Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Beyond Dethroning Bush....and into a real discussion of US Foriegn Policy ?

Today, I was finally awake when Amy Goodman was talking to Murray Waas about the expansion of the leak investigation to cover the entire Whitehouse "Iraq group." The last time I heard that name mentioned was in the brilliant documentary from the Media Education Foundation, Hijacking Catastrophe. This news, coupled with the AfterDowningstreet poll that finds that between 44% and 50% of Americans favor impeaching Bush if he lied to them about the reasons for the Iraq war, fills me with hope.
However, if I read over my entries on this blog, I can see myself see-sawing between giddy glee over impending criminal indictments and convictions, (a glee which includes a fantasy of George Bush and his cronies bent over the Crown Victorias in cuffs), and cautious optimism, and finally, total despair of any consequences.
I'll try to be less reactive and more analytical about this today. As I get caught up in the excitement over the Plame leak investigation and the belief that perhaps Bush and co. will finally get "their comeuppance," I often notice the excitement and think quietly, "but will this really get to the heart of the matter?"
It's been all too easy to see in Bush and his cronies all that is wrong with American foreign policy and to imagine in his fall from grace some kind of redemption of America. So, without simply applying a pin to a balloon, I want to test this out a bit. Those in power would like to see their own imperial dreams lived out more smoothly and efficiently, so the question is, how will they react to the crisis, and how can those of us on the left prepare for a post-Bush reality? What will we do if we get what we want, whether it comes in the form of a lame-duck presidency or an actual criminal trial? The fall of the house of Bush will feel good, and will have an impact in real terms, but it alone is not enough. What it will create is a major opportunity to engage the public in a serious discussion of US foreign policy in general. If that discussion is limited to a choice betweeen Democrats and Republicans, between UN and unilateralism, it will be a squandered moment.
If we look at Nixon's fall from grace, it seems pretty clear that once the rats have departed the sinking ship, they are quick to strategize anew. There are studies of Jimmy Carter and the Trilateral commission, for example, that are not just wild "one-world government" conspiracy theories. Look at this one from the Cambridge series of studies in internatinal relations.
, or read this 1980 article from Holly Sklar on Third World Traveler. The discussion of whether or not there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans is a distraction that is beside the point. I've found that it's nearly impossible to even be heard in an argument if you begin provocatively with the statement of "no difference."
I think it is more productive to begin the discussion by talking about long-term trends and problems, and by focusing on different issues than those you see in the typical Washington-centric debates. If you are looking at whatever current issues are offered up for debate by legislators, lobbyists and mainstream media, you will see clear partisan differences on a number of issues: namely, social welfare policy, taxation, and issues of personal rights and freedoms. The debates around foreign policy are much more limited and immediate: "What's the best strategy for getting US troops out of Iraq?" and "How can we fix the situation in Iraq" both leave the door open for continued US presence there, in a kinder, gentler form that will involve more international corporations, eliminate blatant cronyism, but maintain a system of Euro-American corporate power nonetheless.
On the one hand, it makes sense to offer up a critique of Democratic party foreign policies, because my primary concern here is to prevent or circumvent the Democratic party from coopting the growing anti-imperialist sentiment provoked by the war in Iraq. Since most Americans see Empire itself as wrong and un-democratic, the job of those seeking international intervention to secure American financial interests has been to mask that intervention as something other than what it is. The Democrats have been successful in selling empire through compassion while the Republicans have used fear to do it. For the Republicans, whose base is less concerned with democracy and fairness, it's been an easy job. For the Democrats, whose base includes the Vietnam generation of anti-war activists, it's been a much harder sell. It seems to me that most of the Democratic party's job on foreign policy has been to "sell" an interventionist, corporatist foreign policy to the powerful voting block of liberal middle-class baby boomers, the people that Jerry Springer referred to as the "wine and cheese" crowd, the people who were anti-imperialist in the 1960s, and who will tend to oppose a foreign policy that is as blatantly imperialist as the one turned out by Bush and co.
Thus, Clinton's foreign policy presented US intervention as "humanitarian" and limited, intervention in the Balkans for example, to prevent ethnic cleansing, intervention in Somalia around similar issues. He effectively used the UN to achieve the appearance of global consensus. Rather than full-scale military operations, US troops have dispatched as part of international forces, thus lessening the appearance of imperial ambition. However, Clinton's and Albright's sanctions regimepaved the way for the present disaster in AIraq, and indeed, his policies paved the way for Bin Laden.
Partisan democrats should see the absence of discussion about foreign policy within the party (with the exception of Dennis Kucinich) as a part of the reason for the party's considerable political failures. Rank and file democrats are limited in their capacity to offer an alternative to Bush foreign policy because of this fundamental hypocrisy in the party's leadership. Individual democrats "on the street" are, to my mind, just as badly misled as Bush apologists when they try to justify these foreign policies, and as self-defeating. I don't think that this committment to the Democratic party is driven by intellect, but rather by some kind of emotional attachment. The defense of the Democratic party's foreign policy objectives, which ultimately contradict the values of everyone I know who defends them, is not rational. Is this a question of "not wanting to know," sort of like not wanting to see the things you don't like about your lover because you want to retain hope about your relationship? (this kind of willful blindness is something I'm familiar with in my own personal life.)
So, after that provocative exercise in anti-partisanship aside, I think that starting as I have here, with a discussion of dems and repubs is exactly the wrong way to talk to committed partisans, because it offends them off the bat. To say to a serious loyal Democrat that the Democratic party's foreign policy is little better (and possibly worse, because it's so much more competent) than the Republicans' is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Immediately, the discussion turns to Nader, Chomsky and their personal flaws, and to accusations that you yourself are responsible for the election of the devil (ie, Republicans/Bush). So how does one articulate that vision of reality that is so clear when you see it front of you to someone who just refuses to acknowledge your perceptions as legitimate, and merely starts to yell at you as if your understanding is just perverse and contrarian, as if what you wanted was simply to be "different" and weird.
The trick is to talk about the policies themselves, rather than the parties associated with them, in the context of long-term trends, perhaps starting with post-WWII, and even Kennedy's role in Vietnam. It's easy for me to do this, because I teach history. That can be the groundwork for a real discussion of foreign policy reform that doesn't get side-tracked by the need to defend indefensible policies simply because of the emotions of party loyalty. The best place for this discussion of long-term policy issues to happen is within the anti-war movement, in teach-ins and the like. The discussions should not be tendentious, in the manner of ISO propaganda. It is in this realm that change is most likely to happen, at least in my experience. I went from Democrat to Marxist in college when I learned about foreign policy in South Africa, Central America, and the Middle-East, among people who were not particularly sectarian politically, but came from points of view as diverse as Nation of Islam, the YCL, and various Palestinian rights groups. In the long run, though, it may be that committed partisans are the wrong group with whom to have this discussion, and that the best post-Bush regime strategy of all may be to engage the "undecided" and non-voters, who are more likely to be of the class of people whose personal experience is not engaged by the limited discussions of policy elites. On the other hand, those who are not politicized in some way already, may just be tuned out entirely, and impossible to reach.
Tell me what you think, readers.

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