Can the next president finally shift U.S. foreign policy away from endless war?

This election represents a historic opportunity for the U.S. to change course. That can't happen unless Trump loses

By Medea Benjamin

Contributing Writer

Published July 26, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

The preparations of the coalition forces before starting their joint patrols with the People's Protection Units on April 29, 2017 near Turkey Broder, Syria. (Bedir Ehmed/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)
The preparations of the coalition forces before starting their joint patrols with the People's Protection Units on April 29, 2017 near Turkey Broder, Syria. (Bedir Ehmed/Barcroft Media/Getty Images)

This is an adapted excerpt from "Turnout!: Mobilizing Voters in an Emergency," edited by Charles Derber, Suren Moodliar and Matt Nelson, published by Routledge.

For young people in this country who have just come of voting age, they have lived their whole lives in a nation at war. Just let that sink in. The 9/11 attacks have been followed by 18 years of war — and counting. The youth of this country have also been robbed of free college education, a decent health care system and the funds needed for a Green New Deal because over 50 percent of this nation's discretionary funds are siphoned off to the Pentagon budget. Voting in new leaders is no guarantee that peace will break out or that the military budget will be right sized, but keeping Trump in the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate is a guarantee that the military-industrial complex will remain in the driver's seat, keeping this nation on the warpath. If people come out in record numbers in the next election and vote for a real alternative, we could not only transform our nation internally, but transform the entire way the U.S. relates to the rest of the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the past two decades of war have been, for the most part, bipartisan disasters. George W. Bush, a Republican president, got us into the quagmire in Afghanistan but every congressperson except Barbara Lee voted for it. Many lives and two trillion dollars later, the Taliban control more territory than they did 18 years ago and corruption in the U.S.-backed Afghan government is endemic. Bush dragged us into the quagmire in Iraq, which unravelled that nation and led to the rise of ISIS. Forty percent of Democrats in the House and 58 percent of Democratic senators voted for this disastrous war.

In the 2008 presidential election, the American public had already turned against the Iraq war and Barack Obama gained an edge over Hillary Clinton because of his opposition to it. Many voters expected him to be a "peace president" and, to his credit, his administration heralded two very important foreign policy breakthroughs: the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Other than those two achievements, however, Obama continued most of the conflicts that he inherited and started new ones, such as the tragic invasion of Libya.

Donald Trump also ran on a populist anti-war platform, railing against Bush for dragging our nation into the Iraq war, which he has called "the worst single mistake ever made in the history of our country." Even in office, Trump continued to talk about the need for the U.S. to "get out of these ridiculous, endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our troops home." He made a short-lived attempt to end the U.S. military presence in Syria, pushed talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and began an unsuccessful dialogue with North Korea.

Yet, for most of his time in office, Trump has been a hawk. For all his talk about bringing our troops home, he sent almost 20,000 more to the Middle East and upped the air wars. He brought dangerous warmongers such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo into top positions in government. After he finally fired Bolton, Trump quipped that if he had listened to Bolton, "We would have been in World War Six by now." We might not be headed to World War Six, but Trump's rash behavior on the world stage could well take us into World War Three.

The Trump administration's worst foreign policy has been its belligerence towards Iran. Whether it wanted to undo Obama's accomplishments or do the bidding of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump tore up a nuclear agreement that was working and was supported by the global community. He then imposed brutal sanctions on Iran that have decimated its economy and brought hardships to millions of ordinary people. Then, on Jan. 2, 2020, he ordered the assassination of Iran's top commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, which brought us to a dangerous precipice that could lead to war at any moment.

This is one of the reasons that the upcoming election is so critical. In the case of Iran, it could literally make the difference between war and peace.

After two decades of constant conflict, the American people are sick and tired of war. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Americans said the war in Iraq was not worth fighting and 59 percent said the same for the Afghan war. There is even less support for a war with Iran. A September 2019 University of Maryland poll showed that a mere one-fifth of Americans said the U.S. "should be prepared to go to war" to achieve its goals in Iran, while three-quarters said that U.S. goals do not warrant military intervention.

A new presidential agenda could lead to the transformational, progressive foreign policy we so desperately need. So what are the elements of such a policy?

In broad strokes, it would be a policy that jettisons the imperial framework of "American exceptionalism" and instead respects the sovereignty of other nations. It would be a policy that focuses on international cooperation, conflict prevention and peace-building. It would be a policy based on the same values of human rights and justice that we seek at home, including lifting people out of poverty, empowering workers and combating the catastrophic effects of climate change.

It would insist on the safe and orderly withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and an end to U.S. air wars. Yes, getting out of entrenched U.S. entanglements will be messy, but it can certainly be carried out in a more effective way than the unplanned, uncoordinated and erratic actions in Syria, which gave a green light for Turkey to slaughter the Kurds. U.S. withdrawals must be coordinated with our allies and be part of diplomatic processes.

A new course of action is particularly urgent in the cases of Iran and North Korea. In the case of Iran, this means rejoining the nuclear deal, lifting the brutal sanctions and beginning a process to normalize relations. With North Korea, we must replace the current armistice with a real peace treaty that would finally put an end to the 1953 Korean war. We must stop the provocative military exercises with South Korea, lift the economic sanctions and begin economic cooperation. Only then will the North Korean leadership be willing to dismantle their nuclear weapons.

Revamping our foreign policy also means revamping our overseas alliances, including U.S. support for autocratic regimes. Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive and dangerous regimes on earth, has shamefully become a key U.S. partner and the No. 1 purchaser of U.S. weapons. The U.S.-backed Saudi-led war against Yemen has led to the world's greatest humanitarian crisis. The U.S. must stand up to the weapons dealers by demanding an end to all arms sales to the kingdom. It should sanction Saudi leaders involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, including Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. And it should pressure the Saudi regime to release Saudi women activists, respect the rights of free speech and free assembly, stop spreading its intolerant perversion of Islam, Wahhabism, around the world, and most important of all, end the war in Yemen.

Our unconditional support of Israel also needs to end. The U.S. provides $3.8 billion of taxpayer money to the Israeli military every year and protects Israel diplomatically in the UN so that Israel is never held accountable for its inhumane treatment of Palestinians. While the pro-Israel lobby continues to hold enormous sway in the White House and halls of Congress, public opinion towards Israel is changing dramatically, especially among young people inside and outside the Jewish community. Several Democratic senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have called for conditioning U.S. aid to Israel on respect for human rights and adherence to international law. We must stop giving Israel a blank check to commit war crimes, but we must also get real about solutions. Instead of mouthing platitudes about a "two-state solution" that has become impossible due to Israel's ever-expanding settlements, or giving credence to Trump's ridiculous "peace plan" that has absolutely no Palestinian support, we need to focus on a policy based on rights and equality for all.

Our efforts to wind down U.S. intervention in the Middle East should not be used as a pretext for ramping up conflicts elsewhere, particularly with Russia and China. The anti-Russia sentiment that has emerged with the allegations of Russian interference in U.S. elections, the increased sanctions on Russia and the U.S. withdrawal from the INF nuclear treaty have led to a dangerous Cold War-like atmosphere.

The same is true with China, where U.S. officials portray China as an economic adversary, a potential military threat, and a threat to U.S. economic interests with its increasing influence in Africa and Latin America. But viewing Russia and China as threats only justifies more military buildup. We need to stop making new enemies and instead join forces with major powers like Russia and China to help uplift other parts of the world, particularly in the Global South.

That would require the U.S. to treat countries in the Global South as partners, not countries we bully, threaten, occupy and exploit. This is true for Africa, where the U.S. has been expanding its military presence, but particularly true in Latin America, where the U.S. has a history of domination and the Trump administration has openly resuscitated the imperial Monroe Doctrine.

A progressive foreign policy would not support governments — anywhere in the world — that come to power through coups, such as the case of Honduras in 2009 or, more recently, Bolivia. It would re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, and would lift economic sanctions on Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. It would support grassroots, community-based organizations that are empowering the poor and most marginalized sectors of society, and cooperate with governments and non-governmental groups to address the climate crisis.

It would also be generous with humanitarian aid and more supportive of refugees, especially people who are fleeing violence that our government had a role in creating. It would lift the Muslim ban and end the inhuman treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Revamping our foreign policy would also require a re-examination of the need for U.S. military bases overseas. The United States is the only country in the world with hundreds of foreign bases (more than 800!), spread across over 90 countries. Many bases are relics of the Cold War and have no strategic value today. In some countries, local opposition has generated anti-American sentiment that jeopardizes our security. Some bases, like the ones surrounding Iran, are sitting targets should there be an outbreak of hostilities. A progressive foreign policy would close most of our military bases abroad and take responsibility for cleaning up the contamination caused by the military's reckless use of hazardous materials.

Another area that desperately needs radical change is our nuclear weapons program. The United States has more than 7,000 nuclear warheads, more than any other nation on Earth, and has refused to implement existing disarmament commitments in the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires all nuclear weapons states to move towards "full and complete nuclear disarmament." A great boon to global nuclear disarmament would be for the U.S. to join the new UN Weapons Ban Treaty and to scrap the Obama-era commitment for a massive upgrade to the U.S. nuclear arsenal — a commitment that fuels the arms race and will cost the U.S. taxpayer over a trillion dollars.

Along these lines of saving billions while actually making the world safer, a progressive foreign policy would require massive cuts in the Pentagon budget. From the White House, Trump boasts that he alone has restored the U.S. military to greatness after it was supposedly decimated by Barack Obama (even though Obama continued the bloated Pentagon spending). His 2020 budget of $740 billion is the largest since World War II, which means that it is more than the amount spent on the military during the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the height of the Reagan buildup. Trump brags that this buildup will create tens of thousands of jobs, but studies show that the Pentagon is actually a poor job creator. Money put into public education would create twice as many jobs, and shifting $125 billion a year from the Pentagon to green manufacturing would result in a net increase of 250,000 jobs.

As an alternative to the present budget, the Poor People's Campaign came out with a detailed report, "Poor People's Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live," showing how we can extract ourselves from harmful systems and invest in rebuilding our failing infrastructure, create jobs, provide health care and housing, and alleviate poverty. It calls for a cut of $350 billion in annual military spending to fund these needs, which would still leave us with a military larger than China, Iran and Russia — combined.

With the upcoming elections, the American people have a chance to move towards a moral budget and a moral international stance.

In Congress, we are already seeing some significant policy shifts that could become law if the Democrats were in control of the White House and Congress. Since the 9/11 attacks, Congress has unfortunately been only too happy to leave war-making to the president, abrogating its constitutional role as the only power authorized to declare war. Thanks to public pressure, starting in 2019 there has been a remarkable shift. Both houses of Congress voted to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and to prohibit an unauthorized war on Iran. Although Trump vetoed the bills, they offer proof that public pressure can move Congress, including a Republican-dominated Senate, to reclaim its constitutional powers over war and peace from the executive branch. If we remove the obstacle in the White House, these bills would become the law of the land.

Another bright light in Congress is the pioneering work of first-term Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who recently laid out a series of seven bills called Pathway to PEACE. While her bills will be hard to get passed in Congress, the package lays out a marker for where we should be headed. It also shows how voting to put a committed, energetic Muslim woman in Congress can shake up the status quo.

The presidential election offers our best opportunity to transform our desire for peace into reality. The peace movement has influenced most candidates to say that the United States should rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and most have promised to bring U.S. troops home from the greater Middle East. Most have criticized the bloated Pentagon budget (despite the fact that some regularly vote for it), and some have put forth specific ideas. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has called for the elimination of the Pentagon's slush fund for war spending, the Overseas Contingency Operations, which would save $798 billion over ten years.

A transformational president in the White House would understand that America should not be fighting fruitless wars that only further destroy the planet, but fighting to save the planet. As Sen. Bernie Sanders has often noted, "Maybe — just maybe — instead of spending $1.8 trillion a year on military budgets and weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, we can pool our resources as a planet to fight our common enemy: climate change."

That vision, alone, should be a great incentive to get out and vote for candidates who respond to articulate it.


By Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CODEPINK for Peace and author of several books, including "Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran." She and Nicolas J.S. Davies are the authors of "War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict."

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