Talking Points: Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech vs. Obama’s Foreign Policy

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama’s West Point graduation speech outlining his foreign policy had some pretty good stuff in it. Leadership doesn’t mean only military force. Just because you have a big hammer doesn’t mean everything is a nail. “A world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative; it also helps keep us safe.” It all sounded great. Just an hour or so later I discussed the speech on Al-Jazeera.

It was a pretty great speech that challenged much of the militarization of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy—the problem is, like too many great speeches before, it has far too little to do with what the Obama administration actually does.

No question Ben Rhodes is a terrific speechwriter (though don’t get me started on what he doesn’t know as deputy national security adviser,) and Obama knows how to talk the talk. The problem isn’t the speech. The problem is the policy.

Obama was right to criticize the isolationism of “self-described realists” whose interest in the world starts and ends with what is useful for traditionally-defined U.S. interests — that is, mainly military and corporate ones. And he was right to criticize and address the “interventionists from the left and right” who believe that “America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos” — essentially, those who want to use force even more than he does.

But once again Obama didn’t answer his critics — also from the right and left, though most especially from the left — who are outraged at how much he and his administration are using military force, in far too many places, against far too many people, far too often, and far out of public sight.

The mainstream media was full of post-speech carping about Obama setting up a straw man when he accused others of wanting to send ground troops to Syria (or Ukraine, or Nigeria, or Thailand.) The real problem is not that he’s refusing to send ground troops — it’s that he is escalating the military conflicts by involving the U.S. military: providing weapons, supplies, planes and pilots, training, CIA counter-terrorism troops (the CIA now has its own fleet of armed planes, special forces in all but name), and looking for military solutions all over the world.

Obama was right to push back against critics who complain that the U.S. has lost its global leadership role because it hasn’t sent troops everywhere the warmongers wanted. He was right when he said that leadership doesn’t only mean military force. The problem is, though, U.S. leadership and credibility have been dramatically weakened because of too much, not too little military force. The direct U.S. military interventions that failed (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya); the U.S. search for military solutions even when they claim there are none (Syria); the continuing U.S. reliance on might-makes-right arguments (Guantanamo, the drone war); and the U.S. refusal to get out of the way to let other, more legitimate global institutions lead (Israel-Palestine) have all weakened U.S. global leadership.

Obama’s repeated statement that “there is no military solution” in Syria is belied by the CIA training rebel forces in Jordan, by U.S. allies being allowed to provide U.S.-produced weapons to the rebels, and by apparently imminent efforts to send U.S. shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. If the president believed there is no military solution in Syria, then he should stop supporting one side of this brutal civil war, call for an immediate ceasefire and immediate international arms embargo on all sides, and re-engage with Russia to figure out a diplomatic solution. The current progress in negotiations with Iran should lead to new engagement with Iran on the Syria crisis as well.

When Obama extols American exceptionalism and says, “What makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions,” he is simply wrong. It is precisely Washington’s ability — and willingness — “to flout international norms and the rule of law” that shows its exceptional military and economic power.

What other country could get away with violating sovereignty by using drone missiles to kill citizens of other countries — within those countries’ borders — because it claims the target of those drone strikes were “bad guys?” What if some other government decided that certain Americans in the U.S. were the bad guys and sent missiles to kill them? Affirming international norms and the rule of law means ending drone strikes and illegal invasions and bombing campaigns, not simply claiming they’re legal because it’s Washington that does it instead of Moscow or Beijing.

The president said he would “continue to push to close Gitmo” because U.S. values and legal traditions “do not permit the indefinite detention of people beyond our borders.” The problem is, that “indefinite detention” is now precisely what defines the values and legal traditions of our country. Like his predecessor, Obama has relied on memos drafted by his own lawyers, without oversight by any court, to reinterpret U.S. law by simply declaring things like assassination of American citizens “legal.” That’s the new American legal tradition.

It’s great to hear that the president describes his most important lesson in foreign affairs being “don’t do stupid shit,” meaning, don’t go to war like we did in Iraq. How does he not recognize, even ignoring the morality of the issue, that killing over 3,000 people by drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia — and antagonizing whole populations of restive countries by doing so — qualifies as “stupid shit?” If Congress balks at closing down Guantanamo, it sure sounds pretty stupid not to at least begin to show some leadership by freeing those long-term prisoners already cleared for release.

It’s not completely off-base to say that with Al-Qaeda’s leadership largely decimated, the U.S. (and many other countries) face danger from scattered bands of terrorists across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa. But what is completely wrong is the notion that somehow going to war can stop terrorism. For any who doubt it, 13 years of responding to the crime of September 11 with a limitless global war has unequivocally proved the point: Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and it’s not possible to conquer terrorism with war. It doesn’t work — it hasn’t worked in Afghanistan (and won’t, with two and a half more years of U.S. war) or in Iraq, and it isn’t working in Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia either. The U.S. never went to war against “terrorism” — it went to war against the land, people, economy, and environment of the countries it invaded. And still, terrorism has thrived.

President Obama reminded the world that, “As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases.” It might have been more powerful if he acknowledged that many of those extremists first gained their battle-hardening experience in Iraq — fighting against the U.S. occupation and its Iraqi partners.

If Obama really believed that “respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror,” wouldn’t he move to do something differently, something like renouncing — without waiting for Congress — the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that followed September 11? Wouldn’t he move to do something to show respect for human rights and international law, like joining the International Criminal Court or working to strengthen, instead of undermine, the United Nations?

The Afghanistan War Continues

Instead we now hear that the U.S. war in Afghanistan will go on for another two and a half years. How many more Afghans will die, be grievously wounded, be made refugees, by this occupation? How many more U.S. troops will come home with grave physical and psychological wounds? On the Real News I discussed why keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan won’t solve the problems that country faces after almost three decades of war and occupation: If 100,000 U.S. troops and 30,000 NATO troops didn’t bring peace, stability, democracy, development, or any of the other things we promised, keeping 10,000 troops there won’t do it either.

And we should not forget that the special forces troops who remain will have only one military job: to kill those the U.S. (based on who-knows-what intelligence) identifies as bad guys. That’s why we’re almost certainly going to see access to military bases as part of the agreement with Afghanistan — to keep the drone war going, to kill more bad guys. No pretense that “protecting Afghans” is somehow on the U.S. agenda, just straight-up counter-terrorism, plus training the Afghan military to do the same thing. Not such a great prospect for Afghan civilians.

The Afghan elections — the final round of voting is scheduled very soon — are not likely to have much impact on the war, except that both of the leading candidates have indicated their willingness to sign off on a Bilateral Security Agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain. We’ll see whether they can convince their parliament to guarantee full immunity for U.S. troops for any war crimes they might commit — the refusal of which was what led to the full troop withdrawal from Iraq. Both candidates have also recruited notorious warlords as running mates in the interest of winning various ethnic votes. I’ve been talking about that, and what has and hasn’t changed in Afghanistan — you can watch The Real News interview or listen to my discussion on FAIR’s Counterspin show.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a Washington event where I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War and veterans’ families to call for “the right to heal” — challenging the Pentagon’s longstanding habit of sending back to active duty soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or other traumatic brain injuries. But they went beyond the demand for better health care for veterans — an issue that remains at the top of the political agenda despite the dismissal of Eric Shinseki as head of Veteran’s Affairs — to include the call for real accountability and support for health care as well as more for the victims of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As our great congressional heroine Barbara Lee said last week, in response to President Obama’s announcement about keeping troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2016, “There is no military solution in Afghanistan.” That’s true now, and it will still be true in 2016. This just means 30 more months of U.S. war.

Syria: The War Still Expands

Syria’s multi-faceted civil war continues to expand, and conditions for Syrian civilians continue to deteriorate. In early May, the UN opened a new refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan with space for 130,000 people — 6,500 arrived just in the first month. When it reaches capacity — and unfortunately, it seems certain that it will — it will surpass the Zaatari camp in Jordan, already the second largest refugee camp in the world.

Reports of bombings, sieges, and killings continue. By May 29, the BBC reports that almost 3 million people have fled across Syria’s borders, one of the largest forced migrations since World War II. I talked about this humanitarian crisis and Syria’s six wars in the Real News. And after UN and Arab League special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned in mid-May — in frustration with the world’s failure to do enough to stop the killing — I discussed the consequences of this decision for Syria on Al Jazeera.

So What Do We Do about Syria?

Of course it’s not enough to say the U.S. shouldn’t send missile strikes or arm one side of the civil war: We need a serious campaign to change U.S. policy towards Syria. Over the last several weeks, many of the leaders of national anti-war and peace and justice organizations have been meeting to figure out what our “ask” should be — what should we be demanding of our government? Out of these discussions, I wrote “5 Concrete Steps the US Can Take to End the Syria Crisis” for last week’s issue of The Nation.

Read it, add to it, use it as talking points for meeting with members of Congress, as the basis for letters to the editor, or as the beginning of new campaigns. We can’t allow Syria to slip away from our attention.

Good News with the Bad: Iran and Palestine

There is some good news, weirdly enough, on a couple of fronts not known for good tidings. On Iran, there are serious indications that the talks underway between Iran and the U.S. with its allies (known as the P-5 + 1, for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are going reasonably well. The fact that we’re not hearing a lot of debate and opposition in the Congress is actually a good sign.

Following last February’s interim agreement, the talks are shaped around Iran’s nuclear power program on one side and ending sanctions and Iran being taken seriously as a regional power on the other. The current deadline is July 20, but the interim agreement allows for a six-month extension — and both sides have an interest in making an effort. President Obama is desperate for some kind of foreign policy success, and a bargain with Iran — grand or not — would give a huge boost to his claimed commitment to diplomacy over force (even if he still falsely claims that only sanctions brought Iran to the table.) President Rouhani is under significant public pressure to get U.S. and United Nations sanctions lifted, and he still faces political challenges from other factions of Iran’s powerful ruling circles.

(It must be mentioned, but it’s not all good news: the Washington Post, rarely supportive of diplomacy with Iran, took their usual editorial position warning that a deal was unlikely — but then went further, reassuring readers that if a deal were somehow reached there would be “a strong check on any concessions made by the Obama administration. If Congress or Israel are dissatisfied, they may be able to scuttle the deal.” Really? If another country — Israel is not part of the P-5 + 1 — is “dissatisfied,” it might have equal status with the U.S. Congress to “scuttle the deal?” I’m torn between being pleased that the Post felt compelled finally to admit that possibility, or outraged that as usual they appear to think it’s a good thing.)

In Palestine, the Pope Replaces the Peace Process

The other good news has to do, first, with the collapse of the U.S.-orchestrated “peace process” between Israel and Palestine. After 23 years of failed diplomacy and nine months of intensive John Kerry-led talks with and between Palestinians and Israelis, the latest “Einstein Round” ended unceremoniously. (I’ve been calling this the “Einstein Round” based on the great scientist’s definition of crazy: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.)

The talks ended after Israel reneged on its earlier promise to release the last 29 of 104 prisoners, following that up with announcing its plans to build hundreds of new illegal settlement apartments. That’s all business-as-usual for Israeli occupation. The good news included the Palestinian response, which was to sign on to 15 human rights and other treaties and covenants, bringing Palestine into compliance with a wide range of international norms. What a contrast: Israel violates more agreements and more international laws, Palestinians respond with claiming international law as their own. And the U.S. responds that both sides have done unhelpful things. Great.

But, for a change, there was some good news when the White House and State Department made clear their view that, in fact, Israel was responsible for the talks’ collapse.

Kerry even used the term “apartheid” — and while he used it only in the sense of warning Israel that it could face a future as an apartheid state if it didn’t manage a two-state solution, rather than recognizing Israel today as an apartheid state — his very mention of the word reflected the change in U.S. discourse on the issue. As CNN reported it, “John Kerry wasn’t the first to use the A-word — apartheid — when talking about Israel, and he likely won’t be the last.” Of course his statement led to attacks and calls for Kerry’s resignation from Israel supporters in the U.S. and beyond, but there were no serious political consequences.

Discourse shifts are never enough, though. On the ground things have not changed for most Palestinians. Two young boys, 15-year-old Muhammad Abu Thahr and 17-year-old Nadim Nuwara, were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition at a protest outside Israel’s Ofer Prison in the occupied West Bank on May 15, Nakba Day, the day Palestinians commemorate their massive dispossession that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. They were only the latest casualties of the occupation.

There is some cause for optimism regarding the Palestinian unity process that may result in a new technocratic government of national unity for the Palestinian Authority supported by both main factions, Fatah (that controls the PA in the West Bank) and Hamas (running the authority in Gaza.) It isn’t yet a full unity process — it remains unclear how Palestinians living inside Israel and the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered in far-flung exile will be included — but if it succeeds it represents a major step forward.

And then, finally, we had the Pope. Pope Francis went to Palestine and Israel, and — as we’ve seen so many times already in his shifting the church’s focus to the poor and dispossessed — here he made clear that he was not, as his predecessors have been, interested only in strengthening the Vatican’s ties to Israel. This time, it was all about the visuals — and that meant the extraordinary photograph of the Pope praying and leaning his head against the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world.

I talked about it on The Real News and wrote about it for FPIF and The Nation last week — and since the Pope went to lay a wreath at his tomb, I got to include my favorite quote from Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. It’s the one from his letter to the infamous Cecil Rhodes (who conquered much of Africa for the British Crown) in which Herzl begs Rhodes to join his project for a European Jewish state in Palestine because it is “something colonial.”

He should know.