Obama-Biden and US foreign policy with Eric Margolis, Phyllis Bennis and Paul Heinbecker
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Tonight, Joe Biden will accept the vice-presidential nomination of his party, on a night where the theme is national security and foreign policy. And to join me to discuss the foreign policy platform of Barack Obama and his new running mate, Joe Biden, is Eric Margolis, a journalist and member of International Institute of Strategic Studies and author of War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan and Asia. In Washington is Phyllis Bennis, a senior analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies and the author of Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis. And joining us from Ottawa, Canada, is Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and the inaugural director of the Center for Global Relations. Good evening, everybody. Thank you for joining me. Barack Obama, in his choice of Joe Biden, has picked someone who voted for the Iraq War. This is Barack Obama, who ran a campaign essentially saying that one of the proof that he had better judgment than Hillary Clinton on the question of foreign policy was the fact that he was against the Iraq War. So he’s now picked somebody from the foreign policy establishment of the Democratic Party. Paul Heinbecker, you wrote an article recently suggesting that you were very optimistic about an Obama presidency, that it would create a new direction for US foreign policy. But in the pick of Biden, hasn’t he kind of reached back into the old-style Democratic Party foreign policy?
HEINBECKER: Well, in a way he has. But I’m also mindful of what McCain said about vice presidents and that their first job every morning is to pick up the phone to the president and ask how he’s feeling. I think one can exaggerate the significance of a vice-presidential candidate. I think he does bring seasoning, he does bring a lot of experience. He’s been in Washington a long time. He’s been chairman of the Senate—is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. So I think in that sense he is intended to still the fears in some people that maybe Obama has a lot going for him but not enough experience. On the other hand, I think what the world is looking for is a clean break from Bush’s policies. I don’t think Senator McCain really has a true appreciation of how big a hole Bush’s policies have dug for the United States around the world. And beyond that, I’d say, if you’re asking why I’m optimistic about Obama, you know, the world is really changing. It wasn’t very long ago that we thought of Asians as basically the consumers of history, and the West, ever since the Industrial Revolution, has been the producers of history, you know, the current surges of thought and power and economics. And we’ve just come through the Olympics, and the Olympics are a snapshot—they’re not a perfect indicator, but we’ve seen that China is back, that the Asians are going to play a role on the world stage that’s much bigger than they’ve played before and much different. We know from Georgia that Russia is back. They have, still, 14,000 nuclear weapons, they have petrodollars and more than they know what to do with, and they have made it very clear that they don’t intend to be dominated or directed. And the same thing goes for Europe, and to some degree also for Latin America and Brazil, especially on economic issues. So we’re in a different world that’s going to need different thinking, and we have an American foreign policy and sort of an American standing in the world that is at a low end. And the world wants somebody new, they want somebody they can believe in, they want to believe in the United States again, and Obama represents a clear break, and McCain doesn’t.
JAY: Phyllis Bennis in Washington, Obama has early in his campaign talked about an entirely new mind-frame towards foreign policy, but now, as we’ve gotten much further into the campaign, he says his foreign policy is rooted in Truman. He even references sometimes the reason George Bush won and even Reagan. Do you think this represents, first of all, a clean break with Bush? And is it enough of a clean break with what got us here?
BENNIS: Well, I think that the one thing that is a major part of the reason for the excitement and the optimism, certainly around the world, as the ambassador has just indicated, but in the United States as well, is this understanding that this is transformational in foreign policy if we keep it in the context of the Bush administration’s extremism, the recklessness, the unilateral militarism that has characterized the eight years of this administration. I think we are seeing, at least potentially, a break with that. Now, the problem is, as you’ve implied, we’re not yet seeing a complete break with the legacy of US interventionism, sometimes cloaked in multilateral guise, as we saw throughout the Clinton years, for instance, where the claim of multilateralism as the basis of foreign policy was a not-very-good cover for a really thoroughly unilateralist, interventionist policy. But it was different in a number of crucial ways. The fact that in the view of the Clinton administration, particularly that of Madeleine Albright, who began as the ambassador to the United Nations and then became Secretary of State, in her view, as she put it in 1995, the United Nations is a tool of American foreign policy. Now, for those of us who analyzed the UN for a long time, that was hardly news, but it was significant news that the ambassador of the United States would say that publicly. And I think that that was a reality that too few of us recognized at the time. But having said that, I think it is important to see that the end of the kind of reckless drive for militarism as the first option is something that’s very significant to the people around the world, but to Americans as well. I think it does indicate that this is not an administration that will begin by deciding to invade a country and come up with justifications and reasons later. Now, that’s a limited advance. I would say that we do have to understand that this is not an administration, whether we’re talking about Barack Obama or Joseph Biden, we’re not talking about leaders who had historically opposed US military intervention.
JAY: Eric, he may not be one to immediately invade someone, but he’s already planning to increase troops somewhere—he’s going to move the war from Iraq to Afghanistan. So how much of a break are we seeing here?
ERIC MARGOLIS: Well, you know, when Obama first appeared on the world stage, he was a tabula rasa upon which everybody wrote their hopes and fears or expected that he was going to be, as Phyllis so rightly points out, the un-Bush and stop the crazy, reckless, what I call the Soviet behavior of the Bush administration. But, unfortunately what we’re seeing now, particularly as I follow commentators and public opinion in the Muslim world, in the Middle East, etcetera, and in Europe, is that there’s a disillusionment setting in, and there’s a prevailing feeling that the young, idealistic Mr. Obama has now been handcuffed by the powers that be in Washington. He’s been forced toe the line with certain special interests, lobbies, and we can point to specific things. And as you said, Paul, his gung-ho attitude towards expanding the war in Afghanistan, a war where the secretary general of NATO called, said there will be no military victory, there will only be political settlements, and yet we see Obama following the rush to a bigger war. Iraq Obama’s fudging on a bit now, and we’re getting into a position where American troops may remain, but they’ll be called something else, and the US Air Force will stay there, and a tame government will be kept in power by US bayonets. So that’s unclear. What disturbs me also is the Middle East, because Obama recently at the AIPAC summit in Washington was forced to toe the hard line to a line with Israel’s right-wing parties, and that means that there will be no significant territorial concessions made. The US will continue backing Israel’s Likud Party, for example, when it comes to power, which is likely. And this means that without any concessions on Israel’s part, there’s very unlikely to be any peace in the Middle East. So what we’re going to have is more of the same, simply without all the pomp and circumstance and drum-beating of the Bush administration.
JAY: Paul Heinbecker, what do you make of that? The foreign policy that created the world on September 10 was not primarily George Bush’s. So the world that gave us al-Qaeda and a lot of other of the things that matured under Bush were also the results of Clinton foreign policy, and most of the Clinton foreign policy team is now Obama’s foreign policy team.
HEINBECKER: Yeah, I think that’s right, but I think what’s different is two things. I’d like to make a point about world views. I mean, I agree and disagree with a lot I’ve heard and probably with a lot I didn’t hear here, because I couldn’t hear it all for the last few seconds. But what I would say is this: if you look at McCain’s world view, where does McCain come from? He comes from a naval family. He went to the Naval Academy. He joined the US Navy. He then spent five years as a prisoner of war and really not very aware of what was going on in that war. He then eventually became a US senator and eventually became a member of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services. So this is a guy with a very militaristic view of the world. This is a very much a kind of enemies and allies, us and them. I think he’s much more respectful of his allies than the Bush administration’s been, and maybe in some respects even than the Clinton administration had been. I agree with that point. But contrast that with Obama, whose father was African, whose mother kind of worked around the world, a kind of globetrotter, who’d spent some of his formative years in Indonesia and whose formative years in the United States, the remainder of them, was spent to a considerable extent in Hawaii, which is itself kind of an offshore part of America. So you end up with people with very, very different views of the world and very different approaches to it. And the point I’m trying to make is that, you know, the world has changed. The world will not be dominated; it will have to be negotiated with. And an approach which is essentially all hard power, all militaristic, us and them, is just not going to work. It didn’t work in the Bush administration. I guess I’d point out that the place where the Bush administration’s foreign policy seems to me to have been most successful is in northeast Asia, far from where the neocons had any interest, or not much interest, and it was through diplomacy with the Chinese, with the Japanese, with the two Koreas, and so on, and it was very effective.
JAY: In the next segment of our discussion, let’s pick up where Paul Heinbecker left off. On this question of dominance, is either of these candidates willing to accept a world with America not being dominant? In other words, are either of these candidates, McCain or Obama—and I guess particularly we’re talking about Obama and Biden right now—willing to live in a world where the United States is a country amongst other countries? So please join us for the next segment of our discussion on Obama and US foreign policy.
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