Presidential Candidates and Foreign Policy – posted 11/15/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 11/20/2015
This piece appeared on the Concord Monitor on 11/20/2015 under the title “Foreign Disasters”.
As the various presidential candidates make their case for why each would make the best president, I have been struck by how little they have had to say about American foreign policy. This is partly understandable because domestic policy is a primary concern for voters. They want to know what the candidates will do about jobs, the economy, the environment, education and health care.
Still, I find the absence of any original discussion on foreign policy a potentially worrisome sign. Mention of the word “terrorism” provokes knee-jerk, bellicose reaction. Instead of critical analysis, there is macho posturing. Attacks like those that just happened in Paris lead to anger – not thought.
Candidates simply try to look tough. The image they want to project is that, if given the opportunity, they will face down and take down any perceived opponent of American interests, anywhere. American interests are defined to include the whole world.
Looking broadly at the last 50 years of American foreign policy, I think there is a pattern of non-recognition of mistakes made leading to repetition of the same or similar mistakes. I am reminded of the famous Albert Einstein quote: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Wars, as in Iraq and Vietnam, were fought for bad or stupid reasons. Justifications offered were pitiful. At the same time, money gets heaped on the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex hugely expands, including a massive growth of private contractors. Out of these wars, thousands of American lives were ended or ruined. Soldiers return home damaged, disturbed, and traumatized.
There is no accounting for the damage done and no assessment of whether the wars were worth it. We blunder forward into the next war and the next. In her excellent book, They Were Soldiers, Ann Jones looks at the catastrophic damage done to our soldiers by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Politicians who want to put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria now are glossing over the heavy cost already paid. They are too cavalier about the lives of other peoples’ children.
It is hard not to think that all the talk about honoring our veterans is lip service. After the experience of the last 14 years, the idea of sending more to die in Iraq or Syria is a pointless waste. It was delusional and arrogant to think we were going to turn the Middle East around. So many veterans have returned and are still returning with troubles that will last a lifetime. Their care here and their future prospects are often highly problematic and that is a nice way to put it. So many veterans fall between the cracks of the system and they are simply forgotten.
I don’t think either the war in Iraq or the war in Vietnam were worth it. Both wars were sold on the basis of lies. In the case of Iraq it was lies about the weapons of mass destruction. In Vietnam, it was the phony domino theory. However with the exception of Bernie Sanders, I don’t see candidates in either party drawing these conclusions. Both parties remain wedded to the war machine and have an inadequate critique of our excessive militarism.
The history I have mentioned suggests America needs a more modest foreign policy and an appreciation of limits. It also suggests that diplomacy has been underutilized. One thing that was striking about President Obama’s deal with Iran was how long it has been since we have seen a positive example of diplomacy. War has been a first resort, not a last resort, and the consequences have harmed America.
I would suggest that there are other ways to fight violent jihadi extremists than sending troops to the Middle East. The brutal terrorist acts of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda need to be interdicted and prevented. They need to be ideologically undermined and they need to be pursued criminally. We do need to look closely and better understand why so many young people feel an affinity for such a despicable organization as the Islamic State. We need to win the war of ideas so that young people see the Islamic State for what it is: anti-human, murderous, totalitarian, and anti-modern. Since the Islamic State is an international entity, we need to cooperate with allies to figure the best ways to stop them. The project of preventing sponsors of radical jihadism from extending their influence should bring many nations together.
We should have learned by now that we cannot be the world’s policeman although we act like we are. Having the over 800 military bases we have around the world can lead to a wrong-headed over-reliance on military options. Realistically, America does not have the money or troops for interventions everywhere. Also we need to acknowledge that more often than not over the last 50 years, our interventions have done far more harm than good.
I would mention two historians, Andrew Bacevich and the late Chalmers Johnson, who argued the points I am making. Both have argued for a narrower conception of American interest. Rather than a strategy of open-ended global war where we could be fighting in almost any country, Bacevich and Johnson argued against that type of grandiosity. Bacevich particularly cites the George W. Bush presidency. Bush set out to transform the Islamic world. From the perspective of over a decade later, we can see what a costly misjudgment that war turned out to be.
Part of the pattern is that we destroy and then we destabilize. We take down dictators but then there is no plan for what comes next. Witness Iraq and Libya. Into the vacuum steps the Islamic State. We are the unwitting architects of the Islamic State. It must be emphasized that without our intervention, there would have been no Islamic State.
Even worse, we are also the unwitting provider of arms for the Islamic State. When the Iraqi Army has fled from battles, as it seems to do frequently, it has left behind huge caches of weapons and vehicles which were then expropriated. An example is when the Iraqi Army abandoned its second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014, ISIS acquired 2300 American-made humvees that were left behind. We should not be arming our opponents.
Critics who question these failed policies are tagged as isolationists and they are dismissed. I would suggest that the purveyors of the conventional wisdom which led us to the Iraq quagmire are the ones who should be dismissed. Their track record should be obvious to all.
There are so many questions that need to be asked that are not getting asked. Here are five:
- How do we maintain an alive and vital Fourth Amendment protection against search and seizure in an era of demonstrated mass surveillance overreach?
- Are drone assassinations authorized by the president legal?
- Should we have a secret court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court, making secret law based on secret proceedings with no adversarial process, when we know that court sides with the government 99% of the time?
- Is the practice of torture, black sites, and rendition consistent with American values?
- How much does the rapid growth of the military-industrial-surveillance complex since 9/11, which is invested in war as a profit-making business, drive our foreign policy?
I also think the candidates should be seriously addressing climate change and abolition of nuclear weapons. It is pretty late in the day to be bringing this up, especially with climate change. Precious little has been said about either in the Republican and Democratic debates.
Bacevich writes that there is a long-standing American foreign policy tradition that harkens back to George Washington and John Quincy Adams. In his farewell address Washington warned against foreign entanglements. Adams said, ‘The United States does not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”. Bacevich says:
“The proper aim of American statecraft… is not to redeem humankind or to prescribe some specific world order, nor to police the planet by force of arms. Its purpose is to permit Americans to avail themselves of the right to self-determination as they seek to create at home a “more perfect union”.”
We have been led astray by presidents who saw their mission as combating evil and remaking the world. I would suggest that defending the United States and its vital interests should be our goal. We need a less grandiose and more clear-headed assessment of what those vital interests are. In the presidential campaign, I have not heard that debate.