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Tag: "foreign policy"

Bernie’s Foreign Policy Failure

[ 86 ] June 16, 2016 |


The next in my series of discussing the various postmortems of the Democratic primary will focus on Jeffrey St. Clair’s surprisingly harsh condemnation of Bernie Sanders in the pages of Counterpunch, which I’m sure really endeared him to his readers. St. Clair blames Bernie for believing his own rhetoric about his chances, misleading his supporters, his focus on blaming the Democratic Party “machine” for his losses, relying on consultants ready to throw him under the bus (although really what else was he going to do here), and, most interestingly, his many missed opportunities to stand out.

Sanders chided Clinton for her vote on the Iraq War, saying it disqualified her from being president. Yet, he never satisfactorily explained his own vote for the Clinton Crime Bill, which launched a 20-year long war on America’s blacks and Hispanics. If blacks voting for Clinton seemed irrational, blacks could easily justify a vote against Sanders for his role in backing the racially-motivated incarceration of millions of black Americans and putting 100,000 new cops onto the streets of urban America, with the predicable results ruined lives and dead youths. Payback is a bitch.

Of course, Sanders could have turned his anemic appeal to black Democratic voters to his advantage. It might have liberated him to frontally attack Obama’s dismal record (instead of huddling with him at the White House) as well as Hillary’s, without fear of losing support he never had.

His curious timidity against confronting Obama’s policies, from drone warfare to the president’s bailout of the insurance industry (AKA ObamaCare), hobbled Sanders from the starting gate. Obama and Hillary Clinton are both neoliberals, who have betrayed organized labor and pushed job-killing trade pacts across the world. Both are beholden to the energy cartels, backing widespread oil drilling, fracking and nuclear power. Both are military interventionists, pursuing wars on at least 12 different fronts, from Afghanistan to Yemen. Of course, Hillary and Obama are simply manifestations of the power structure of the Democratic Party itself, which is unapologetically hawkish. The same party Sanders belatedly joined.

But Sanders proved singularly incapable of targeting the imperialist ideology of the Obama/Clinton era. In fact, the senator is visibly uncomfortable when forced to talk about foreign policy. Even after the assassination of Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres by thugs associated with the Honduran regime, Sanders inexplicably refused to press Clinton on her backing of the Honduran coup that put Cácere’s killers into power. Similarly, Sanders awkwardly failed to land any punches against Hillary for her catastrophic Libyan debacle.

This is interesting, even if I don’t agree with all the points, nor about Hillary’s supposed responsibility for Honduras, which is far more complicated than her haters say. And saying Obama has “betrayed organized labor” really doesn’t hold water, even if you include the TPP, which is indeed terrible. But Tom Perez, arguably the best Secretary of Labor since Frances Perkins, does complicate this narrative at least a little, no?

But let’s just take this from a strategic perspective. What if Bernie Sanders had even the slightest interest in foreign policy and went after Clinton from the left? No, he wouldn’t have won the primary this way either. But he would have opened up a whole new line of critique at her greatest vulnerability. Yet Bernie was either unwilling or (likely) unable to do so. His ridiculous response when asked about Latin America showed just how utterly incapable he is on foreign issues, which in a globalized world, are deeply connected to his beloved issue of inequality in the United States. Of course, Sanders’ most vocal supporters loathe Clinton for her foreign policy, but they were doing the heavy lifting for him on these issues.

Again, would it have mattered in the end? Probably not, but it would have at least meant that the Democratic nominee was going to feel real pressure from the left on foreign policy as she has on domestic and labor policy. But really, what did Bernie do to make her moderate her foreign policy stances? Not much and that’s a missed opportunity.


The Washington Playbook

[ 323 ] March 10, 2016 |


Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some stupid shit.

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.

Diplomatic Ties

[ 49 ] May 21, 2015 |

Fidel resignation

One of the most underrated parts of Obama’s legacy is going to be moving as far as he can to end the United States’ idiotic and utterly failed policy toward Cuba and restoring diplomatic ties with the nation.

It would be all too logical for Congress to end the embargo officially. But given that logic and the Republican Party are not friends, good luck with that.

Book Review: Thomas C. Field, Jr., From Development to Dictatorship: Bolivia and the Alliance for Progress in the Kennedy Era

[ 15 ] March 21, 2015 |


Victor Paz

Thomas Field’s new book on the Alliance for Progress in Bolivia demonstrates just how comfortable America’s Cold War foreign policy establishment was with dictatorship as its preferred method of rule in Latin America. Assuming that Latin America needed American-driven development more than anything else and that communists were both anathema to American foreign policy and the biggest obstacle in the way of developmentalism, dictatorship and development became the twin pillars of the Alliance for Progress, as Field’s important book demonstrates.

The 1952 revolution in Bolivia was a landmark moment in that nation’s history, when a broad revolution brought Victor Paz to power and the reign of the military seemed to end in favor of a government that would reflect the people’s needs. That movement included a lot of support from the left and in his early years, Paz repaid that support, or at least tolerated its existence. The new government nationalized the tin mines and radical leftist union members worked in them. Agrarian reform was undertaken and forced labor abolished. Despite its tin industry, the nation was not particularly important to U.S. policymakers in 1952. That would change with the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Much of the American foreign policy establishment originally saw Paz as suspicious and a potential communist. But the Kennedy administration viewed him as a key bulwark in holding the line against communism in South America. The Alliance for Progress wasn’t founded to support dictatorship per se. Rather, it intended to bring middle-class modernity to the unaligned states of the region. But as Field usefully points out, that middle-class modernity meant, from the perspective of U.S. economic advisers, the firing of thousands of miners in the nationalized tin mines that were leftist strongholds of communist unions. The stated reason was economic efficiency, but the Kennedy administration also hoped to undermine the communists who not only threatened American hegemony in the region but through their desire to stay employed were keeping nations like Bolivian economically-backwards. Union-busting and labor rationalizations therefore were central to the Alliance for Progress from its beginning. Or as Field states, Kennedy’s foreign policy toward Bolivia was “a program of politicized, authoritarian development that took dead aim at the country’s leftist miners (24).”

Paz was a committed nationalist but he also began to see the nation and himself as one, moving to eliminate rivals and consolidate power. He became increasingly brutal, using ex-Nazis to run his secret security services. None of this bothered Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger, or any of the other major figures creating Latin American foreign policy. USAID trained indigenous militias (who remained Paz supporters until the end) to attack the miners, eliminate their threat to Paz, and bring modernization to Bolivia. Although Paz long held out against alienating the Communist Party and Cuba, he finally did move against the tin miners and arrested their communist leaders, leading to the miners taking several American government officials hostage in early 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s first foreign policy crisis. His hard moves against the left just endeared him to Washington, who rewarded him with more cash and more military assistance. This just alienated the left even more, continuing the polarization and militarization of Bolivia with U.S. assistance. Vice-President Juan Lechín, the leftists’ man in the government, was increasingly isolated and replaced as VP. For good measure, Paz’s thugs beat Lechín to a pulp so he could not engage in his last official function in office during the new inauguration and thus could not make a speech denouncing the president.

By 1964, the U.S. still held onto Paz as their man in La Paz, but the blind faith in him meant they could not see the cards falling around him. By that year, Paz had not only alienated the left, but the grassroots right and the military. Messing with the nation’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third term helped consolidate opposition to him, with fighters and activists on both sides looking to the military as a solution. General René Barrientos became the center of the military opposition. Originally, a Paz acolyte, the president’s disdain for him finally took its toll. Barrientos created alliances with the communists and was a military solution acceptable to the falangists. With both right and left wing rebellion and a military also alienated from Paz, finally Barrientos led the coup that solved the nation’s Paz problem.

And yet even after Barrientos took power, it wasn’t as if the CIA or Johnson administration lost influence in La Paz. Rather, Barrientos became just as much a tool of Washington as Paz, relying on the U.S. government for the entirety of his five years in power, a period that included the killing of Che Guevara by Barrientos’ troops and the continued repression of the left despite their hopes in him. U.S. influence with Bolivian presidents remained generally pretty strong up until Evo Morales, including once again with Paz, who won a fourth term as president in 1985 where he committed to the country to neoliberalism and helped set the groundwork for Morales’ Bolivarian Revolution.

And while most general readers are unlikely to come to this book with much interest in Bolivia per se, to relate this to another key foreign policy question of the era, this story just reinforces the reality that there is just no reason to believe that Vietnam under Kennedy’s presidency would have come appreciably different than it did under Johnson. For Kennedy, authoritarianism, development, and anticommunism went hand in hand and that meant large infusions of U.S. military aid to ensure that friendly leaders stayed in power. That Johnson would continue Kennedy’s policies in both Bolivia and Vietnam does not exonerate those terrible decisions, but it does suggest that those decisions were not LBJ’s alone and rather the entire U.S. establishment was willing to get the U.S. involved in any number of foreign excursions to defend the world against communism.

Field has definitely written a monograph here and the intricate detail of the Paz administration and his interactions with American officials may not be for all readers. But then that’s the power of such a book, leaving no question in the reader’s mind just how easy it was for Kennedy administration officials–who genuinely thought they were doing the right thing–to slip into supporting a leader using ever more cruelty by the year. These sorts of historical narratives are also necessary for modern readers to understand the roots of American foreign policy problems today. I stress to my students the need to understand the CIA led coup in Iran in 1953 in order to understand the problems between the U.S. and Iran today, noting that while the average American’s attention to a foreign crisis ends at the next episode of American Idol, in other nations who feel the brunt of American power, hostile memories linger for decades. America’s relations with Bolivia are not as geopolitically important as with Iran but hostility lingers much the same. Evo Morales kicking Peace Corps and USAID out of Bolivia comes back to the long-term repressive policies the U.S. has supported in that nation going back to the Paz years.

Bad Ideas

[ 20 ] May 15, 2014 |


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the Fulbright Program is a bad idea.


[ 89 ] February 7, 2014 |

I know that ambassadorships to comfortable nations of low to middling strategic importance have been used to reward friends of presidents for a long time, but it would be nice if the appointees had marginal knowledge of the nation of appointment. Or you know, had been there before.

I mean, does the fact that Norway feels insulted matter on a geopolitical level? No, not really. But it does reinforce stereotypes of Americans being insensitive clods who know nothing of the world.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and Entrenched Inequality Between Nations

[ 20 ] April 27, 2013 |

During the discussion around my piece calling for international safety standards at the workplace with real enforcement teeth that could implicate American corporations subcontracting with unscrupulous employers, a reader suggested I read Augustine Sedgwick’s March 2012 article in International Labor and Working-Class History. Entitled “‘The Spice of the Department Store’: ‘The “Consumers’ Republic,’ Imported Knock-Offs from Latin America, and the Invention of International Development, 1936–1941,” Sedgwick gets at how U.S. labor law has entrenched unequal standards between nations.

The Roosevelt Administration made sure the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would not cover foreign manufacturers importing goods to the United States. There was a fight over which version of the FLSA would pass. The Roosevelt Administration’s bill, originally sponsored by Senator Hugo Black before his Supreme Court appointment, applied it domestically only, but a House bill introduced by William Connery of Massachusetts eliminated the word “state” from the bill, which would have opened the door to international standards on any product imported into the United States.

Roosevelt pushed hard to squelch Connery’s bill because his administration saw a Latin America developing under U.S. corporate leadership as a good long-term strategy to rebuilding the American economy coming out of the Great Depression. The administration saw inequality as an inherent part of the international economy necessary for profit and thus had no problem writing legislation that encouraged the production of consumer goods for the American market overseas, even if they were produced in conditions that could lead to violent worker revolts. In fact, the exporting of violent worker revolt was a central administration strategy of the FLSA.

Black’s bill won out. The FLSA did a lot of good for workers in the United States, establishing a national minimum wage, overtime pay, and eliminating most child labor. Current minimum wage hikes are essentially revisions to the original FLSA.

The effect of all this on Latin American nations and their workers was highly mixed. It did start the process of industrialization for many nations that wanted to move away from agricultural economies. In order to manage the newly industrialized labor force, governments created social welfare programs that provided benefits to working-class people. On the other hand, it led to increased inequality and significant social dissent that fueled the rise of the Latin American left in the 1950s. Moreover, Sedgwick argues that the American creation of its consumers’ republic was intricately tied with American imperialism in Latin America, at first during the so-called Good Neighbor Policy years and especially in the Cold War.

Sedgwick doesn’t get into working conditions per se or the specifics of how this plays out in individual nations, but we see how the U.S. built significant pieces of the modern globalized economy during the late 1930s. The FLSA intentionally codified differences in labor in order to promote American corporate investment overseas and inexpensive consumer products for Americans. At the time, this was at least predicated on the idea of the American working class growing in consumer power and wealth. So for Americans at least, this program worked pretty well for forty years or so. But by the 1970s, that half of the equation seemed dispensable and instead American corporations simply moved all production to nations with cheap labor under an unequal system long promoted by the American government.

This helps elucidate the present, with downward pressure on wages and working conditions in the United States and dying workers in Bangladesh. I recommend reading Sedgwick’s article if you can, which you should be able to do if you have access to most any university library system. If you don’t, sorry. The academic journal system is somewhat less than ideal for disseminating relevant knowledge to the general population. And we know what happens to those who undermine that system.

Foreign Entanglements: Pull Back or (Carefully) Lean Forward?

[ 4 ] January 15, 2013 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, Justin Logan and I talked retrenchment:

Treaty Politics

[ 19 ] December 10, 2012 |

It’s hard to know precisely what to say about the GOP’s rejection of the United Nations Disability Convention.  On the one hand, it’s true enough that the real impact of the treaty will be pretty limited. The number of states jogged into ratification/compliance by the US example won’t be particularly high, and US law already enshrines most of the treaty provisions.  On the other hand, it’s obvious that opposition to the treaty is drenched in a particularly noxious brew of stupidity and mendacity.

Two thoughts:

  • The ability of the social conservatives (with organizational assistance from the neoconservatives) to mobilize opposition to this treaty was genuinely impressive.  That several Republicans apparently shifted their votes at the last minute, and in the face of significant lobbying from Dole and McCain, suggest to me that there’s raw terror in the ranks of the power of social conservatives and Tea Partiers in the primary system.  If they can mobilize such opposition to a treaty that posed virtually no threat, I really wonder about the sustainability of the kind of norms that Scott often discusses on the treatment of judicial nominees. Will any Republican who votes for cloture on Obama’s next Supreme Court nominee, even if that’s followed by a “No” vote in the up or down, be subject to a well-funded primary challenge? The move of Jim Demint to the Heritage Foundation probably makes such challenges more likely, and more effective.
  • The overall effect of the abdication of serious foreign policy thinking (and I mean “serious” in a sense of the term that includes John McCain, with all the absurdity that entails) on the part of the GOP’s legislative cohort would seem to be an enhancement of executive foreign policy prerogative.  Agreements (bilateral or multilateral) once subjected to the treaty process will now be conducted by executive agreement; ongoing operations (whether legitimately covert or not) will increasingly be screened from Congressional oversight, as such oversight will amount to little more than efforts at point scoring.  To some extent it has always been thus, but the modern GOP seems (with a few exceptions) to have taken such tendencies to the extreme.  I suspect that this will apply to both Republican and Democratic administrations, although it may manifest differently.

The Second Term FP Team

[ 23 ] November 16, 2012 |

The President is never entirely free to choose his foreign policy team, but Obama has a great deal of latitude for the second term:

The upshot is that the Obama administration begins its second term with much greater foreign policy freedom of action, whether in domestic, strategic, or bureaucratic terms. If Obama wants to follow through on the “pivot” to Asia, he should have the freedom to do so. The first year of the second term should demonstrate how seriously Obama intends to pursue a redistribution of military and diplomatic effort towards Asia. An early indicator will be who the president taps to replace Petraeus at CIA, as well as how the administration handles sequestration. For those either anticipating or dreading a larger U.S. commitment to Asia, uncertainty shouldn’t last long.

One way of interpreting the attention paid to the Benghazi imbroglio is as an effort to cripple the second term team.

Room for Debate: “Will the New York Times Room for Debate Forum Ever Ask Good Questions?”

[ 16 ] August 16, 2012 |

The Times Room for Debate section seems like it would be a good idea–choose a question and get smart people to present different views. But so often the questions are just insipid and come with an ideological bent that precludes solid discussion, not to mention contributors that usually skewer to the Beltway-right orbit. Today’s is particularly galling: “Can’t Afford Foreign Aid, or Can’t Afford to Cut It.” That’s just a dumb question on the face of it given the relatively tiny size of the U.S. foreign aid budget. Yet it plays into conservative talking points that we waste all this money giving it to other countries (except Israel of course, for whom evidently we should dedicate 20% of GNP).

How bad is this debate? The person who makes the most sense is former Republican congressman Mark Green. Yes, I find myself agreeing with a former Republican member of Congress. This is a rare thing. But when the questions are this worthless, such things can happen.

Gilded Age Foreign Policy: Any Lessons for the Present?

[ 137 ] August 14, 2012 |

Marc-William Palen provides a response of sorts to my connections between the Gilded Age and today, as well as others who have made the comparison such as Paul Krugman. Palen attempts to draw the comparisons out to foreign policy, but the piece is rather problematic on a number of levels.

Palen makes two major points. First, that unlike today’s “imperialists,” Gilded Age capitalists opposed imperialism. Second, our current foreign policy is moving toward the protectionism that crippled the American economy during the first Gilded Age, something Palen very much decries.

Neither of these points really hold up under scrutiny. The first takes a lot of cherry-picking. Yes, some mugwumps opposed imperialism. But by and large, Gilded Age capitalists were completely fine with imperialism. Let’s remember that the one president in the Gilded Age with a meaningful anti-imperialist policy was the Democrat Grover Cleveland. But William McKinley, that icon of the Gilded Age, was the president who okayed the annexation of Hawaii and oversaw the Spanish-American War. The administration of Benjamin Harrison, with Republican leader James Blaine as Secretary of State, very much pushed America’s imperialist agenda abroad, including trying to tie Hawaii to the United States. Younger Republicans such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt were die-hard imperialists; if they are known as men of the Progressive Era, they were very much tied into the politics and society of the Gilded Age.

So it’s really hard to make an argument that the Gilded Age capitalists did not support imperialism. Some did not, most did. I realize Palen is trying to focus on the free-traders within the Republican Party during those years, but that’s just not a dominant force within the Republican Party at that time, limiting the argument’s power.

Perhaps the real take-away from this point is to ask what difference it makes. I drew connections between the Gilded Age and modern America because we see corporations and the Republican Party concretely attempting to recreate the former period in the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean that every part of the Gilded Age corresponds to today and I don’t really see much comparison between Gilded Age foreign policy and the present.

This is especially true when we get to Palen’s second point–that we are entering a new period of protectionism. There’s just no evidence for this. All Palen has is Obama attacking Romney for sending jobs to China and Romney blathering about starting a trade war with China. But this is just a political weapon in a campaign. There’s absolutely zero evidence that Obama doesn’t support globalization in its present form. He’s pushing for new free trade agreements around the globe. And there’s no way Romney is actually going to start a trade war with China. The two major political parties agree on little, but free trade capitalism is one of them. There might be a few people on the edges of both parties’ Congressional delegations that disagree, but they are isolated.

Without a bad economy with long-term unemployment for people without college educations, this would be a non-issue in the presidential campaign. Neither political party will even begin to edge toward protectionism, regardless of who wins in November. Palen just doesn’t provide any hard evidence for this point.

To be clear, I personally see a problem with this bipartisan consensus. I think that we need at least some manufacturing in this nation and that the decline of union jobs in this country is a terrible thing. While I am not exactly supportive of 19th century protectionism, I think Palen’s language is quite telling. How exactly is protectionism a terrible thing for society? It is true that it would make consumer goods more expensive. But is a consumer economy the only legitimate goal for our society? Couldn’t solid unionized jobs with dignity but not a ton of consumer choices be equally legitimate?

Either way, it doesn’t really matter because my beliefs are fringe ideas within mainstream modern American political discourse. The Gilded Age might have a lot to teach us about modern America, but I remain unconvinced on Palen’s foreign policy argument, particularly since it is clearly driven by a fundamentalist view of free-market capitalism rooted in unfettered free trade.

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