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Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies says both Trump and Clinton would pursue militaristic foreign policy with nuanced differences

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Just 60 days before the 2016 presidential election, where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both claiming that they are the better candidate to project American power across the world. So the question for us is, who is the more dangerous candidate when it comes to war and peace around the world, and American foreign policy? Joining me now to discuss all of this is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Phyllis has written and edited 11 books, among them Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer. Phyllis, so good to have you with us today. PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Phyllis, Trump says when he becomes president he will undo the Iran deal. But Hillary Clinton is the most Israel-friendly candidate we’ve had in a long time, and her campaign is backed by people who have very strong ties to the state of Israel, many of them to AIPAC. So what do you make of all of this? BENNIS: Well, I think if we look at the issues one at a time, starting with the Iran deal, which is one of the crucial victories for diplomacy over war, I would say, of the Obama years, neither of these candidates are full-throated supporters of the deal. Hillary Clinton now says that she does, of course, support the deal. But while she was Secretary of State her focus was almost solely on the need to ensure that there could be new sanctions imposed at any moment. She has focused only on the aspect of the deal that allows the U.S. to maintain non-nuclear sanctions against Iran, and has threatened them, if there was any kind of U.S. assessment of the Iranians being too slow around implementing something, or perhaps not implementing one part of it, that military force would right away be on the table. With Donald Trump, his position is purely, I would tear it up. I would tear it up, and I’d do a better agreement. It’s not clear, as is so many of the cases in his examples, it’s not clear what that means. This was not a, an agreement that was negotiated on a bilateral basis between the United States and Iran. This was an agreement that involved at least seven separate countries, and then groups of countries. The European Union was part of the negotiation. The United Nations endorsed it, the Security Council resolution. And the actual resolution, or agreement, was negotiated not by the U.S. and Iran, but by Iran–it’s negotiating on its word, with what they called the P5+1, meaning the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The nuclear weapons [inaud.], Russia, China, the United States, France, and Britain, plus Germany. And their negotiating representative was primarily the foreign policy chief of the European Union. So the notion that Donald Trump could just say on his own, I would renegotiate, that really doesn’t work. So both of them are, in a sense, posturing. The difference is that Hillary Clinton does come out of the Obama administration. She is tying herself to Obama’s legacy. And so despite her ambiguity, let’s say, about the deal, despite her unease about it, because the Israeli prime minister led the opposition to it, she is still pretty much bound to support it, at least in the letter. In the spirit of the agreement, maybe not. But she would probably be bound to at least the letter of it. PERIES: Now, as you’ve just indicated, I mean, Hillary Clinton and Obama are not exactly on the same page when it comes to asserting American exceptionalism, or when it particularly comes to Israel-Palestine issues or Israel-Iran issues, where do you think that distinction is? BENNIS: I think there’s major differences between Clinton and Obama on the question of American exceptionalism and the U.S. wars. We can get to that in a moment. If you want to start first with Israel-Palestine, the differences are slightly more nuanced. During the Obama years there was enormous political tension between directly President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Very hostile words were spoken. There was a lot of body language, that antagonistic–Netanyahu greeted Obama [visibly] in a very direct, [inaud.] way. His invitation from the Republicans to come to address a joint session of Congress just months before the Congressional vote on the Iran deal where he said he was coming to persuade the American Congress, Senate, and the House, to vote against their president. It was an outrageous display of chutzpah. And of course, in response to that, 60 Democrats skipped the speech. That was unprecedented. Hillary Clinton would never–and she’s made clear that one of the first things she would do in office, in her first week in office, would be to call Prime Minister Netanyahu and re-establish good ties. That’s all on the political level. That’s all about the [inaud.]. Because if you talk to Israeli military and strategic officials, they all agree that President Obama has led the most pro-Israeli administration in recent history. Not because of the politics. They can deal with that. They can deal with the criticism of settlements, they can deal with the antagonism, as long as the real strategic relationship, which is based on the $30 billion in military aid promised over the ten years, and implemented by the Obama administration, and the agreement to protect Israel in the United Nations against allegations of war crimes, making sure that no Israeli officials are ever held accountable. President Obama hinted on one occasion, when Netanyahu said that there would never be a two-state solution on his watch, in response to that, President Obama did say, perhaps we should re-think our protection of Israel at the United Nations. But it never went beyond that. It never went beyond [the one statement]. So Israel came to understand that while there might be political and optical opposition, it did not translate into a real change in policy. So the difference in actual policy between Obama and Clinton is not very much. There may be a difference on how many billions of dollars they’re willing to promise for the next ten years. The Obama administration, from what we hear at least, not public, seems to be sticking to $40 billion in the next ten years, a huge rise from the $30 billion of the last ten years. The Clinton administration–sorry, the Clinton campaign has hinted that they would like to go much higher than $40 billion, maybe as much as $50 billion. So I think in all of those cases, those are incremental differences. When you come to Donald Trump, he made very early in his campaign a statement that was picked up very, very immediately as being a major shift, where he said that he would be neutral between Israel and Palestine. But he immediately pulled back on that. He went to the AIPAC conference and kowtowed to AIPAC as much as every candidate from both parties always does. In that context, that was supposed to be so significant about Bernie Sanders making the decision not to go to AIPAC. So the difference between the, a Trump administration and a Clinton administration on Israel-Palestine remains very uncertain. Part of the problem here is that we cannot rely on what Donald Trump says would be the policy. None of them have any substance that we’ve been able to see behind them. None of them have actual analysis of what it would look like on the ground, what would they actually do. His policy that we know is made up of of a series of slogans. It’s bumper-sticker policy. And in that context it’s very hard to make a judgment about who would be more or less dangerous on the given issue based solely on what he says, because there’s no ‘there’ there. There’s no substance behind it. And because he has this history of changing his position so consistently, the only consistency in his campaign so far is that he changes every other day. It makes it very difficult to make that the defining question. PERIES: And Phyllis, let’s move on to the current war in Syria, and of course, along with it we have to look at relations with Turkey and Putin in Rusia. What do you make of where the two candidates are when it comes to the current war in Syria? And who is better equipped to deal with Russia in this case? BENNIS: Well, I think we have a series of challenges, and we have a great deal of danger from either of these candidates. Both of these candidates have indicated a willingness to put a military strategy first, while Trump has, on occasion, indicated a hint of isolationism. When it comes to each separate issue, isolationism falls away. So when it comes to ISIS, his line is, I have a secret plan. They’re going to be gone. How is he going to do that? We don’t know. The assumption must be that he will rely on the military. There’s been absolutely no indication that he’s prepared to acknowledge what President Obama has said in words over and over. Rely upon sanctions. There is no military solution. There’s no indication that Donald Trump [means] that. There’s every indication that he believes this military babble, that he will somehow win. It’s not clear what he would do to win it. Hillary Clinton has been the, when she was in the Obama administration and when she was in Congress, very much in the leadership of the Democratic faction pushing for more war, greater war, more militarism. When it came to Libya, she led the faction in the Obama administration, pushing for direct U.S. military intervention, backed by others in the State Department and other diplomats. [Some] would be Susan Rise as the national security adviser and Samantha Power at the UN, who pushed hardest for direct U.S. military intervention, while the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, was opposed to direct military intervention at that time, as was President Obama. Clinton led the campaign that persuaded Obama to change his position. So we have to assume she’s being consistent, and her policies so far that she’s [inaud.] have been consistent in escalation. She calls for a so-called no-fly zone in Syria, which as Robert Gates said about Libya, he said, a no-fly zone starts [the] going to war. I want to ask her, does she think he was wrong? Or does she think it would be a good thing to go to war in this case, not only against the Syrian regime, but eventually against Russia as well? In that context, Donald Trump has said he would try to reopen negotiations with Putin. On the one hand, that’s a good thing. Negotiations rather than war is always a better [inaud.]. But it’s not at all clear that it’s grounded in any sort of strategic understanding beyond the fact that Trump seems to identify with Putin as a very authoritarian, macho kind of style. It’s not substance, it’s style he’s going on. So again, I don’t think we can rely on what he says, necessarily, in the campaign as an indicator of any sort about what it would look like. I do think when we talk about what presents the greatest danger we have to look beyond the specific policies that either side is [inaud.]. To me the most dangerous aspect of this campaign is not about any of the policies that either of the candidates have asserted, because while Hillary Clinton, who is by far the most experienced in Washington politics and getting things done, has expressed a very militaristic foreign policy, which I have very much opposed. I do think that we cannot assume that because Trump both is not as familiar with how it works, doesn’t have the ties in the Pentagon, he doesn’t have longstanding contacts with [elite] generals as Clinton does, that he wouldn’t immediately move to a militaristic approach. What does make one more dangerous is the movements that have been mobilized. The movement that Trump has engendered around him, and the danger that that movement, that is really a fascist movement [inaud.], could be legitimized when its titular leader is elected to the presidency is a very, very dangerous moment. I think that, in a certain way, has to do with–if you’ll excuse me–has to trump the individual policy that either side may speak about. That’s what makes one side, to me as an individual, more dangerous. It’s this question of the movement around Trump. PERIES: And it’s not just the movement. I mean, the kinds of people who are going to become his advisers. I mean, he just made it–. BENNIS: Absolutely. [Though] it’s his advisers who have shown no interest in representing the kind of people who are supporting Trump, who are people, people who are out of work. These are not the people that, among his advisers. His advisers are from the wealthiest corporate figures, banking leaders. That’s who he’s taking advice from on the economy. On military, I think we can anticipate the same thing. He’s not going to be taking advice from Iraq veterans against the war. He’s going to be taking advice from the most militaristic, jingoistic in style among his supporters. But it’s as well the people that flock to his rallies. The people that listened and cheered when he said that it’s the 2nd Amendment people, the people who like guns, who might do something about Hillary Clinton in office. That’s a horrific threat to a presidential candidate. And it creates an atmosphere–whatever his intention. He can say all he wants, he didn’t intend it as anything more than they would mobilize politically. It doesn’t matter what his intention is. What matters is the impact on other people. And as people have been writing, this is the model of what led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel. Not by an opponent of his policies on the Palestinian side or anyone else. No one was assassinating him from that side. It was a right-wing Israeli who felt he wasn’t right-wing enough who assassinated him. And it was in the context of a movement that had grown up against, in this case, against Rabin, but more broadly, a neofascist movement in Israel that led to somebody killing him, thinking that it was okay. Thinking that this was part of what the country was moving towards. This was the kind of danger that we could face if the kind of mobilization of this sort of fascist movement continues. PERIES: Right. And one last question to you, Phyllis. Now, many people are in the Republican side, and the neocons who are not supporting Trump, of course, is jumping ship. And some of them, like Robert Kagan, has come out and supported Hillary. What do you make of that danger? BENNIS: Well, I think it’s not surprising. Trump is certainly not loved by Republican leadership, because he’s not accountable to them. They can’t control him. They don’t want a candidate they can’t control. No party does. So on the one hand, it’s not so surprising. Hillary Clinton’s policies are simply not a terrible thing for neoconservatives in Washington, whether her policies on war, the militarism, is not incompatible with their views. There may be small differences, but not extraordinary ones. Similarly, on some of the economic issues, Hillary Clinton says that she is against the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it’s not clear, I think there’s a lot of doubt, whether she’s really that much against it. So I think that there are serious problems in believing that she is someone who stands against many of both the economic and the military policies of the neoconservatives. PERIES: All right. Phyllis, I thank you so much for joining us today. And we’ll be back to you very soon. BENNIS: I look forward to it. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.