Yes, I know the Democratic presidential debate was held some time ago, but the GOP free-for-all was so entertaining – and newsworthy – compared to the Clinton-Sanders match that I neglected to cover it at all, which on reflection isn’t quite fair. But I have to say that the foreign policy element that was central to the Republican melee was mostly missing from its Democratic equivalent, except for the Kissinger Question, which I’ll get to in a moment.
For the most part, Sanders banged away at his signature issues – billionaires are bad (including George Soros?), China is bad (he does a Trump imitation with a Brooklyn accent when it comes to trade issues), “political revolution” – and Hillary honed her carefully centrist message while throwing in a few barbs here and there just to relieve the tedium. By the time they finally got to foreign policy, everyone was so bored that you could hear the audience yawning. So perhaps they didn’t notice Gwen Ifill’s oddly contradictory question to Mrs. Clinton:
“According to exit polls from last week, from earlier this week, more than two- thirds of Democrats in New Hampshire are concerned about sending their children to fight in wars they can’t win. They fret that the next attack is just around the corner and we are not ready. Are we?”
Translation: Americans are tired of perpetual war – so when’s the next one?
This allowed Hillary to ignore the first part of the question and deal only with the second, which she did with her studious vagueness: her word-cloud was marked by mentions of ISIS, the need for a “coalition,” and the usefulness of the Kurds She made sure to show off her mastery of Middle Eastern geography: several cities – Raqqa, Ramadi, Mosul – were mentioned. “If you see something, say something, report it” – oh, but don’t go all Donald Trump on us because that would be “demagoguery against American Muslims,” something no one with the last name of Clinton would ever engage in. But of course Trump never said a word about American Muslims: his animus was directed at Muslims coming to America from abroad. By the way, Mrs. Clinton made no mention of her desire to bring tens of thousands of alleged refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East to this country – although that would certainly have been the way to counterpose her own altruistic goodness to Trump’s “demagoguery.”
Senator Sanders, after paying obeisance to Safety, Democratic Values, and the usefulness of having allies, reiterated his opposition to launching the Iraq war in a way that almost recalled the mechanistic alacrity of Marco Rubio: it was as if a recording was switched on and out came the taped message. However, the human being soon interrupted the robot, and Sanders began to deal with the real issues at hand:
“Now I think an area in kind of a vague way, or not so vague, where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change. Look, the truth is that a powerful nation like the United States, certainly working with our allies, we can overthrow dictators all over the world. And God only knows Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. We could overthrow Assad tomorrow if we wanted to. We got rid of Gadhafi. But the point about foreign policy is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator, it’s to understand what happens the day after.”
Here he sticks the shiv into Clinton’s vulnerable underside, for as Secretary of State she presided over a whole series of regime-change operations, all of which turned out disastrously. Sanders is reminding his audience that once Mrs. Clinton gets in the drivers’ seat, we’re in for more of the same:
“And in Libya, for example, the United States, Secretary Clinton, as secretary of state, working with some other countries, did get rid of a terrible dictator named Gadhafi. But what happened is a political vacuum developed. ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold.
Ah yes: “unless we stop them.” Would the Senator do so? He’s not saying. And yet it looks like the Obama administration is indeed getting ready to “stop them.” Oh, but it’s best not to mention that: better to keep barreling along with his historical narrative:
“But this is nothing new. This has gone on 50 or 60 years where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh back in 1953. Nobody knows who Mossadegh was, democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. The result of that, you had the Iranian Revolution coming in, and that is where we are today. Unintended consequences. So I believe as president I will look very carefully about unintended consequences. I will do everything I can to make certain that the United States and our brave men and women in the military do not get bogged down in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”
“Unintended consequences” of State action: it’s a pity Senator Sanders doesn’t extend this principle to the domestic sphere, but then again I’m letting my libertarian prejudices get the better of me. In any case, all in all a good summation of the folly of US foreign policy in the region, given the time constraints. Minus, of course, any explanation of how he would make sure we don’t get bogged down – because we already are bogged down. Would we withdraw? Ya got me.
And here is where Mrs. Clinton gets him. No stranger to vague word-clouds herself, she tears into his with an instinct for the jugular:
“If I could just respond. Two points. One, Senator Sanders voted in 1998 on what I think is fair to call a regime change resolution with respect to Iraq, calling for the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He voted in favor of regime change with Libya, voted in favor of the Security Council being an active participate in setting the parameters for what we would do, which of course we followed through on. I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016.”
Ouch! All too true: and the reference to the Iraq Liberation Act was especially cutting, since that not only explicitly called for regime change in Iraq but also put Ahmed Chalabi and his fellow liars on the US government payroll and started the propaganda campaign that ultimately led to the invasion and conquest of Iraq. George W. Bush cited the Act as the legal justification for the invasion. Sanders also voted for Senate resolution 85, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, a leading Democratic hawk, which essentially called for “an orderly transition” in Libya to “the opposition,” i.e. the Islamist head-choppers favored by Mrs. Clinton, and set the stage for US intervention using the United Nations as a cover.
Sanders protested that “everybody voted for it,” but in fact there was no vote. It was a way for Hillary and the administration to bypass Congress and go ahead with their regime change operation unobstructed by the Constitution. Yet the resolution raised the possibility of a “no fly zone” and it was clearly a prelude to military action of some sort. Did Sen. Sanders raise the alarm? Not that I can see.
Now on to the brouhaha over Henry Kissinger, which erupted seemingly out of nowhere. Clinton had just gone through her “I’m-the-experienced-one” routine, detailing her supposedly intimate involvement in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and that’s when Sanders lowered the boom:
SANDERS: “Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference, in the last debate – and I believe in her book – very good book, by the way – in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.
IFILL: “Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: “Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is.
SANDERS: “Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger. That’s for sure.”
This is a completely phony issue: Kissinger is 92 years old. It’s highly unlikely he’ll serve in any position in government ever again. Yes, during his career as Richard Nixon’s consigliere he was the architect of the escalation of the Vietnam war, and its extension into Cambodia, but it’s a stretch to hold him responsible for the rise of Pol Pot. Sanders doesn’t mention Kissinger’s other less well-known depredations on behalf of American imperialism, notably his role in the coup against Salvador Allende and his support for military dictator Augusto Pinochet, who “disappeared” thousands of leftist dissidents. Perhaps this was for lack of time.
Yet to hold up Kissinger as some Satanic figure is absurd because it drops the context of his actions, which occurred during the cold war. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union he has been a relative voice of sanity, at least compared to the neoconservatives and their liberal “humanitarian” interventionist twins on the “left.” While he didn’t oppose the Iraq war when it counted, in retrospect he deems it a mistake: and unlike the “liberal” interventionists and their pro-Israel allies, he opposes US aid to the Syrian rebels, taking Libya as a negative model.
More importantly, Kissinger opposes the new cold war that both the liberal-“left” and the neoconservative right are intent on ratcheting up, a view he gave voice to in an extensive interview with The National Interest:
“Breaking Russia has become an objective [for the US]: the long-range purpose should be to integrate it. If we treat Russia seriously as a great power, we need at an early stage to determine whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities.
“The relationship between Ukraine and Russia will always have a special character in the Russian mind. It can never be limited to a relationship of two traditional sovereign states, not from the Russian point of view, maybe not even from Ukraine’s. So, what happens in Ukraine cannot be put into a simple formula of applying principles that worked in Western Europe.”
Instead of arming the unstable and increasingly repressive Ukrainian government with Western arms and provoking the Russian bear, US policy, avers Kissinger, should be to demilitarize Ukraine and create a buffer between an expanded NATO and the Russians.
This is in marked contrast to Sen. Sanders’ own bellicose approach:
“Let’s be clear: Russia’s aggressive actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine have brought about a situation where President Obama and NATO – correctly, I believe – are saying, you know what, we’re going to have to beef up our troop level in that part of the world to tell Putin that his aggressiveness is not going to go unmatched, that he is not going to get away with aggressive action. I happen to believe that Putin is doing what he is doing because his economy is increasingly in shambles and he’s trying to rally his people in support of him. But bottom line is: The president is right. We have to put more money. We have to work with NATO to protect Eastern Europe against any kind of Russian aggression.”
No recognition of the right of Crimeans and others to self-determination, or of the shortcomings of the Ukrainian regime; no acknowledgment of the effect of NATO expansionism on the Russians’ perceptions of the West – just the clichéd Putin-baiting one might expect from Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.
And as for Kissinger being “one of the most destructive secretaries of state,” excuse me but Madeleine Albright beats him by a geopolitical mile. In a 1996 interview with Lesley Stahl, the then-Secretary of State was asked about the effect of economic sanctions on Iraq:
“We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And – and you know, is the price worth it?”
Albright: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”
Sanders supported those sanctions.
The battle between the Sanders rebels and the Clinton restorationists seems to be all about credentialing: that is, both sides are signaling to their followers that they represent something vague-but-inspiring. The Sanders people are rallied by the cheap theatrics of denouncing Kissinger, just as Christian evangelists are thrilled when some two-bit con artist of a preacher rails against sin. The Clintonistas, on the other hand, are reassured by Hillary’s appeal to Experience, while they’re given a frisson of idealism by the prospect of the country’s First Woman President. Sanders, it seems to me, has no real interest in foreign policy issues, and his knowledge is limited, while his Russia-bashing is troubling. Like most “progressives,” he has a distaste for post-communist Russia that is no doubt entwined with the Russians’ rejection of Soviet socialism. Bernie, you’ll recall, spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union.
On the whole, Sanders is preferable to Clinton, but the virtues of the former have been greatly exaggerated. In the end, his “political revolution” will amount to a few early primary upsets, followed by the inevitable endorsement of Mrs. Clinton. His role, when it comes down to it, is to usher as many ostensible “leftists” into the Clinton camp as possible.
And that is going to be the sad conclusion of what could have been a real leftist insurgency in the Democratic party. It is a party that is ideologically sterile, brazenly ruled by party bosses, its national conventions lorded over by “super-delegates” and the donor class, more and more resembling a Soviet party congress as the years go by. Whatever conflict takes place internally is swiftly managed and contained: when the actors take off their masks, in the end they all look pretty much the same.
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You might have noticed that a new cold war is in the works: the propaganda campaign to arm the Ukrainians and start a conflict with Putin is increasing. The arms race with Moscow is proceeding at an alarming pace: we are about to spend $1 trillion on "modernizing" our nuclear arsenal – a process that will make our nukes more "usable" and more dangerous. The Russians will follow suit. The race is on.
Syria looms large in the War Party’s calculations. They are demanding the US back a coalition of Islamist radicals in order to overthrow Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad – which will create another Libya, i.e. another terrorist paradise.
Speaking of Libya, the US is getting ready to intervene again – in order to "clean up" the mess they created by intervening last time. If madness is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, then that’s the proper way to characterize our policy.
We’re provoking the Chinese by sailing into the South China Sea and coming within a few miles of their coastline. Imagine if the situation was reversed and what would happen if the Chinese navy sailed within a few miles of the Golden Gate Bridge. To say this is a provocation would be an understatement.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.