington of their readiness to use force in pursuit of American interests around the world. In contrast, Republicans are sitting pretty, being certified hawks on foreign policy without any need to prove repeatedly their toughness. Until George W. Bush came along it did seem that Democrats started the most serious war since 1945, and it took a Republican warmonger to end it, and even more daringly, finally to normalize relations with Communist China, a self-interested move long overdue and delayed for decades by anti-Communist ideological fervor and the once powerful ‘China Lobby.’
Looking ahead there is little reason to expect much departure if a Democrat is elected the next American president in 2016. Clinton has already tipped her hand in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, the self-anointed voice of the East Coast American establishment. She promised more air strikes and a no fly zone in Syria and a more aggressive approach toward ISIS. Such slippery slopes usually morph into major warfare, with devastating results for the country where the violence is situated and no greater likelihood of a positive political outcome as understood in Washington. If we consider the main theaters of American interventionary engagement in the 21st century, including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya we find the perplexing combination of battlefield dominance and political defeat. It is dismaying that neither Clinton nor lead foreign policy advisors are willing to examine critically this past record of frustration and defeat, and seem ready for more of the same, or as it now expressed, ‘doubling down.’ We should not forget that Clinton was the most ardent advocate of the disastrous intervention in Libya, and mainly unrepentant about her support of the Iraq War, which should shock even her most committed backers, considering that it was the most costly mistake and international crime since Vietnam.
Ever since the Vietnam War political leaders and military commanders have tried to overcome this record of failed interventionism, forever seeking new doctrines and weapons that will deliver victory to the United States when it fights wars against peoples living in distant lands of the Global South. Democrats along with Republicans have tried to overcome the dismal experience of intervention by opting for a professional army and total reliance on air tactics and special forces operations so as to reduce conditions giving rise to the sort of robust anti-war movement that dogged the diehard advocates of the Vietnam War in its latter stages. The government has also taken a number of steps to achieve a more supportive media through ‘embedding’ journalists with American forces in the fields of battle. These kinds of adjustment were supposed to address the extreme militarist complaint that the Vietnam War was not lost on the battlefields of combat, but on the TV screens in American living rooms who watched the coffins being unloaded when returned home.
Despite these adjustments it has not helped the U.S. reached its goals overseas. America still ends up frustrated and thwarted. This inability to learn from past mistakes really disguises an unwillingness that expresses a reluctance or inability to challenge the powers that be, especially in the area of war and peace. As a result not only is foreign policy stuck adhering to deficient policies with a near certainty of future failure, but democracy takes a big hit because the critical debate so essential in a truly free society is suppressed or so muted as to politically irrelevant. Since 9/11 this suppression has been reinforced by enhanced intrusions on the rights of the citizenry, a process supported as uncritically by Democrats as by the other party. Again it is evident that the unaccountable deep state wields a big stick!
This is the Rubicon that no Democrat, including even Bernie Sanders, has dared yet to cross: The acknowledgement that military intervention no longer works and should not be the first line of response to challenges emerging overseas, especially in the Middle East. The forces of national resistance in country after country in the South outlast their Northern interveners despite being militarily inferior. This is the major unlearned lesson of the wars waged against European colonialism, and then against the United States in Vietnam, and still later in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. The balance of forces in the Global South has decisively shifted against a military reading of history that prior to the middle of the last century was the persuasive basis of defending the country against foreign enemies, as well as providing imperial ambitions with a cost efficient means to gain access to resources and market in underdeveloped parts of the world. National resistance movements have learned since 1945 that they are able to prevail, although sometimes at a great cost, because they have more patience and more at stake. As the Afghan saying goes, “You have the watches, we have the time.”
The intervening side shapes its foreign policy by a crude cost/benefit calculus, and at some point, the effort does not seem worth the cost in lives and resources, and is brought to an end. For the national resistance side the difference between winning and losing for a mobilized population is nearly absolute, and so the costs however high seem never too high. The most coherent intervention initiated by the Obama presidency in 2011 did succeed in driving a hostile dictatorship from power, but what resulted was the opposite of what was intended and expected by Washington: chaos and a country run by warring and murderous tribal militias. In other words, military intervention has become more destructive than ever, and yet its political goals of stability and a friendly atmosphere remain even more elusive than previously.
For Democrats to have an approach that learns from this experience in the period since the end of World War II would require leveling with American people on two main points: (1) military intervention generally does not reach its proclaimed goals unless mandated by the UN Security Council and carried out in a manner consistent with international law; and (2) the human concerns and national interests of the country are better protected in this century by deferring to the dynamics of self-determination even if the result are not always in keeping with American strategic goals and national values. Such a foreign policy reset would not always yield results that the leaders and public like, but it is preferable to the tried and tested alternatives that have failed so often with resulting heavy burdens. Adopting such a self-determination approach is likely to diminish violence, enhance the role of diplomacy, and reduce the massive displacement of persons that is responsible for the wrenching current humanitarian crises of migration and the ugly extremist violence that hits back at the Middle East interveners in a merciless and horrifying manner as was the case in the November 13th attacks in Paris.
Despite these assessments when, hopefully, a Democrat is elected in 2016, which on balance remains the preferable lesser of evils outcome, she has already announced her readiness to continue with the same failed policy, but even worse, to increase its intensity. Despite such a militarist resolve there is every reason to expect the same dismal results, both strategically and humanly. The unfortunate political reality is that even Democratic politicians find it easier to go along with such a discredited approach than risk the backlash that world occur if less military policies were advocated and embraced. We must not avoid an awareness that our governmental security dynamics is confined to an iron cage of militarism that is utterly incapable of adjusting to failure and its own wrongdoing.
We must ask ourselves why do liberal minded Democratic politicians, especially once in office follow blindly militarist policies that have failed in the past and give every indication of doing even worse in the future because the international resistance side is more extremist and becoming better organized. Dwight Eisenhower, incidentally a Republican, gave the most direct answer more than 50 years ago—what he called ‘the military-industrial complex,’ that lethal synergy between government and capital. Such a reality has become a toxic parasite that preys upon our democratic polity, and has been augmented over the years by intelligence services, the corporatization of the media and universities, public policy institutes, and lobbies that have turned Congress into a complicit issuer of rubber stamps as requested.
Under these conditions we have to ask ourselves ‘What would have to happen to enable a presidential candidate of the Democratic Party to depart from the foreign policy failures of the past? That is, to escape from the cage within which foreign policy is now imprisoned: Nothing less than a transforming of the governing process from below that would sweep away this parasitical burden that is ever
more deforming the republic and spreading suffering and resentment to all corners of the planet. American foreign policy is having these harmful effects at a time when decent people of all parties should be exerting their political imagination to the utmost to meet the unprecedented challenges mounted by the accumulating dangers of climate change and the moral disgrace of mounting extreme economic inequalities despite as many as 3 billion people living on less than $2.50 per day.
Not only is the Democratic Party failing the nation by its refusal to meet the modest first principle of Florence Nightingale—‘do no harm’—but it is not rising to the deeper and more dangerous threats to future wellbeing and sustainability directed at the nation and the ecological health of the planet, and also of menace to peoples everywhere. What the United States does and does not do reverberates across the globe. Political responsibility in the 21st century does not stop at the border, and certainly is not fulfilled by walls and drones. If political parties cannot protect us, then it is up to the people to mount the barricades, but this too looks farfetched when the most vital form of populism now seems to be of a proto-fascist variety activated so viciously by the candidacy of Donald Trump, and reinforced more politely by his main Republican rivals.