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Katrina vanden Heuvel on Obama, the progressives and foreign policy

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. Again we’re with Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. We just talked about whether you consider him a man of progressive politics, and you said broadly a man of progressive politics. But if you take his foreign-policy positions, particularly starting with Israel and Gaza, for a long time he didn’t say anything, and then, when he did, he didn’t really say anything any American president wouldn’t have said. And given how critical the Israeli-Palestinian question is to the whole issue of foreign policy in the region, what do you make of him on that? And what’s the relationship with the progressive movement in terms of critiquing?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, THE NATION: You raise a number of good points. First of all, when I said “broadly progressive,” I was speaking more in the context of the domestic arena, though I do think there is a link between foreign and domestic issues, of course. You know, who are we, progressives? There are different progressives; it’s not a monolithic group. At The Nation I would be very hesitant to say that we have given Obama a pass on Israel, on Iraq, on issues looming ahead, Afghanistan, or on the whole issue of the, quote, “war on terror.” We’ve been very forthright in pushing for far broader policies than just closing Guantanamo, or even quick revisions to the abusive interrogation/detention policies. But on the Middle East, we believe that this is not just an Obama problem; this is an American political, progressive, Democratic, liberal problem that there isn’t an independent voice. Obama has not done anything to separate himself from previous administrations. There is cowardice on this issue in our political class. So it will again. Perhaps it’s this crisis; perhaps it’s the understanding that if one doesn’t move quickly, the idea of a two-state solution will no longer be a possibility. On Iraq he campaigned to withdraw and end the occupation. Has The Nation been too easy on him? I would disagree. We’ve had Jeremy Scahill in our own editorials early on arguing that we need a full withdrawal, not just combat troops and leaving a force inside Iraq, which we believe undercuts the real end of occupation. Now, Obama, I think—and, again, I don’t want to bring it back directly to Obama, because I see it as a systemic problem—I think he understands the need to reengage the world with some humility, and I think that is a first step. And also I think he may find a way—probably not—on this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, I hate to say, early on, admit that it’s going to be outside of the boldness he may be willing to take on other issues. But I do think he understands that his presidency rests on how he reengages the world. And that’s why Afghanistan, in my view, becomes very important, because that could become his war very quickly.

JAY: If one goes back and looks at Obama’s speeches in 2002, 2003, and looks at why he opposed the Iraq War, if you read Brent Scowcroft and some of those Bush I foreign policy people, very similar positions that are actually opposed to the war not because it’s illegal or because there’s not weapons of mass destruction, it’s because it’s weakened America’s strategic position in the world. And his positioning, his foreign policy position, he says himself he finds its roots in Truman and Reagan—he even mentions Reagan sometimes. Should we not just acknowledge that’s who he is?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. I mean, I think—.

JAY: I mean, he says it over and over again.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Though I do think there is, and I don’t want to ascribe too much to the symbolism, but it is more than symbolism that he is a citizen of the world in terms of how he’s lived, who he is, African American with a Kenyan father, having lived in Indonesia. I don’t want to ascribe too much to that. But I do think he is aware that there are limits to military power. Is that a realistic, is that an idealistic issue? It’s one we can work with. And I think this whole idea of soft power, smart power, you can scoff at the terms, but if there is some subtle intelligence at work and an understanding of the failures of Iraq and a willingness to rethink Afghanistan and go for regional diplomacy—I’m not asking for everything; I’m saying let’s be pragmatic about who he is. But in that limit-of-military-power understanding, there’s also an understanding of the real challenges of the 21st century. How does hyper-militarized foreign policy deal with pandemics we’ve never seen? With trafficking of nuclear weapons? With global economic instability? With women’s human rights degradation? A slew of issues which aren’t going to be met by military power. This doesn’t mean that you have someone in the White House who will agree with us, but it does mean that you can push forward the broader parameters of what we believe, and try and influence. But my sense of hope about this moment is not easy-grace, cheap-grace change; it’s that we have for the first time in many years the possibility that good work can be done that could make some change. Fundamental change, that takes time.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about change for whom. Please join us again with Katrina vanden Heuvel in the next segment of our interviews.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel is The Nation's editor and publisher. She is the co-editor of Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right and, most recently, editor of The Dictionary of Republicanisms. She is also co-editor (with Stephen F. Cohen) of Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev's Reformers and editor of The Nation: 1865-1990, and the collection A Just Response: The Nation on Terrorism, Democracy and September 11, 2001.