by Mark English
In the lead-up to the last presidential election, I saw Hillary Clinton as a more dangerous prospect than Donald Trump. As Marc Faber put it so succinctly (if hyperbolically) at the time: Trump would destroy America but Clinton would destroy the world.
The logic went as follows. Hillary Clinton took, as her actions as Secretary of State had demonstrated, a hawkish and interventionist approach to foreign policy which could plausibly be characterized as neoconservative. She was clearly committed to a continuing – even enhanced – imperial role for the United States. On the other hand, Trump was promising to wind back America’s military commitments and interventions. He was shallow and vulgar and clueless about history and economics, but at least he articulated (as he continues to articulate, though rather less plausibly given the track record of his administration) a desire to wind back military commitments overseas.
So is it a case of “here we go again,” Republican nominee Trump up against a neoconservative Democrat? Not really. Joe Biden strongly supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and has generally taken a hawkish and interventionist line on foreign policy. But he is hardly a committed neocon; more like a political chameleon and opportunist with conservative tendencies.
Given the cognitive issues which he is facing – and evidence of changes in his speech patterns over recent years is there for all to see – Biden’s capacity to provide true leadership even for a few years is quite reasonably being called into question. A second term is just not on the cards. In the meantime, what kind of leader would he be? How long (everyone is wondering) could he maintain a grip on things?
What, then, of Kamala Harris? Back in October 2019, Branko Marcetic described her background and the sources of her support. He focused in particular on her association with a think tank called the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
“Founded on the eve of what was thought to almost certainly be a coming Clinton presidency over a decade ago,” wrote Marcetic, “CNAS has left its fingerprints all over the past ten years of Democratic foreign policy. With its bipartisan make-up and centrist approach, the think tank has served as a crucial wellspring for conventional foreign policy thinking that has shaped the actions and ideas of both the Obama administration and Clinton’s 2016 run.”
Ignoring changes in public opinion, the prescriptions of the CNAS have retained the core features of previous forms of neoconservatism, in particular an emphasis on military action and “staying the course” and a relentlessly adversarial line on Russia, China and other perceived enemies.
Though Clinton’s loss meant CNAS hasn’t had the influence over the halls of power it expected, it now had a second opportunity.
Marcetic points out that last year Kamala Harris emerged as Hillary Clinton’s political heir. Clinton’s wealthy donor network in California and Florida coalesced around the California Senator. Harris’s sister and chair of her presidential campaign, Maya, was Clinton’s 2015 senior policy advisor. “Harris has also tapped Clinton’s general counsel Marc Elias, among other former Clinton staffers.”
A similar pattern applied in the realm of foreign policy, Harris’s team being stacked with CNAS personnel. “[T]he most notable name on [her] list of foreign policy advisors is Michele Flournoy, who founded CNAS, served as its president for two years, and was once expected to help lead U.S. foreign policy under a prospective President Hillary Clinton. […] Under Obama, Flournoy “pushed hard” for military intervention in Libya, according to a 2011 Huffington Post profile of Flournoy. The Libyan adventure became arguably Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunder, the resulting anarchy creating a pipeline of arms to extremists across neighboring countries, and the country descended into ground zero for the migrant crisis while human slavery became a fixture. Even so, two years after former dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been deposed, Flournoy told the Council on Foreign Relations: “I think we were right to do it.” ”
Marcetic outlines the sources of CNAS’s corporate funding which include defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. He makes a strong case that Kamala Harris, whose line-up of advisors were “a walking embodiment of the intersection of interventionist foreign policy and corporate interests,” was (and remains?) the preferred choice for President of the military-industrial complex.
As it turned out, Harris’s campaign failed to gain traction and she officially dropped out of the race in early December. But now she looms larger than ever. Her status as heir apparent to the Presidency within a Biden administration would give her significant power and influence.
Marcetic remarks that the foreign policy changes which the advent of a CNAS-oriented U.S. administration would bring may well be seen as reassuring by many, as a welcome return to ‘normalcy’ after “Trump’s erratic and often contradictory foreign policy.” Yet, in a rapidly changing and increasingly multipolar world, a reversion to such doctrines could be associated with very significant risks.
Marcetic rightly calls into question the capacity of the U.S. to sustain its massive levels of military spending and its global network of foreign bases and operations. Domestic problems are clearly on the rise and foreign policy blunders over recent decades have undermined much of the trust and goodwill which America once commanded.
I am not attempting to make predictions or concrete suggestions for action, just describing what I see. What a Biden administration would look like on foreign affairs is uncertain. And, though the past four years have indeed seen erratic and contradictory foreign policy and an increase in international tensions, there is no guarantee that an approach more in line with standard neoconservative principles or with a CNAS agenda would improve the situation.
The philosophy underlying the Center for a New American Security owes much to the neoconservative movement. Even the name echoes the defunct Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Common elements include militarism, a global perspective, a strongly antagonistic attitude towards certain states (especially old Cold War enemies), and a commitment to American exceptionalism and to the fostering of intimate connections between government and big business.
Vice President Mike Pence articulated his – to me quite frightening – personal vision in a speech at West Point last year. Not only does he embrace the view that the U.S. enjoys and will continue to enjoy a unique and preeminent status amongst the nations of the world, playing a pivotal role as global enforcer of human rights and values, he fully expects, apparently, that American troops will be involved in new military conflicts in East Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
“It is a virtual certainty,” he said, “that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen. Some of you will join the fight against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of you will join the fight on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific, where North Korea continues to threaten the peace, and an increasingly militarized China challenges our presence in the region. Some of you will join the fight in Europe, where an aggressive Russia seeks to redraw international boundaries by force. And some of you may even be called upon to serve in this hemisphere.”