The U.S. is once again preparing for a war abroad—an intervention in Syria which will violate international law and have nothing good to show for it. Opposition to the military intervention cuts across the political divide but has been most loudly and selfishly articulated by members of the Republican Party who oppose not only this military intervention, but also international law and humanitarian relief, while supporting extrajudicial killings and a dangerous doctrine of American exceptionalism.
The U.S. risks emerging from this dark tunnel and finding itself in the worst of all worlds. We will have rejected the premises behind humanitarian interventions, we will have empowered a radically-immoral libertarian foreign policy outlook, we will be more isolated internationally, and we will have undermined efforts to take serious action to aid Syrian citizens who are the victims of civil war.
One way of avoiding this would be for progressive leaders to take a stand against the ill-defined military action advocated by the Obama administration—military action which would violate international law, escalate the violence in Syria, and fail to protect civilians or end the conflict.
Yet such voices are largely absent. The foremost champion of progressivism in the country, Senator Elizabeth Warren, is conspicuously absent from this critical debate about U.S. foreign policy. Both because our disastrous wars of the last decade and a half have generated trillions in costs and debt, sapping our ability to address our problems at home, and because they are part of the larger regressive trend in U.S. politics, it is important for progressive leaders to address what might prove to be a pivotal point in our foreign policy trajectory—particularly if, as many of us hope, Elizabeth Warren might be running for President in 2016.
Warren’s failure thus far to mount an intervention in the debate—an intervention which, because of the esteem in which she is held by progressives nationwide, could well prove decisive to shifting public opinion, critical votes in Congress, or even the administration’s approach—is unfortunate not just for the policy consequences.
There is also a danger that it could mark a shift in her tenure, and become one of the landmarks down the dangerous road to disenchantment. Like then-Senator Obama in 2007 and 2008, Warren has energised progressive constituencies in the U.S., promising something different to the corrupt conventional wisdom in D.C. Unlike Obama, Warren isn’t promoting some vacuous centrism and keeping out of the way of controversy. Instead, she has put the economic inequality which defines many Americans’ lives squarely in her sights, and has been an active voice in the Senate for policies which are as anathema to the corporate-minded wing of her party—which comprises the President and his assumed successor, Hillary Clinton—as to the stark-raving fundamentalists in the Republican Party.
People like Warren, in other words, not because she is bland, inoffensive, and calculating, like Obama and Clinton (both of whom opted to spend their senate terms keeping their heads down and achieving exactly nothing of substance in terms of either significant legislation or shifting public opinion), but because she is not afraid to identify the real sources of economic inequality in the U.S. and to take them on. She is refreshing not because of her ability to repackage tried-and-failed policies in an inclusive rhetoric like the President, or because she can get on every side of an issue (the classically Clintonian approach), but because she rejects those policies out of hand and insists that we change the parameters of the debate.
If indeed she mounts a presidential run in 2016—and the country is crying out for something other than a contest between the Clinton machine and a cookie-cutter crackpot from the fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party—Warren will face an uphill fight against an almost impossibly-powerful array of vested economic interests in both parties. Her strength will be her refusal to knuckle under and mouth the usual homilies, and the potential for that same refusal to generate massive support amongst committed progressives and the legions of voters who might well embrace a substantive progressive platform if one were ever offered.
But just as Obama’s star waned when it turned out he had nothing novel to offer, support for Warren will contract if she abandons her principled stands and begins to accede to the debilitating demands, and corrosive consensuses of Washington’s elites. She and her staff could do worse than read the penultimate chapter of Hunter S Thompson’s darkly-hilarious classic account of the Nixon-McGovern race, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. The writer and journalist, who followed both campaigns during the 1972 presidential race, concluded that McGovern’s star waned both amongst ardent progressives, and those across the country who were receptive to his arguments about economic and foreign policy, when he ceased to be a principled crusader and became a calculating candidate, driven by polls which offered a snapshot of public opinion as shaped by the Nixon machine instead of making arguments to counter that machine and drive that public opinion.
It is understandable that Warren’s expertise is in the domestic arena, and that her focus is on financial and economic reform. But the twin disasters of neoliberal economic policy and neoconservative policy have proven to be two sides of the same coin, and any convincing progressive candidate will need to address them as such. Moreover, an intervention by Warren could give momentum to the impetus for peace, diplomacy, and internationalism which should define U.S. engagement with the world.
The debate about Syria is too important—to the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy and for the welfare of Syrian citizens—for progressives like Elizabeth Warren to sit out. The Senator should simultaneously reject the agitation for military intervention which would not help Syrians and might create a quagmire for the U.S., and articulate some of the alternatives to military force which stand a good chance of simultaneously contribute to ending the civil war in Syria and restoring some moral legitimacy to our own country.