What Happens When Bad Money Supports Good Foreign Policy?

The Koch Brothers’ Moonshine

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In November, the Charles Koch Foundation announced that it would provide nearly $ 4 million in grants to Harvard University and MIT to train the next generation of foreign policy professionals. It’s part of the foundation’s effort to steer U.S. foreign policy away from its emphasis on military intervention and big Pentagon budgets.

Yes, that’s right: Charles Koch.

He’s the same fellow profiled in Jane Mayer’s devastating critique of how right-wing billionaires have injected their anti-government toxins into the American bloodstream. In Dark Money, Mayer describes how Charles and his brother David have funded organizations that have promoted tax cuts for the wealthy, an anti-regulatory agenda that trashes the environment in favor of energy companies (like Koch Industries), and Tea Party formations that want to shrink government to the point of non-existence.

The Kochs subscribe to a radical, right-wing version of libertarianism according to which nothing should stand in the way of free enterprise. No surprise that the Kochs’ philosophy helps their own bottom line. They spent nearly a million dollars in support of George W. Bush and other Republicans in 2000, and then benefited hugely from the Bush administration’s preferential treatment of energy companies (not to mention the tens of millions of dollars in government contracts they secured since 2000). Even during the Obama years, their efforts at the federal and state level to “get government off their backs” helped to double their fortune, from $ 19 billion each in 2008 to $ 41 billion each in 2016.

The Kochs are disgusting in many ways. But they can’t be faulted for being inconsistent in their hatred of government, all government. Most right-wing “deficit hawks” employ a national-security exception when they try to defund all parts of the government except the Pentagon. But the Kochs at least treat defense spending like all other government spending. In this case, it even goes against their pecuniary interests. The Kochs made around $ 170 million between 1996 and 2011 from defense contracts. In the grand scheme of things, of course, $ 10 million a year is a rounding error for billionaires.

Their anti-war and anti-intervention philosophy has meant that the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank started and funded by the Kochs, has taken consistently good positions on foreign policy over the years. But the Cato Institute, even with its huge budget and swank downtown headquarters, has always been a little off to the side in the Washington policy community. The Kochs crave mainstream credibility.

So that’s why the Charles Koch Foundation is providing money to Harvard and MIT — the very definition of mainstream credibility — to encourage anti-interventionist thinking in academia. The two people who will administer the program are thoughtful critics of U.S. militarism: Harvard’s Steven Walt and MIT’s Barry Posen. Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote a perceptive essay in Foreign Affairs in 2016 laying out the argument for “offshore balancing,” a grand strategy of scaling back U.S. military commitments overseas that Posen also supports.

I have a lot of respect for Walt and Posen. I have also worked with folks at Cato on various foreign policy initiatives.

But in the current political climate, when the Trump administration is launching an all-out assault on federal programs and a Koch-supported tax bill is making its way through Congress, should progressives welcome the few crumbs that the Kochs are throwing in the direction of anti-war initiatives?

The Kochs and Trump

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump made some noises about opposing military interventions and reducing the Pentagon’s footprint overseas. Thanks largely to his senior advisor Steve Bannon, Trump also came to embrace the radical anti-government positions that right-wing libertarians favor.

But Charles and David Koch actively disliked Trump (a third brother, Bill, supported the Republican nominee). As the 2016 campaign heated up, rumors circulated of a Koch-funded anti-Trump campaign and of Charles Koch even supporting Hillary Clinton. Those turned out to be false. The Kochs didn’t activate their network to support Trump, but they also didn’t rule out cooperation.

Indeed, a number of Koch-friendly politicians and operatives were embedded in the campaign, from Mike Pence (Trump’s running mate) to Corey Lewandowski (Trump’s campaign manager, fired in June 2016). Marc Short, Pence’s communications advisor and then Trump’s legislative director, once headed up Freedom Partners, a Koch-funded organization. “The vacuum in Trump not having his own network is filled by people who’ve been cultivated for years by the Koch network,” Richard L. Hasen, a UC Irvine law professor told the Los Angeles Times.

It wasn’t long after the administration took office that the Koch brothers began to investigatehow the Trump team could advance their agenda. They welcomed Trump’s pullout from the Paris climate accord, the various environmental regulations that the administration rolled back, and the congressional effort to kill the Affordable Care Act.

By May, the brothers identified Trump’s tax plan as something they could get behind — in a big way. As the fight intensified in Congress, the Koch network was going all out. Tim Phillips, president of the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, told the Boston Globe: “It’s the most significant federal effort we’ve ever taken on.” The Koch network has pooled $ 400 million for the next two years of political work, and it’s applying a good chunk of that to getting the tax bill passed. It’s been a full-court press with op-eds and $ 8 million in attack ads.

So, let’s dispense with the notion that the Kochs can be relied on to fund a big-tent effort against Trump. They don’t like his positions on immigration, marijuana, or criminal justice reform. But they’re eager to exploit Trump as a “useful idiot” in their campaign to pillage the commonwealth.

Against the Globalists

It’s easy for me to take a principled stand against taking money from the Kochs. They haven’t offered me any. But here are some reasons why others might think twice about taking their anti-war resources.

The ideological reason: A progressive anti-war position is part of a larger internationalist program that supports global peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction, robust environmental programs, transnational anti-poverty efforts, and human rights mechanisms that hold countries and individuals accountable. The Kochs aren’t interested in any of that.

All of the prescriptive elements of the progressive internationalist agenda require strong states. The Kochs believe that the invisible hand of the free market will solve all problems, without any state guidance or interference. In the same way that Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in society, only individuals, the Kochs don’t really believe in the international community. The only transnational force that has any import for them are transnational corporations. Their anti-war funding thus comes with some serious (if often hidden) ideological strings attached.

The monetary reason: So far, the Charles Koch Foundation has shelled out less than $ 15 million to support programs at educational institutions to look at a less militaristic foreign policy. That’s a pittance compared to what it’s spending on efforts to unravel Obamacare or get Trump’s tax plan passed. It’s also about what the Kochs make every year off the U.S. military. Perhaps if Koch Enterprises announced that it was divesting from all military-related activities, their charitable giving would have more impact.

The educational reason: As Jane Mayer points out in Dark Money, the Kochs have funded programs at universities to shift academic discourse away from liberal and progressive thinking. Their funding of programs on “law and economics,” for instance, has helped to shift the legal profession toward more laissez-faire thinking. And it’s not as if the Kochs have been particularly transparent about their methods. Jane Mayer quotes a Koch advisor, George Pearson: “Traditional gifts to universities, he warned, didn’t guarantee enough ideological control. Instead, he advocated funding private institutes within prestigious universities, where influence over hiring decisions and other forms of control could be exerted by donors while hiding the radicalism of their aims.”

The legitimacy reason: The Kochs have been trying to give the appearance of being transpartisan. They have collaborated with progressives on sentencing reform, though as Mayer points out they’re probably more interested in getting reduced sentences for corporations than for the poor. They work with the Negro College Fund, but the money goes toward demonstratinghow “principled entrepreneurship, economics, and innovation contribute to well-being for individuals, communities, and society.”

The term “well-being,” as Mayer details, was something the Kochs came up with to put a smiley-face on funding that otherwise destroys communities, social welfare programs, and the environment. Even if their new foreign policy funding doesn’t come with such strings, it still helps with the image makeover of the Kochs.

So, even though Walt and Posen, not Charles Koch, will be administering the funds at Harvard and MIT, the program could well be the thin edge of the wedge. If the Kochs decide to pour money into foreign policy, they could successfully untether the anti-war position from its internationalist foundations.

If such arguments prove successful, the United States will scale back its military presence, but the world won’t become any safer as a result. Overall global military spending might increaseto compensate for U.S. retrenchment. U.S. allies — South Korea, Japan — might decide to acquire their own nuclear weapons programs if the U.S. nuclear umbrella becomes frayed. Absent a strong international security framework, other countries will inevitably fight each other for the mantle of U.S. hegemonic authority.

The Kochs don’t care. They welcome global anarchy because they think they’ll be able to profit by it. Perhaps Walt and Posen believe that they are successfully using Charles Koch toward their own end of constructing a more realist U.S. foreign policy. But the Kochs, with billions of dollars at their disposal, are more likely to be the ones manipulating, not being manipulated.

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Trump Is Signaling an Unprecedented Right Turn on Foreign Policy

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Every few years — sometimes four, sometimes eight — America’s political mood swings from one pole to another.

It’s a not-uncommon disorder for democracies. Voters get disgusted with one flavor of politics and opt for another. For better or worse, the United States doesn’t have a Baskin-Robbins democracy. So, the vacillations in Americans’ political taste can only pendulum between chocolate and vanilla.

It’s one thing for America to lurch from one end of the spectrum to the other on fiscal matters, the advisability of universal health care, or the economic impact of immigration.

On foreign policy, however, the shifts are not just mystifying to those outside U.S. borders, they’re downright frightening.

Consider the Trump administration’s decision to make a U-turn on Iran policy. This week, Trump has pledged to go against the previous administration, many of his own top advisors, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and an overwhelming majority of the world’s nations in decertifying that Iran has abided by the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated back in 2015.

For Trump’s critics, including virtually all Iran policy experts at the moment, this attempt at scuttling the world’s most sophisticated arms control agreement sends absolutely the wrong signal to Iran. Trump is essentially saying, “It doesn’t really matter whether you have adhered to the letter of the agreement, we’re still going to break our commitment because, honestly, we just don’t like you. And by the way, you can’t count on the United States to keep its word in the future.”

Trump is sending an even more damaging message to the rest of the world: “We as a country suffer from mood swings so severe and delusions so enduring that we can no longer be a responsible member of the international community.”

After deep-sixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership and pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, the Trump administration is making good on this one campaign promise even as all the others stall in Congress or the courts. Trump will make America First even if it means going against obvious American national interests, even those defined by the Chamber of Commerce.

This is not the first time that other countries have witnessed the political instability of the United States. But in the past, some underlying continuity provided a measure of reassurance to other countries. Voters might choose vanilla or chocolate, but the world still expects in the end to get some variety of ice cream.

What makes the Trump era different is the lack of that underlying continuity. Trump might look like vanilla or chocolate or some kind of swirl, but in reality he’s Semtex in a cone. After pretending for a year or more that he’s a natural product of the system, even top members of the governing party have become deeply worried about the orange brick of plastic explosive that now occupies the Oval Office.

Past Mood Swings

The last 40 years of American political life have been a series of switchbacks. Ford made way for Carter who made way for Reagan. After George H.W. Bush came a leftish turn under Clinton, a rightish turn under George W. Bush, then a left with Obama, then a hard right with Trump.

In some cases, the new party in power instituted a profound policy transformation. Ronald Reagan ushered in a new economic order. George W. Bush introduced a new post-Cold War unilateralism.

Trump has vowed to destroy the old order altogether.

Adversaries and allies alike can be excused for suffering from whiplash trying to keep up with the changes. Let’s consider this problem from the vantage point of North Korea, which has had only three leaders in over 70 years and no significant U-turn in policy during that time.

The North Korean leadership negotiated a deal with the Clinton administration in 1994 only to come face to face six years later with open hostility from the George W. Bush administration. It was a bewildering experience. Kim Jong Il apparently mourned what had been possible under Clinton, saying to the former president when he visited in 2009 that “The United States would have had a new friend in Northeast Asia in a complex world.”

Then, after finally managing to secure agreement with this initially hostile Bush administration in 2005, North Korea came up hard three years later against the cautious indifference of the Obama administration. The North Koreans were not entirely blameless in this shadow play, but still they must think that the United States has cyclical bouts of insanity.

It’s not just the North Koreans. The democratic world, for instance, found the transition to the George W. Bush years particularly bewildering. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration announced that it wouldn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. After the attacks, the administration broke with international law by embarking on a “preventive” war, violating the Geneva Conventions on treatment of captured combatants, and engaging in torture. The administration also backed away from the Rome statute establishing the International Criminal Court in May 2002 and withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russia in June 2002. All of these actions profoundly troubled America’s allies.

And yet in some respects even the Bush years seem like a golden age of multilateralism compared to the present moment. The Bush administration mobilized international support against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. It attempted to fashion its own “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq. It would put together six-party talks to negotiate a deal with North Korea. It pushed through a Central America Free Trade Agreement. Bush may have been a cowboy, but he didn’t embrace an entirely go-it-alone ethos.

In other words, even with its sharp turn toward unilateralism, the Bush administration held to a bipartisan consensus in favor of multilateral initiatives that benefit the United States. In some ways Bush offered only a variation on the Clinton theme of “a la carte multilateralism” in which the United States picks and chooses the international structures with which it wants to cooperate.

This kind of Bush-style unilateralism wrapped in a-la-carte multilateralism has returned to the White House. It’s represented by most of the top administration officials involved in foreign affairs: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pentagon chief James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. These are the so-called adults in the room.

But Trump is something different. And that’s what has thrown Republicans like Bob Corker (R-TN) into a tizzy.

Corker and Iran

When the Obama administration was trying to win congressional support for the Iran nuclear deal back in 2015, the Republican Party was skeptical, to say the least. In the Senate, Republican lawmakers even managed to attract four Democrats to their effort to break a Democratic filibuster against a resolution to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But the effort still fell two votes short, and the deal went through.

Bob Corker was part of this Republican bloc. But his role behind the scenes was more complicated than this vote might indicate. Together with Ben Cardin (D-MD), Corker negotiated a series of deals with the Obama administration that ultimately eased passage of the bill by requiring not congressional approval but, rather, congressional disapproval of the agreement (which required more than a simple majority vote). In return, the administration agreed to various oversight mechanisms — including one that requires the president to certify Iranian compliance with the deal every 90 days. Corker and Cardin also worked to expand non-nuclear sanctions against Iran.

Bob Corker is not a moderate Republican. He has an 80 percent ranking from the American Conservative Union for 2016 (by comparison, Susan Collins of Maine clocks in at 44 percent). He’s no softie on Iran, either. Last year, he continued to try to pile on additional sanctions against Iran. Ultimately, he had to content himself with an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act for another 10 years. During the presidential campaign, Corker advised Donald Trump on foreign policy and was even in the running for secretary of state.

Corker is cut from the same cloth as Rex Tillerson. They’re conservative Republicans who believe in “America First.” But they’re also committed to preserving a measure of professionalism, if nothing else, when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. They want to preserve U.S. alliances. They want to advance the interests of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re not isolationists, and they’re not exactly internationalists either. They occupy the right wing of the underlying foreign policy consensus that encompasses the think tanks, lobby shops, and mainstream media in DC. They play ball whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House and whichever party controls Congress. They are part of the continuity in American foreign policy that transcends the elections.

So, when Bob Corker takes aim at Donald Trump, it represents a serious breach not just within the Republican Party but within the foreign policy establishment. Over the weekend, Corker charged that Trump was making threats toward other countries that could send the United States reeling toward “World War III.” Later, Corker tweeted in response to Trump, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Having decided not to run for re-election, Corker is now free to speak truth to power.

Corker’s most proximate concern is Trump deciding to bomb North Korea. But the issue of Iran is also on the senator’s mind. Trump has blamed Corker for the Iran deal when in fact the Tennessee senator was merely trying to give Congress some say over the process. When the president decertifies Iran’s compliance, according to the legislation that Corker helped to pass, Congress will then have the authority to re-impose the nuclear-related sanctions that the JCPOA lifted. But the Republicans have a slim majority in the Senate and the president can’t afford to alienate a single member of his party.

So, why pick a fight with Corker just when the president will need him most on the congressional battle over any new Iran sanctions? Writes Adam Taylor in The Washington Post:

By handing off any real decision to Congress, [Trump] can avoid having to make a hard decision himself. And by picking a fight with Corker, he has a scapegoat if his supporters grow frustrated with a lack of action in Congress. It seems plausible that Trump’s allies are simply being prepared for another legislative failure.

In other words, it’s all about the war that Trump and his still-loyal lieutenant Steve Bannon, assisted by UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have declared on the “deep state.” They want to dismantle the foreign policy establishment that has presided over America’s engagement in the world. A progressive might find much to rejoice in this attack, given that America’s engagement with the world has often been through war and corporate penetration. But the establishment is more than that, and Trump/Bannon also want to unravel everything of diplomatic and humanitarian value as well.

Also, Trump and Bannon aren’t really interested in draining the foreign policy swamp in DC. They simply want to install their own cronies who will ensure that war and globalization benefit them rather than Kissinger and his ilk. It’s a shell game designed to fool Trump’s base, but the rest of the world has kept its eye on the ball. That’s why Israel and Saudi Arabia, who also benefit from Trump-style war and globalization, continue to rejoice at White House policies when everyone else is aghast.

Trump is calculating that every defeat he’s handed by the foreign policy establishment will only boost his standing for the next election. The outrage of Bob Corker and the international community only burnishes his reputation among those who want to build walls everywhere, from the border with Mexico to the public bathrooms of North Carolina, and destroy everything else.

But those elections are still some time away. In the meantime, Corker and other freethinking conservatives in his party may be the only thing that can contain the politician of mass destruction that is Donald Trump.

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Trump’s New Foreign Policy Is the Worst of Both Worlds

It didn’t take long for Donald Trump to discover that U.S. foreign policy is about as easy to turn around as a warship in dry dock. Despite any number of promises to shake things up — during the election and even in his first days as president — Trump is falling back on some very conventional approaches to the world.

In the last week, for instance, Trump suddenly discovered that firing a few missiles at a much-hated target — in this case, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — can gain him plaudits from across the political spectrum. Earlier, he said he’d focus American firepower on the Islamic State, not Assad. He was cautious about intervening in the Syrian civil war.

Now the greenhorn president is heading down a well-worn path: see a problem, fire a missile at it.

In so doing, Trump has scotched whatever remaining hopes his administration might have had about negotiating some quick deals with Moscow. The relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin had already been heading south — as I detailed a couple weeks back in Shortest Reset Ever — but now Trump has bloodied one of Russia’s most important allies. Bye bye, bromance.

Also this week, after bashing China left and right during his campaign, Trump met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and discovered that, hey, maybe the two countries can get along after all. Virtually every president in recent memory has gone through a similar transformation. There are no political costs in criticizing Beijing during an election campaign. But presidents soon discover the considerable costs of not doing business with China once they occupy the Oval Office.

So much for Trump’s promise to proclaim China a currency manipulator extraordinaire.

Meanwhile, some of the more ideological voices in the administration appear to be heading to the sidelines. Strategic adviser Steve Bannon, reportedly as a result of his clashes with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, has lost his seat at the National Security Council and, it seems, even the trust of the president. K.T. McFarland, once the number two under the disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, is also out, and probably on her way to Singapore. The generals and the Wall Street execs seem now to have the upper hand.

But Bannon hasn’t given up, and the war at the top is far from over. Bannon loves a good fight, and he’s the master of fighting dirty.

The remaking of Donald Trump into a more conventional — and thus, predictable — president is good news in some quarters. No doubt the foreign policy establishment in Washington, which former president Barack Obama and his advisers called The Blob, is rejoicing that the new president can be weaned off his more fanatical delusions (and pumped full of The Blob’s own fanatical delusions).

But the New Donald Trump, just like the much-hyped New Coke so many years ago, is just as bad for our collective health as the old version. Don’t be fooled by the ongoing Trump rebrand. The president is just finding new ways to be toxic.

Striking Syria

Bombardiers have a tradition of writing slogans on the bombs they drop on their enemies. Donald Trump might as well have scrawled “I’m Not Obama” on the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles U.S. forces directed at a Syrian airbase on Friday. The bombardment came in response to a chemical attack the Assad government allegedly launched a few days earlier against a town in rebel-held Idlib province that left 69 people dead.

Trump’s desire for big wins has previously kept him out of the Syrian conflict and focused instead on the Islamic State, which has been losing its grip over territory in recent months.

But Trump also wants to demonstrate that he’s bigger and better than Barack Obama: He’s more popular, attracted more people to his inauguration, proposed a better health-care plan, has bigger hands, and so on. Obama failed to attack Syria after a high-profile chemical attack in 2013. Here was an opportunity for Trump to show his resolve. After sustaining non-stop attacks against his character, his policies, and his advisers over the last several months, Trump has finally hit back with the tools that, unfortunately, are now at his disposal.

Yet it was not much of a show of force. The airbase was not damaged enough to prevent the Syrian government from restoring it to full operational status within a couple days. And Syrian forces subsequently re-bombed the very same town that had suffered the chemical attack. The Trump administration has not followed up with any other demonstrations of power, nor does it seem likely to do so.

The problem isn’t so much geopolitical, though the United States risks an outright confrontation with Russia if it escalates. Rather, the problem for Trump is domestic.

Standard-issue hawks, like John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), are urging Trump to go the next step toward regime change. So are the neocons, as Jim Lobe points out:

The neocons, who have rarely met a slippery military slope they weren’t tempted to roll down, embraced wholeheartedly both the strike and its justification. They view it as a first — but absolutely necessary — step toward a new phase of U.S. interventionism of precisely the kind that Bannon and his “nationalist” and Islamophobic allies abhor. 

The nationalists and the libertarians have indeed reacted in horror. Richard Spencer, the darling of the far-right, not only condemned the attack but even suggested that he would support Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in 2020 (presumably because she’s sat down with both Assad and Trump, a tyrannical twofer). Ron Paul wrote that Trump’s assertion that the missile attack was vital to U.S. national interests was “nonsense.”

Good luck trying to preserve such a fickle coalition. To do so, Trump will probably refocus his military attention, as Rex Tillerson has suggested, on the Islamic State. The limited missile strike accomplished its goal, which wasn’t to cripple Syrian forces in any serious way. Rather, the attack put distance between Trump and Obama, reminded both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un that Trump is trigger-happy when necessary, regained some credit with European allies (France, Germany, and the president of the European Council all pledged their support), and did the minimum of damage to warn the Russians not to take Trump for granted.

In this way, Trump is proving just as reluctant to engage in large-scale military adventures as his predecessor. Before you rejoice that the wolf has revealed his inner fleece, however, remember that the Trump administration has been in some ways more willing to use military force than the Obama administration. As Micah Zenko wrote at the CFR blog earlier this month:

During President Obama’s two terms in office, he approved 542 such targeted strikes in 2,920 days — one every 5.4 days. From his inauguration through today, President Trump had approved at least 75 drone strikes or raids in 74 days — about one every day. 

Moreover, as Michael Klare points out at The Nation, Trump has “stepped up the delegation of decision-making authority to senior military officers, making it easier for them to initiate combat operations in a half-dozen countries.”

It’s all a question of targets. Until he attacked Syria, Trump was “bombing the shit” out of non-state actors, as he promised he would. Syria aside, he’s not so interested in challenging actual states. So far, at least.

Trump: What’s Next?

As the 100-day mark approaches for the administration, Trump’s staff is reportedly desperate for a rebrand. The first months have been disastrous in so many different ways. RussiaGate remains a dark cloud over the administration. The travel ban and the health-care substitute were both high-profile disasters. The mainstream media has savaged Trump on a nearly daily basis.

“One hundred days is the marker, and we’ve got essentially 2 1/2 weeks to turn everything around,” one White House official told Politico. “This is going to be a monumental task.”

According to the same article, the administration is divided between those who believe that the Trump doctrine is “America First” and those who, like Communications Director Mike Dubke, argue that there is no Trump doctrine.

When it comes to foreign policy, they’re both right. The ostensible Trump doctrine is “America First,” but it’s not a doctrine. It’s an empty slogan. At one level, every administration has adhered to some version of American exceptionalism and some effort at focusing on the U.S. economy. So, Trump’s special sauce is nothing new.

At another level, Trump has demonstrated that he will make the same concessions to international realities as his predecessors. He’ll negotiate with the Chinese. He’ll poke the Russian bear. He’ll engage in showy military attacks. Maximum flexibility equals no doctrine.

The new Trump, then, is the worst of both worlds: blustery nationalism plus the conventional pieties of the foreign policy establishment. It’s certainly a relief that the United States won’t go to war with China any time soon and the U.S. president cares about the deaths of (some) children.

But as tensions escalate with North Korea and Trump’s crude counter-terrorism campaign continues, Mr. America First seems conceptually ill equipped and all-too-committed to business as usual to push US foreign policy in a peaceful direction and make anyone sleep easy at night.

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Will Trump Complete the Foreign Policy Pivot to Asia?

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(Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

James Mattis visited Asia this month on his first foreign trip as the new head of the Pentagon. It was less a get-acquainted visit than a damage control tour. His boss, President Donald Trump, had threatened to escalate tensions with China and prevent North Korea from launching a nuclear-capable ICBM. He’d accused Japan of currency manipulation. He wanted both Tokyo and Seoul to pay more for their alliance with America. He’d unceremoniously pulled out of a free-trade agreement – the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) – that the United States had previously gone all out to promote.

Like the good cop who comes in to soften up a suspect that’s been abused by the bad cop, Mattis made many reassuring statements on his trip and even directly contradicted his administration. Allies were paying their share, he said. The U.S. military would stand firm behind Japan and South Korea. And diplomacy not military force was the way to solve disputes like those in the South China Sea.

The question is not which cop is in charge of U.S. foreign policy (answer: both are in charge). The underlying question is what the administration ultimately wants for Asia. It can stick, more or less, with the status quo. Or it can finish what the Obama administration tried and failed to do: shift the emphasis of U.S. military and economic policy away from the Middle East and toward Asia.

During its two terms, the Obama administration managed to shift some of the emphasis of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, the wealthiest and most heavily militarized region of the world. The United States continued to encourage Japan to break out of the restraints of the “peace constitution.” It relocated some Marines from the controversial Futenma military base on Okinawa to other places in the region. It solidified U.S. relations with Vietnam on the basis of mutual fear of China. It persuaded the Philippines to welcome back U.S. military forces at five permanent installations on the island chain. It overcame initial South Korean reluctance to deploy the THAAD missile defense system.

These developments, which certainly reinforced the status quo, did not add up to a pivot. Like its two predecessors, the Obama administration was not able to “solve” the Okinawa problem by having a replacement facility built for the Futenma Marine Air Force base. It was not able to redirect a substantial portion of U.S. military forces from the Middle East and Europe to the Pacific. It could not ultimately conclude the TTP and compete more effectively with China in the regional economy. Despite its explicit desire to do cut its losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration was still pinned down in both countries. The fight against the Islamic State had replaced al-Qaeda and the Taliban as the chief focus of U.S. military attention.

According to some of his campaign rhetoric, Donald Trump was interested not in a Pacific pivot but rather a Homeland pivot. He emphasized “America first,” which suggested that he might reduce U.S. military footprint overseas in order to direct resources into rebuilding U.S. infrastructure and industry. But even before he took office, Trump moved quickly to dispel those illusions. He took a phone call from the Taiwanese president, a break with tradition that indicated a new toughness toward Beijing. He began to prepare the groundwork for a major increase in military spending, as much as $ 1 trillion over ten years, which the Republican Congress is eager to support.

The Trump administration views China as the only serious threat to American power in the world. Although previous U.S. governments have eventually settled on a congagement approach to Beijing – a mixture of military containment and economic engagement – the Trump administration seems interested only in confrontation. For his part, Xi seems to be positioning China as the country that will guide the global economy in the absence of a newly protectionist United States.

It’s possible that Trump, ever the businessman, will come to realize like all recent U.S. presidents that China is too big to ignore and too powerful to antagonize. Even George W. Bush found common ground with Beijing, particularly on counter-terrorism. But others in the Trump administration, like strategic advisor Steve Bannon, see China as a civilizational threat – officially atheist, non-white, committed to a cross between centralized economic control and crony capitalism. Bannon has no problem partnering with authoritarian governments. But China falls outside the conservative, Christian, Caucasian coalition that Bannon wants to build worldwide.

With a larger military, a Republican-controlled Congress, and a willingness to use all the power concentrated in the executive branch, Trump will likely try to complete the Pacific pivot even as he bombs the Islamic State, builds a wall along the border with Mexico, and antagonizes European allies. This attempt at full-spectrum dominance may bankrupt the American economy and irreparably damage the global economy.

But Trump guided his business empire into bankruptcy an extraordinary six times in the past. Asians should obviously think twice about linking arms with such a volatile political ally and such an unreliable business partner.

The post Will Trump Complete the Foreign Policy Pivot to Asia? appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Trump Is Carpet-Bombing U.S. Foreign Policy

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(Image: AK Rockefeller / Flickr)

Very soon, Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order regarding refugees and entry to the U.S. for a whole swathe of people. In effect, the edict would be aimed at banning Muslims from the United States, demonizing people from Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

It’s no accident that of the seven countries identified, the U.S. is bombing five (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Somalia), has troops deployed and military bases in another (Sudan), and imposes harsh sanctions and frequent threats against the last (Iran).

These military actions all reflect policies that fuel refugee flows in the first place. In a grim irony, the order bans refugees from wars that in many cases the U.S. itself started.

The order violates international law requiring countries to provide refuge to those in desperate need, and completely reverses the long history of the U.S. claim — however often that claim is actually denied — to be a country that welcomes refugees and immigrants.

We should also note that the list of Muslim-majority countries targeted in the new regulations all happen to be countries where the Trump business empire has no holdings. Exceptions just happen to be countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Muslim-majority states where Trump has major investments and business partnerships.

One might think that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two countries that nearly all the 9/11 hijackers came from — and which are currently known to be backing ISIS and other terrorists, in Saudi Arabia’s case, and facing serious terror attacks on their own soil largely in response to government repression, in Egypt’s — would be included in Trump’s twisted analysis as potential sources of terrorism.

But no, those countries were ignored. Conflicts of interest? Nah, just a coincidence.

The order goes on to call for the Pentagon to create a “safe zone in Syria and in the region” to absorb local refugees, to prevent them from heading to Europe and beyond to the U.S. Yet almost inevitably, that means launching more airstrikes on the country — a recipe for more war and more refugees.

This is the opposite of what we should be doing. If we’re serious about taking care of refugees and ending the conditions that give rise to their plight, we must welcome far more of the 65 million people currently displaced in the world. And crucially, we must provide real support — not with more war, but by working to end the wars that create refugees in the first place.

That means demanding that our government privilege diplomacy over war. The Obama administration’s successes in foreign policy — the Paris climate agreement, the moves towards normalization with Cuba, and most especially the nuclear deal with Iran — all emerged from hard-fought campaigns to choose diplomatic over military means.

And even if anyone near the top of the new administration were interested in diplomacy (though there’s no evidence of that!), it just got a whole lot harder.

The soon-to-be-signed executive order creates a lot more work for federal workers, especially in the Department of Homeland Security and in the State Department. Yet the entire top echelon of the State Department’s management just quit and walked out. There are conflicting stories about whether these leaders, who weren’t political appointees, were pushed out by new political leaders or left on their own after being presented with unacceptable demands. But either way, State is now severely understaffed in key areas such as consular services.

For those of us convinced that real internationalism should be the basis of U.S. foreign policy, the State Department has never been a full-fledged ally. U.S. diplomacy is too often deployed in the interest of military goals, U.S. corporate profits, and the undermining of governments deemed insufficiently submissive to U.S. strategic interests — and too rarely in compliance with international law.

But diplomacy and multilateralism, however flawed, are still the key alternatives to military force. Getting rid of the key civil servants who kept U.S. diplomacy functioning fits far too well into the opposite goal — privileging war over diplomacy.

The new president’s budget calls for the Pentagon to get a huge influx of new funds, beyond the $ 600 billion or so base budget it already has (a figure that doesn’t include the funds that support the nuclear arsenal, care for veterans, or even the war on terror, which run several hundred billion dollars more). The military forces are about to get a lot bigger. And the nuclear arsenal is about to get an enormous influx of money for “modernization.”

Combine that with a State Department more or less incapable of doing anything because they’ve lost all the people who actually know how to make diplomacy happen, and you have a perfect storm of war winning out over diplomacy.

It’s kind of like the way elites have carried out neoliberal policies of privatization and de-regulation: You de-fund and under-staff the public agencies, while shifting money to now deregulated private sector entities. Then you watch while the government agencies fail, thus “proving” that government can’t do anything nearly as well as the private sector.

Only in this case, it’s not the public that fails while the private succeeds. It’s diplomacy that fails while the military wins out. Which means everyone loses.

The post Trump Is Carpet-Bombing U.S. Foreign Policy appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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How Obama Took Foreign Policy Forward — And Back

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(Photo: WIkipedia)

For Obama supporters, the last eight years have been a victory of wise leadership over the forces of darkness in Congress and the world at large. For critics of the outgoing president, Obama could do no right as he plunged the United States into the worst crisis in its 200-plus years of history.

Between the high notes of Obama’s farewell address and the low rumble of Donald Trump’s tweets, it can be hard to find a middle ground.

The Washington Post has attempted just such an even-tempered appraisal of the Obama era. In a stand-alone section from January 11 entitled Obama’s Legacy, also issued as an e-book, the Post asked more than a dozen journalists and pundits to weigh in on the different facets of the president’s tenure in office, from his efforts to pull the economy out of financial crisis to his more recent foreign policy accomplishments.

Each of the contributions is structured, appropriately, around a call and response: The president achieved this but failed to achieve that.

Obama brought the country back from the brink of economic disaster, but he could have pumped more money into the recovery and implemented more thoroughgoing financial reform. He pushed through universal health care, but the plan had too little support from Congress and too much buy-in from the insurance industry. He addressed climate change, but it wasn’t enough to stop the planet from heating up. He promised peace but he continued wars.

Obama himself encouraged such a measured evaluation, for he was always trying to present more complex pictures to the American public.

The Post section begins with several essays on Obama as the first black president. That remarkable precedent became less and less important as Obama tackled a succession of urgent problems in his first year. Yet for a significant portion of the American electorate, Obama’s racial identity never ceased to be relevant.

The African American community rooted for him — “Black America has held its collective breath during every second” of his presidency, writes Michael Eric Dyson — as strenuously as racists hoped that he would fail. The notion that Obama was born in Africa, that he was a secret Muslim, that he was an angry anti-colonialist in disguise — these arguments achieved a measure of traction only because of the intractable racism of American society. For much of the United States, President Obama remained incorrigibly “other.”

After Donald Trump’s surprise victory in November, Obama told David Remnick of The New Yorker something quite interesting: “I probably showed up 20 years sooner than the demographics would have anticipated.” By 2028, Obama was implying, a swelling non-white electorate would finally have the power to elevate a non-white candidate to the White House. Obama’s youth, his outsider status, his eloquence: All of these qualities allowed him to jump the queue. So much of the resistance to his presidency — and the ultimate victory of Donald Trump — can be explained as well by this kink in the fabric of time.

A president from the future arrived to govern with preternatural calm — and we just weren’t ready for it. Half the country couldn’t wait to elect an old man peddling an imaginary past.

The President and the World

After Obama won his second term, I cautioned that the president would have a hard time achieving any of his foreign policy goals:

The record so far suggests that the president likes to make important game-changing speeches — on re-engaging the Muslim world, on nuclear abolition — but is not willing to put in the monumental effort to implement these visions. For instance, he rhetorically distanced his counter-terrorism policies from his predecessor’s. But he then went on to expand drone warfare both in scale (in Pakistan) and scope (Yemen and Somalia). Despite his much-vaunted willingness to negotiate with America’s adversaries should they show a willingness of their own, the president demonstrated considerable skittishness once in office. Early opportunities to engage with North Korea, Iran, and the Taliban were squandered.

Four years later, the president can point to several victories that he snatched from the jaws of congressional defeat: the Iran nuclear deal, the détente with Cuba, the Paris climate accord. In his farewell address, Obama referenced all of these victories — as well as his having “taken out tens of thousands of terrorists — including bin Laden” — but he didn’t dwell much on foreign policy. He focused instead on values, principles, “the power of ordinary Americans to bring about change.” He sounded more like the philosopher-in-chief than the commander-in-chief.

Obama might have slighted international relations in his last major address because of the widespread perception that the world is a scarier place today than it was when he took office.

“My position is that the United States is much worse off today than it was in 2009, when Obama became the president,” opines political scientist John Mearsheimer. He points to the Middle East where “except for the Iran nuclear deal, under President Obama we have helped create a zone of disaster.” It’s certainly true that Syria was more-or-less stable in 2009 when Obama took office. Libya, once similarly frozen in autocracy, is no great shakes today either. The rise of the Islamic State, the refugee crisis, the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory, the disintegration of Yemen, the expansion of drone attacks: all of these took place on Obama’s watch.

Not that Obama must shoulder all the responsibility for this mess. The Middle East had already been destabilized by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When Obama took office in 2009, anger was rising throughout the region at the dictators that the United States was supporting: Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain, the al-Saud family in Saudi Arabia. Benjamin Netanyahu was just coming to power in Israel, making peace with Palestine a long shot at best.

What could Obama have done that was different? Double down on the Iraq occupation? That would have been wildly unpopular and broken one of his main campaign pledges. Withdraw immediately from Iraq? That would have thrown the country into a civil war not unlike what overtook Syria. When the Arab Spring protests broke out, Obama tried to have it both ways — support Mubarak in Egypt until his rule was obviously untenable, lead from behind in Libya to avoid what might have been a large-scale atrocity, provide some support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria while avoiding a full-scale commitment.

He was condemned to these half measures because, frankly, the developments in the region were beyond U.S. control. Complaints of Obama’s fecklessness were in fact veiled acknowledgments of the declining power of the United States.

Sure, Obama should have demilitarized the U.S. relationship with the Middle East. He could have provided a significant Marshall Plan-sized assistance program to all of the countries in the region exiting authoritarian regimes. He could have fundamentally transformed the U.S. role in the world. But Obama was not a bold actor — and he didn’t have support in Congress for such bold actions even if he’d been predisposed to offer them.

Where Obama did take initiative, he acted with public opinion behind him — on Iran, on Cuba, on climate change. He was a canny politician in this sense, always cognizant that he was ahead of the demographic curve. He was always dancing between innovation and tradition. Schooled in the social work tradition, he started where the client was.

Obama was an internationalist, in the best and worst senses of the term. He supported diplomacy, the UN, multilateral cooperation. But he was also committed to free trade, the institutions of economic globalization, and U.S. military force in the service of these and other goals. For all his intelligence and agility, he was a prisoner of this tradition, dependent on the cooperation of allies and subservient to the most powerful actors in the global economy like banks and corporations.

Nothing exemplified that approach more than his attempt at a Pacific pivot.

Pacific Pivot

The Middle East is the past. It’s full of conflict. The leadership in the region is largely autocratic. The major resource is oil and cheap labor, a very 19th-century combination. It’s no surprise that the forward-looking Obama was devoted to redirecting the focus of U.S. foreign policy away from a region so thoroughly disrupted by his predecessors and toward the lands of opportunity in the East.

The Pacific Pivot consisted of two main aspects — a rearrangement of U.S. force posture in the region and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a new free-trade agreement — designed primarily to contain China militarily and economically. The administration failed at both.

The TPP was a casualty of the presidential election as Donald Trump blasted the agreement and Hillary Clinton disavowed her earlier support. Even before the campaign got underway, the military realignment didn’t really take place either, except for some largely symbolic weapons transfers, an upgrade in missile defense, and the redistribution of some Marines from a base in Okinawa to other spots in the region. Not only was China not particularly constrained by these actions but it achieved a major recent victory by cultivating a new relationship with the Philippines and its new leader Rodrigo Duterte.

For some realists, like Mearsheimer, Obama’s failure to pull the United States away from the Middle East rendered the United States incapable of addressing China more forcefully.

Because China is a potential peer competitor, it is the most serious threat facing the United States at this point in time, and therefore we should be focusing much more attention on China than on the Islamic State [ISIS or IS], which is hardly a mortal threat to the United States. I might also add that by staying deeply involved in the Greater Middle East and using military force in all sorts of places, what we end up doing is making the terrorism problem worse, not better. What we ought to do is reduce our footprint in the Middle East, which will go a long way toward ameliorating the terrorism problem and also allow us to pivot to Asia.

Pivot to Asia to do what exactly? Make a mess of things there as well? Further encourage a right-wing government in Japan to reestablish military power in the region? Twist North Korea’s arm a little more? Confront China in its front yard of the South China Sea? Penetrate into markets of the region more forcefully than Chinese capitalists?

Pivoting to Asia, given its concentration of wealth and technological prowess, is a fine idea. But Obama’s version was flawed.

In any case, Trump seems about to pick up the fumble and run with it. As Josh Rogin wrote recently in The Washington Post:

Behind the scenes, however, the Trump transition is preparing its own pivot to Asia. As the team that will implement that policy takes shape, what’s emerging is an approach that harkens back to past Republican administrations — but also seeks to actualize the Obama administration’s ambition of enhancing the U.S. presence in the region. Transition officials say the Trump administration will take a hawkish view of China, focus on bolstering regional alliances, have a renewed interest in Taiwan, be skeptical of engagement with North Korea, and bolster the U.S. Navy’s fleet presence in the Pacific.

So might the Trump transition team look at Asia, but it’s unlikely that these best-laid plans will survive the first months of the new administration. Trump will learn, once in office, the realities of the U.S.-China relationship and how difficult it is to push too hard against a country that has so much economic leverage over the United States.

And if Trump follows through on his promise to focus on the Islamic State, he will likely become as thoroughly enmeshed in the Middle East imbroglio as his predecessor. It is one thing for Trump to destroy what Obama built — the Iran deal, Obamacare — but it’s quite another for him to build something durable. Much of what Trump has touched in the past, after all, has gone bankrupt.

When it came to race relations or climate change or building a cooperative relationship with former adversaries, Barack Obama was indeed a visitor from the future. Just as often, however, he appeared to be a visitor from the past, reminding Americans of the virtues of containment, of balancing great powers, of trying to use brute force to subdue enemies. Governing alternately in these two tenses, Obama was both ahead of his time and behind it. He now gives way to a man with no vision, no sense of history, someone caught in the eternal now of Twitter.

Obama’s legacy and our well-being are now, for the time being, in Trump’s hands. No doubt many people would like to get a hold of Obama’s time machine to skip over the next four years as quickly as possible.

The post How Obama Took Foreign Policy Forward — And Back appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Trump’s Pick for UN Ambassador Has Zero Foreign Policy Experience

Trump’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley “Has absolutely zero foreign policy experience,” Phyllis Bennis told Real News Network. “No diplomatic experience that we know of.”

This makes it very hard to know exactly how she would play out in this role  Bennis said.

Haley does have a history of opposing LGBTQ rights and cutting funding for HIV prevention. Given her domestic policy track record, “regarding issues of health, children and all the various human rights work of the United Nations, it’s very unlikely that is something she is either familiar with or finds important.”

In recent years, Bennis said, the role of the ambassador has shifted to focus on building UN support for U.S. wars, and Haley has nearly no experience with that either.  Just because Donald Trump described her as somebody who’s known for being able to pull people together doesn’t mean she has any experience dealing with coalition-building between nation states who have their own interests to defend, Bennis said.

If the Senate took the United Nations seriously, Bennis said, they would insist on a serious diplomat, “somebody who can navigate these very complicated situations like the crisis in and around Syria.” At least if you’re not going to appoint an experienced diplomat, you should consider an experienced academic on the issues, and Haley is not someone who has this training, Bennis said.

“This is consistent, I’m afraid, with Donald Trump’s view that loyalty in some sense, is the only consideration and competency does not seem to be high on the agenda.”

The post Trump’s Pick for UN Ambassador Has Zero Foreign Policy Experience appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis is the director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Picks Don’t Match His Isolationist Rhetoric

“The extremism of some of these characters is quite profound,” Phyllis Bennis told the Real News Network regarding Trump’s proposed foreign policy appointments.

Trump has chosen General Michael Flynn, who was fired as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration, as his national security advisor. This appointment does not have to approved by the Senate. Bennis said Flynn is largely viewed by people in both parties as “somewhat of a nut job.”

Former KKK leader David Duke tweeted in support of Trump’s choice of Flynn, saying, “Great Pick!”

“When you’re getting support from the Klan for your choice of national security advisor,” Bennis said, “we’re in very serious trouble here.”

There has also been talk of former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton as a pick for secretary of state. Bolton, Bennis said, is known for his extremist set of calls on Iran.

Bennis said we can’t know how many of these picks are a result of Trump’s own views, or how many reflect Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s views, or Trump’s son-in-law and close advisor Jared Kushner.

“We do know he has a heavy dose of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment behind him,” Bennis said, even if it is still a mystery who’s calling the shots.

None of Trump’s picks so far match the kind of neo-isolationsist policies he pushed in the earlier days of his campaign.

As these names start coming up they’re generating enormous unease among mainstream press and political figures, Bennis said, but what’s more important is the social movements out there that are resisting Trump’s picks and focusing on foreign policy.

“We’re seeing just how dangerous these appointments are and I think it’s going to generate a much stronger movement,” Bennis said.

Watch the full interview on the Real News Network’s website.

The post Trump’s Foreign Policy Picks Don’t Match His Isolationist Rhetoric appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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We Can’t Predict Trump’s Foreign Policy, But We Can Mobilize a Broader Peace Movement to Protect Vulnerable Communities

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(Photo: Elvert Barnes / Flickr)

“The big problem we face right now, on the question of foreign policy, is that we don’t really have a clue what a Trump foreign policy will look like.,” Phyllis Bennis told FAIR on an episode of CounterSpin.

“The only thing we know for sure,” Bennis said, “is that social movements are going to be far more important than anyone else” — including who’s in Congress, the White House, or the Supreme Court — “Because that’s the only way we’re going to have to change history.”

We don’t know who will be in charge or what Trump stands for, she said. Bennis noted that he’s said we’ll have better relations with Russia, we should be neutral on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that he opposes a no-fly zone in Syria.

“But there’s absolutely no reason to think that he’s going to stick to those statements. He’s made other statements completely opposed to them,” Bennis said.

For example, he’s said he would tear up the Iran nuclear deal, called for an expansion of nuclear weapons, and then disavowed those statements.

What is also very dangerous, Bennis said, is that Trump’s election and presidency helped a movement rise up around racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and Islamophobia that could begin to feel they have a legitimacy that they never should have had.

So our social movements that we anticipated in resistance of a Clinton administration to mobilize immediately against wars and escalation is going to have to be done in the context of a broader resistance movement, Bennis said, “where motions to build movements against wars are going to have to also be movements to defend refugees that are trying to come here as a result of those wars.”

She said we also have to “link with movements who are providing the first defense for endangered communities,” whether those be immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Arabs, women, or LGBTQ communities.

Listen to the full interview here.

The post We Can’t Predict Trump’s Foreign Policy, But We Can Mobilize a Broader Peace Movement to Protect Vulnerable Communities appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Hillary Clinton’s ‘Major Foreign Policy Address’ Was Anything But

(Photo: Flickr / Marc Nozell)

(Photo: Flickr / Marc Nozell)

In the last days before the California primary, where Democratic primary polls showed her neck-and-neck with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton delivered a campaign speech in San Diego. Though her campaign billed it as a “major foreign policy address,” it looked more like a last-ditch attempt to position herself as the Democratic nominee ahead of a potentially embarrassing loss or close finish with Sanders in the nation’s most populous state.

Indeed, most of the address was directed squarely at Donald Trump. It wasn’t a speech on Clinton’s own foreign policy so much as a takedown of the presumptive GOP nominee’s.

Throughout, Clinton contrasted Trump’s often wild and crazy (and not to mention wildly inconsistent) positions with her own claims of having an experienced hand on the tiller (and not to mention on the button). Clinton’s overall point was that Trump is “temperamentally unfit to be president,” and that he’d be incompetent and dangerous as commander in chief.

Much of the critique was a rehash of the GOP candidate’s bizarre and often contradictory statements on the subject. After all, Clinton found, it’s easy to critique Trump’s calls forproviding nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and other countries. It’s a sure laugh-line to mention Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese, and a guaranteed applause line (especially in a military town like the carefully chosen San Diego) to remind the audience that Trump said that POWs were not necessarily heroes.

It made sense to remind voters that Trump advocates torture and the assassination of relatives of terror suspects “even though they are war crimes.” It’s important to keep front and center Trump’s threats to send tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops to fight in Middle East wars (at least when he’s not counseling against interventionism, as he does at other times). And for the target audience of this speech — apparently independents, centrist and right-wing Democrats, and Republican moderates — it also made political sense to rail against Trump’s threats to “abandon allies” by leaving NATO or (gasp!) being “neutral” on Israel-Palestine.

That was more or less the easy part for the establishment-favored candidate running on her foreign policy expertise. The more difficult part came with Clinton’s responses to Trump’s variously vague, extreme, or bigoted positions.

For example, she cited the problems posed by Trump’s dissing of U.S. allies from Europe to Asia, whom Trump has accused of “ripping us off.” After all, Clinton reminded her hoped-for supporters, “our allies deliver for us every day.” But it was a pretty weak rejoinder to answer Trump by celebrating how many of our allies “deliver for us” by increasing their military spending, regardless of what that might mean for the populations of those allied countries.

It’s not surprising that Clinton also spoke of diplomacy — her foreign policy cred rests on having been the diplomat-in-chief, after all. She grudgingly acknowledged that diplomacy is sometimes the only way to avoid conflict. But instead of asserting a clear preference for diplomacy over war, she described diplomacy as essentially another weapon in Washington’s war arsenal. Recognition of other countries’ sovereignty, of other people’s rights, didn’t come up.

She spoke more or less approvingly of the Iran nuclear deal, but bragged that her role was to “lead the effort to impose crippling global sanctions,” not to actually carry out negotiations. She repeated the debunked claim that “Iran was racing toward a nuclear bomb” when the Obama administration took office and then immediately pivoted to a reminder that the U.S. “will act decisively if necessary, including with military action” against the country if the deal falls through — because, she says, “Israel’s security is non-negotiable.”

Crucially, Clinton addressed the ISIS crisis in more detail. She recounted the dangers and inevitable failures that would result from Trump’s various and often contradictory positions — including recognizing Syria as a “free zone for ISIS,” sending “tens of thousands of American ground troops” to the country, and even considering using nuclear weapons against ISIS. She spoke powerfully of how Trump’s demonization of Muslims and his threats to exclude Muslims from the United States plays directly into ISIS propaganda. All clear.

But when Clinton described her own “real plan” for dealing with terrorism, it got quite a bit murkier. What would she do? She proposed “intensifying the air campaign and stepping up our support for Arab and Kurdish forces on the ground,” as well as pursuing diplomacy, working with allied intelligence agencies to cut supplies to terrorists, “winning the cyberspace battle,” and “strengthening defenses here at home.”

The thing is, the Obama administration has been doing all those things for almost three years. The U.S. air campaign against ISIS in Ramadi left 80 percent of the city destroyed, with 350,000 people unable to return home — and she wants to “intensify” the air campaign? She says she also wants to pursue diplomacy “to end Syria’s civil war and close Iraq’s sectarian divide.” That’s great. But what new diplomatic angle is she proposing? She was the lead diplomat for four years — what advice or suggestions did she pass on to John Kerry that might indicate she has anything useful to bring to the table? And how can diplomacy be effective when our bombing may be exacerbating the very sectarian divides negotiations are supposed to solve?

Her bragging list of diplomatic accomplishments included nuclear weapons reduction negotiations with Russia (which were badly undermined by an accompanying trillion-dollar plan to “modernize” our own arsenal), the barely useful climate deal in Copenhagen, the 2012 Hamas-Israel ceasefire (which Israel soon violated), the pressure she applied on other countries to join in Washington’s sanctions against Iran, and (more laudably, if unevenly) her record of standing up for the rights of women, religious minorities, and LGBT people.

But she didn’t mention her failure (matching the failure of the secretaries of state before and after her) to negotiate a just peace in Israel-Palestine based on international law, human rights, and equality for all. Indeed, her earlier promise to embrace Israel’s right-wing prime minister would make salvaging that legacy almost impossible.

Nor did she mention the two issues which shape her foreign policy legacy as a senator and as secretary of state: her vote for George W. Bush’s 2003 war in Iraq, and her role in pulling the administration — including a reluctant president — into the U.S.-NATO regime change war that devastated Libya and sent a cascade of Libyan weapons into conflict zones across North and Central Africa and the entire Middle East.

It was a notable absence. Most especially because Clinton calls for a new Libya-style “no-fly zone” to be established in Syria — something she didn’t mention in this speech. She was cheerleading for intervention in Libya in 2011 when then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican, challenged her. “A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses,” he warned. He was clear that a no-fly zone is an act of war, and wars have consequences. Clinton’s plan calls for just that kind of a war against not only the Syrian government, but potentially its military allies Iran and Russia as well. Her “foreign policy speech” didn’t spell that one out this time.

As Clinton’s speech recognized, a Trump presidency promises an unprepared, dangerous foreign policy accountable to no one but the chief executive himself. As her speech claimed, a Clinton presidency portends a disciplined, ready-on-day-one foreign policy — but one that also happens to be war-based and accountable to longstanding corporate and military powers in the United States.

The Sanders campaign, unmentioned in the Democratic front-runner’s speech, has increasingly offered a different kind of foreign policy — one rooted in diplomacy over war, global egalitarianism, and accountability to international law and broad movements against war and for justice. Yet in her bid to prematurely claim the Democratic nomination, Clinton failed to mention her more progressive rival even once.

Ultimately, Clinton’s failure to engage with this real, robust alternative — rather than just the cartoonish one offered by Trump — may say more about her own war-driven foreign policy than anything else.

The post Hillary Clinton’s ‘Major Foreign Policy Address’ Was Anything But appeared first on Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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