For all the endless fund-raising appeals and election hyperbole, few progressive politicians want to talk about our biggest foreign policy challenge, the escalation of American involvement in Syria and Iraq. Both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders voted against training and arming the “moderates” in Syria. But neither have wanted to make an issue of Obama’s military intervention, and few on the left have called for them to do so.
This is sad, but not surprising, as I warned over a year ago in “Don’t Let Hillary Housebreak the New, New Left.” It’s wonderful that voters want more populist domestic policies, and it’s marvelously misleading that the multi-millionaire Clinton is verbally attacking Wall Street billionaires. I don’t think this is what my old comrades had in mind when they talked of class struggle.
Just as Cold War liberals should have learned from the futile slaughter they backed in Vietnam, the American economy cannot forever support both guns and butter. This is even truer today than it was under LBJ, and nothing will destroy the dreams of Warren and Sanders faster than endless and ever-escalating war in the Middle East. This is a message they need to hammer home, along with a constant warning that bombs lead to boots on the ground, and that neither will stop an Islamist response to Washington’s imperial foreign policy.
Don’t strain your ears waiting for either one to say anything like this anytime soon. Sanders already knows it to be true, and we can hope that the bright and pugnacious Warren will come to see the handwriting on the wall before the presidential election of 2016.
On a brighter note, the message did come through in part on public radio last month, when WNYC’s prime talk show host Brian Lehrer interviewed the always affable Aaron David Miller, who served as a Middle East adviser and negotiator for every Secretary of State, Republican and Democratic, from 1978 to 2003. Their exchange was precisely the kind of discussion that should be central to our elections, but never seems to get there.
“We’re still stuck in a vicious cycle that we refuse to get out of,” said Lehrer. “The more we bomb and inevitably kill civilians in these preventive wars – and currently it’s to prevent ISIL, ISIS, IS from attacking us here – the more terrorists we create. We now have a domestic energy boom. We don’t need Middle East oil. And we no longer need them to hold off the Soviets.”
Progressives need to dig deeper than Lehrer’s official-sounding slant on American motives in the Middle East, both now and during the Cold War. But no one could doubt his passion as he launched into his major point, one that Sanders and Warren are afraid to make.
“We should have nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East except normal trade, and promise Israel we’ll defend its existence in the event of an actual existential war,” said Lehrer with unaccustomed eloquence. “But no weapons sales to any country. No getting militarily involved in local disputes like we are doing again now. And in a few years terrorists will be as apathetic about us as they are about other major democracies all over the world – Japan, Brazil, Sweden, South Africa, pick your continent – if they’re not mucking around in the Middle East’s business. What do you think?”
Miller was an interesting person to ask, since he had spent most of his career mucking around in the Middle East’s business, and still sees major American interests in the region.
“No matter how long it takes, there are groups out there who want to do galactic harm to the United States,” he told Lehrer. “If you could follow your policy, basically disengage, no more support to the Saudis, the Israelis, just pack it up, come on home, you know, maybe you could reduce America’s exposure to the point where people would somehow forget about us.”
“But I don’t think that’s true,” he argued. “We can’t do that. We’re the world’s most consequential power. We just have to be smart about when, how, and why we project that power. And therein lies the basic problem. I don’t think we can pursue a foreign policy in this region and protect our interests that doesn’t alienate and piss off somebody so much that they’re going to want to do harm.”
Miller never countered Lehrer’s premise of disengagement, but simply walked around it, making the ultimate circular defense of empire. To defend America’s role as the world’s most consequential power, Washington has to impose its will in ways that will create enemies, who will then justify the exercise of imperial power.
From this perspective, the question of whether Obama goes to war in Syria to overthrow the Shia Alawite regime of Bashir al-Assad or to destroy its Sunni enemies becomes a secondary issue. Washington’s primary goal is to remain the deciding power in the region, and that goal has longstanding bipartisan support.
Even with the fracking-induced oil boom in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, the reason is basic. “We are weaning ourselves off Arab hydrocarbons, and good riddance to them,” Miller went on. “But oil trades, as you know, in a single market, and disruption in country X means potential havoc in economic and financial markets in Europe, Asia, and yes, even here.”
“As long as we’re dependent on hydrocarbons, forget Arab hydrocarbons, … we’re going to have to ensure that 30% of the earth’s known petroleum reserves continues to flow freely.”
Strikingly, neither Miller nor Lehrer ever mentioned the major banks and oil companies, the Big Money actors who have spent over a century structuring the global markets that now exist. Markets are man-made, not forces of nature, and progressives have barely begun to discuss how to restructure them, though Warren would probably know where to start.
Why don’t we talk about it?