We left the fools in charge: Bush and Cheney are still defining American foreign policy

Obama should have completely reinvented the war-fighting policies he inherited. He didn't, which will cost us all

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published February 6, 2015 1:45PM (EST)

  (AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Chris Usher/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/photo montage by Salon)

The 2012 election was fought on the economy, primarily because President Obama took such a too-cautious approach to breaking with the failed Republican Reagan/Bush orthodoxy on that score, thus producing a pitifully weak recovery—particularly for the 99 percent.

The last time conservative economics destroyed the economy, we got FDR and a wholesale reinvention of our economic world, which laid the foundations for decades of broadly-shared prosperity. This time, not so much.  The economic recovery has been weak and slow to come for vast majority of Americans, and the GOP is now stronger and more rightwing than it's been at any time since the 1920s.

Now, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the new threat of ISIS and the growing issues inside Russia, it seems increasingly likely that 2016 could be fought on foreign policy -- precisely due to the same sort of profound failure to break completely with the failed Republican-dictated past. The consequences could be even more dire than those seen so far in the economic realm.

For the time being, Obama's self-reinvention as an economic populist—reaching a crescendo with his Sate of the Union—has distracted attention, and it's been funny to see Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan trying to do the same. It goes without saying that the more we can get things moving in that direction, the better. But Obama remains a neo-liberal at heart (as his unswerving commitment to pass trade deals reminds us), regardless of what he's serving on the side, and neoliberalism lies at the root of his continuation of Bush's “long war” response to 9/11. That's had us involved in covert ops in 133 countries last year—more than double the “60 or more countries” that Bush promised to fight in, “using every tool of finance, intelligence and law enforcement,” in his 2002 speech at West Point.

That metric cuts through the illusions of any fundamental break between Bush and Obama's war-fighting policies.

In November 2007, as the Democratic primary race was heading toward its first round of contests, I wrote a diary at Open Left, in which I worried—unnecessarily, as it turned out—that Democrats could not win in 2008 without an alternative vision to the “war on terrorism.” Although I was mistaken then, eight years later the problem remains: without a coherent alternative, Democrats are in a politically vulnerable position. Much worse—America and the rest of the world are vulnerable as well. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have sufficiently grappled with the world as it is, and with our own role in shaping it, often in ways we have not consciously intended or foreseen.

Four examples of ways in which the 1990s conventional wisdom in U.S. foreign policy had been challenged prior to 9/11 could help shed light on possible alternatives for Democrats to draw on.  Almost eight years later, those examples can be used to illuminate why neither party's approach to foreign policy is adequate. It remains much more challenging to construct a viable alternative, but we can never achieve that without first clarifying what the true challenges and opportunities are.

First, was Benjamin Barber's argument in "Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World," [1992 Atlantic article here] which argued that neoliberal globalization (McWorld) and its tribal ethno-religious opponents (Jihad) are actually mutually reinforcing in many respects, and both are hostile to democracy, but that a new form of democratic governance is possible that could cope with both forces at once.

Second, the 1999 book "Misreading the Public: The Myth of a New Isolationism," by I. M. Destler and Steven Kull's, challenged the conventional wisdom about the supposed emergence of a new isolationism in the American public with the end of the Cold War. As the publisher's website blurb explained, “The public does complain that the United States is playing the role of dominant world leader more than it should, but this does not lead to a desire to withdraw. Instead people prefer to share responsibility with other nations, particularly through the UN.”

Third, the Frameworks Institute project for the Global Interdependence Initiative (pdf) aimed at discovering ways to articulate “a coherent, consistent, ethical and practical worldview that promotes cooperative international engagement across a broad range of issues and appeals to a broad range of audiences," which would empower citizen activism on a broad range of international concerns.  One of the papers produced, The Mind and the World: Changing the Very Idea of American Foreign Policy,” by George Lakoff, argued that a long list of concerns that had emerged since the end of the Cold War—"the environment, human rights, women's rights, children's issues, global public health,” etc.—might seem like just a laundry list of unrelated concerns, but that they actually reflect a different view of foreign policy, one based on moral norms, rather than narrow self-interest. In turn, the moral norms framework lead directly to an invocation of community: “In ordinary communities, security comes not just from police power. Real security comes only when the community members follow moral norms.”

Fourth, from 1998 through 2000, the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission (The United States Commission on National Security/21st Century), explored the challenges of “the early 21st Century global security environment”, which presciently warned of the danger of terrorist attacks on America's homeland, and recommended a sweeping, systemic overhaul of our defense strategies and institutions, guided by our values, as well as the newly emerging threats. Although not nearly as grassroots or issue-inclusive as the Frameworks/Global Interdependence Initiative was, it similarly affirmed the central importance of creating a moral global order for ensuring a secure future. However, although it was self-consciously the most sweeping review of US security needs since the start of the Cold War, it strikingly failed to include any systemic reflection on the successes and failures flowing from that last major analysis.

After discussing these four examples of challenges to the conventional wisdom, the Hart-Rudman failure to reflect on the past provided the pivot point for me to introduce one more perspective, not so much a break with conventional wisdom as an illumination  of it, in terms of two competing models of foreign policy realism—one a zero-sum model based purely on nation-state self-interest and power, the other a potentially positive-sum model based on a multiplicity of actors within an international framework of laws, norms and practices.

The two models were initially described by  the somewhat unconventional realist scholar Stephen Krasner in his 1982 paper, “Regimes and the Limits of Realism: Regimes as Autonomous Variables.”  Krasner called the first the “billiard ball model,” because only the interactions of the states/billiard balls mattered, the global environment/billiard table was ignored. The second he called the “tectonic plate model,” because the power relations and institutional arrangements which began in a state of harmony inevitably shifted apart over time.

Then consider a 1998 paper, “Kennan's Long Telegram and NSC-68: A Comparative Analysis,” by Efstathios Fakiolas which argued that these two seminal Cold War documents—George Kennan's Long Telegram and Paul Nitze's NSC-68—embodied these two distinct forms of realism. Fakiolas argued that Kennan saw the Soviet threat in terms of the tectonic plates model as primarily a political threat, while Nitze, using the billiard ball model, saw it as entirely military. Both the nature of the threat and how to respond to it were determined by the model in both cases. Hence, I summarized, “Kennan favored a strategy of containment that emphasized strengthening the West socially, economically and culturally, addressing its flaws which the Soviets exposed. In contrast, Nitze ignored issues of the West's internal flaws, and focused almost exclusively on military force to combat the Soviet Union,” adding:

It's my own observation, based on this analysis, that we fought Nitze's Cold War, but we won Kennan's. It was not, in the end, our military strength that defeated the Soviet Union, it was the appeal of our culture of openness and freedom. The history of Eastern European resistance movements, especially in Checkoslavakia and Poland, makes this abundantly clear. Through their influence on dissident culture, Frank Zappa and Lou Reed did more to win the Cold War than any division of tanks ever did-or even a wing of nuclear armed B-52 bombers.

In short, we lucked out in the Cold War, but we're not so lucky with the post 9/11 “long war,” in part because  there is even more complexity to the real world than the tectonic plates model allows, there are both more values, and more actors in play.  Something like the sort of decentralized democratic global order that Barber describes could provide a viable regime in which the wider array of moral concerns that Lakoff described can all be expressed and harmonized, without being swallowed by either McWorld or Jihad.  But we cannot expect McWorld to provide this future for us—certainly not in a Citizens United, corporations-are-people and money-is-speech kind of world. Rather, we should expect it to fight tooth and nail against being displaced like that by genuine democratic rule.

Thus, it's not just on economic matters, much less just more narrow financial ones, that grassroots Democrats and Wall Street Democrats stand opposed to one another.  On fundamental matters of global governance they stand on opposite sides, not just because international “trade” treaties usurp democracy, and gut labor and environmental rights, but also because Wall Street's vision inevitably enhances the power of terrorists, not so much because Wall Street colludes with them (though there may be examples of that, mediated by drug-money laundering, arms-running-money laundering and the like), but more fundamentally because it colludes against them—McWorld and Jihad are the perfect cartoon-figure enemies for each other.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, we had a golden opportunity to go a different way. 9/11 itself was a terrible crime, but it was not an act of war—simply put, al Qaeda was incapable of waging war against the US. It was Bush and Cheney's panicked over-reaction that gave al Qaeda exactly what it wanted—the status of holy warriors, the presence of American troops on Islamic soil engaged in combat, and ultimately, most visibly at Abu Grhaib, the violation of our own most noble principles.  It's difficult to imagine what more bin Laden could have asked for, even if he'd been advising Bush directly. Yet, few took any notice of how perfectly the Bush response fit into bin Laden's set of goals.  It felt good, dammit! And that's pretty much all that anyone in elite policy cirles cared about at the time.

And yet, the majority of the world's people were far wiser and more reasoned in their judgments. Within days of 9/11, Gallup international began polling people around the world, and in almost every country lopsided landslide majorities said that 9/11 should be treated as a crime, with those responsible hunted down and put on trial, rather than being treated as an act of war. Those majorities ranged from 67 to 88% among NATO/Western European nations, from 64 to 83% among Eastern European nations, and from 83 to 94% in Latin America. In Pakistan, 69% supported extradition and trial, while only 9% supported military action.

There were only three exceptions to this worldwide consensus: India, Israel and the U.S. India and Israel both had spent decades engaged in military responses to terror from political Islam, and super-majorities of their people said the U.S. should join them in their fruitless folly. Both had records of abject failure—they had normalized war-fighting, and given up any hope of ever knowing peace.  Americans were more divided. Although the pundit class overwhelmingly called for blood, and never even considered the law-and-order alternative, only a bare majority of Americans—54 percent—agreed, compared to 30 percent who favored putting the terrorists on trial and 16 percent who were undecided.  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post ran 44-2 in favor of war during the first three weeks after September 11, so the bare majority level of popular support for war was clearly far below that of America's elites.

Of course, we can't simply turn back the clock. But recognizing the depth of our folly in how we responded to 9/11 must surely be a prerequisite for any serious attempt to correct it going forward.  If we had put bin Laden and al Qaeda on trial for 9/11, it's difficult, if not impossible to imagine anything remotely like our 133-nation battlefront in the long war last year, much less the emergence of a force like ISIS.  We've only descended into a warlike state because we elevated mass murderers to the unwarranted status of warriors.  It really is just that simple, no matter how difficult it may be to remedy now. The decision to go to war after 9/11 must rank as America's greatest foreign policy mistake of all time, a world-historical mistake on a par with Britain and France's decision to profoundly punish Germany with the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles.

The problem now is much more complicated than it was on September 12, 2001. Unmaking omelets is never easy. But we can still start to by recognizing some basic outlines of what a workable alternative vision needs—as I noted in that 2007 diary.  Any such workable vision must do all of the following:

(1) It must recognize—a la "Jihad Vs. McWorld"—that globalization without democratic regulation feeds terrorism, and talk about the need to create a more humane world order, in which people have the means to collectively control their own destinies.

(2) It must appreciate—a la "Misreading The Public"—the American people's desire to engage the world multilaterally, take responsibility to inform them accurately, and take seriously what they have to say about foreign policy, rather than relying on myths.

(3) It must embrace and enthusiastically articulate the moral norms approach to foreign policy as described in Lakoff's paper for the Frameworks/Global Interdependence Initiative, and lay out a thematically unified approach that places the struggle against global terrorism in a larger context together with addressing other vital concerns including the environment, human rights, women's rights, children's issues, global public health and the spread of disease, poverty and the powerlessness of the impoverished, fair labor practices, violent ethnic conflicts, indigenous rights, and an economics of sustainability that promotes quality of life rather than an unsustainable economic growth.

(4) It must have the courage to re-examine the Cold War, and learn from our mistakes last time to avoid repeating them this time.

(5) It must recognize that while our enemy is still far too weak to defeat us militarily, it can illuminate flaws in our own system, and that the best way to combat it is vigorously engage in eliminating those flaws, and strengthening and expanding the political, cultural and social virtues that are our greatest strength.

The particular policies and actions which flow from such a framework will surely be challenging to work out and communicate. The elite opposition will be fierce—along with that of our own homegrown Christian jihadists. But the evidence is overwhelming that neglecting or denying these framework elements is a sure-fired recipe for failure.  We can't know ahead of time what will work for certain. That's always true when exploring new frontiers. But we can learn from past mistakes what not to do—don't fight fire with gasoline—and we can also learn how to become better and better explorers, pursuing a vision of a world that works for everyone.

Isn't it better to fail at that—“Fail again. Fail better,” as Beckett said—than continue succeeding at disastrously repeating the past?

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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Barack Obama Dick Cheney Foreign Policy George W. Bush September 11