Tonight president Obama and Mitt Romney will ‘debate’ foreign policy. The word ‘debate’ should be used sparingly as it implies a fundamental difference in the two platforms. Even a cursory look at both candidates reveals broad agreement on core policy topics. James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations concedes this as well. In an article titled At Core, Obama and Romney Close on Foreign Policy he notes ‘Obama and Romney’s views are broadly similar. Both men are internationalists with a strong pragmatic streak,’ and ‘they largely agree on the chief threats the United States faces overseas.’
Lindsay then goes on to outline the ‘threats’ that the US confronts: a nuclear Iran, al Qaida and their ‘affiliates’, and China’s ‘predatory trade practices’. Debate moderator, Bob Schieffer affirmed this picture in his selection of topics for the debate, one of which was ‘the rise of China and tomorrow’s world’. Unless we are ready to uncritically accept what authority figures deem ‘threats to national security’, it would be useful to examine what the internal record says about this.
The last open report published by the US Senate Intelligence Committee stated the following in regard to what they called, perhaps ignorantly, the ‘leadership of the Global Jihad’: ‘we judge that most [al-Qaida operatives] lack either the capability or the intent to plan, train for, and execute sophisticated attacks in the United States’. So even if we accept that al-Qaida constitutes a national security threat, it could only reasonably be called a threat to the US forces who are illegally occupying sovereign territory not the civilian population of the US.
I should add the criminality of the US war in Afghanistan is not in great dispute. Respected legal scholar Michael Glennon, writing in the Yale Journal of International Law, stated that ‘during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and military operations against Afghanistan . . . the United States . . . carried out extensive bombing campaigns, both of which constituted aggression under [the ‘bombardment’ provision of the International Criminal Court’s Special Working Group on the Crime of Aggression].’
Incidentally, if this legal analysis were taken seriously within educated circles, Romney and Obama would scarcely debate over which candidate can better manage a successful ‘drawdown’ of troops before 2014. Rather they would debate over which candidate can most equitably allocate funds for reparations or which candidate can catch a plane to The Hague the quickest to defend their actions before an impartial judge. But as another accomplished scholar noted, such fantasies are ‘unthinkable’. Romney showed his respect for international law by enlisting Tommy Franks, the general behind the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as a foreign policy adviser in his 300 member Military Advisory Council, a non-event for a criminal state.
On the topic of Iran we find more interesting insights, mainly because they depart sharply from the accepted narrative. The accepted rationale for the current sanctions against Iran is that Iran is ‘the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism,’ to borrow Paul Ryan’s phrase. In short, Iran is an international pariah willing to secure political goals by aggressive means, embodied in the boy-cry-wolf refrain that they want to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. The intelligence committee offers a different picture. In a section titled ‘the threat from Iran’ James Clapper states ‘Iran’s growing inventory of ballistic missiles and its acquisition and indigenous production of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) provide capabilities to enhance its power projection’. Then emerges the substance: ‘Tehran views its conventionally armed missiles as an integral part of its strategy to deter—and if necessary retaliate against—forces in the region, including US forces’ (my emphasis added). Based on this report, we can conclude that the US is not punishing Iran’s civilian population because Ahmadinejad is the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism. Rather the US is ‘tightening the vice’ on Iran’s economy because they are developing a strategic deterrent to US force in the region, a crime in the eyes of superpower states. In fact, this objective is spelled out quite clearly in the Defense Department’s annual review of military strategy. This year’s report titled Sustaining Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense states that ‘in order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas where our access and freedom to operate are challenged.’
The legality of this norm—that the US ‘must maintain its ability to project power in areas where our access and freedom to operate are challenged’—can be tested by a simple thought experiment. It is well-known that the US has long maintained a ‘two-pronged’ policy consisting of an ‘economic embargo and diplomatic isolation’ in regards to Cuba. What if the Cuban leadership published a document titled Sustaining the Global Revolution: Priorities for 21st Century Resistance and in this document they upheld the principle that the Cuban armed forces could ‘project’ their power where their ‘access and freedom to operate are challenged,’ by the US-imposed embargo, an act of economic warfare that the UN roundly condemned in 2011 through a resolution vote of 186 to 2, the US and Israel voting against. Unlike Iran’s ‘strategy to deter’, the US is actually undermining Cuban national security. In a 28 page report filed by the UN Secretary General the World Health Organization states ‘the consequences of the embargo have a negative multiplier effect on the cost of basic everyday health products [in Cuba], on the availability of basic services and, therefore, on the overall living conditions of the population.’ Indeed, it would be in the ‘national security interest’ of Havana to impose ‘crippling sanctions’ on the United States, at least while they are not ‘keeping all options on the table’ or sending a drone over Luis Posada’s home in Florida.
It also should be noted that this condemnation of US foreign policy was not limited to official ‘enemies’. Staunch allies, like Mexico, also condemned the embargo, decrying it for stimulating ‘serious humanitarian consequences that are contrary to international law and, moreover, signify the abandonment of diplomacy and dialogue as an appropriate way of settling disputes.’ This ‘unlawful use of force . . .’—in this case economic force—‘against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government; the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives,’ goes by a special name within the FBI: terrorism. The Council on Foreign Relations agrees, boiling the embargo down to ‘a fundamental incompatibility of political views’. This ‘incompatibility’ has now entered its 50th year with no resolution in sight. Now that Paul Ryan’s ‘largest sponsor of terrorism’ has been displaced by the World Court designated champion of international terror, let’s look at the ‘predatory economic policies of China’. First, as any person who believes in the principle of universality, we should ask if we engage in currency manipulation. This can be easily answered if one observes what’s happening to another BRICS nation, with the ‘predatory’ role reversed.
Brazil has long argued that the global economic recession caused a sudden influx of ‘cheap money’ from richer nations and that this ‘inflow of capital’ led to ‘serious cost and competition distortions’. Brazil’s finance minister Guido Mantega went on to call this a “‘currencies’ war” and, according to the Uruguay based South Atlantic News Agency MercoPress, he is “[pointing] his finger at the US, China, Korea, and several other countries suffering from recession and intent in promoting exports (and surplus production) to the booming commodities-export emerging economies.” Again, applying non-hypocritical standards, Dilma Rouseff should be giving Romney-esque speeches about ‘cracking down’ on Washington.
These are all just brief glances at the widening gulf between political rhetoric and reality. A look deeper will surely erode the legitimacy of the electoral system further, if not entirely. But there is a salient subtext to American foreign policy that is much less talked about, presumably because it tells us too much about our position in the world.
The reflexive resort of force in world affairs exacts unseen, but brutal, economic, social, political, and even moral costs on the American public; facts graphically illustrated in a recent study by the New York based Institute for Economics and Peace. In a stunning report titled Violence Containment Spending in the United States they outline in great detail the human costs of what they call the ‘violence containment industry’—‘economic activity that is related to the consequences or prevention of violence where the violence is directed against people or property. This includes all expenditures related to violence, included but not limited to medical expenses, incarceration, police, the military, insurance, and the private security industry. It is divided into local, state, and federal government expenditure as well as private spending by corporations, households, and individuals.’
This industry received a handsome ‘stimulus package’ on December 31, 2011 when the president signed into law the national defense authorization act, legalizing the extrajudicial and indefinite detention of terror suspects or ‘associated forces’. Likewise, new CIA chief David Petraeus is now ‘urging the White House to approve a significant expansion of the agency’s fleet of armed drones,’ in an attempt to ‘extend the spy service’s decade-long transformation into a paramilitary force’. Others are calling for nuclear capable drones.
Along with the horrific toll these drones have imposed on the civilian population of Pakistan, these urgent requests reach a new peak of immorality given the record levels of economic inequality, homelessness and poverty, all of which could easily be reversed if state funds were redirected toward more productive means. Or as the Institute report concludes ‘if US federal violence containment spending was reduced by $326 billion or 25% . . . then in one year the saved funds would be sufficient to entirely update the energy grid, rebuild all levies and renew the nation’s school infrastructure.’
So as the two candidates of the corporate party ‘contain’ China, economically strangle Iranian civilians, and drone strike al Qaida ‘militants’, we should be asking ourselves what our policy is for ‘global leadership’. Is it a policy that blindly applies one standard to ‘enemies’ but vigorously rejects that standard when it gets too personal, a policy driven by the inordinate drive for world control and venality, a post-moral worldview? The outcome of such a struggle will not be settled in tonight’s debate; nor will the dark clouds of US bombs, unless those of us who desire a more humane and just future take a principled stand.