President Trump’s gibes about the failure of our foreign policy establishment and his call for a still rudimentary “America first” policy have led hawkish Republican neoconservatives to close ranks with “indispensable nation” Democrats. A remarkably unrepentant establishment has moved to resistance. If the United States is to avoid the limited choice between the delusional and the disastrous, a new progressive stance on foreign policy is utterly imperative.
The neocons — led by the likes of Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Dick Cheney — were the ideological motor behind President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam War. The indispensable-nation crowd — personified by Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Michele Flournoy — were initial supporters of the Iraq War, championed President Barack Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan and helped orchestrate the disastrous regime change in Libya. Neither the neocons nor the indispensable-nation crowd has been instructed nor daunted by failure.
Illustrative of their emerging alliance, as Glenn Greenwald reports, is yet another Beltway foreign policy initiative: the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The Alliance describes itself as a “bipartisan, transatlantic initiative” focused on Russia. Its purpose is to “develop comprehensive strategies to defend against, deter and raise the costs on Russian and other actors,” while working to “expose Vladimir Putin’s ongoing efforts to subvert democracy in the United States and Europe.” Consider this an updated version of Kristol and Robert Kagan’s 1997 Project for the New American Century, which fulminated for the invasion of Iraq. The Alliance’s advisory council includes Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s foreign policy adviser, and Mike Morell, acting CIA director under Obama. They sit comfortably with Kristol, Mike Chertoff, homeland security secretary under Bush, and hawkish former Republican congressman Mike Rogers. With a record of catastrophic foreign policy fiascoes, the establishment comes together to strike back.
Surely the country could do better than Trump’s flailings and the establishment’s failures. Led by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), progressives are driving a robust debate about domestic policy. In response, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently released a new agenda focused on economic policy. They admitted that Democrats had failed to champion a clear and bold economic alternative in the past and pledged not to make that mistake again.
But on foreign policy, the Democrats have been largely adrift. The pursuit of Trump campaign collusion with Russian hacking in the last election has fueled inflated warnings about the threat posed by Russia. The neocons, always fervent cold warriors, used that opening to reach out to the Democratic national security establishment.
Progressive voices are needed. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) has recently made the case for restraint and realism in U.S. foreign policy. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) has been an independent voice, outspoken in opposition to regime change. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who courageously led opposition to U.S. support of the shameful Saudi bombing of Yemen, has sought to define alternatives to what he calls the “binary choice” between “military intervention or isolation.” In a report titled “Rethinking the Battlefield,” he rightly touts new “tools” for smart power, emphasizing diplomacy, foreign assistance, a 21st-century Marshall Plan to compete with China, Russia and even the Islamic State in the arena of development assistance.
Many of his “tools” make sense, as does the skepticism about what he calls the “blunt force of America’s military hegemony.” But Murphy still assumes that the United States should, in fact, police the world. He calls for “ramping up the physical U.S. presence everywhere.” He urges the United States to head off emerging civil wars and conflicts before they “require costly military intervention.” The notion that it is vital to separate the United States’ real security priorities from its wayward effort to patrol the world is given too little mention.
In the first six months of this year, as Nick Turse reports in the Nation, U.S. Special Operations forces operated in a staggering 137 countries, 70 percent of the nations in the world. This isn’t a policy for defending the country; it is an expression of institutional and imperial hubris. Both the Republican neocons and the Democratic indispensable-nation crowd scorned Obama for being weak, for not sufficiently bombing Syria, for not being tougher on Russia. Yet Obama left office with U.S. service members engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, dropping bombs from drones on seven nations, and moving toward a confrontation with China in the South China Sea and toward a new Cold War with Russia. His last budget called for large increases in Pentagon spending that is already, in real dollars, equal to what it was at the end of the Cold War. For the foreign policy establishment, this somehow verges on isolationism.
Trump’s bluster has challenged the stark failures of our foreign policy, without offering a coherent alternative. Not surprisingly, the establishment is striking back. But neither offers a realistic or sensible strategy for the United States in the modern world. Progressives have driven a much-needed debate on economic policy. Now the country is in dire need of new thinking on our national security strategy.
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