Global economic troubles threaten our economy, a cold war heats up with Russia, the Middle East is aflame and 2015 was the hottest year on record, as climate change accelerates. Despite this, the presidential campaigns have offered little more than foreign policy by bumper sticker.
In the Republican race, particularly now that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has ended his campaign, the debate has descended into bellicose posturing, xenophobia, fervid denunciations of all things Obama and, of course, climate-change denial. The candidates vie to rip up the Iran deal, rev up a new cold war with Russia, fan the flames in the Middle East and walk away from the progress made in Paris on climate.
Democrats have a genuine opportunity to offer a sorely needed new, real security agenda. Yet we’ve seen little evidence of it. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made a stirring argument about our rigged economy and our corrupted politics, electrifying young voters and unsettling the party establishment’s favorite, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But Sanders has said little about foreign policy, apparently viewing it as a distraction from his core economic message.
Clinton, invoking her experience as secretary of state, has started to trumpet a commander-in-chief test, suggesting that Sanders, as she insinuated about Barack Obama in 2008, won’t be ready from day one. But, as Sanders has repeatedly noted in criticizing Clinton’s vote for the disastrous Iraq War, experience doesn’t constitute good judgment. And experience is a mixed blessing when the country needs a major course correction. The experts, think tanks and old hands wedded to the old policies are too often part of the problem, not the solution.
The country deserves a far broader debate about American security. The United States has big choices to make. Here are only some of the major issues that deserve greater attention.
Regime change and failed states: Clinton’s vote for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy debacle since the Vietnam War was no small choice. But the real question is what she learned from it. Sanders has gently suggested that the secretary is more inclined to “regime change” than he would be. “I think we have a disagreement,” Sanders said. “[T]hese invasions, these — these toppling of governments, regime changes, have unintended consequences. I would say that on this issue I’m a little bit more conservative than the secretary . . . and that I am not a great fan of regime change.”
Clinton has shown little sign of being sobered by the Iraq catastrophe. Vice President Biden calls her an “interventionist.” She’s surrounded herself with advisers that are mix of neoconservatives and liberal “indispensable nation” advocates, all of whom share a strong belief in using American force as an instrument of good abroad.
But this interventionist temperament has cost the country dearly. Since the Iraq vote, Clinton has championed the surge in Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya, the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Now, despite Obama’s best intentions, the war in Afghanistan is headed into its 16th year, Libya is a disastrous failed state with the Islamic State consolidating a base there and Syria’s civil war created the conditions for the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, while refugees fleeing the violence threaten to destabilize Europe.
Surely, after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now Syria, we should have learned enough to temper the interventionist inclination. The military is not designed for building nations or birthing democracies. Ironically, the generals are usually more cautious in its use than the hawkish civilians who have dominated our foreign policy circles. A war-weary nation deserves a real debate about the limits of American military adventurism.
A new cold war with Russia: The United States is headed into a dangerous, escalating cold war with Russia. With little notice from the press, the Obama administration just announced it plans to quadruple spending on weapons and equipment for U.S. and NATO forces in countries on or near Russia’s borders. The provocative act is unprecedented in modern times. It will surely be met by deployment of greater Russian forces and armaments across the same borders and escalate a new and already dangerous U.S. Russian nuclear arms race. Instead of the countries of Eastern Europe providing a disarmed zone of peace after the Cold War, they are rapidly becoming an arena of armed tension.
While virtually ignored in the press, a central cause of the tensions is the effort, hailed by Clinton, to extend NATO, a military alliance, into the nations of the former Warsaw Pact, and even former Russian republics such as Ukraine and Georgia.
Yet the United States has a great interest in cooperation with Russia — on enforcing the Iran deal, on settling the Syrian civil war, on dealing with loose nukes and continuing to dismantle the nuclear arsenals left from the Cold War. Before we stumble into a dangerous military face off with Russia, we deserve a serious debate about the growing tensions.
A global economic policy that works for working people: Sanders has led the opposition to the president’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, terming it “NAFTA on steroids.” Although Clinton helped start those negotiations as secretary of state, she came out against the treaty once she was running for president. But TPP is simply a symbol of a broader policy.
The United States has had a global economic strategy effectively defined by and for multinational corporations and banks. The result has been a trade policy that has racked up unprecedented trade deficits, devastating U.S. manufacturing, while putting direct pressure on worker wages. U.S. global corporations have been allowed to evade hundreds of billions of taxes by shifting profits to tax havens abroad. The trade accords, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has shown, have even created a private legal system providing special rights for global corporations.
The Sanders critique of our rigged economy leads directly to challenging this rigged system. With her experience, Clinton could help vindicate her claim to be a progressive who gets things done by laying out how she would challenge the current arrangements. It is now increasingly accepted that our trade and tax policies have contributed directly to the agonies now experienced by working families suffering in the new economy. Surely, a broader debate than simply opposition to TPP is long overdue.
Climate change: Foreign policy questions in the debates have to date essentially ignored climate change. Ironically, the Pentagon is far more concerned about the real security threats posed by climate change than the debate moderators. Both Clinton and Sanders have put forth plans to begin to address the challenge posed by catastrophic climate change. But much more is needed with increasing urgency.
Driving a new debate in foreign policy isn’t easy. But this country desperately needs a challenge to the mainstream thinking that has given us a foreign policy that grows ever more divorced from the interests and security concerns of the vast majority of Americans. Sanders has challenged our rigged economy and corrupted politics. Now it is time for him to challenge the limits of our cribbed foreign policy debate.