A Perspective on Aspects of U.S. Foreign Policy

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.”

7 comments

  1. My problem is with your operating assumption of 2016 that Trump was less dangerous than Clinton. While I agree that Trump himself lacks any clear vision of U.S. foreign policy, I think you overlooked two points. The first important point is that he is a demagogue. When he attacked the Democrats for foreign policy adventures he was being cynical and crass. He offered no actual alternative. The second important point is to distinguish between what Trump says and what Trump does. For example, he may say he wants better relationships with Russia and he may be portrayed as a Russian stooge, but the reality is he has maintained the same hawkish policies towards Russia. On China, he has been moving towards a conflict based policy for some time. In Syria, his policies have been extremely cynical. I’m not sure which is worse from a foreign policy perspective-an erratic, demagogic politician who is easily swayed by hard right factions in the so called “deep state” while claiming to oppose it, or a consistent advocate of foreign policy interventionism who may nevertheless be swayed by pragmatic considerations.

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    1. Citizen Rat

      “The second important point is to distinguish between what Trump says and what Trump does.”

      I did. I referred to his track record which was not in line with what he had promised.

      “I’m not sure which is worse from a foreign policy perspective — an erratic, demagogic politician who is easily swayed by hard right factions in the so called “deep state” while claiming to oppose it, or a consistent advocate of foreign policy interventionism who may nevertheless be swayed by pragmatic considerations.”

      Obviously from the way you put it you are saying you prefer the latter — and you may well be right.

      I am not disagreeing with you. I am not making predictions here, just hoping for the best; hoping that whoever is in control, moderation and pragmatic considerations prevail.

      The target of this essay is a particular, very dangerous ideology.

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  2. I have read the article. But I’m not going to engage it directly. There’s no point. Right now, discussions of foreign policy are moot; the United States does not have a foreign policy; what we have is the will of the Leader. Trump is a transactionally focused narcissist. What this means is that he will always choose and enact behaviors on the world stage that he believes will benefit him politically in the short-run and financially in the long-run. On the run-up to a trade deal with China, he was all lovey-dovey with Xi Jingping. Then it became politically useful to blame Covid019 on China and float conspiracy theories involving China, Biden, apparently even succubi with alien DNA. (Alright, that’s a stretch; but he did make overtures to that particular conspiracy-theorist.) If re-elected, as the pandemic wanes (hopefully it will), he will swing around and court Xi again. Because Xi is the kind of strongman dictator he admires and wishes to emulate, cynically convinced that only such personalities “get things done,” and that all world leaders would emulate them if they weren’t so cowed into following accepted norms by a media that hasn’t learned ‘its place’ – which would be to glorify the Leader at every turn.

    You still haven’t gotten what happened in 2016, and what has been happening since. I don’t blame you. I agree with much of Citizen Rat’s comment, but it is also clear that although he sees the cliff, he hasn’t yet looked over it into the abyss of American politics, which seems quite evident to me. Interestingly, only anti-Trump conservatives grasp the real dangers here – there is no point publicly debating policy when you have a mad-man in the White House, and an enabling Republican Party in the Senate (which Party has announced that their only agenda is – “Trust Trump”). He is already governing by Executive Order, and bullying the various offices of the Executive Branch into submitting to his will and running defense against his perceived enemies while tearing down the legal system that should protect them. This will progress unabated if the Republicans retain the Senate (as they likely will) and Trump is re-elected.

    Or if, unelected, he chooses not to leave. Hopefully the military or some bureau (the Secret Service?) will fulfill their Constitutional obligation and march him out of Office January 20th, regardless of Barr’s various federal or state-level suits, which will continue ad nauseum afterward anyway, as the now Trump Party tries to decide which of Trump’s sons they will be obligated to run in 2024 (Nikki Haley? in her dreams!). Hopefully, the electorate will grow tired of the Republicans in toto by 2022, and if Trump’s still president, he can not only get impeached again, but at last removed. But in any event, expect chaos and violence after the election, regardless of the result.

    Is it any wonder that I really don’t give a damn about what you think of American foreign policy any more, Mark? I’m glad to see that you’re at last admitting that you were indirectly arguing for Trump’s election in 2016, after denying that for a couple years. “On the other hand, Trump was promising to wind back America’s military commitments” – No, he wasn’t! He doesn’t “promise” anything in the correct usage of that term – he simply makes feints towards a deal for the continued adoration of his fans. For instance, he said he had opposed the Iraq war (he hadn’t) because he intuitively understood that his base had been emotionally invested in that war, and faced confusion and disappointment as it unraveled into the mess of fragmented post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq and the protracted engagement in Afghanistan. He was giving them permission to pretend to themselves that they had opposed the war, when in fact they had demanded it; But they had been betrayed, by a “deep state” ultimately governed by a closet Muslim from Kenya. (Dolchstoss again!)

    You don’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on here, Mark I know the right-wing media in Murdoch’s Australia (I read The News daily) still feels sympathy towards Trump and casts aspersions on the Democrats and liberals in general (not the Liberal Party, which is conservative, of course). But the anxiety over China is palpable. And Australians have good reasons to feel anxious – Xi has turned out to be a pig, and the United States is no longer their ally. Trump’s America has no allies, and he has made that crystal clear. There’s really not that much money for him to make in Australia. China’s still strong financially, and there’s always the hope of new Trump resorts there and in North Korea.

    Or perhaps you’re in New Zealand – not quite what Trump would call a “shit-hole country,” but insignificant, except that it has a female Prime Minister Trump doesn’t like (not his type? or just handles public health crises better than he does?) Expect Trump to offer to buy New Zealand from Australia in the near future. (Yeah, I know they’re separate countries; but does he?)

    You rightfully close by remarking the “frightening” vision of Michael Pence, thus closing your article with a double warning – Not Harris, Not Pence. But there’s no real third party here; and Harris, should she inherit the White House from Biden, will have a foreign policy team, which may be influenced by CNAS, but will likely include those “swayed by pragmatic considerations,” as Citizen Rat remarks. Pence’s vision won’t formulate policy, because he’s a lap-dog. but Trump may fulfill that vision simply as the whim moves him. That’s the problem with dictators (and would-be dictators); Stalin would occasionally have members of families of his servants killed, just to see if the targeted servant would remain loyal to him. Of course they would; they knew when four fingers counted “five.”

    Again, we have a mad-man in the White House; how we recover from this and re-establish the rule of law, I don’t know. Whatever policies we formulate after Trump, will have to be made by observing some sense of the lawfulness those policies.

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  3. Dutarte, Modi, Putin, Orban, Bosonaro, Xi, Kim-Jongo-Un, the Saudis – they’ve all been emboldened by Trump’s example to commit gross human rights abuses and further degrade the environment. With Trump in power, the United States has been the leader in chaos, incompetence, and corruption. Before Trump, overall, and in spite of the idiocies of the Iraq invasion, the United States has had a strong positive impact on the world. Without that leadership you get a vacuum that is quickly filled by demagogues and bad characters like Putin. Human rights mean something, remember the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which was written by Eleanor Roosevelt? U.S. global leadership matters a lot.

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    1. Charles Justice

      I agree with you that, looking back, and overall, the U.S. has probably had a positive impact. Up until the Iraq War, I personally was very positive about the role of the U.S.. Since then, not so much.

      I have also come to be very critical of the way that the promises made to Gorbachev (that NATO would not be expanded eastward) were reneged on.

      In my view, both Russia and China have valid security concerns which need to be respected. Which is not to say that I endorse the policies of these countries or consider their intentions benign.

      As it remains the most powerful nation on earth, the U.S. inevitably plays a global role, for better or for worse. As I see it, it needs to slowly scale back its interventions — but not entirely withdraw.

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  4. As Secretary of State Clinton carried out Obama’s policies. Her interventionist credentials should be based on her time setting out and voting her views, i.e., in the Senate and during her campaign. The result is about the same but the evidence is better.

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    1. J Bogart

      As the President’s chief foreign affairs advisor, at the very least the Secretary of State helps form or modify policies and so plays a more active role than you seem to be suggesting.

      “[Hillary Clinton’s] interventionist credentials should be based on her time setting out and voting her views, i.e., in the Senate and during her campaign.”

      Her campaign links to CNAS and Michele Flournoy were touched on. Sure, any full treatment would have to cover speeches, voting record, etc.. But (as you confirm) all the evidence does seem to point in the same direction.

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