The emergence in recent weeks of a coalition of neoconservative Republicans and former US national-security officials who have thrown their support behind the Democratic candidacy of Joe Biden is an ominous development to those who believe US foreign policy should be guided by the principles of realism and military restraint, rather than perpetual wars of choice.
In early June, a group of former officials from the George W Bush administration launched a political action committee (PAC) in support of Biden’s candidacy. The group, 43 Alumni for Biden, boasts nearly 300 former Bush officials and is seeking to mobilize disaffected Republicans nationwide.
The mobilization appears to be having an impact: More recently, “more than 100 former staff of [the late US senator John] McCain’s congressional offices and campaigns also endorsed Biden for president,” according to NBC News, as well as dozens of former staffers from Senator Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
That Republican support comes in addition to the more than 70 former US national-security officials who teamed up and issued a statement urging Biden’s election in November.
Citing what they believe is the grave damage President Donald Trump has done to US national security, the group does include some mainstream Republicans like Richard Armitage and Chuck Hagel, but also features notable neocon hardliners like Eliot Cohen, John Negroponte and David Kramer, who, perhaps not incidentally, played a leading role in disseminating the utterly discredited Steele dossier prior to Trump’s inauguration.
These are not merely grifters or desperate bids for attention by unscrupulous and avaricious Beltway swamp creatures. Though there are those too: the so-called Lincoln Project, helmed by neocon operative Rick Wilson, which is an outside group of Republicans (including former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele) devoted to defeating Trump in November.
As historian David Sessions recently tweeted, “Basically nobody in liberal circles is taking seriously the consequences of the fact that the exiled cadre of the Republican Party are building a massive power base in the Democratic Party.”
The merger between Democrats and neocons is not merely confined to the world of electoral politics; it is already affecting policy as well.
Over the summer, in response to The New York Times’ dubious “Russia bounty” story, Democratic congressman Jason Crow teamed up with Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney (daughter of former US vice-president Dick Cheney) to prohibit Trump from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee also collaborated to pass an amendment that imposed restrictions on Trump’s plan to withdraw troops from Germany, showing, if nothing else, that the bipartisan commitment to the new cold war is alive and well.
It is noteworthy that while there has been considerable pushback to economic neoliberalism within the Democratic Party in recent years, thanks, mainly, to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, the advocacy of reformers like Elizabeth Warren and the increasing popularity of economists like Stephanie Kelton, the same cannot be said for foreign policy.
Biden has evinced an openness to being “pushed left” on social and economic policies if he is elected president, but on external affairs he still largely operates within the standard Washington foreign-policy playbook.
If anything, on foreign policy Democrats have moved rightward in recent years, having fallen not only under the spell of “Russiagate” but also increasingly under the influence of neocons and other former Bush officials who have pushed that discredited narrative for their own ends.
The Democrats have also displayed a rather supine obeisance in regard to the country’s intelligence community, in spite of a multiplicity of well-documented lies or half-truths that would at the very least justify some skepticism about their claims or motivations.
Nobody should be surprised.
The neocons had been signaling their intention to flee the Republicans as early as 2016 when it was widely reported that Robert Kagan had decided to endorse Hillary Clinton for president and speak at a Washington fundraiser alongside other national-security fixtures worried about the alleged isolationist drift within the Republican Party.
Indeed, the Democrats welcomed the likes of Kagan and fellow neocon extremist Max Boot with open arms, setting the stage for where we are today: a Democratic presidential nominee running to the right of the Republican nominee on foreign policy.
Missing: whither the progressives?
Over the past few US election cycles, progressive Democrats have increasingly challenged the party’s prevailing neoliberal bias on domestic economic policy. Equally striking, however, is that they have been delinquent in failing to provide an alternative to the hegemonic influence of militarists and interventionists growing within their party regarding foreign policy.
As it stands today, the so-called progressive foreign-policy alternative is really no alternative at all. To the contrary, it evokes Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s seminal work, The Leopard, whose main character, Tancredi, sagely observes to his uncle, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
So it is with much of what passes for a genuine foreign-policy alternative: The rhetoric slightly changes, the personnel certainly change, but in substance, the policy status quo largely remains.
Consider a recent interview with the socialist Jacobin magazine featuring Matt Duss, a foreign-policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders. Duss, who seeks to articulate the foundations of a new “progressive” foreign policy, told the Quincy Institute’s Daniel Bessner:
“We have neither the right nor the ability to transform other countries, but we should do what we can to protect and expand the political space in these countries for local people to do that work. We can also provide funding or resources for American civil society actors to work in solidarity with their international counterparts.” [emphasis ours]
That sounds anodyne enough, but in reality, it is nothing but a form of liberal imperialism. Historically, seemingly benign initiatives conducted under the aegis of local people backed by so-called democracy-building programs have often planted the seeds for more malign military intervention later.
Who makes the decision as to which local people to support? How does one (purportedly) protect and expand that political space? We have seen how well that worked out in Afghanistan, Iraq, or, indeed, in the mounting human tragedy that is Syria today.
Comments like that of Matt Duss amount to this: “We don’t have the right to transform other countries … but we’re going to try anyway.” Forswearing pre-emptive military action (wars of choice) isn’t enough. Change will only come about when US foreign policy adheres to the principles of the UN Charter, and above all, the ancient Westphalian principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. American policymakers need to learn that less is more.
That used to be a guiding principle of Democrats, for example, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “good neighbor policy” that repudiated intervention in the domestic affairs of Latin America.
Of course, as subsequent events such as World War II illustrated, there may be a point at which external assistance/intervention in other parts of the world might become necessary; but the United States should not perpetually arrogate to itself the role of sole judge and jury in determining when that line should be crossed, no matter how benign its intentions might appear.
The broader point is that explicating a foreign policy somewhat less hawkish and merely paying lip service to international law that transcend the norms established by the Bush-Cheney neocons isn’t enough.
That is the foreign-policy equivalent of the Republican-lite economic agenda embraced by “New Democrats” such as Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, Barack Obama and Timothy Geithner, whereby the Democrats internalize the Republican Party’s market-fundamentalist paradigm, but simply promise to implement it more fairly, rather than do away with it altogether.
That appears unlikely to change under a future Biden administration. As American Conservative editor Kelley Beaucar Vlahos has noted, “Democratic interventionists and Blob careerists now [sit] at the right hand of [Biden] … like [Antony] Blinken, Nicholas Burns, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Michele Flournoy, who has been touted as a possible secretary of defense.
“They would sooner drag the country back into Syria, as well as position aggressively against China if the military pushed hard enough and there was a humanitarian reason to justify it.”
Nowhere in Biden’s foreign-policy ambit do we find mainstream figures warning about the dangers of a new cold war with Russia or China, nor to the broader problems posed by America’s overall propensity toward militarism. In fact, Biden does just the opposite.
The shape of things to come?
With the notable exceptions of a few anti-war Democrats like Barbara Lee, Tulsi Gabbard, Ro Khanna and Jeff Merkley, the opposition party has spent much of the Trump era turning itself into the party of war.
Meanwhile, one could envisage a future where the Republicans, under the influence of “national conservatives” such as Josh Hawley, Rand Paul, or even Trump advisers such as retired Colonel Douglas Macgregor (recently nominated to be US ambassador to Germany), becomes the party of realism and restraint abroad.
To the limited extent that President Trump has been guided by any kind of restraint (which has been capricious at best), it has paid dividends for the United States. In the Middle East, for example, given that the United States is now largely energy-self-sufficient, it no longer needs to play policeman in that part of the world.
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