Shaped as it was by yesterday’s horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris, tonight’s Democratic Party primary debate exposed the impoverished state of coherent, intelligent, and forward-looking thought about international affairs in the Democratic Party. While none of the three candidates offers the same toxic mix of casual and catastrophic violence, xenophobia, and rank ignorance as the GOP, they had nothing like a coherent, progressive, imaginative policy agenda for thinking about and acting on the major challenges facing a world wracked by violence.
There were, however, substantial differences in the ways in which the three candidates reflected on events, viewed recent history, and deliberated about how to contend with global terrorism.
Clinton invited us to think about history and invoked a history of U.S. “victimization” by history. But a truly historical perspective would ask us to think about why the U.S. has been attacked over the years, and whether our behavior has created some of these threats. They did not, after all, emerge from nowhere. In contrast, Sanders invoked the history of U.S. efforts at regime change around the world, and connected these to terrorism and instability. I know whose grasp of historical evidence and critical thinking would earn the better grade in my history class!
However much better his instincts on foreign policy might be than Hillary Clinton’s, Bernie Sanders was nonetheless again incoherent and garbled. He needs to do far more work in developing a thoughtful, progressive, pro-active foreign policy for a variety of important reasons.
Martin O’Malley was similarly disjointed in attempting to outline an international policy agenda. He identified the lack of human intelligence as central to the countless failures of U.S. foreign policy making in the past years. That is incredibly naïve, and overlooks the far more important role of a dysfunctional worldview and an over-mighty security state in mangling our ability to engage rationally with the world.
Nonetheless, no candidate was as frightening as Clinton when it came to articulating a foreign policy, not least because of her record. We know Clinton as a supporter of the illegal, immoral, and disastrous war in Iraq. We know her as the Obama administration’s strongest civilian advocate for regime change and war in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East. We know her as a reactionary who, as Secretary of State defended dictators and autocrats against the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped to ensure, through her defense of them, that those uprisings were failed or mangled in many instances. We know her as a defender of unconscionable Israeli colonialism that endangers the lives of Palestinian subjects and Israeli citizens alike. We know her as a defender of Morocco’s indefensible colonialism in Western Sahara. And we know her as the public servant who attacked as a traitor Edward Snowden, who shed light on the terrorism and abuse of the security state she has helped to enlarge.
Tonight’s debate offered further evidence of the dangerous nature of Clinton’s worldview. She blamed the rise of ISIS on the Iraqi government and the Assad government in Syria. Neither of those governments are blameless. But to omit mentioning that the event most responsible for the creation of ISIS was the war in Iraq that she voted to authorize, and then never critiqued except along managerial lines, is appalling.
Clinton also referred to former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as the “Muslim Brotherhood president” in Egypt who was “installed”. The reality, as Clinton should recall since she was Secretary of State at the time, is that Morsi won an election, and was “elected”, not “installed”. She might not care for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the choice of president was Egyptians, and not hers. But I can understand her reluctance, given the effort she expended in undermining Egypt’s democratic uprisings and defending the dictator Mubarak’s regime in the name of “stability”, small comfort to the Egyptians who perished or whose rights were extinguished under his 30 year regime.
When asked how to confront ISIS and other instances of terror, Clinton invoked the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11, suggesting that it was sufficient to authorize a president’s military response to ISIS. This is deeply disturbing. AUMF gave Bush the authorization to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.
ISIS is in some regard connected to 9/11, inasmuch as the Bush Administration used it to gain public support for their invasion of Iraq and lied about connections between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in order to persuade irresponsible and frankly ignorant representatives like Hillary Clinton to write them a blank, bipartisan check for the war that created ISIS.
But the idea that a 2001 authorization for the pursuit of those individuals who attacked the U.S. 14 years ago can grant the president the authority to wage war against any terrorist group in 2015 is absurd, makes a mockery of the law, and demonstrates how quick Clinton would be to abuse Bush-era laws and take the U.S. into new wars.
Clinton’s foreign policy record should be subjected to far more critical scrutiny by both Sanders and O’Malley, and the media.
Sanders was less hesitant than in previous debates to criticize Hillary Clinton, and having identified her vote for the Iraq war as a mistake with dire consequences, he also called attention to her long-term ties to Wall Street.
Clinton took umbrage, and whined about having her integrity impugned. Sanders must have used a microscope to locate and question her integrity, given her career of hypocritical, regressive, flip-flopping, neo-conservative war-mongering, and sympathy for the irresponsible financial industry.
Sensing that she was on the defensive, Clinton actually went so far as to invoke 9/11 as the reason for Wall Street’s support for her campaigns over the years to the tune of more than $35 million (her total haul of corporate money is far higher).
Hillary Clinton once again revealed herself as the most right-wing of the three candidates when it came to social welfare. She refused to acknowledge healthcare as the right that it is in much of the world, as opposed to the privilege that the over-priced and under-performing healthcare sector is the U.S.
She also proved her regressive credentials when it came to higher education. The moderator criticized Bernie Sanders’ plan to make public higher education free by citing a 63% graduation rate across colleges. This low rate, the moderator suggested, was a good reason not to “waste” money on making that education free
What Sanders should have said but didn’t is that a significant reason why a large number of college attendees have difficulty in completing their degrees is the high costs and massive debt associated with higher education. Many students drop out because of this debt, and others leave their degrees unfinished as their college careers drag out over too many years because of the need to work as they study.
Investing in higher education, and making it free—as it was in many states for many years—is a good way to equip students with the tools to finish their degrees and emerge unencumbered by crippling debt.
For the second debate running, Hillary Clinton angled for cheap applause, framing her opposition to free public higher education as an opposition to taxpayers paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college for free.
But the very definition of public higher education is a system in which ALL students, irrespective of their parents’ wealth, attend college for free, supported by the taxpayers at large, who pay into that system according to their wealth. Until the likes of Ronald Reagan came along, this was the model in California, home of the country’s—and arguably the world’s—best system of public higher education.
There were important moments during the domestic policy sections of the debate. But I was most struck by the initial, lengthy foreign policy discussion.
It left me disheartened. The Democratic Party has ceased to be—if it ever was—an entity which has anything resembling a moral or coherent world view, any sense of history, or an ability to hit back at the narrative our security state has constructed about the place of the U.S. in the wider world. The Party is increasingly being pulled to the left in economic terms, and this will be to the long-term benefit of our public. But none of that progressive momentum has filtered into thinking about international affairs, institutions, or innovations, and I fear for our country and our world.
In the past week, events in Beirut, Paris, and elsewhere have illustrated some of the dangers—regularly on display, often un-reported—that define the lives of too many people in the world. They have illustrated the inadequacy of our global institutions, our policy frameworks, and our leadership to address our global crisis with anything resembling long-term or thoughtful policymaking. The U.S. must play a role in whatever changes occur in this sphere. And while the Republican Party offers nothing but naked violence, I see little better coming from a morally and intellectually impoverished Democratic Party based on tonight’s debate.