Tag Archives: Hilary Clinton

The Geopolitics of Shimon Peres’ Legacy

6 Oct

 

 

The recent death of Shimon Peres is notable in several respects that are additional to his salient, contradictory, and ambiguous legacy, which may help explain why there has been such an effort to clarify how best to remember the man. Basically, the question posed is whether to celebrate Peres’ death as that of a man dedicated to peace and reconciliation or to portray him as a wily opportunist, a skillful image-maker, and in the end, a harsh Zionist and ambitious Israeli leader. My contention is that the way Peres is being perceived and presented at the time of his death serves as a litmus test of how those on opposite sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide experienced Peres and beyond this, how various prominent personalities for their own purposes position themselves by either championing the well orchestrated ‘Peres myth’ or seeking to depict the ‘Peres reality.’ This rich obscurity of perceptual interpretation is part of what led the death of Shimon Peres to be taken so much more seriously than that of Ariel Sharon or Moshe Dayan, who were both much more instrumental figures in the history of the Zionist project and the evolution of the state of Israel. As Shakespeare taught us, especially in Julius Caesar, it is the quality of opaqueness that creates heightened dramatic tension in reaction to an historically significant death.

 

These divergent assessments of the life of Shimon Peres can be roughly divided into three categories, although there are overlaps and variations within each. What can we learn from these divergences? (1) the rich, famous, and politically powerful in the West who have been bewitched by Peres’s formidable charms; (2) the rich, famous, and politically influential who know better the moral and complexity of Peres, but put on blinders while walking the path of politically correctness, which overlooks, or at least minimizes, his blemishes; (3) the marginalized, often embittered, whose self-appointed mission it is to be witnesses to what is deemed the truth behind the myth, and especially those on the Palestinian side of the fence.

 

 

Peres is unique among those recently active in Israel as his long life spans the entire Zionist experience, but more than longevity is the credibility associated with the claim that Peres should be set apart from other Israeli politicians as someone genuinely dedicated to establishing peaceful relations with the Palestinians via the realization of the two-state solution, and achieving more generally, good relations with the wider Arab world. Peres’ own presentation of self along these lines, especially in his latter years during which he served as President of Israel, provided international personalities with an excellent opportunity to exhibit the quality of attachment not only to the man, but to Israel as a country and Zionism as a movement. Allowing Peres’ idealist persona to epitomize the true nature of Israel created the political space needed to affirm contemporary Israel without being forced to admit that Israel as a political player was behaving in a manner that defied law and morality.

 

As already suggested, those praising Peres without any reservations fall into two of the categories set forth above. There are those like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton who seem to believe that Peres is truly a heroic embodiment of everything they hoped Israel would become, and to some extent is; in effect, the embodiment of the better angels of the Israeli experience. As well, displaying unreserved admiration and affection for Peres present Western leaders with a subtle opportunity to express indirectly their displeasure with Netanyahu and their concerns about the recent drift of Israeli diplomacy in the direction of a de facto foreclosure of Palestinian aspirations and rights.

 

Of course, such politicians are also eager to be seen at the same time as unconditionally pro-Israeli. Obama made this abundantly clear in his fawning and demeaning farewell meeting with Netanyahu at the UN, which Israel reciprocated by a provocative approval of a controversial settlement expansion, basically one more slap in Obama’s face.

 

Clinton, as well, seems understandably eager to make sure that no daylight appears between his solidarity with Israel and that of his presidential candidate spouse who has topped all American politicians, which says a lot, by tightening her embrace of everything Netanyahu’s Israel currently hopes for in Washington, including even an explicit commitment to join the fight against BDS. By so doing, Hilary Clinton has committed her presidency to favor what appear to be unconstitutional encroachments on freedom of expression that should be an occasion to vent public outrage, but has so far survived the gaze of the gatekeepers without eliciting the slightest critical comments from her opponents and even the media.

 

In the second category of fulsome praise for the departed Peres a variety of private motives is evident. There are those self-important braggarts like Tom Friedman, who clearly knows all about the complexity of the Peres story, but pretends to be gazing wide eyed at the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky as he describes his supposedly idyllic friendship with Peres over a period of 35 years. Friedman is definitely informed and intelligent enough not to be taken in by the Peres myth, and despite his signature demeanor of fearless candor, his views tend to be in total alignment with the liberal pro-Jewish mainstream, whether the topic is assessing Peres’s life or for that matter, assessing America’s global role or the current race for the presidency. He is as anti-Trump and as he is pro-Peres, exhibiting his mentoring stature as the guru of centrist political correctness, which is slightly disguised to the unwary by his brash tone that purports to be telling it like it is even when it isn’t.

 

And then in this same category, strange bedfellows to be sure, are quasi-collaborationist Palestinian leaders, most notably, Mahmoud Abbas who showed up in Jerusalem at the Peres funeral, described in the media as a rare visit to Israel, and seized the opportunity of Peres’ death to demonstrate that the Palestinian leadership is not hostile to Israeli leaders who the world recognizes as committed to peace based on the two-state solution. Abbas was presumably seeking, as well, to enhance his image as a reasonable, moderate, and trustworthy partner in the search for peace, which of course understandably infuriated not only Hamas but all those Palestinians who know better, given the daily ordeal that Palestinians are enduring as a result of policies that Peres never opposed, and in some instances, as with settlements and occupation, helped to establish. The portrayal of Peres by the respected Israeli historian, Tom Segev can hardly be news to Abbas who has endured first hand the long Palestinian ordeal: “Mr. Peres would certainly liked to enter history as a peacemaker, but that’s not how he should be remembered: indeed his greatest contributions were to Israel’s military might and victories.”

 

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian Christian who has had important positions with the PLO for many years, and has long worked for a real peace in a spirit of dedication, but without succumbing to the deceptions surrounding the Oslo diplomacy. Ashrawi has managed to keep her eyes open to the reality of Palestinian suffering, making her inevitably more critical of Peres and suspicious of those who would whitewash is life story. She writes of Peres after his death, as follows: “Palestinians’ faith in Mr. Peres had been tested before. Not forgotten by Palestinians and others in the region is the role that he played arming the Israeli forces that expelled some 750,000 Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948; the regional nuclear arms race he incited by initiating Israel’s secret atomic weapons program in the 1950s and ’60s; his responsibility for establishing some of the first Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land in the ’70s; his public discourse as a minister in Likud-led coalitions, justifying Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and extremist ideology; and his final role in Israeli politics as president, serving as a fig leaf for the radically pro-settler government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.” [NY Times (international edition, Oct 3, 2016)]

 

 

 

Above all, this overly elaborate observance of Peres’ death serves as an informal litmus test useful for determining degrees of devotion to Israel and its policies without bothering to weigh in the balance the country’s obligations under international law or the cruel reality being imposed on the Palestinian people year after year. Those who praise Peres unreservedly are deemed trustworthy within the Beltway, scoring high marks from AIPAC, and those who point to his shortcomings or to policies that went awry are viewed as unredeemably hostile to Israel. They are correctly assumed to be critics of the Special Relationship and of the over the top flows of U.S. military assistance (at least $3.8 billion over the next ten years), or worse, identified as sympathizers with the Palestinian struggle. This description fits such respected and influential critics of the Peres myth as Robert Fisk (British journalist), Uri Avnery (Israeli peace activist, former Knesset member), Gideon Levy (Israeli journalist), and Ilan Pappé (noted Israeli revisionist historian living in Britain).

 

 

 

In my view only those who see the dark sides of Shimon Peres are to be trusted, although it is excusable to be an innocent devotee in the manner of Obama. In this regard the knowledgeable liberal enthusiast is the least acceptable of the three categories because of the willful deception involved in painting a picture of Peres that is known to feed a misleading myth that is itself part of the Israeli hasbara manipulating international public awareness of the Palestinian ordeal, and thus encouraging a false public belief that the leadership in Israel, even the Netanyahu crowd, is sincere in their off again on again advocacy of a two-state solution or of the establishment of a truly independent Palestinian state. Remember that even Netanyahu joined the chorus at the funeral by treating Peres with a moral deference that should be reserved for the gods.

 

There is another aspect of what was signified by the ardent eulogies delivered by Western leaders at the Peres funeral that was dramatically underlined by the renowned Israeli columnist, Gideon Levy, yet entirely overlooked in the extensive commentary: “Anti-Semitism died on Friday — or at least, its use as an excuse by Israel. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5777, the world proved that while anti-Semitism remains in certain limited circles, it can no longer frame most of the world’s governments. Also, hatred of Israel is not what it is said to be, or what Israel says it is.” Levy’s observation is timely and relevant. It goes beyond an expression of the view that Peres was partly lauded because he was ‘not Netanyahu.’ Far deeper is Levy’s understanding that the Peres funeral gave the West an opportunity to express their affection and admiration for a prominent Jew being celebrated because he fashioned for himself and others the image of a ‘man of peace.’ Independent of whether or not this is a true appreciation, it allows a distinction to be sharply drawn between rejecting Jews as a people and criticizing Israel and its leaders for their practices and policies. In effect, if Israel were to embody the supposed worldview of Peres, and bring peace, then Israel would be welcomed into the community of states without any resistance arising from the Jewish identity of its majority population.

 

We in the United States are particularly grateful to Gideon Levy for making this point so clearly. We are faced with the opposite syndrome. Namely, criticisms of Israel’s policies and practices with respect to the Palestinian people are being deliberately treated as ‘hate speech’ and worse, as a new virulent form of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Such attacks have been recently mounted with hurtful fury against pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of the BDS Campaign.

 

May Shimon Peres rest in peace, and may the Palestinian people through their representatives intensify their struggle to achieve a real peace with Israel based on law, justice, and mutual empathy.

 

 

 

Testing for the Mental Disabilities of U.S. Presidential Candidates

21 Sep

 

 I would have hoped that any sensible American citizen would by now have been sufficiently scared by Donald Trump’s morbid flights of fancy, high school playground style bullying, outlandish threats and bluffs, unrealistic and unsavory promises to crush enemies and enrich workers, to put aside all their concerns about alternative candidates and refuse any temptation to cast a masochistic vote for Trump.

 

Yet such confidence seems sadly unjustified in this election and points up the vulnerability of the institutional arrangements governing qualifications to be an American president. Far more important than the constitutional requirement of an American birthplace, or even than physical health, is the mental condition of a candidate. Clearly, we cannot trust voters to pass this judgment, even if they were so inclined, as the Trump saga confirms. With Trump’s over the top narcissism and wild bipolar swings of sentiment, it seems painfully obvious that he is mentally unfit for the presidency, and this is frightening considering the embedded capacities of any occupant of the Oval Office to initiate war and use nuclear weapons, as well as inflict less spectacular harms as might result from unraveling the world economy, scrapping the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Nuclear Agreement with Iran, and irresponsibly ending old alliances and entering into new ones.

 

It must be acknowledged that Hilary Clinton is also multiply deficient as a presidential candidate, but not nearly in ways so scary and in forms far less likely to involve blind dives from the high board of flights of fancy into waterless pools. I dearly wish she was closer to Sanders in outlook, commitment, and character, but she can at least be counted on to do some decent and constructive things to enhance the quality of governance and life at home. She will surely push hard to implement the climate change agreement and probably will abide the Iran agreement despite Israel’s continuing efforts to undermine all that was achieved. Above all, she is not Trump!

 

It is not that Clinton deserves our vote, especially taking into account her hawkish regime-changing approach to foreign policy in the Middle East, but maybe, just maybe, she learned a thing or two from her support of the Iraq and Libyan disasters, and even if she hasn’t, she still earns my vote by the lamentable logic of ‘the lesser of evils.’ At the same time, I would not criticize those who weighed the pros and cons differently than I do, voting for a third party nominee that seemed the best available candidate regardless of their prospects of winning in November. There is much to be said in favor of voting for someone who is a good enough candidate that a vote of support would be something other than one more iteration of the lesser of evils. It is one of the few ways that an ordinary citizen has to register a vote of no confidence in a system that can do no better than provide citizens over and over again with nothing more congenial than a choice among evils. Unlike football, winning isn’t everything in politics, although most of our politicians approach their challenge with a zero-sum mentality. It is damaging to democracies when the cynical among us call the tune with their belief that casting a principled, yet losing, vote is a wasted vote, or worse, almost a crime against reason! Remember the liberal fury directed at Ralph Nader and his 90,000 or so supporters in Florida that allowed George W. Bush, with a major assist from the U.S. Supreme Court, to win the 2000 election.

 

In the end, Americans, whether or not they realize it, have a responsibility to the world that citizens of other countries possess to a far lesser degree. If Trump were to become the next American president it would imperil the world, and likely cause grave dislocations in many international settings that could cause massive suffering along with possibly disastrous unintended consequences. Even our most ‘rational’ recent presidents have caused havoc in foreign societies. Our militarized government rests on three principal pillars of influence: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. These constraining forces can push even the most decent and intelligent of presidents in militarist directions as Barack Obama found out.

 

The United States as a liberal democratic global state, projecting its power throughout the whole of the planet, should ideally extend its electoral franchise globally. As things stand, and will indefinitely remain so, the United States and its people insist on the absolute prerogatives of territorial sovereignty while denying comparable autonomy to many other nominally sovereign states. Given this uncontested reality, there is as much likelihood of Americans agreeing to extend the vote in its national elections to foreign societies throughout the world as there is of the ISIS leadership waking up one morning to announce adherence hereafter to the pacifist precepts of Gandhiism.

 

What is a distant second best option, yet far better than nothing, is for as many Americans as possible to be at least aware of their custodial role for the peoples of the world. With such awareness would come the duty to vote responsibly with respect to the wellbeing of others, including taking into consideration impacts on a sustainable human future. Again, predicting that a substantial number of American voters might be willing to behave like world citizens is a bet no oddsmaker in Vegas would be foolish enough to take.

 

Obviously, mere awareness is not nearly enough to secure the wellbeing of either the country or the world. The realities of technology and complex interdependence are such that the current world order has no capacity to absorb and localize serious mistakes of judgment made by the United States Government. The most minimal elements of political sanity at this stage of history mandates the adoption of a constitutional requirement that candidates for the presidency be certified as to their mental health, and not only by a psychiatrist of their choice. A professional politically neutral mechanism should be established to select a panel of qualified psychiatrists that would then be entrusted with certifying the mental health of aspiring candidates for the presidency and vice presidency.

 

At present, there is some relevance accorded to physical health with much attention accorded to the disclosure of medical records and indications of physical ailments that might interfere with the discharge of the formidable burdens associated with being president. When Hilary Clinton was found to be suffering from a mild case of pneumonia earlier this month a media frenzy ensued that examined the issue of her health from every conceivable angle. Such a preoccupation highlights by comparison the neglect of the far more serious, and possibly more difficult to detect, presence of serious mental disabilities of a kind that could produce the worst sorts of governmental decisions and policies. The mental disorders of an aspiring presidential candidate are far more threatening to the security of the country and the world than are physical ailments, which although also potentially dangerous to the person, are far less likely to cause catastrophic damage or twist decisions in sinister directions.

 

Admittedly, certifying mental health is an awkward process that needs to be handled with great sensitivity, and even then could misfire, or be wrongly interpreted by the public. At the same time, this forthcoming election amply demonstrates that business as usual, with eyes and ears closed to issues of mental disability is no longer an acceptable approach to the selection of American leaders in the 21st century. Too much is at stake.

 

Despite this, there persists a strong taboo surrounding mental health. Raising questions about the mental condition of a candidate for public office is still widely perceived as hitting below the belt. And what is worse, some mental disorders perversely give rise to enthusiastic support among the citizenry. In this regard what makes Trump seem a high risk candidate because of his mental health is what may yet get him elected! This is a thought to ponder. The memory of Hitler and Mussolini reminds us that pathological mental imbalances can be a source of public charisma and political popularity. The Trump candidacy is certainly not the first time that a demagogue’s manifest mental disorders are a principal explanation of his passionate populist support, but it could be the last time!

 

 

Clinton versus Trump: How It Might Matter for the Middle East

3 Sep

 

[Prefatory Note: An earlier version was published on September 1, 2016 in Middle East Eye. This version is modified, and its title slightly changed.]

When it comes to foreign policy, it seems at first glance to be a no brainer. Hilary Clinton is experienced, knowledgeable, intelligent, an internationalist, known and respected around the world. In contrast, Donald Trump repeatedly shoots himself in the foot and others elsewhere, seems clueless on the complexities of the world, makes such reckless hyper-nationalist boasts about how he will crush enemies and make allies squirm. Such posturing makes people everywhere fearful, hostile and even wondering whether the American citizenry as a whole is collectively experiencing a psychotic episode by taking seriously such an outlandish candidate.

 

Choosing Between Militarism or Isolationism

Yet a closer look makes the choice between these two candidates less obvious, and more interesting, although not more encouraging, especially if the focus is what the election might mean for the Middle East. One of the few consistent positions taken by Trump is to voice his deep skepticism about regime-changing interventions in the region, especially Iraq and Libya, and the accompanying expensive delusions of former presidents, as well as Clinton, about policies aimed at producing democracies. As expected, Trump has some awkward inconsistencies in his earlier pronouncements on these issues if you bother to check out what he had to say a few years ago. Still, his present opposition to military interventions in the Middle East has been consistently expressed throughout the presidential campaign. His essential position is summarized by his own words: “After fifteen years of wars in the Middle East, after trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost, the situation is worse than it has ever been before.” What follows, then, is the likelihood that Trump will oppose intervention in the Middle East unless there is a clear connection present with a terrorist threat directed at the United States posed by ISIS, and maybe al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

 

Clinton has a consistently hawkish record in foreign policy, which she tried her best to put out of sight during the primary competition with Bernie Sanders, whose progressive views were surprisingly similar to Trump on this central question of military intervention in the Middle East. During her time as Secretary of State (2009-2012), including shaping policy toward Russia, China, Afghanistan, and in the Middle East, Clinton over and over again pushed President Obama hard to adopt more militarist and confrontational positions, most visibly in the region with respect to American military involvement in Libya and Syria. When visiting Libya shortly after Qaddafi was brutally executed in 2011 by rebels when captured in a Libyan town, Clinton chillingly observed, “We came, we saw, he died.” It was a revealing comment, a kind of cold-hearted gallows geopolitical quip.

 

 

Stability First or America First?

 

It is also relevant that Clinton’s regional grand strategy was premised on keeping friendly dictators in power even in the face of overwhelmingly popular uprisings, disclosed rather starkly in her lobbying efforts to stand by Mubarak in his hour of troubles with the Egyptian people back in 2011. Although she now downplays her support for the 2003 aggressive war in Iraq launched against the regime of Saddam Hussein, she clearly supported at its outset the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since the United States committed itself in the mid-1960s so heavily to the losing side in the Vietnam War. Not only did the attack on Iraq bring many deaths, much devastation, massive displacement, and lasting chaos to Iraq and its people, but the long American-led occupation spread disorder beyond Iraqi borders, and was an important contributing cause to the origins and rise of ISIS.

 

Yet, despite these Clinton policy misjudgments in the Middle East, isn’t the world still better off with the steady hand of Clinton than the wildly impulsive Trump. Her morbid quip struck hard at what this distinction could mean: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Such anxiety is intensified as soon as we realize that there are no political checks limiting the capacity of an American president to use nuclear weapons. This makes us aware of how people everywhere despite their huge stake in prudent American leadership, play no role in determining the outcome of a presidential election in the United States. It may be time to consider a plan to enfranchise the whole world to have a vote of some kind in American national elections if the ideal of global democracy and the rule of law are ever to achieve political traction.

 

Trump has made a number of assertions about nuclear weapons that not only challenge decades of Western conventional wisdom, but also strike fear in the hearts of people wherever they are, including the Middle East. In his preoccupation with conserving American financial resources Trump has suggested that it might not be a bad thing for Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear weapons, and then take over responsibility for their own security. Supposedly he asked a friend, “Why can’t we use nukes?” True, such assertions are not necessarily indicative of what Trump would do as president in the Middle East but neither should they be ignored. Trump seems neo-isolationist in overall outlook, which means fewer international commitments and a desperate search for ways to cut overseas expenditures. It is possible that his unwillingness to give unquestioned support to the nonproliferation regime that has frozen the nuclear status quo for decades might generate a renewed push for phased, total nuclear disarmament, the only decent and reliable long-term solution.

 

There are other worries. Trump opposes the Iran nuclear deal, probably the most constructive diplomatic initiative taken during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Trump thinks it was a terrible deal since it “gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing.” Scrapping the agreement, or even failing to live up to its commitments, endangers an unraveling of the whole normalizing relationship of Iran within the Middle East, and could tempt Israel to launch some kind of preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities or even give rise to an extremely dangerous nuclear arms race in the region. It should be noted, in passing, that both Trump and Clinton have tied themselves so firmly to the mast of pro-Israeli alignment as to be blind to the desirability of promoting a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, a proposal that enjoys the support of every Middle Eastern government except Israel, and would probably do more to stabilize the region than any other single initiative.

 

 

 

 

 

Regressive Ideology

 

Thinking that Clinton is more reliable than Trump may be more a matter of style than substance. Supposedly she did not oppose giving Israel a green light to attack Iran during her period as Secretary of State. Also worrisome is her long undisguised admiration for the warped wisdom of Henry Kissinger, and even Robert Kagen, considered the most militarist member of the neoconservative inner circle, and despite being closely identified in the past with Republicans, has endorsed Clinton, and reportedly acts as the most prominent advisor in her foreign policy braintrust. It is hardly a surprise that 50 self-proclaimed Republican national security specialists publicly endorsed Clinton over Trump, but it is a marker of how unusual this contest for the American presidency has become. As has been often observed, Clinton is of the foreign policy/national security establishment that has brought to where we are now, while Trump is seen as a potential spoiler who might pursue policies that would cause structural disintegration and with it, the collapse of the neoliberal economic order, that is, ‘the Washington consensus.’

 

Trump, too, boasts of his meetings with Kissinger, as some kind of certification of his worthiness that overcomes his amateurish qualifications for high political office. Yet his opinions adopt lines of thought that are probably an anathema to this aged master of real politik. Clinton, of course, has reflected more and longer on such matters, and in an effort to please all sides opts for what she is calling ‘smart power,’ a customized blend of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power that is supposed to be responsive to the complexities of shaping foreign policy in the early 21st century. The Clinton formula, not unlike that of other recent mainstream candidates in the U.S., is designed to please as much as possible the warlords of the Pentagon, the wizards of Wall Street, and the champions of Israel, or at least not distress any of these three nodes of American geopolitical primacy.

 

With these profiles as a background, can we predict the foreign policy of a Clinton or Trump presidency in the Middle East? It is possible to make more reliable guesses about Clinton because she has made some of her positions already clear: an escalation of support for anti-Assad Syrian forces (except ISIS), a hardening of diplomatic bargaining with Iran in carrying out the nuclear agreement, a further upgrading of the ‘special relationship’ with Israel, and no change of course with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the other Western-leaning autocracies in the region. In addition, a possible recommitment of American military forces in Iraq, and especially robust military action against political extremism throughout the region,

 

Trump can be expected to indulge his neo-isolationist inclinations, likely moving policy in an opposite direction, withdrawing American combat forces and downgrading military bases in the region, in effect, a pivot away from the Middle East. The exception would seem to be his extravagant pledge to crush ISIS, whatever that might mean in practice, especially as it already seems almost crushed. The related idea of imposing an absolute ban on Muslim immigration to the US, if enacted, is likely to have disastrous blowback effects, fanning the flames of Muslim civilizational discontent.

 

If voting for an American president was only about the Middle East, I would rate the candidates as a tossup, but it isn’t. When the American domestic scene is taken into account, as well the rest of the world, Clinton holds the clear edge unless one feels so disgusted her candidacy as to write in Bernie Sanders on the ballot or cast a vote of conscience for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. I remain uncertain as to which of these choices to make.

 

My liberal friends become angry when even such a possibility is mentioned. They still blame the Ralph Nader candidacy in the 2000 election for depriving Al Gore from a victory in Florida, and thus a national victory over George W. Bush. I remain puzzled by and opposed to such a logic. Why allow third party candidates to seek public office if the pundits view it as irresponsible, or worse, to vote for them if the best candidate? Or maybe, it is okay to vote for them if your state is not ‘a swing state,’ but that again means that it is more important to vote for the lesser of evils to avoid the greater of evils rather than to vote for the best candidate. I take a more nuanced position. It depends on how evil is the greater of evils compared to the lesser evil, and whether this seems to matter. At present, if I were in a swing state I would vote for Clinton, although reluctantly (domestic issues and nuclear weapons policy), but since I live in California I will probably vote for Jill Stein. Somehow I wish Bernie Sanders had wrestled with this dilemma rather than uncritically adopting the liberal consensus, which given Clinton’s slide to the right since the Democratic Party convention should keep him awake some nights.

Should We Vote for Hillary Clinton? A Meditation

14 Apr

 

 

It seems now almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will be the candidate for the Democratic Party in November. This inevitability came about by a combination of ‘a Southern strategy’ (where incidentally the Democrats have virtually no chance in the national elections), some close wins in large industrial states in the North, and above all by that peculiar twist in practical democracy known as ‘delegate logic’ (the party state by state rules as to how delegates are allocated among the candidates to reflect primary results, and for the Democratic Party, the pernicious add on of 719 superdelegates, 469 of whom are already announced as committed to support Hilary, while Bernie has garnered a measly 31). ‘Super’ in name only being members of Congress (11% approval rating) and party officials (often ‘hacks’).

 

This process of delegate selection is problematic from many angles and seems stacked against the guiding idea that purpose of the primaries is to determine as fairly as possible who people identifying with a particular party prefer to have as their candidate. As has been alleged by Bernie Sanders, and for the Republicans, by Donald Trump, the system is rigged: the outcome of the vote is shaped by rules that can be manipulated by a skilled ‘ground game’ to deliver a disproportionate number of delegates compared to what would be expected given relative popularity with those who voted in the primary election.

 

Aside from this disturbing delegate mystique there is the question of money. As has been obvious long before the outrage of Citizens United, big money acts as a formidable vehicle for special interests, exerting a pernicious influence on the entire governing process, deforming policy on a wide range of public issues including guns, coal, and pharmaceutical drug prices. In this regard, once again, Clinton’s far from innocent connections with Wall Street, with a superpac, and with all kinds of special interests from fracking to Israel, should be enough to alienate all but the most blindfolded of citizens.

 

An assortment of insiders defend party control over the primary process through the selection of delegates. They argue that it helps keep so-called ‘insurgent’ candidates from stealing a nomination from a candidate who has passed through the authenticating filters of party loyalty. Policy wonks point out that if the Republican Party had superdelegates, Trump would be out, and likely Cruz too, and thus it is claimed that the party credentials of the superdelegates provides a hedge against extremism or a triumphant maverick, whether from right or left, or even from Hollywood.

 

Tom Hayden, always clear and with a long record of progressive engagement in the American political process, comes down in favor of Clinton on the basis of several mutually reinforcing arguments: the need for unity among Democrats to assure the defeat of whoever the Republicans put forward, Bernie’s lack of a thought through and politically attainable agenda, and most of all, Hilary’s overwhelming support among African Americans and Latinos, including both the Cogressional Black Caucus and the Sacramento Latino Caucus. Hayden emphasizes that his links to these minorities are personal as well as ideological, through marriage and paternity, suggesting that his identity and private life creates an affinity that takes precedence over other considerations. Along the way, he affirms Sanders call for social justice in a number of particulars (student debt, universal health care, tax policy, minimum wage, trade policy), as well as his more moderate stand on foreign policy when compared to the interventionist past of Clinton. I wonder about this reasoning. Should we not ratify the Sanders movement that has excited the young across the nation as an urgent call for change? What we do know is that Clinton even if she delivers on some liberal reforms will not change the fundamentals of American political life, which urgently need changing: the plutocratic control over policy, the kneejerk deference to Pentagon budgetary greed, the unquestioning indulgence of the predatory ways of Wall Street, and the slavish acquiescence to Israel’s defiant militarism.

 

Of course, there is a serious liberal side to this debate that deserves to be considered. It is a matter of ensuring the victory of a Democrat in November coupled with the belief that Clinton is far better situated than Sanders to ensure such an outcome. Clinton is almost certain to appoint empathetic jurists to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts, she will uphold and advance the rights of women, and she will steer the ship of state with a steady and experienced hand.

 

Even granting the above, there are some limits on this liberal position that should not be pushed aside. On foreign policy, there is no doubt that Clinton is experienced, informed, and reliable, more so than Sanders. At the same time her judgment and instincts seem as untrustworthy as those of Henry Kissinger, the foreign policy guru whom she has unfortunately singled out for praise. Kissinger has favored every failed intervention that the US has undertaken in the last half century, including even Vietnam and Iraq, encouraged the 1973 military coup in Chile against the democratically elected Allende government, and was positive about the genocidal approach taken by Indonesia toward the resistant and oppressed indigenous population in East Timor. With this in mind, I would greatly prefer Sanders’ qualities of judgment to Clinton’s record of experience.

 

Against this background, I am left with is a choice between ‘red lines’ and ‘the lesser of evils,’ or as most liberals prefer to put it, ‘the glass half full,’ regarding Hillary as the best choice among those available, and in many respects impressive in ability and achievement. Beyond this, she would be the first woman to become president, and if we are lucky, she might even fashion a memorable legacy around climate change, environmental policy, health, women’s rights, student debt, an enlightened judiciary, international trade regimes, and more.

 

What troubles me, even with a keen awareness of the dangers and antipathies associated with a Republican presidential hopeful, almost regardless of who it ends up being, is the belief that there are certain deficiencies of character or lapses of judgment that deserve to be treated red lines, which once crossed are decisive. Clinton has crossed some lines that are bright red in my eyes. I find it hard to overlook her Iraq War vote back in 2003, her continuing admiration for Kissinger, her lead role in producing the Libyan disaster, her push toward intervention in Syria, and her fawning AIPAC speech delivered during the present campaign. The latter is in some respects the most disturbing of all, being purely opportunistic while exhibiting zero sensitivity to the long ordeal of Palestinian captivity and abuse. Despite her nuanced mind, Clinton comes across as a crude opportunist. For me the thought of Clinton’s fingers close to the nuclear button is hardly reassuring, although less scary than the prospect of Trump or Cruz exercising such an absolute power over human destiny. 

 

Of course, we can try and convince ourselves that most of the bad stuff is behind her and that the really good stuff lies ahead. We can firm this hope up with an expectation that Sanders will use his considerable leverage effectively, nudging her left on economic policy and making her more cautious about intervention. But it is a gamble at best, and once in the White House, special interest and bureaucratic pressures will put the Sanders agenda on a distant back burner.

 

I recall that the Nader third party candidacy, which I at the time supported, seems to have cost Gore the presidency in 2000 due to the outcome in Florida, and if Gore rather than George W. Bush had become president there probably would have been no attack on Iraq in 2003. Initiating a regime-changing war against Iraq was a neocon priority, but never on the agenda of moderate Republicans, much less Democrats. Yet counterfactuals can be misleading. Without the failure of Iraq there might have been a far greater disposition to intervene elsewhere, maybe Ukraine or Syria. As Madeline Albright a stalwart Martian supporter of Clinton memorably reminded us some years ago, ‘what’s the use of this great military capability if we never use it.’

Thinking back to the 2000 makes me hesitate before voting for a third party candidate, although there is a case to be made. The election of Jill Stein, the admirable Green Party candidate, would likely lift our spirits, enhance human security, and make us safer by departing from the cliches of national security. It is sad when the person with the most relevant vision and impeccable character, with nary a blemish, should be marginalized because of the folk wisdom embodied in the saying ‘the best is the enemy of the good,’ or more accurately in this case, ‘the worst is the enemy of the mediocre.’

Despite these doubts, prudence suggests swallowing hard, and voting for Hillary Clinton with eyes wide open. I have not yet decided, although leaning, yet still pondering some questions. Isn’t it time to hold politicians accountable for past wrongdoing? Doesn’t Clinton seem like an unprincipled opportunist, tacking to the left in the primary campaign to take some votes away from Sanders, but probably ready to move right once he is safely out of the way so as to lure independent voters and disaffected Republicans, and later, to govern effectively?

 

Isn’t Sanders right to contend that the problems of America require ‘a social revolution,’ and shouldn’t citizens of conscience stop acting as if incrementalism will address the fundamental challenges facing the country? From such an outlook, it is tempting to withhold support and forego political participation until a national candidate arrives on the scene who gives real promise of seeking the changes we need, or at least enough of them to make it worthwhile. At this point, I am unable to resolve the dilemma posed by this clash of prudence and principle.

 

Maybe in the end Tom Hayden’s approach is the only humane way to cut the Gordian Knot of this presidential dilemma: vote for Hillary Clinton in solidarity with African Americans and Latinos as someone who has stood more in their corner than almost any active politician, and surely more than any present candidate, including Bernie Sanders. Solidarity with the racially and ethnically abused, reinforced by lesser of evils reasoning, may be the best we can do at this point, while hoping that Sanders surge is more than a flash in the pan and becomes the sort of transformative movement from below that alone can restore national confidence in a sustainable and humane future. Should feelings of solidarity and revolutionary patience outweigh a principled refusal to go along with militarist opportunism?

 

Three Unshakeable Pillars of American Foreign Policy

3 Apr

 

 

It deserves to be noticed that it is only the two anti-establishment candidates who have challenged the foreign policy consensus that has guided American politicians ever since the end of World War II: consistently express unconditional support for the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel (especially since the 1967 War).

 

Bernie Sanders has been the first serious presidential aspirant for several decades to challenge directly and unabashedly at least one of these pillars by way of his principled and concerted attacks on Wall Street, on the billionaire class, on the exploitative 1%. Although moderate overall, Sanders has been respectfully deferential to the other two pillars, Pentagon and Israel. Because he has mobilized an intense following among all categories of American youth there has been a media reluctance to assault his substantive views frontally, except to offer a variety of snide remarks that cast doubt on his ‘electability.’

 

Such a dismissal pretends to be pragmatic, but the polls indicate that Sanders would do better against likely Republicans than Clinton. This leads me to interpret the refusal of the corporatized mainstream to take Sanders seriously, at least so far, as a coded ideological attack, basically a reaction to his anti-Wall Street stand that can be viewed as the opening salvo of class warfare.

 

Donald Trump has encountered a somewhat different firestorm but with a similar intent. At first, when the cognoscenti dismissed him as a serious candidate, he was welcomed as a source of entertainment. When his popularity with primary voters could no longer be overlooked, he was challenged by a steady flow of condescending rebukes that question his competence to govern (rather than his electability) or to be a commander in chief. Again his cardinal sin, in my judgment, is not the extraordinary mobilization of a proto-fascist populism that relishes his anti-Muslim immigration stand, his xenophobic call for a high wall on the Mexican border paid for by Mexico, and his proposed revival of torture as a necessary instrument of anti-terrorism. Most hard core Trump supporters have been long hiding out in a closet until The Donald stepped forward with aplomb and a strident willingness to be politically incorrect. As with Sanders, but seemingly more capriciously and less convincingly, Trump has agitated the guardians of all three pillars, unlike Sanders with a programmatic assault, but more obliquely with provocative comments here and there. He manages to convey, although by way of his many off hand and unrehearsed asides, a heretical state of mind with respect to the received wisdom that has been guiding the country since World War II regardless of which party’s president sits in the oval office.

 

Of the Pentagon, his heretical views seem spontaneous challenges to settled policies. Trump appears to look with some indifference, if not outright approval, at the prospect for further proliferation of nuclear weapons, specifically in relation to Japan and South Korea. Such a comment is regarded as imprudent even if never meant to be acted upon as it makes the so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’ seem leaky to those accustomed to its protection, and more importantly, casts some doubt on American global commitments around the world.

 

Similarly, casting doubt on the role of NATO in a post-Cold War world, asking for the Europeans to pay more, is seen by the Beltway wonks, as both an unacceptable public rebuke to allies and an even more unacceptable failure to take seriously the threat being posed by a newly belligerent Russia that flexed its muscles in the Ukraine, and then Syria. Trump’s skeptical attitude toward NATO was particularly resented as it seemed insensitive to the bellicose slide toward a new cold war that had been gathering bipartisan momentum in Washington.

 

Beyond this, Trump showed little appreciation of the way the Pentagon community views the war on terror. Although war planners likely welcomed the Trump promise to rebuild America’s armed forces so as overcome their alleged decline during the Obama presidency. What bothered the Washington policy community was Trump’s skepticism about such mainstays of American foreign policy as military intervention and regime-changing missions. At one heretical high point Trump even hinted that it would be a good idea to divert Pentagon dollars into infrastructure investment here in America. Annoyed listeners among the guardians might have detected in such a sweeping assertion a disguised, if confused, nostalgia for a revival of American isolationism.

 

Of the Wall Street pillar, Trump is perhaps more seriously worrisome, although not at all in the Sanders’ mode. Trump trashes the international trading regime that has been such an article of faith at the core of ‘the Washington consensus’ that gave substance and direction to neoliberal globalization in the latter stages of the prior century. His views of the world economy clearly favor the nationalist sort of protectionism that is widely held responsible for the Great Depression. Beyond this, Trump seems intent on challenging the terms of trade with China in ways that could expose a disastrous American vulnerability to Chinese countermeasures, especially given their enormous dollar holdings. Although the foreign policy approach to China endorsed by the guardians is ready, if not eager, to confront China on the island disputes in the South China Sea, it does not want to disrupt the enormous economic benefits and continuing potential of orderly relations with the Chinese market. From this perspective, Trump’s aggressive deal-making approach to global economic policy is viewed as highly dangerous.

 

Trump has even made the Israeli pillar quiver ever so slightly by suggesting at one point that he favored neutrality in approaching the relations between Israel and Palestine. He sought to override this unwelcome and uncharacteristic display of judiciousness, by making a fawning speech at the AIPAC annual conference. Yet Trump’s willingness to follow the intimations of his gut must have probably made ardent Israeli advocates yearn for the likes of Clinton and Cruz who have mortgaged what’s left of their soul on the altar of subservience to the lordship of Netanyahu and his extremist cohorts.

 

The candidates who pass the litmus test associated with the three pillars approach are clearly Clinton and Kasich, with Ryan on the sidelines waiting to be called if gridlock ensues at the Republican Convention. Cruz would also be treated as an outlier if it were not for Trump preempting him by this assault on the three pillars. Cruz is hardly the kind of candidate that the guardians prefer. His evangelical religiosity is outside the political box, as is his imprudent stance toward engaging international adversaries, crushing enemies, patrolling Muslim communities, and endorsements of waterboarding. It is not the sort of image of America that the guardians wish to convey to the rest of the world.

 

Sanders is grudgingly admired for his authenticity, but grounded politically for assailing Wall Street and cruel capitalism in ways that threaten the established economic order (universal health care, free public university tuition) with initiatives popular with many voters.

 

For months the guardians assumed that Trump would self-destruct but instead he kept dominating the field of presidential hopefuls among the Republican ranks. Unlike the Clinton control of the Democratic Party machine, the Republican Party bureaucracy has been ineffectual in stemming the Trump tide. For this reason media and establishment reinforcements were called upon, and even President Obama joined the chorus of Trump detractors, not because he overtly opposed to the activation of fascist populism but to relieve pressures on the three pillars consensus.

 

The voters in Wisconsin and elsewhere still have an opportunity to push back. If Sanders should win by double digits on Tuesday, it will create a quandary for the guardians. To have to depend on Clinton’s support among the super delegates for the nomination would be such an anti-democratic rebuff of the Sanders’ constituency that not even Sanders could effectively control the backlash. Many of the Sanders’ faithful would sit out the election no matter what their leader urged, rejecting the lesser of evils plea.

 

If Trump should prevail, even narrowly, it looks as though the Republicans will find themselves swallowing hard while being forced to select a candidate unacceptable to themselves. Such an outcome would also probably mean kissing goodbye to any hope of regaining the White House, leading the main party effort to be directed at holding on to control of Congress.

 

Actually, this primary campaign reveals a dismal underlying situation: in a healthy democracy all three pillars should long ago have been shaken at least as hard as Sanders is currently challenging Wall Street. This benevolent challenge mounted by Sanders is a sign that America may be finally getting ready for a genuinely revolutionary challenge, although the grassroots strength of the Trump legions creates the menacing alternative possibility of a fascist counterrevolution. Such radical options are at this point no more than remote possibilities. The persisting probability is more of the same, most likely under Democratic Party auspices. In this respect, the three pillars seem secure in their dysfunction for the foreseeable future. We who lament this can only wish that this dysfunction does not achieve political maturity in the form of global catastrophe.

 

I have not dwelled on the lesser of evils argument that makes Clinton seem a vastly preferable alternative to a wannabe reactionary like Trump or Cruz. Even if we fear Clinton’s warmongering past, we could at least expect better judicial appointments, more positive initiatives on health care and women’s rights, and more informed and balanced assessment of foreign economic policy. Whether this is enough to overcome our distaste for Clinton’s wanton opportunism and instinctive militarism, is something every citizen will have to ponder on her own if the choice comes down to this next November.                            

Two Ways of Looking at the Race for the American Presidency

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This is a rewritten and partially modified version of what posted to hastily yesterday.]

 

#1: as an incredibly dumbing down of the political process, turning the presidential campaigns for the nomination as heavily financed shadow shows, hiding special interests and money management, all about selling the candidate by boast and bluster;

 

#2: as pre-revolutionary ferment, mobilizing the young, and confronting the established order, finally, with non-establishment choices between the radical right of Trump & Cruz and the moderate social democratic left of Sanders.

 

This tedious struggle for political prominence and historical name recognition is being played out against a backdrop of the three pillars of America’s global role: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. No candidate has managed to shake the pillars, although this time around Sanders has at least launched a genuine attack on the Wall Street pillar, and Trump has gestured toward what might turn out to be a mild push against the Israel pillar. This alone makes Sanders and Trump the first outsiders to compete seriously for a mainstream run at the White House. Of course, since Sanders has done so much better than expected, Clinton has taken to making some noises as if she too is ready to take on Wall Street, but as the unreleased transcripts of her mercenary talks at Goldman, Sachs undoubtedly confirm, no one think she means it, and she doesn’t; this is her way of harmlessly sparring with the man from Vermont until she locks up the machine-driven nomination, and then we might get a hint of the real Hilary, that is, unless she worries about alienating the Sanders’ supporters when election time comes in November.

 Torquemada

When we look at the candidates from a Hollywood central casting point of view, we have to wonder who is running the show, especially on the Republican side. Senator Ted Cruz appears to be a credible reincarnation of Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1484-1498), grimly ready to deal harshly with the infidels whether within the country or without. Like Torquemada he is sincere, personally austere, and reflective of God’s will. He also seems to have an incidental fondness for ‘carpet bombing,’ and all out war with ‘the enemies’ of the United States wherever they might be in the world, and looks to Netanyahu as the sort of leader he would like to be.

Ted_Cruz,_official_portrait,_113th_Congress 

Then there is Marco Rubio snapping at the Cruz and Trump heals as if a scrappy dog seeking an evening meal. Rubio reminds one of a high school debating champion, articulate and self-assured, yet so lacking in political gravitas as to be irrelevant.

 And I almost forgot John Kasich that redoubtable former governor of Ohio who repeatedly tells his audience in a conversational monotone that he has already solved all of America’s problems in microcosm while he brilliantly managed the public life of Ohio from the state capital in Columbus. He pledges to do the same for America as a whole once in Washington, and puts himself forward as the only candidate with the right experience and track record to take up residence in the White House. It is not surprising that there is a tendency to forget Kasich as he has so far managed to stay on board the train only because he has become the default candidate of that endangered species, ‘moderate Republicans.’

 Trump 2Trump

Then there is Donald Trump who, whatever else, is hardly in danger of being forgotten. He is leading the pack into some wild terrain of which he seems only dimly aware. Trump’s idea of how to do international politics boils down to hard driving real estate deal making backed by an larger, all powerful military machine and tax breaks for American multinationals. Without exhibiting much command of the political domain Trump offers some mildly encouraging, even sensible, takeaways that are almost lost in the bigoted noise—his skepticism about regime-changing interventions, opposition to neoliberal international trade agreements, and even casting a smidgeon of doubt on the special relationship with Israel. Of course, it is not these sensible asides but the Trump thunder that excites his followers and energizes his crowds. He wins his mass following by demonizing Muslims and Latinos, promising to end all Muslim immigration, deport 11 million illegals, and build that high wall along the Mexican border, and then send the bill to the Mexican Government, and, get this, restore American military might. His reputation for repudiating what liberals espouse as ‘politically correct’ earns him a reputation for talking right-wing nonsense to power, and being perceived by his followers as deliciously politically incorrect. The Trump appeal is based totally on the politics of emotion, tapping into resentments, prejudices, and racism, unleashing a venomous tide of proto-fascist activism that should be, but isn’t yet, scaring Americans as much as it seems to be frightening and startling the rest of the world.

 th

The Democrats seem to be doing a little bit better, but only in comparison to the current crop of Republican alternatives.Hilary Clinton, running needlessly scared as frontrunner, seems to have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look every time her ‘core beliefs’ are probed or challenged. The unclassified, yet disclosed, truth, is that she doesn’t seem to have any, or at least not yet. Or maybe she had, but lost track, and now can’t find them or lost them along the way or will rediscover them if necessary. Ever an ambitious opportunist par excellence, it seems that her least laundered credential is her steadfast realization that the three pillars are absolutes in American politics, maybe better represented as ‘sacred cows.’

 

Hence, Hilary is fully credible when promising to improve upon current U.S. relations with Israel and can be trusted never to let down either the Pentagon or Wall Street, or to go wobbly when given the opportunity to champion a new military intervention. What more could the Democratic Party establishment want from a candidate, and this is the point that has seemed to resonate so strongly with the so-called superdelegates (elected officials and party luminaries who can vote for whomever they wish, neither being selected by voters or pledged to a particular candidate) who mostly stand shoulder to shoulder with Clinton and virtually extinguish the slight hopes of Sanders however many Michigan style upsets he manages to pull off.

 

And then there is Bernie Sanders, as genuine a proponent of a decent American society as the political system has produced since FDR, and maybe more so, but he only knows how to carry melodies with only a single note, and while it is a high note, pushing hard against the Wall Street pillar, it exhibits too narrow a grasp of the American political challenge to make him qualified to lead the first global state in human history. His views on the other two pillars seem unthreatening to the mainstream, he goes along, perhaps reluctantly at the margins, seeming to accept the defense budget except some quibbles, as well as existing alliances and alignments, and raises no awkward questions about continuing unconditional support for Israel. Of course, shackling Wall Street while universalizing health care and providing free public education at college levels would give the country a vital breath of free air, but given the U.S. global role, it is not enough to validate the claim of delivering ‘a social revolution.’

 

Let’s ask where all of this leads? The probable short term result is probably Trump versus Clinton, with either Trump navigating the ship of state through turbulent waters fraught with danger and unpredictability or Clinton sailing full speed ahead as if Barack Obama was still serving as the real president, but somehow has grown more macho in the process of aging. Either outcome is, of course, problematic. If Trump, the beast of fascism slouches ever closer to Washington; if Clinton, the gods of war will be dancing through the night.

 

There are a few silver linings that may be merely wishful thinking. It is possible that the Republican Party will implode, or reemerge for what it is becoming in any event, that is, the party of discontent and revenge, shedding its pedigree as the sedate sanctuary of privilege and big business. For the Democrats, the Sanders defeat might give birth to a break with party politics on the part of its young and progressive contingent, who leave discontented, adopting an anti-three pillars agenda that expands upon what Bernie so resolutely initiated. It is this possibility that seems plausible given the extraordinary strength of Sanders’ support among voters 18-25 who will be bound to feel more bitterly frustrated than ever by the dynamics of ‘normal politics.’ The country can again become hopeful about the future if such a progressive vision of a better America prevails among the young and is sustained by a strong consensus giving rise to a militant nonviolent movement for drastic change at home and abroad.

Of course, I may be wrong, my imagination remains trapped in what now seems most likely. It is possible that Trump will be stopped and Sanders will prevail, or that some kind of third party will be insinuated in the political process to save the established order from shipwreck. If it happens, then the  shape of the future will be different from what is conjectured here, but I doubt that I will have to eat many of these words. 

At another level, the political soap opera that seems to be entrancing the American people at present can be seen as an epic battle between ‘the politics of emotion’ (Trump), ‘the politics of sentiment and values’ (Sanders), and ‘the politics of reason and knowledge’ (as variously represented by Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio). 

 

 

 

Why Democratic Party Foreign Policy Fails and Will Continue to Fail

5 Mar

 

[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.