Art by Heath Hinegardner
For six years, from 2008 to 2014, I acted as United Nations Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and found myself routinely and personally attacked by the top U.N. diplomats representing the U.S. government. Of course, some of that was to be expected, given that the United States was in Israel’s corner no matter what the issue or facts happened to be.
What surprised me was that the vitriol was actually greater from such prominent Democratic liberals as Susan Rice and Samantha Power than from Republican stalwart John Bolton, who had just stepped down as the lamentable U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, told The Forward that he regards Rice as a “gladiator” fighting to defend Israel in the hostile atmosphere of the U.N.
When the United States rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council, Rice pledged to battle “the anti-Israel crap.” And Power, Forward.com has reported, earned the praise of Israeli officials and pro-Israel lobbyists for her leadership role in getting the administration to pull out of the 2009 Durban II anti-racism conference because of its anti-Israel tone, and for her help defeating the Palestinian Authority’s 2011 effort to achieve recognition for Palestine as an independent state through the U.N. Security Council.
I mention this personal background only because it seems disappointingly emblematic of the failure of the Democratic Party to walk its talk on foreign policy.
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 his administration pursued seemed almost as congenial to a Kissinger realist or Cheney neocon as to an Obama visionary liberal.
Naturally, the Republicans, prominently including those now running for President, express contempt for Obama and other Democrats as wimps, whether in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, China’s moves in the Pacific, and most of all, the rise of ISIS. The Republicans want more bombs in more places, especially the Middle East, and seem willing to risk sliding into a disastrous second Cold War, however menacing such a reality might turn out to be.
But how are we to explain Democrats’ inability 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 United Nations and its Charter?
The answer, in part, comes from pondering the gap between Obama the national campaigner and Obama the elected President. Government, in practice, is a bureaucracy driven by special interest groups—especially lobbyists linked to Wall Street, the Pentagon, arms sales, and Israel. Once in office, politicians learn to ignore their better angels on a host of issues, especially with respect to foreign policy.
When he first entered the White House, Obama 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 thereafter he abandoned the project, failing to take any steps toward making it happen. He will finish his presidency no nearer that goal than when he was elected, and in a backward move has even supported the modernization of the existing arsenal of nuclear weapons, at a projected cost of more than $350 billion over the next decade.
Obama gave another visionary speech in Cairo a few months later, in which he promised a new openness to the Islamic world. He seemed then to acknowledge that Palestinians deserved an independent state and that it was reasonable to expect Israel to suspend unlawful settlement expansion to give diplomacy a chance. But when the Israel lobby and Netanyahu leadership in Israel angrily responded by flexing their muscles, Obama quickly backed off. What followed is a dismal story of collapsed diplomacy, accelerated Israeli settlement expansion, and renewed Palestinian resistance. The prospect of a sustainable peace is more distant than ever.
Occasionally, an issue comes along that is so clearly in the national interest that Israel’s opposition can be partially circumvented, at least temporarily. This seems to have been the case with regard to the Iran nuclear agreement, which enjoyed the rare support of all five permanent members of the U.N. 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, including from several prominent Democratic senators, and is accompanied by compensating moves.
The White House dispatched high-level emissaries to reassure Israel, backed by Obama’s announced willingness to boost military assistance to Israel from $3 billion per year to $5 billion. Even the current $3 billion subsidy is scandalous given Israel’s military superiority and economic well-being, not to mention its refusal to take reasonable steps toward achieving a sustainable peace.
It is past time for American taxpayers to protest such misuses of government revenues, especially given the austerity budget at home and the wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East that is partly a consequence of our one-sided support for Israel and corresponding insensitivity to the Palestinian ordeal, which has lasted almost seventy years.
True, the Democrats do push slightly harder to find diplomatic alternatives to war than Republicans, although Obama has appointed hard-liners to the key foreign policy positions.
Hillary Clinton was made Secretary of State despite her pro-intervention views, which included supporting the Iraq War, 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—in Vietnam. It took a Republican warmonger to end it, and even more daringly, finally to normalize relations with Communist China. Looking ahead, there is little reason to expect much departure from this pattern of global militarism 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 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 United States pursues its violent course, and no greater likelihood of a positive political outcome of the sort favored by Washington.
Consider the main theaters of American interventionary engagement in the twenty-first century: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In each, we find a perplexing combination of battlefield dominance and political defeat. It is dismaying that neither Clinton nor her lead foreign policy advisers are willing to examine critically this record of frustration and defeat, and seem ready for more of the same, or as it is now expressed, “doubling down.” Nor has Bernie Sanders distanced himself convincingly from Clinton on American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
Ever since the Vietnam War, political leaders and military commanders have tried to overcome the United States’ dismal record in foreign policy, forever seeking new doctrines and weapons that will deliver victory to our country when it wages wars against peoples living in distant lands.
Democrats, along with Republicans, have tried to shelter the public from the terrible experience of the military interventions launched in our name by opting for a professional army and total reliance on air tactics and special-forces operations. This separation of the citizenry from the consequences of war helps reduce the prospect that a robust new anti-war movement will arise in response to a failing foreign military undertaking.
The government has also taken a number of steps to achieve a more supportive media, for instance by “embedding” journalists with American forces in the fields of battle. These kinds of adjustments were supposed to address the militarist complaint that the Vietnam War was lost not in combat zones, but on TV screens in American living rooms. Still, the United States has not reached its goals overseas. Instead, American foreign policy is frustrated and thwarted.
Not only is our country 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 by being almost exclusively focused on issues of military feasibility. Since 9/11, this suppression has been reinforced by significant intrusions on the rights and freedoms of the citizenry, a process supported as uncritically by Democrats as by the other party.
This is the Rubicon that no Democrat, including Sanders, has dared yet to cross: the acknowledgment that military intervention no longer works as an instrument of American foreign policy and should not be the first line of response to challenges emerging overseas, especially in the Middle East.
In the third Democratic debate, Sanders declared that in Syria “the primary focus now must be on destroying ISIS.” Then, he said, the United States must work “over the years to get rid of Assad.” Hillary Clinton concurred: “That is exactly what I just said and what I just described.”
Deposing dictators including Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi left a power vacuum, which was filled by ISIS, Sanders pointed out, and the United States needs to build a coalition before it attempts such regime changes in other nations. But then he repeated his main point: “The major priority, right now, in terms of our foreign and military policy, should be the destruction of ISIS.”
The truth is that the forces of national resistance in country after country in the South can outlast their Northern interveners despite their military inferiority and subjugation. This is the major unlearned lesson of the wars waged against European colonialism, and then against the United States in Vietnam. 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 for defending the country against foreign enemies, as well as satisfying imperial ambitions. National resistance movements have learned since 1945 that they are able to prevail 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 eventually shapes its foreign policy by a crude cost-benefit calculus, and at some point, the effort does not seem worth the cost, and the intervention is brought to an end. For the national resistance side, the difference between winning and losing has become nearly absolute, and so the costs, however high, are never too high.
The Libyan experience was exemplary. Under NATO auspices it did succeed in driving a hostile and murderous dictatorship from power, but what resulted was the opposite of what Washington intended and expected: chaos and a country run by warring and murderous tribal militias. In other words, military intervention is both destructive and destabilizing, and the political goals of stability and a friendly governing atmosphere are almost never attained.
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: First, military intervention generally does not solve problems unless mandated by the U.N. Security Council and is otherwise inconsistent with international law, and even then should be a last option. Second, the human concerns and national interests of the country are better protected in this century by deferring to international law guidelines and the dynamics of self-determination even if the results 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 in this country would like, but it is preferable to the tried and tested alternatives that have failed so often with resulting heavy burdens. Adopting an international law plus 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 current wrenching humanitarian crises of migration and ugly extremist violence.
Despite these assessments, when a Democrat is elected in 2016, which on balance remains the preferable outcome, she or he has already announced a readiness to continue with the same failed policy, and even worse, to increase its intensity.
There is every reason to expect the same bad results, both strategically and humanly. Desperation, refugee crises, and terrorism will only intensify.
The unfortunate political reality is that even Democratic politicians find it easier to go along with a discredited approach than risk the backlash that would occur if they embraced less militaristic policies.
The backlash would come from what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.” In the half-century since he warned of its power, that toxic parasite that preys upon our democracy has grown to monster proportions. It now includes more extensive intelligence services, more corporatized media and universities, public policy institutes, and lobbies that have turned Congress into a giant militarized pork barrel enterprise.
Under these circumstances, what would have to happen to enable a Democratic presidential candidate to depart from the foreign policy failures of the past? Nothing less than a movement from below that transforms the governing process is capable of overcoming the militarism that constrains policy and cripples the imagination. It requires a great popular movement to sweep away the parasitical burden that is ever more deforming the republic and bringing suffering to all corners of the planet.
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 the future well-being of the nation, and to people everywhere: climate change, world poverty, economic inequality, global militarism, and the prospect of nuclear war.
Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He is the author of many books and a former United Nations Special Rapporteur.