“We live in a difficult and dangerous world, and there are no easy or magical solutions. As President and Commander-in-Chief, I will defend this nation, its people, and America’s vital strategic interests, but I will do it responsibly. America must defend freedom at home and abroad, but we must seek diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action. While force must always be an option, war must be a last resort, not the first option.” – Bernie Sanders
In the last couple of weeks more than a few pundits have chimed in on the ‘Bernie Doctrine.’ Making shallow passes at what US foreign policy might look like in the unlikely event that Sanders pulls off a major upset and wins the presidency. Many try to portray Sanders as either incompetent, or incapable of guiding the ship through rough waters, and instead point to Hillary Clinton as an experienced counterexample who is supposedly more qualified to be the next Commander in Chief. If there’s one thing in common with nearly all of these articles it’s they either suffer from historical amnesia or exhibit an incredible will to manipulate facts in order to make their point.
It raises the question: how much do these pundits really tell us about Bernie Sanders foreign policy platform compared to what they reveal about the Military-Industrial-Media Complex?
While Sanders has been able to drag Clinton to the left on many issues, her rather hawkish stance on foreign policy has gone unaffected. In fact, Clinton’s strategy has been to use this stance to outflank Sanders, turning the election into a prolonged national security debate, despite the possibility that her vote for the Iraq war and dubious record in Libya might alienate some of the Democratic party’s progressive base.
Part of the reason that Clinton hasn’t been forced to the left on foreign policy, is that her strategy has been endorsed by the Military-Industrial-Media-Complex that is currently shaking in their boots over the prospect of a self-avowed anti-interventionist Democratic Socialist taking the White House come November. Many have made their careers off of finding morally questionable ways of justifying endless war and they don’t want their special privilege of writing well-publicized op-eds and taking to the daily talk shows to end any time soon. Indeed, they’re determined to make sure that doesn’t happen by hitching their careers onto Clinton’s campaign while unceremoniously bashing Bernie’s foreign policy views.
Consider this recent post from Foreign Policy, that gives an excellent exposé on the pundit machine defending Clinton’s mixed record:
Every day, in offices across Washington, scores of foreign-policy advisors who Hillary Clinton has never met are drafting policy memos for her that she will never read.
The group of advisors is so large, officials in the Clinton campaign cannot offer a definitive estimate of its size. “Several hundred” is the stock answer… this network of policy experts has become one of Clinton’s most important weapons against her challenger for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders. Not only does her phalanx of surrogates routinely bash the Vermont senator for his views on foreign policy, their vast breadth has created the impression that Clinton has locked up the Democratic Party’s entire stable of foreign-policy hands.
We should be unambiguous when talking about the clear benefits that having such a stable group of cadres willing to take to the airwaves, the twitter sphere, and filling numerous op-ed columns in support of Clinton entails – and the consequences that come from this close circle of foreign policy ‘experts’ consistently confirming their own biases, without being subjugated to rigorous debate. It shifts the debate to the right and shamelessly misinterprets historical fact in order to deceive voters.
Their position as ‘experts’ gives them an aire of professionalism and credibility, when in reality, much of their writing is just as corrupted as the politician’s views who receives enormous sums of money from defence lobbyists. Both receive their paychecks from the same pot of gold and want to keep the war machine churning for their own benefit. The effect of their constant barrage is to continuously alter the debate away from critiquing American militarism, which has clearly been a disastrous failure over the last few decades, towards celebrating American triumphalism, which despite all evidence to the contrary, still views American interventionism in an unabashedly positive light.
It seems to me that the real aim of many of these pundits has less to do with Clinton, who they obviously feel very comfortable with, and more to do with their self-interest in prolonging their own special version of Casino Capitalism. More than 15 years of continuous war, sprawling and largely unaccountable Pentagon budgets, and a round the clock news media, has provided ample opportunity and reward for those willing to tow the militaristic line – and in the process, has heavily distorted the debate at the expense of America’s standing in the world and the historical record.
Hitching their futures to Clinton’s campaign has the added benefit of making their arguments appear moderate by default, given the wild rodeo that has become the Republican presidential campaign. In comparison to Ted Cruz’s best Dr. Strangelove impression, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!” Clinton almost seems like a pacifist. And given Donald Trump’s obvious lack of expertise about weapons systems and military capabilities, the punditry’s knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the Pentagon makes their arguments appear almost reasonable by contrast – regardless if their positions are firmly rooted in self-interest and a neoconservative ideology that has hardly been met with practical success in recent years.
Let’s take a look at how this machine works in practice. A recent Brookings Institute article suggests that a Bernie Sanders presidency would harken to the days of American isolationism, and threaten America’s leading role in the world. Of course, these claims are made from pulling one quote about NATO out of context, rather than citing any of the numerous foreign policy positions listed on the Senator’s campaign website.
I’ve chosen this particular article to examine, not because I have anything against the author, but simply because it so clearly highlights the role of the Military-Industrial-Media-Complex, of which the Brookings Institute is firmly a part of, in prolonging the myth that Clinton’s ‘experience’ should trump all else. This myth is supported by an induced form of historical amnesia that distorts the past in order to confuse and intimidate voters into supporting endless war. The article also makes it plainly obvious why Clinton’s fondness for Henry Kissinger is more than a harmless friendship. It’s an indication of a particular kind of world view that makes short-term decisions which are supposedly in the ‘national interest’ without considering long-term consequences. These decisions often lead to catastrophic forms of interventionism, such as Iraq and Libya. In other words, the very same type of short-term thinking that has consistently wrought destruction and given the Pentagon more enemies than it knows what to do with and ample, though wrong-headed, justification of increased spending.
1. The author cites US support of democracy in Chile in 1987 and Indonesia in 1999 as positive examples of America’s role in the world. He does not discuss American support for Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile in 1973 that overthrew the democratically elected Allende government (read: murdered him in cold blood). Nor does he mention the role of Kissinger in orchestrating the coup, which is a well-documented historical fact (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB437/). As was Kissinger’s continued support for Pinochet in the midst of wide-spread human rights abuses, which he not only dismissed, but even criticized State Department officials for prioritizing ahead of economic concerns.
The obvious thing we’re supposed to take away from this ‘positive’ example is not the 14 years of dictatorship in which several thousand innocent people were ‘disappeared’ by an authoritarian regime supported by the United States – but that the US supported it’s transition to democracy in 1987. Nearly 10,000 people were confirmed killed by Pinochet’s regime in the meantime, countless tortured, and even more ostracized from society and forced out of their jobs through purges. But clearly we’re supposed to stay focused on the big picture and not get bogged down in the dirty details of international politics.
The Indonesian example is no better. In 1975, Henry Kissinger once again put his indelible mark on the world. He and President Ford met with Indonesia’s authoritarian president, Suharto, on the eve of Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor. Suharto secured the approval of the invasion by Ford at the urging of Kissinger. Even after the Indonesia annexed East Timor and began a campaign of genocide, Kissinger knowingly broke the law by continuing to ship military weapons to the regime. This is historical fact documented by the National Security Archives, not some far flung conspiracy theory (http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB62/#doc4). Support for this regime, what the New York Times called “one of the most brutal and corrupt of the 20th century, continued through the Bill Clinton administration until 1998 when mass protest drove him from office. Only then did the US begin supporting a democratic transition, but of course, the article only mentions this shift as an example of ‘positive’ US policy that came several decades later after as many as 500,000 people had been slaughtered.
Why does this matter? Because it’s precisely this historical amnesia that Bernie detractors are counting on when they argue that others have more ‘experience’ and that this experience should matter more than a set of principles. They don’t want you to ask ‘experience doing what?’ – they just want to make the dubious claim that Bernie doesn’t have any.
2. This historical amnesia doesn’t always stretch so far into history. For example, the article makes the claim that: “Obama and Clinton obviously differ on some elements on U.S. foreign policy. It is not about large-scale invasions, as is commonly thought. Clinton is not about to send tens of thousands of ground troops to Syria. Rather, she tends to favor small-scale action early on in a conflict to tip the balance” – really? The lesson to take from this is that we should forget Clinton’s earlier vote for the war in Iraq, which by the way, is in large part responsible for the rise of ISIS and the very reason why Syria is in such disarray, and trust her current policy of selective engagement to ‘tip the balance.’ What people who make this claim don’t want us to think about, is that it’s very hard to gauge how effective military invention will be, and in today’s world, will almost certainly cause blow-back that our leaders only very rarely consider before resorting to military force. Libya, as it turns out, is unfortunately a perfect example. (For more on this you can look to the NYTimes recent two-part exposé on the catastrophe that Libya has become). The irony in this, is of course, is that Hillary’s ‘hard-headed realism’ takes its cues from Kissinger, who she considers a friend and a source of intellectual inspiration. That Bernie purposefully distanced himself from Kissinger, while Clinton embraces him, is very telling indeed – but that distinction is hardly drawn out to the necessary lengths it must, in order for us to fully understand the consequences of having an interventionist president at the helm. Regardless, it should be clear that there are more obvious connections to President Obama’s lack of foreign policy experience and anti-interventionist positioning during his campaign in 2008, and Bernie’s positions on foreign policy today, than a connection between Clinton and the President.
3. Perhaps the article’s most insincere historiography is found in its attempt to severe the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt from Senator Sanders, who is clearly modeling his campaign off the late New Dealer. From the piece: “Sanders organized the domestic section, on democratic socialism, around Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union speech but made no mention of FDR’s heroic—and frequently risky—efforts to win the war and the post-war world.”
Bernie Sanders has organized his entire political campaign in the mould of FDR and his policies. While scholars to this day debate whether FDR was a closeted interventionist, what we know for sure is that “In the 1930s [ he was first elected in 1932], when Europe and Asia descended into diplomatic crises and wars, FDR expressed the prevalent American “isolationist” attitude that the United States should not be drawn into foreign squabbles and perhaps another world war. He signed the Neutrality Acts as barriers to American involvement.” It was not until after-the-fact that he became the ‘heroic” and “risky” leader of WW2 so fondly recalled of in American history books- and even that took Pearl Harbor. Here we should think more about FDR’s willingness to try to resolve many conflicts with an appeal to diplomacy, even while he maintained an economic globalist perspective and aided allies like Britain and Russia in their struggles against fascism with programs like ‘Lend Lease.’ It’s not unfathomable that a Bernie presidency would see a return to such prudence, though it would obviously be more difficult today given how intimately woven the Military-Industrial Complex is into our political economy and popular culture.
The main takeaway from all of this, is that articles like this one and many others can be written in two ways. One provides an honest reflection on our past failures and successes – that looks to the consequences of interventionism and weighs them according to the perspective that only history can afford. OR we can write an article that values ‘experience’ over principles, and relies on amnesia rather than fact to sustain an aggressive interventionist foreign policy that has had disastrous repercussions throughout American history. We need to be careful not to fall for such shameful abuse of the history and set the record straight.
Given the enormous support that Clinton has received from the Military-Industrial-Media Complex, it’s evident that they are terrified a more prudent president could bring an end to the military adventurism that has defined so many of their careers. Still there is evidence of cracks in the seams. But an earthquake, of the sort that only a political revolution can bring about, may ultimately be what’s required to bring the M-I-M-C’s foundations crumbling down once and for all.