The Democrats’ Foreign Policy Problem

If one begins from the premise that the goal is to replace Donald Trump with a Progressive Democrat in 2020, there are  good reasons not to support Tulsi Gabbard in her Presidential bid. Then again, there are also  good reasons not to support Kamala Harris,   or for that matter, any of the erstwhile  centrist alternatives. My point here, I stress, is not to endorse or oppose any candidate in particular at this juncture. The Democrats are not going to run the perfect candidate by either centrist or Democratic Socialist standards. Voters in the Democratic Party primaries will have to make a decision to vote for whomever they view as their best shot at defeating Trump, and voters in the general election will have to make a decision about whomever they view as the lesser of two evils.

That said, the reaction to Tulsi Gabbard both by many Democrats and by the mainstream media has been at best odd. There are legitimate issues on which Tulsi Gabbard should clarify as to what her current positions are, and are not, and I remain hesitant, at a minimum, to embrace Tulsi Gabbard as the standard bearer of an anti-interventionist platform in the Democratic Party.   Her family ties to Hindutva raise concerns as does her inability, or unwillingness, to distinguish between the dangers of of extremist movements influenced by Salafi Jihadism and Islam in general. Her past record, which she has since altered, on LGBTQ rights should be addressed. But the criticisms of her on foreign policy have been more along the lines of echoes of Cold War smears, rather than substantive policy discourse. Both the mainstream media, the centrist wing of the Democratic Party, and at times, even some progressives have jumped on the bandwagon that equates    meeting with Bashar Al Assad, opposing U.S. intervention in Syria and recognizing that Putin and Russia have legitimate objections to U.S. policies since the end of the Cold War makes one a Russian stooge and apologist for dictators. At the same time, candidates such as Kamala Harris, who has a long history of supporting mass incarceration and an interventionist foreign policy have been considered acceptable.

I will leave it to the reader to decide which should be  more troubling to progressives, or to anyone else:

  1. The candidate whose past record on LGBTQ issues was horrible, but who has since done an about face on LGBTQ issues, supports many other progressive economic policies, opposes the policy of regime change, though talks about it in ways that some on the far left views as too limited;
  2. The candidate who has an established record of supporting some very non-progressive positions, now voices some mild doubts about those policies, and who as far as I can tell, is comfortable with the new found view among many, though my no means all, Democrats that serious candidates must be hawkish on Russia and Syria.

And though it now seems as if it it were long  ago,  and in a galaxy far, far, away, that the liberal-left emphasized the need for subtlety and nuance in dealing with nasty people like Bashar Al Assad and Saddam Hussein, it actually wasn’t. There are still people such as Joshua Landis who have provided much needed actual history and analysis of the conflict in Syria. But otherwise, we live in strange times.

In the past, years after the fall of totalitarian state capitalism and the end of the Soviet Union John McCain looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin and saw three letters.   8 years later he issued dire warnings about Russian expansionism over South Ossetia. In contrast,  the current Republican President stands accused by establishment Democrats of being a Russian stooge, though we might recall when George Bush Jr. saw in Vladimir Putin a “kindred soul”.  Were Trump, actually committed to a more realistic and peaceful foreign policy, including finding ways to accommodate legitimate Russian concerns about the expansion of NATO,  that would be commendable. But it should be pointed out that there is often a vast gulf between Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and what he actually does. During his candidacy, Trump portrayed himself as representing a break with the Neo cons, while Secretary Clinton consistently echoed their nonsense, as she is wont to do. In practice however, Trump’s actual policies have been as bellicose towards Iran as ever. To the extent that Trump does indeed seek a rapprochement with Russia that should be greeted as to the good. This does not, of course,excuse Trump’s  self enrichment through his corrupt business dealings with Russian oligarchs or his pandering to the alt right. Our fear however, should not be that Trump will accommodate Russia or pull out of Afghanistan and Syria prematurely, but that he will pursue policies of regime change in Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea. My concern is not that Trump will “appease” Putin, but that his policies are reminiscent of the cynical balance of power games of the Berlin Conference.

In contrast, what we need is to build a principled, and as broad as possible, coalition to bring about a new and very different kind of U.S. foreign policy. This process presents challenges and dilemmas, for which there are no easy answers. One place to start is by addressing the merits and demerits of Tulsi Gabbard’s candidacy seriously, rather than by the retreading of Cold War smears.


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