What Drives Obama’s Foreign Policy?


Andrew Levine says Obama is continuing a triumphalist policy towards Russia

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore, continuing my discussion with Andrew Levine, taking a look at President Obama’s foreign policy choices. He now joins me again in the studio.

And once again, Andrew is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s the author of Political Keywords. He’s written on philosophy in many publications. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a research professor of philosophy at the University of of Maryland, College Park. And he writes regularly in CounterPunch.

Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So, when we talked before, we talked about just what kind of choices did President Obama have in Iraq in dealing with the Islamic State. And you were saying his best choice at this point would be do nothing, stay out.


JAY: What about Ukraine? What do you make of the choices he’s making, and what choices do you think he should be making?

LEVINE: Well, with Ukraine, first of all, I think that there is such a media onslaught about the situation with Russia and that has come to center around events in Ukraine, where almost everything that has become conventional wisdom, just the opposite is true. But if you just put a negation sign in front of everything, you would be on the right track for understanding things.

JAY: For example?

LEVINE: Well, that the problems in Ukraine are the result of Russia, generally, and Vladimir Putin, specifically, wanting to revive the old Soviet Union and to reincorporate Ukraine, or at least some portion of Ukraine, back into Russia to restore the situation that had existed, really, for centuries before, whereas its machinations on the part of the West–not initially, for the most part, the United States, though the United States certainly joined in, but Germany and other European powers–that wants, for their own largely economic reasons, to incorporate those former Soviet republics that are potentially lucrative, particularly if they are resource-rich and energy-rich, into their sphere of economic influence.

But the larger problem, from the American point of view, which I think really goes back to the Clinton era, is that the United States has consistently pursued a triumphalist foreign policy towards Russia from the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. And much as it grieves me to say anything good about Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush, I think they were sensitive to the delicacy of the situation and the complexity, and also to the importance of it, because after all, we’re talking about a country that was indeed a world superpower and still is massively armed with weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, that has an enormous potential industrial capacity, a highly educated population, and that’s strategically located in parts of the world that matter importantly. And so Reagan, and Bush after him, were sensitive to the need to relate to the Soviet Union, and then, later, to Russia, in ways that would lead to the permanent quashing of the old Cold War and that would guarantee genuine security interests of all the parties involved. But then Clinton came along and he threw caution to the wind. Reagan, and then Bush after him, had promised Gorbachev that there would be no attempt to move NATO up to Russia’s borders. That was an outright lie, or at least–I don’t know if they knew that it was a lie, but it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen, under Clinton.

And now they’ve intensified the effort, going after not just the old Soviet allies, the old Warsaw Pact members, and the Baltic republics, which were technically part of the Soviet Union, but also parts of former Soviet republics that were quite central to Russian strategic interests. So there was a little war, fought by proxies, in 2008 over Georgia that Russia–where the outcome was basically Russia prevailed, or at least held back the tide. But that doesn’t seem to affect Western capitals. If anything, they’ve upped the ante. And going after Ukraine is really going to the heart and soul of any project if the aim is to humiliate Russia, to weaken it, to guarantee that it would never again become a significant force on the world scene. And that’s something that Russia just can’t deal with.

So in Ukraine there’s very little doubt that the United States, along with the Europeans, was very active in encouraging what ended up–there’s no other way to describe it–as a coup, and that empowered forces, not all of them fascist forces the way that Russia sometimes maintains, but many of them far to the right of anything that could remotely count as a liberal political tendency. And in making it the case that Russia would have no choice but to intervene somewhat into the situation, it would be like if–I mean, well, remember that Kennedy practically brought the world to an end when Russia placed missiles in Cuba. This is the functional equivalent of that. I mean, if we can have our Monroe Doctrine, they have to have something like a Monroe Doctrine. And American policy has been totally insensitive to this. And the American media have not been the least bit enlightening about this either.

JAY: To some extent it seems to me that this was not an Obama-driven initiative. He seems to allow–and, again, I guess I want to keep saying, when I say him, I mean his administration, I mean the forces he represent. I mean, he seemed to be, one–in ’04 [2008], when he fights with McCain, he’s fighting over we’re going to do the Afghan War, that’s going to be the real war. And McCain’s saying, no, we’re going to fight the Russians. It was all about–the neocons have been about the Russians. Even Romney was all about Russia is the main enemy. And Obama’s about the Asian pivot.

On the other hand, he seems totally unable to control any of this, that now, again because of domestic politics, his great fear is Obama can’t look weak, and he seems to have played that we got bin Laden card as many times as he’s going to be able to play it. It doesn’t seem to be–it seems to be losing its effectiveness.

So he has to play along with all this. There’s a lot of forces at play here that want to corner and contain Russia.

LEVINE: Yeah. The one thing where Obama has been totally resolute is in plunging down the wrong path consistently. And he’s–part of the explanation for that, I believe, is that he has, for whatever reason, re-empowered the old Clinton hands, even to the point of making Hillary Clinton his first secretary of state, and adding onto them what might arguably be even worse, the humanitarian intervenors, like Samantha power and Susan Rice and the others, so that the bubble that he lives in, that any president inevitably lives in, is one in which it seems–it probably seems reasonable, or at least not flagrantly unreasonable, to pursue these very aggressive, destructive, dangerous strategies with respect to the former Soviet Union.

So we have this curious situation now in which two of the great old empires that underwent radical transformations after the First World War–the Russian Empire, for different reasons, and the Ottoman Empire–that it’s like the chickens are finally come home to roost that we have these major crises. And if anybody has any understanding about how to deal with them in a way that is likely to make the outcomes, if not good, at least tolerable, they’re not in the Obama administration.

JAY: And again, as I say, he will always do what’s expedient for his own political positioning and career. There’s nothing unique about that. That’s going to be most presidents. But he gets so much pressure from the neocons who want to have a real provocative fight. And not just the neocons. I agree with you. Whole sections of the foreign-policy elites want to pick a fight with Russia right now. It’s a good Cold War to have. He knows–I think he actually–there’s a certain rationality in him: he knows better. But he’ll never stand for that. He’ll easily succumb to go to where the pressure pushes him.

LEVINE: Well, the question is–I don’t know what the answer is–whether what he ends up doing is what he really wants to do or whether he’s forced to do it because of irresolution or because of Republican obstinacy or for whatever reason.

JAY: We were talking off-camera. I mean, I think what drives President Obama is two things, beginning, middle, and end: number one, what’s good for President Obama and his career and how he’ll look and his future after the presidency; and number two, the people that brought him to office, which was Wall Street. And he tries to manage these events in the interests of the people that paid for his election campaign.

LEVINE: Yeah. Well, he certainly is, I think, borderline contemptuous of the constituencies that vote for him and that actually put him in office, insofar as votes rather than money put you in office, the labor movement particularly. He’ll–for instance, on Labor Day he gives a speech in Milwaukee, of all places, promoting union movement. Because I spent a lot of time in Madison in my past, I’m particularly sensitive to the way that Obama effectively torpedoed a large genuine popular insurgency that was largely working-class-based and that aimed not at advancing social policy, but at preventing the Republican governor, Scott Walker, from turning history back by, in conjunction with other Republican governors, particularly in the Midwest where they were able to do it, undoing public unions. Now, Obama, all he would have had to do is to campaign in Milwaukee or in Racine or in places where he was inherently popular. The Democratic Party eventually ran a candidate, who had been the mayor of Milwaukee, who was quite unpopular in the African-American community. And Obama could have countered that at least enough to make it the case that Wisconsin wouldn’t be locked into this situation where the Republicans control it.

JAY: If there’s one thing he promised the labor movement when he first got elected, it was the Employee Free Choice Act, EFCA. He controlled both houses, and he made sure that he put it off till after the next elections, when it was likely there were going to lose the House.

But this is what I go back to. If you want to understand Obama, just start with the question what in this situation is good for Wall Street and you’ll get the answer.

LEVINE: Well, but it’s also what’s good for right-wing Democrats and for Republicans. For instance, why else would he actually promise Hispanic organizers that he would by executive action at least do something to rectify the horrible immigration crisis that exists now and then renege on the promise?

JAY: ‘Cause at one calculation, it’s going to give you more Latino votes, and in the next calculation, we’re going to lose too many non-Latino votes, so we’ll flip.

LEVINE: Exactly. So he’s willing to cast aside–he’s willing to regard almost with contempt the potentially progressive constituencies that support him, and that still to a large extent support him, and to do what he can for the opponents of progressive constituencies.

JAY: So let me give you the counterargument. The counterargument is half the country votes Republican. Even much of the working-class, certainly outside the big urban centers, votes Republican. And I’ve talked to union leaders where I’ve asked them. I said, how can you keep so unquestionably supporting a president who promised you so much and delivered virtually nothing? And the answer’s obvious. It’s ’cause the alternative is so much worse. There’s a real battle in these state capitals and nationally that if we lose these battles, we will be completely demolished.


JAY: And so we’re stuck with supporting this type of an alliance with an Obama candidate who–they know he’s financed and represents Wall Street, but I’ve actually had one of the labor people say to me, well, they’re the only ones with the cash to defeat the Republicans. So you’ve got to go along with the Wall Street alliance.

LEVINE: Well, let me say this about that. Obviously, lesser evils are better than greater evils. That’s a point of logic, I would think. But in these instances it’s far from clear who the lesser evil is and what the consequences of lesser-evilism are, because it’s not enough just to look very myopically at a particular point in time. If you pursue the lesser-evil line, you end up in a race to the bottom, where we end up with the kinds of political alternatives that we now have.

But the larger problem is that when there is a Democratic president, whether it’s Obama or before, when it was Clinton, and even before that when it was Jimmy Carter, Democrats are a lot worse than when there’s a Republican president, because they feel, probably understandably, that it’s in their interests to rally behind their leader.

JAY: A lot worse in what ways? In terms of domestic or foreign policy?

LEVINE: Well, certainly in terms of domestic policy.

JAY: ‘Cause, you know, Chomsky argues the contrary, that he’s done this sort of study of–you know, at a micro level, in terms of people’s, like, wages or certain amount of social safety net legislation and this sort of thing, that there is a small difference, that people are somewhat better off under the Democrats than the Republicans. Certainly at a state level that’s true.

LEVINE: Well, they would be better if the Democrats controlled both houses and the White House, or at the state level if they controlled the legislature and the governors’ mansions. But in the situation that we have at the national level, where you have these gerrymandered political districts, and where there are very few competitive seats, and where it’s very difficult to change party leadership, not impossible, but difficult, where you have divided government, in that sense, then, I think Democrats are worse.

JAY: Yeah, you get the worst of all worlds. You get essentially Republican legislation but a muted opposition, because so much of the opposition doesn’t want to take the legs out of the Democratic Party president.

LEVINE: And even when it’s not a Democrat in the White House. For instance, in the period between 2006 and 2008 when the Democrats did control both houses of Congress, and when they were able to do that because there was so much public animosity towards the Bush government and towards the wars that Bush was conducting, the Democratic Party leadership, especially including Nancy Pelosi, did everything that they could to stifle actions which could have been genuinely constructive. If the Democrats were one-tenth, one-twentieth as obstinate as Republicans, they could have put an end to the Iraq war a long time ago. They certainly would have at least instituted impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney. That was actively proposed by several very prominent Democrats. But that all got crushed by the Democratic leadership.

I don’t know if that was because they wanted to do Wall Street’s bidding. Maybe that had something to do with it. But I think they wanted to elect a Democrat in 2008. And maybe that was a good idea at the time, but it still had the effect of making the Democratic Party complicitous–not to the extent that it has been lately, but complicitous in the worst departures in domestic and foreign policy of our government.

But, sure, it would be better if there was a clean sweep. In 2008 there was a clean sweep for a while. Obama–this is where the aloofness problem started to come in. Instead of–Obama actually had enormous amounts of political capital that he could have expended, but he squandered it very flagrantly, and it became–and he had feet of clay. That became utterly obvious. It became obvious both–.

JAY: Well, it was all about saving the banks. There was no–every other agenda fell to the side.

LEVINE: Well, the health care agenda didn’t fall to the side. It’s just that he pursued a Republican line with respect to health care reform. And the Democratic Party was just mute in opposition to it. And so he started out by giving away the store and then negotiating from the hut. And so we ended up where we ended up.

Now, is it marginally better? Probably.

JAY: I mean, it’s kind of–Wall Street and the pharma and the health care industry, there’s no wall between those two things.

LEVINE: Right. It strengthened–what Obama did certainly entrenched the power of health care profiteers,–

JAY: Finance [crosstalk]

LEVINE: –the insurance companies and the rest that profit off our illness.

JAY: They made a sweetheart deal with pharma.

LEVINE: And it also set back the cause of genuine reform, probably for another generation, just as Hillary Clinton’s reforms had done before. But it probably on balance was a good thing, because it supplied coverage to more people, although the jury is still out on this. But that’s what comes with the Obama style of governance and the Democratic Party in control of things.

Now, those were the good old days, in retrospect. But I do think that in the future, because of Obama’s irresoluteness in key areas, that we may miss him dearly after 2016.

JAY: Alright. We’re going to continue this in another segment. Thanks for joining us.

LEVINE: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us. We’re going to continue this discussion, picking up on the whole issue of President Obama’s policy on Israel and Palestine.


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