Danny Boyle, the orchestrator of London’s Olympic opening ceremony, couldn’t have known it, but the segment of the show celebrating Britain’s National Health Service acted as a rousing “up yours” to cap off Mitt Romney’s humiliating turn in Britain. Romney’s gaffes were blamed by aides on jet-lag. It seems the candidate left his brain back state-side, and someone had to be despatched to get it (And what, I wonder, happens if Romney shows up to some summit meeting and behaves as he did in London? The country would stand to lose more than the credibility that Romney left on the streets of London after being savaged by the Prime Minister, the Mayor, and the rabid British press). Now, Romney is off to Israel to disprove what has been his campaign’s mantra for the past few weeks (that it doesn’t matter what “foreigners” think about America).
Romney is having a full itinerary, meeting, amongst others, Netanyahu and Lieberman (presumably in their padded cells). So far, Romney has been trotting out the standard attack on President Obama over Israel, saying that the “people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader off the free world”. While it’s unclear whether any ideology rather than naked opportunism lies behind Romney’s foreign policy utterances, they are chillingly reminiscent of an approach to the world we toyed with for eight years in the not-so-distant past. Put into practise, they will have seriously detrimental consequences, and we’ll be yearning for Mitt to run his mouth a la Olympics.
As per the general shallowness of the Presidential campaign, Obama himself engaged in another pathetic display of sycophancy, announcing further military aid towards a country that combines a keen sense of hubris with creeping paranoia and militarism—designed to wrong-foot Romney on the occasion of his visit to Israel. Contrary to the right-wing fantasy, Obama is no opponent of Romney. An article in the Jerusalem Post noted how spectacularly uninformed Romney’s criticisms of the Obama’s White House have become. Indeed, in announcing the grant of weapons, Obama declared the U.S. commitment to Israel “unshakeable”. This has, sadly, proven to be the case. Our unconditional support for Israel has been shaken neither by the morally and diplomatically irresponsible machinations of that country’s government, nor by its violations of human rights on a massive scale in the Gaza strip, its targeting of unarmed activists, its government’s sabotaging of peace efforts, or its endless recalcitrance when it comes to negotiations.
It’s been hard to determine where Romney stands along the spectrum of ‘traditional’ Republican foreign policy stances which range from realism (which endorses the arming of oppressive and undemocratic regimes and sacrifices our principles for short term national security gains—and more importantly for the profit margins of the arms industry), to neoconservatism (whose proponents dream of a vast and distinctly malevolent American Empire). During the Republican primary, Romney largely confined himself to vacuous, populist and xenophobic rants against China—rants which, even by his standards, were reprehensibly devoid of serious, workable solutions. But Romney’s backing of preventive war (an approach to foreign policy embraced by the Bush administration which empowers militarism, feeds paranoia, indulges in irresponsibility, and gambles with the lives of many, many people on a logically speculative and morally bankrupt strategic framework) is a sign that he is embracing the lunatic fringes of his party which see in Israel by turns a millennial force and an agent for the aggrandisement of U.S. power.
I don’t understand the chest-thumping, the endless reminders that “all options” (code for “war”) are on the table. Of course they are. Everyone knows that. Even if a politician said—and meant, sincerely—that war was not an option, circumstances can change for the worse. But every reference—made with shockingly immoral glee by those on the right—to the possibility of a war against Iran is a threat which undermines negotiations by leading the Iranian regime to think—perhaps quite rightly—that there are people in Israel and the United States who would like negotiations to fail. Who might sabotage them. Who enjoy the spectre of another war. Romney and the Republicans can’t possibly believe both that the Iranian leadership consists of dangerous, mindless fanatics exclusively bent on the destruction of Israel on the one hand, and that threats can work on the other. The two propositions are mutually exclusive, given that fanatics of the sort that Romney describes would be undeterred by the threat of military retaliation.
The application of the most elementary logic escapes the man who believes that he is most qualified to direct the foreign policy of the United States, and the growing tendency of the radicals in the Republican Party to demonise those perceived as their enemies abroad (as at home) prevents them from looking at issues—nuclear power and/or weapons in Iran—from multiple perspectives, thereby ensuring that they are totally incapable of understanding motive and rationale, two basic components of conducting foreign policy. Not only would Romney and his advisors’ conduct of foreign policy be ideologically dangerous; their very methodology, muddled as it is, is deeply flawed.
Romney declared, of the U.S. and Israel, “We serve the same cause and we have the same enemies. The security of Israel is a national security interest of the United States”, going on to add that “an enduring alliance is more than strategic; it’s a force for good in the world”. Romney followed up his assertions with criticism of Obama’s approach, saying that “diplomatic distance that is public and critical emboldens Israel’s adversaries”.
This way of thinking is dangerous and stupid. Romney cannot credibly argue both that the United States has a vested security interest in Israel, and that the United States should give carte blanche to a country which has declared itself liable to fly off the handle, and which has a history of initiating and escalating unnecessary and perilous conflict in its region. Countries have a tendency to make their own enemies, and we should not pledge ourselves to adopt Israel’s enemies as our own nor those of any other ally. In fact, our alliance with Israel has been anything but a force for good in the world. It has bred extremism, it has saddled the U.S. with the deplorable burden of defending human rights violations and mass murder of civilians, and it has prevented us from being serious about peacemaking.
Romney’s point about public criticism is also telling. Here is a man who emerged from the shadows of Bain Capital (shadows he still holds firmly over the nature and timing of his departure, as well as the manner of acquisition of wealth he practised there) to plot his presidential run. He avoids scrutiny like the plague, evincing the same contempt for journalists that George W Bush demonstrated—a contempt which, put into practise as President, allowed Bush to lie to his nation and drag the country into two wars from which we have yet to extricate ourselves.
Part of the problem with diplomacy, today and historically, is that it is carried out in secret, hidden from the eyes of a public who, though now citizens rather than subjects, are still treated with casual disdain by diplomats and warmongers who reassure us that they know best. If diplomacy—and that includes criticism of countries which we consider to be our allies—was carried out in public, it would be subject to less abuse, and kept more honest.
As wrongheaded as undemocratic secrecy is the business of unconditional support. Writing blank checks is bad diplomacy. Bad for the United States, when we find ourselves defending the indefensible. Bad for the Palestinians, who continue to live as colonised subjects. And bad for Israel, because unconditional U.S. backing appears to suggest to the Israeli government that its standard behaviour is in any way sustainable. Assisted suicide is not legal in most U.S. states, but our government is running just such a program in the Middle East. It is worth reading the late historian Tony Judt’s searing appraisal of Israel’s conduct, conduct which he condemns as “a country which is fast losing touch with reality”, a sadly accurate description which can as readily be applied to the behaviour of the United States.
Romney declared that Iran is “the most destabilising nation in the world”, citing the nation’s support for terrorists and its alleged efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. But here lies the central problem with the current cross-party approach to foreign policy in the United States. If support for despicable causes and repugnant regimes, together with the possession of vast stockpiles of weapons—the use of which could only end in the destruction of human life on a hitherto incomprehensible scale—and the support for the circulation of those weapons throughout the world are attributes of a “destabilising nation”, the United States remains the prime agent of destabilisation in the world today.
Only last week, the United States joined with authoritarian regimes like Russia and China to undermine a treaty on the arms trade. This trade, worth about one trillion per year, remains unregulated and therefore unethical. The merchants of death ply their trade (often with state support and encouragement) as indiscriminately as their wares will be used. The trade in small arms, the manufacture of advanced weapons systems, the free market approach taken by governments with reference to the arms industry...all of these things result in the butchery of tens when not hundreds of thousands of people every year. Sometimes for ideology, occasionally for religion, but mostly for power and profit (these latter two often bound inextricably up in the seemingly purer former causes of violence).
The United States refuses to respect many international treaties, but then uses the same disrespect of such treaties by other nations as a cassus belli. The United States wages war in something called the “national interest”. But this national interest is never properly discussed beforehand. Rather, a group of shoddy politicians send our soldiers off to war, giving us a new explanation for their deployment each week, and wrap themselves in the flag to avoid anything resembling accountability or culpability. Old Glory has been used to cover all manner of sins.
And because we fight for this vague, unexplained thing called the “national interest”, other, more common versions of morality, go out the window. We support authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia (regimes which participated in bribery over weapons sales in the UK, and then openly and successfully blackmailed the British government to silence subsequent investigations), Bahrain, and across Central Asia. We’ve defended violent governments in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Philippines. We’ve sold weapons (including poison gas) to dictators who were so bad that we later had to topple them.
Our most formidable enemies are not in Iran, North Korea, or the mountains of South Asia. Rather, they are the incapacitating self-doubts which lurk at the back of our minds, hamstring our critical thinking process, rendering us incapable of imagining a demilitarised world in which the United States makes peace rather than war. Our enemies pace the Pentagon, abusing and misusing our intelligence services, transforming them from agencies geared towards the accrual of information to aid in making good policy into arms of a military industrial complex which has grown immeasurably in strength and influence since President Eisenhower’s initial warning. Our enemies drift in and out of Congress and the Senate, using those two great political stages to show off their toughness, to win favour with the arms industry by defending unconscionable levels of arms spending, and to enrich donors by promoting weapons systems designed to kill, maim, and orphan people in their thousands—primarily in parts of the world that we will never see and can hardly manage to identify on a map.
Mitt Romney, like Obama, will provide “more of the same” where our foreign policy is concerned. But unlike Obama (whose militarism, I believe, is opportunistic rather than instinctive, and can therefore by blunted by circumstances or intelligently-applied pressure), Romney has surrounded himself by cultish proponents of a brutal form of imperialism, people who welcome and indeed seek out war, and who, unlike the President, don’t actually see anything problematic in the aggrandisement of power in a machine which fuses corporate wealth and profiteering with the most abusive and least responsive arm of the modern state. The calculations of the neoconservatives proceed utterly unhindered by even the most elementary instruction of those two savants, Cause and Effect. The regulation of the arms industry—indeed, the criminalisation of the trade—would do more for peace on our planet than any number of Bush’s “freedom wars”. The introduction of the kind of ethics into our foreign policy that most of us seek to practise in our daily lives would do more to disarm our “enemies” than all the bombs, blockades, and bombast that currently comprise our sadly deficient “arsenal of democracy”.
It’s long overdue that we approach our foreign policy and our place in the world with a more critical eye. And that eye should be first turned on Romney as he parades around the world, talking as though he’s never heard the words ‘Vietnam’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Guantanamo’, ‘Gaza’, or ‘Afghanistan’.