No Passes

On issues of foreign policy, war and peace, all the candidates are equally terrible.

Either one will lead to war: Hawkish Hillary and reckless Trump could both lead to prolonged new wars
by Paul Rosenberg, Salon
Saturday, May 28, 2016 09:30 AM EST

we’ve been on a downward spiral since losing the Vietnam War and refusing to come to grips with it, and our Mideast policy was intensely counterproductive well before that. But the need for avoiding endless war could not be more stark than it is right now, nor could the prospects for avoiding it be more dim with the choices these two candidates offer us.

On the Republican side, Trump acts as a caricature update of Reagan’s much smoother, more artfully scripted denialism, epitomized by his rewriting the history of what should have been our most instructive wake-up call, the “teachable moment” on which we deliberately turned our backs. The Vietnam War was “a noble cause,” Reagan claimed in a 1980 speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, standing history on its head, claiming “A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. In reality, we were fighting against the very forces that ended colonial rule, led by Ho Chi Minh—who first sought American support for independence from Woodrow Wilson in line with his “14 points” just after World War I, was allied with U.S. intelligence during World War II, and began Vietnam’s 1945 Declaration of Independence by quoting our own Declaration of Independence. Contrary to Reagan’s claim equating Vietnamese communists with China, the two actually fought a brief war just the year before Reagan gave that speech.

Not only was Reagan in denial about who we were fighting against—Vietnamese nationalists turned communist by our own neglect, but still fiercely independent from outside control—he was also in denial about why they won and why we lost. On the first point, he said, “They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam.” This approaches something true, but is deeply deceptive nonetheless. Vietnam had been fighting for its independence for almost 2,000 years, first against the Chinese, then against the French, then us. Against much stronger outside military forces, winning in a classic battlefield sense had never been essential to their military thinking; making the cost of occupation too high to sustain had always been key; and in fighting America they certainly realized it was a political struggle above all.

But it was the GI anti-war movement in Vietnam itself, leading to “The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” as Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. described in the Armed Forces Journal in June, 1971, which proved crucial in ending the war, largely the product of first-hand experience by frontline troops, and internal critical discussions in the underground GI press. Put simply: They were just too decent to continue waging an unjust war. The Vietnamese ultimately won by appealing to our soldiers’ humanity, and there was nothing shameful in that conclusion. Reagan’s denialist fairy tale may have been more comforting on the homefront then, in a time of confusion, but it only helped sow seeds of further failure for the future.

On the second point—denying why we lost—Reagan peddled a now-familiar soft version of the “stab in the back” myth that Germans adopted after World War I, a myth that the fledgling Nazi Party milked repeatedly in its rise to power. “If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail,” Reagan said, “let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.” China has been trying to conquer Vietnam for almost 2,000 years. They have succeeded, temporarily, for periods longer than America has existed, but in the end they have failed—not because their government was afraid to let them win, but because a sufficiently tenacious people cannot be defeated in their homeland, short of complete genocide. That is at least one fundamental lesson we could have, should have learned from losing the Vietnam War, a lesson that Ronald Reagan helped to make sure we did not learn. And because we did not learn it there, we have kept on repeating our mistake, as we are doing now.

Conservatives and Republicans are generally horrified to have Trump and Reagan compared—though no less a central figure in the conservative movement than Phyllis Schlafly has made the comparison herself. But it’s strikingly clear that the two were quite similar in their basic orientations; it’s just that conservatives have spent so much more of America’s accumulated capital—cultural, political, economic, you name it—that the same orientation now comes across as far more strained and hysterical. Still it’s quite clear they were riffing off the same basic idea—the idea of a conservative restoration: Trump promises to “make America great again,” but in that same VFW speech, Reagan pledged to unite “a great crusade to restore the America of our dreams.” The fundamental thrust of their politics is the same, but the ideological/rhetorical vehicle for it is falling to pieces faster than anyone can put it back together.

Trump is notorious for his lack of conservative orthodoxy, but people forget how badly Reagan himself would have failed any such test, had more recent powerful gatekeepers been around to check his credentials. He raised taxes 11 times after his initial tax cuts caused the deficit to explode; he struck a deal to save Social Security, which he had previously wanted to undermine by making it voluntary; he struck an immigration deal with amnesty for almost 3 million “illegal immigrants;” he negotiated with the Soviets, even coming close to abolishing nuclear weapons. None of this means he wasn’t a conservative, of course. Litmus tests can be very misleading, especially once they proliferate like rabbits. What mattered was that Reagan decisively altered the terms of debate, and did so on the basis of reality-denial and wish-fulfillment fantasies of restoring lost power, which the American political system was strong enough to withstand, despite the damage that inevitably followed. Trump, for all his differences in style and tone, is doing almost exactly the same thing, though the prospects for success are much diminished.

All of Reagan’s professions of peaceful intentions were framed in terms of a belief that America was in peril, that its leadership had failed, while its enemies had multiplied and spread—and Trump shares that very same belief. Reagan spoke of “Jimmy Carter’s lack of coherent policy,” adding, “Our allies are losing confidence in us, and our adversaries no longer respect us.” Trump derided “the strategic foreign policy vision of Obama/Clinton” as “a complete and total disaster,” saying “our rivals no longer respect us. In fact, they’re just as confused as our allies.”

Both men professed to stand for peace, but said it could only be gotten through strength, and the willingness to fight all-out. “If America fights, it must only fight to win,” Trump said, directly echoing Reagan’s invocation of the stab-in-the-back myth. Neither could acknowledge that there are limits to what military might can accomplish, especially against a whole people, and neither could tolerate the national soul-searching that could potentially lead to greater wisdom moving forward. Above all, neither could tolerate trying to see ourselves as others see us, or trying to understand ourselves and our choice of options in terms of a broader historical perspective.

On the Democratic side, the problem with Clinton is much easier to grasp: She is significantly more hawkish than Obama, whose desire not to seem “soft” prevented him from truly thinking outside the box that America has put itself in, at least since we started funding the Taliban under Jimmy Carter, a practice dramatically expanded under Reagan. Despite his professed interest in a “new beginning,” Obama expanded the war in Afghanistan, normalized drone warfare with thousands of casualties outside declared war zones, and intervened to support regime change in Libya, which Obama admitted produced “the worst mistake” of his administration, “failing to plan for the day after,” the exact same problem Bush/Cheney created in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, despite being right on the Iraq War, Obama shows little evidence of having learned the larger lesson—and Clinton is distinctly more hawkish, less interested in exploring other options than he was. As his Secretary of State, she was known as one of his most hawkish advisers, she had surrounded herself with a hawkish coterie in the Senate—Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, James Steinberg, William Perry, Jamie Rubin, Kenneth Pollack—and strongly favored of getting rid of Gaddafi.

On Democracy Now recently, Sy Hersh argued that this move was even worse than it’s now commonly recognized, since Gaddafi had become an ally fighting terrorism before we helped to get rid of him. “Gaddafi was a tame cat. We got to him in the Bush-Cheney years,” Hersh said. After “we caught a ship full of some dual-use goods” on its way to Tripoli in 2004, Gaddafi “suddenly announced that he was giving up—unilaterally going to give up all his chemical arsenal and his WMD, his nuclear plans or options…. I can tell you that it was a considerable amount of CIA activity involved to turn him around.” So, in 2011, “they were going after a guy that had been doing a lot of good work for us, believe it or not, horrible as he was. He was a horrible human being. Bad things happened inside that country to the people. But he was actively working with us on the al-Qaeda issue.”

This is just the sort of messy situation that “realists,” which Clinton and Obama claim to be, are supposed to handle well, in contrast to purists, ideologues and idealists. This clearly does not bode well for us. We have more failed states on our hands than ever, and more terrorists mobilized struggling to seize power where they have failed. While Trump’s erratic conduct could make things drastically worse overnight, Clinton’s alleged “steady hand” has not steered us out of dangers in the region—dangers which may, in fact, already be in the process of increasing dramatically over time.

On the other hand, withdrawal holds significant promise—if not overnight. There will still be intense conflicts in the region, between Shiites and the Sunnis, and between different ethnic groups—Kurds, Arabs and Turks—as well as between competing political factions such as those who’ve ruled different states in the region. But it will no longer be a metaethnic frontier—well, except, perhaps for the continued presence of Israel, which is a topic for another day. But, we should note, metaethnic theory tells us that “protecting Israel” cannot be done by conventional strategies of building up support around it—that will only intensify the character of the metaethnic frontier. Israel’s best chance for long-term security is to lessen the sense that it’s an irretrievable hostile Western outpost, and recover its ancient cultural roots that connect it with the rest of the region.

This is what the best available empirical evidence has to tell us. And it’s starkly at odds with everything our political elites are primed and inclined to do. Ultimately, the problem with Trump and Clinton in the upcoming election has almost nothing to do with either of them, ironically. How they differ from one another or from other candidates in recent election cycles is relatively insignificant compared to the vast difference between the logic of what’s politically thinkable, on the one hand, and the logic of how history actually works, on the other.

Which is another way of saying, we can either brace ourselves for a multi-generation hundred-years war, or we can re-dedicate ourselves to working for a political revolution—one that will be even more comprehensive than what Bernie Sanders has talked about so far.