What Does Hillary Clinton Stand For?

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
What does she really stand for?  (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

W.J. Astore

What does Hillary Clinton stand for?  It’s a serious question.  Sure, she’s given a lot of speeches, but without saying much.  I’ve watched the debates and have listened to her speak, and the best I can come up with is this:

  1. She’s continuing the legacy of Obama.  For example, Obamacare will be extended to cover all Americans.
  2. She’s going to break the glass ceiling that has blocked a woman from being president.
  3. She loves Israel and will support whatever the Israeli government wants.
  4. She’s going to work to raise the minimum wage for workers — $12.00 is the goal.
  5. She’s going to work against the TPP (after she was initially for it).
  6. She’s against the Keystone Pipeline (after initially supporting it).
  7. She’s fully for equality for the LGBT community (after initially being against it).
  8. She’s for an aggressive U.S. military posture and fully supports enormous defense budgets.
  9.  She’s not going to do dumb things like that scary Donald Trump.
  10. She’s got a lot of experience in government.  The length of her resume alone qualifies her to be president.

That’s the gist of her message as far as I’ve been able to discern.  Of course, there are other messages for her followers.  Surely Hillary will support reproductive rights, to include access to abortion.  Surely she will appoint justices to the Supreme Court that are somewhere to the left of Antonin Scalia. Such considerations shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

But a new path for our country?  Fresh ideas?  They’re not coming from Hillary. Important issues like campaign finance reform, reforming banks and other powerful financial institutions, reducing income inequality in the United States, and similar issues of reform and fairness are dead on arrival if she’s elected president.

Also, Hillary’s embrace of Henry Kissinger as well as neo-conservative principles in foreign policy ensures a continuation of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and locations throughout the Greater Middle East.  (When I first typed that, I unconsciously wrote, Greater Military East, because America’s engagement with the region is almost exclusively conducted in military terms, via bombing, drone strikes, and special ops raids).

The Clinton Campaign’s strategy of being fuzzy about specifics while vilifying her chief opponent (admittedly not difficult to do if your opponent is Trump) reminds me of a book I read many, many moons ago: “The Selling of the President 1968,” by Joe McGinniss.  What I recall from that book was the cynical process of triangulation and secrecy as well as the tight control of “the message” by Candidate Nixon and his cronies, the cagey and sleazy way Nixon and his campaign refused to engage honestly with the American people.  His campaign in 1968 foreshadowed the crimes of Nixon and his administration to come, most infamously Watergate.  At the root was an attitude of privilege, superiority, and entitlement, a sense that Nixon had paid his dues and deserved to be president.  Dammit, it was HIS turn.  And look at the length of his resume!

Much can be said about comparing Hillary to “Tricky Dick.”  Long political careers tainted by scandal.  High negative ratings.  A tendency by each to see vast right wing (or left wing) conspiracies, and therefore to compensate by surrounding themselves with trusted operatives, sycophants, and strap-hangers. A desire to appear tough, whether it’s about standing up to terrorists or communists.

After eight years of “No drama Obama,” perhaps the American people prefer a return to the paranoid style of politics of Richard Nixon — and Hillary Clinton.  A style that’s economical with the truth, led by a person who believes himself — or herself — to be the smartest and toughest person in the room.

But I already saw how that ended in 1974; I’m not voting for a repeat, even if the dramatic lead this time around is female.

Obama’s Foreign Policy: Image over Substance

Obama address
Actions speak louder than spin

W.J. Astore

At Salon.com, Patrick Smith has a telling article on the Obama administration’s foreign policy.  He details the way in which style has triumphed over substance, and how tightly the Obama administration controls the narrative in the mainstream media.  Essentially, Smith provides more evidence of the way in which reporters and journalists serve as stenographers to the powerful.

Many journalists, notes Smith, are twenty-somethings who attempt to provide coverage of foreign affairs from inside the Washington Beltway. Under such conditions, even a diligent reporter has to rely far too heavily on official mouthpieces at the Pentagon, State Department, and similar governmental agencies. Those reporters who buck the system risk losing access; in short, they risk losing their privileges — and their jobs. Most end up conforming.

This is nothing new to anyone familiar with Stephen Colbert’s famous take-down of insider journalists at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006.  As Colbert said a decade ago:

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works. The President makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!

Along with that critique, Smith is excellent on critiquing the fundamental unoriginality, the militarized banality, of much of Obama’s foreign policy.  As Smith notes:

There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for …

What is the new [Obama administration] narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?

The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.

Just so.  Consider recent events.  More U.S. “advisers” (troops) to Iraq.  More foreign weapons sales.  The commitment of ABM missiles to Romania.  Sending B-52s (a symbol of the Cold War) to strike at ISIS.  More talk of the dangers of a resurgent Russia.  And (of course) more talk of enlarging the Pentagon and feeding it more money.

Yes, the Obama administration has been more reluctant than Bush/Cheney to commit big battalions of the regular army to overseas invasions and wars, but otherwise the foreign policy song has remained pretty much the same.  Obama just prefers a smaller stage presence or “footprint,” as defined by Washington as drones and special ops, together with privatized militaries and extensive weapons sales, rather than big battalions.

That’s hardly a new narrative in U.S. foreign policy — precisely the point of Smith’s telling critique.

 

Lying and Deception in the Iraq War – and Today

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Hannah Arendt, cigarette in hand (Arendt Center, Bard College)

W.J. Astore

(This is part 2 of 2 of an essay dealing with lying, politics, and war, inspired by Hannah Arendt’s writings on The Pentagon Papers.  For part 1, click here.)

After the Vietnam War, the U.S. government oversaw the creation of a post-democratic military, one that was less tied to the people, meaning that the government had even less cause to tell the truth about war.  Unsurprisingly, then, the hubris witnessed in Vietnam was repeated with Iraq, together with an even more sweeping ability to deny or disregard facts, as showcased best in a statement by Karl Rove in 2004.  The actions of the Bush/Cheney Administration, Rove suggested, bypassed the fact- or “reality-based” community of lesser humans precisely because their premises (the need to revolutionize the Middle East and to win the War on Terror through violence) were irrefutable and their motives unimpeachable.  In Rove’s words:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

So it was that the Bush/Cheney administration manufactured its own “facts” to create its own “reality,” as the Downing Street Memo revealed (according to a senior British official, U.S. intelligence was “fixed” in 2002 to justify a predetermined decision to invade Iraq in 2003).  Dubious intelligence about yellowcake uranium from Africa and mobile biological weapons production facilities in Iraq (both later proved false) became “slam dunk” proof that Iraq had active programs of WMD development.  These lies were then cited to justify a rapid invasion.  That there were no active WMD programs in Iraq meant there could be no true “mission accomplished” moment to the war – a fact George W. Bush lampooned by pretending to  “search” for WMD at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2004.  In this case, lies and self-deception coalesced in a wincing performance before chuckling Washington insiders that recalled the worst of vaudeville, except that Americans and Iraqis were dying for these lies.

Subsequent policy decisions in post-invasion Iraq didn’t fit the facts on the ground because those facts were simply denied.  Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in July 2003 he didn’t do quagmires even as Iraq was becoming one for U.S. forces.  Two years later, then-Vice President Cheney claimed the Iraq insurgency was “in the last throes” even as insurgent attacks began to accelerate.  Lies and deception, to include self-deception, doomed the U.S. government to quagmire in Iraq, just as it had in Vietnam forty years earlier.  Similar lies continue to bedevil U.S. efforts in Iraq today, as well as in Afghanistan and many other places.

Even as official lies and deception spread, whistleblowers who stepped forward were gagged and squashed.  Chelsea Manning, Stephen Kim, and John Kiriakou were imprisoned; Edward Snowden was forced into permanent exile in Russia. Meanwhile, officials who toed the government line, who agreed to dissemble, were rewarded.  Whether under Bush or Obama, government officials quickly learned that supporting the party line, no matter how fanciful, was and is rewarded – but that truth-telling would be punished severely.

Lying and Self-Deception Today

How are U.S. officials doing at truth-telling today?  Consider the war in Afghanistan.  Now in its 15th year, regress, not progress, is the reality on the ground.  The Taliban controls more territory than ever, the drug trade is exploding, and Afghan forces remain unreliable.  Yet the U.S. government continues to present the Afghan war as winnable and the situation as steadily improving.

Similarly, consider the war on terror, nowadays prosecuted mainly by drones and special ops.  Even as the U.S. government boasts of terrorists killed and plots prevented, radical Islam as represented by ISIS and the like continues to spread.  Indeed, as terrorism expert David Kilcullen recently admitted, ISIS didn’t exist until U.S. actions destabilized and radicalized Iraq after 2003.  More than anything, U.S. intervention and blundering in Iraq created ISIS, just as ongoing drone strikes and special ops raids contribute to radicalization in the Islamic world.

Today’s generation of “best and brightest” problem-solvers believes U.S. forces cannot withdraw from Afghanistan without the Afghan government collapsing, hence the misleading statements about progress being made in that war.  Radical Islamic terrorists, they believe, must be utterly destroyed by military means, hence deceptive statements about drone strikes and special ops raids as eliminating terrorism.

Accompanying lies and deception about progress being made in wars is image manipulation.  Military action inoculates the Washington establishment, from President Obama on down, from (most) charges of being soft on terror (just as military action against North Vietnam inoculated John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson against charges of being soft on communism).  It also stokes the insatiable hunger of the military-industrial complex for bottomless resources and incessant action, a complex that the current crop of Republican and Democratic candidates for president (Bernie Sanders excepted) have vowed to feed and expand.

Whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or in the war on terror today, lying and self-deception have led to wrongheaded action and wrongful lessons.  So, for example, rather than facing the quagmire of Afghanistan and extricating itself from it, Washington speaks of a generational war and staying the course until ultimate victory.  Instead of seeing the often counterproductive nature of violent military strikes against radical Islam, Washington calls for more U.S. troops, more bombing, more “shock and awe,” the approach that bred the Islamic State in the first place.

One thing is certain: The U.S. desperately needs leaders whose judgment is informed by uncomfortable truths.  Comfortable lies have been tried before, and look what they produced: lots of dead people, lost wars, and a crippling of America’s ability to govern itself as a democracy.

More than ever, hard facts are at a premium in U.S. politics.  But the higher premium is the exorbitant costs we pay as a people, and the pain we inflict on others, when we allow leaders to make lies and deception the foundation of U.S. foreign policy.

Hillary Clinton: A Deeply Compromised Candidate

hillary henry
Hillary and Henry

W.J. Astore

Hillary Clinton is a deeply compromised candidate.  She and her husband have made over $125 million in paid speeches since 2001, including $30 million in 16 months.  There’s nothing wrong with making lots of money: this is America, after all.  But there’s something wrong about accepting big checks from powerful banks and investment houses and then positioning yourself as the champion of “everyday people” in your run for the presidency.

Along with her close alliance with Wall Street, Hillary is essentially a neo-conservative on foreign policy who admires the Real Politik of men like Henry Kissinger.  She promises more interventionism overseas and doubtless more wars.  She is especially close to Israel and advertises herself as a loyal ally to Benjamin Netanyahu.

The person she most closely resembles in recent U.S. politics is Richard Nixon.  Like Nixon, she’s aggressive in foreign policy (recall her infamous quip about the fall of Qaddafi in Libya: “We came, we saw, he died”).  Like Nixon, she is secretive and economical with the truth, despite her truth-telling vows.  Like Nixon, she is a complex person, not without talent, but a person who often doesn’t appear fully comfortable, especially when pressed about her record.  Like Nixon, she leaves very little to chance; there’s calculation to nearly everything she does.

A Hillary Clinton administration promises to be even less transparent than Obama’s.  It would be more in service to the powers that be (big money donors such as the health care industry will come calling for their payback, and they’ll get it).  Despite protestations of being “progressive,” a Clinton administration promises to be regressive in terms of peace, social progress, and fairness for the working classes.

Despite this, her path to the presidency seems remarkably clear.  Bernie Sanders, an honest man of conviction, lacks establishment support.  Hillary’s Republican opponent of the moment, Donald Trump, is an opportunistic business tycoon who apparently says whatever pops into his head.  Trump may be the one candidate with more negative baggage than Hillary.

A Hillary/Trump matchup this fall promises lots of drama, but it’s a lose/lose scenario for anyone looking for real progressive change.

The Republican Alternate Universe of Paranoia

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Paranoia will destroy ya

W.J. Astore

I watched last night’s Republican debate so you wouldn’t have to.  Leaving aside the usual mugging by Donald Trump, the usual jousting over side issues like whether Ted Cruz is a natural born citizen, I thought I’d take an impressionistic approach to the debate.  You can read the debate transcript here (if you dare), but here is my admittedly personal take on the main messages of the debate.

  1. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are coming to take your guns. So you need to elect a Republican who will allow you to keep your guns and to buy many, many more guns while carrying them openly in public.
  2. Related to (1), ISIS is coming to these shores. In fact, they’re already here.  That’s one big reason why everyone needs guns – to protect ourselves from ISIS and other terrorists out to kill Americans on Main Street USA.
  3. America is weak. Obama has gutted our military.  The Iranians and Russians laugh at us.  To stop them from laughing, America needs to rebuild its military, buy more weapons, and use them freely.  In fact, all the next commander-in-chief needs to do is ask military leaders what they need to win, give them exactly that, then stand back as our military (especially Special Ops troops) kicks ass.  Victory!
  4. America is weak (again), this time economically. The Chinese are kicking our ass.  They’re tougher than us and smarter than us.  We need to teach them who’s boss, perhaps with a big tariff on Chinese imports, combined with intense pressure on them to revalue their currency.
  5. The American tax system is unfair to corporations. We need to lower corporate tax rates so that American companies won’t relocate, and also so that American businesses will be more competitive vis-à-vis foreign competitors.
  6. The most oppressed “minority” in the U.S. are not Blacks or Hispanics or the poor: it’s the police. Yes, the police.  They are mistreated and disrespected.  Americans need to recognize the police are there to protect them and to defer to them accordingly.
  7. The only amendment worth citing in the U.S. Constitution is the Second Amendment.
  8. The National Security Agency, along with all the other intelligence agencies in America, need to be given more power, not less. They need broad and sweeping surveillance powers to keep America safe.  Privacy issues and the Fourth Amendment can be ignored.  People like Edward Snowden are traitors. “Safety” is everything.
  9. Bernie Sanders is a joke. Hillary Clinton just might be the anti-Christ.
  10. Immigrants are a threat, especially if they’re Muslim. They must be kept out of America so that they don’t steal American jobs and/or kill us all.

What I didn’t hear: Anything about the poor, or true minorities, or gender inequities, or the dangers of more war, and so on.

My main takeaway from this debate: Republican candidates live in the United States of Paranoia, a hostile land in which fear rules.  Think “Mad Max, Fury Road,” but without any tough females about.  (I have to admit I missed Carly Fiorina/Imperator Furiosa on the main stage.)

Only one candidate struck a few tentative notes of accord through bipartisan collaboration and compromise: Ohio governor John Kasich.  In his closing statement, he spoke eloquently of his parents’ working-class background.  He’s also the only candidate with the guts not to wear the by-now obligatory flag lapel pin.  I’m not a Republican, but if I had to vote for one, it would be him.  Why?  Because he’s the least batshit crazy of the bunch.

Yes, it was a depressing night, one spent in an alternate universe detached from reality.  In the end, old song lyrics popped into my head: “paranoia will destroy ya.”  Yes, yes it will, America.

President Obama’s Speech on Terror

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W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night.  Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance.  First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering.  Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder.  My wife and I looked at each other.  Are you fearful, honey?  Neither am I.

President Obama himself made many good points.  Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam.  Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA.  Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people).  And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.

These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious.  But he does.  Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.

Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.

Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame.  Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones.  (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)

President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror.  All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards.  Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less.  Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror.  Not such a good idea, right?

Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office.  As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure.  Wrong.  His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within.  Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent.  “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders.  Liberty was.  And liberty entails risks.

A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost.  (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)

The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values.  He was right to talk about human dignity.  He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear.  Now we as Americans need to live up to those words.  And so does he.

 

 

How Republicans Talk About Foreign Policy

The ideal Republican candidate for president
A Barechested Putin Riding Bareback on a Bear: The Ideal Republican Candidate for President!

W.J. Astore

At the New York Times, Robert Draper had a fascinating article last month on how Republican candidates for president are positioning themselves on foreign policy.  Rand Paul excepted, all of the Republican candidates are calling for a more “aggressive” U.S. foreign policy, one that promises more military interventions and higher military spending.  The goal is apparently to show more muscle than President Obama, who has been “weak,” according to these same Republicans.

The language here fascinates me.  Again and again in Draper’s article, you see references to “a more muscular foreign policy.”  Showcasing muscles appears to be a favorite trope of Republican advisers, as is the need to be more “aggressive” overseas (Obama, of course, is viewed as being passive and timid).  Republicans according to Draper favor the “aggressive promotion of American values” (whatever those are), an aggression that will somehow avoid recklessness (good luck with that).  So, ISIS will be aggressively “destroyed,” even as the Middle East is stabilized by infusing it with “American values” (freedom? democracy? human rights?) promulgated by (as near as I can tell) American military muscle.

To cite just one example, consider this political ad featuring Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in his Air Force reserve uniform, highlighting his promise to “destroy” ISIS.

A muscular and aggressive foreign policy to destroy America’s enemies: If that excites you, vote Republican.  But consider the cost of this love affair with muscles and aggression.  And then ask yourself: Are they not the real “American values”?

All this talk of bulging military muscles and coldly calculated aggression: the ideal candidate for gung ho Republicans is not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.  It’s an American Vladimir Putin.