Former President Barack Obama once articulated his vision of foreign policy as not doing “stupid shit.” By this he meant not putting boots on the ground in long-term, unwinnable wars. What this vision didn’t include was ending those wars or pursuing a progressive foreign policy based on peace and diplomacy.
Obama’s Democratic Party has not advanced far past this vision since the end of his time in office. While the party has moved to the left on many domestic issues, and emerged as an effective counterbalance to the meanness and incoherence of Donald Trump, many Democrats remain wedded to Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
This is the one area in which Trump has managed to win bipartisan support. He does not deserve it.
For example, last week airstrikes in Syria by a U.S.-led coalition killed at least 12 people, including women and children. The response from Democrats in Congress: radio silence.
Former President Barack Obama once articulated his vision of foreign policy as not doing “stupid shit,” but his vision didn’t include a progressive foreign policy based on peace and diplomacy.
Even worse, consider the Democrats’ reaction to Trump’s April airstrike in Syria after the Syrian government’s horrific use of chemical weapons on its own people. Critics slammed Trump for bypassing Congress, arguing that the airstrike was unconstitutional and didn’t solve any of the underlying issues in Syria.
Beyond their support for the Syrian airstrike, top Democrats have disappointing records on issues of war and peace. Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer is a leading supporter of Israel, despite its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi also has a history of hawkishness in the Middle East, as documented by the Institute for Policy Studies. And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic standard bearer in the 2016 presidential election, promoted militaristic solutions to international issues as Secretary of State, as well as during her campaign for President.
Even Democrats like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have failed to articulate a progressive foreign policy. During his presidential campaign, Sanders’s main foreign policy talking point was his vote against the war in Iraq. While he was less hawkish overall than Clinton, Sanders didn’t rule out continuing Obama’s drone program that has killed thousands of civilians.
Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the women-led peace group CODEPINK, tells The Progressive that Democrats “have a foreign policy message that is pretty much a continuation of what George Bush had and Obama followed. It’s hard for them to challenge Donald Trump because they have a vision that’s quite similar. I think that the Democrats are really a war party, just like the Republicans are.”
There are individual Democrats whose foreign policy is less hawkish. Representative Barbara Lee of California, for example, has consistently opposed war. Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the post 9/11 authorization of military force, has spoken out against Obama’s aggressive use of drone strikes.
And Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has called for a de-emphasis of American military force and slammed the proposed $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which is using U.S. weapons in its brutal war against Yemen. But Murphy also opposes cuts to the United States’ bloated military budget, which is larger than the next seven highest spending countries combined.
Norman Solomon, author of the book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” and co-founder of the group RootsAction, tells The Progressive that Democrats would likely gain politically if they had a more forward-looking foreign policy.
“The Democratic Party base is more skeptical of and opposed to the warfare state than most Democrats in the House and Senate,” he argues.
Polls back him up. A 2017 survey found more than half of Democratic voters disapproved of Trump’s airstrike in Syria. In addition, a 2016 poll showed that a majority of Democrats would support cutting the defense budget by $36 billion.
“The Democratic Party base is more skeptical of and opposed to the warfare state than most Democrats in the House and Senate.”
Paul Kawika Martin, senior director of policy and political affairs at Peace Action, tells The Progressive that one problem with Democratic foreign policy is that many lawmakers were previously on city councils or were members of state legislatures and didn’t have to deal with foreign affairs. He says when they get to Congress, lawmakers often follow the Democratic leadership on foreign policy votes.
Martin says there needs to be a focus on educating lawmakers about foreign policy.
“It’s important that Democrats think about foreign policy and find a good position,” he says. “They need to take some ownership for their positions and not fall into the trap where they feel like they have to react to things with force all the time.”
With terror attacks on the rise and fears growing over ISIS, the temptation to pursue military strategies will only grow. As the opposition party, Democrats need an alternative foreign policy based on international diplomacy and the pursuit of peace, rather than the same warmongering strategies that create terrorist organizations like ISIS.
If the Democrats regain power in Congress and the White House, it’s important they have a foreign policy that breaks from the Bush-Obama-Trump continuum of endless war.
But what would such a foreign policy look like? Along with ending the war in Afghanistan, CODEPINK’s Benjamin says it would mean challenging the Pentagon on its extreme budget as well as stopping weapons deals with oppressive regimes like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Democrats appear to be taking a step forward on that front, with the majority opposing an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, tells The Progressive that forward-thinking foreign policy also has to rely on negotiations rather than violence.
“If you look at Obama’s foreign policy successes like the Paris climate deal, the move toward normalcy in Cuba and most of all the Iran nuclear deal, they were all examples of the victory of diplomacy over war,” she says, adding that Obama’s foreign policy failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia were instances when war trumped diplomacy.
However, Bennis says the peace movement will have to pressure Democrats to move toward a progressive foreign policy. They won’t do it themselves, she argues.
“The Democrats are never going to lead the progressive movement,” Bennis says. “The movements lead and demand of the Democratic Party that if they want support from the most mobilized, most conscious, and most committed component of their base, they damn well better include a progressive foreign policy vision.”