Who Determines U.S. Foreign Policy?

W.J. Astore

The Golden Rule Applies

Who determines U.S. foreign policy?  The question seems simple enough.  According to my go-to source, the AI chatbot ChatGPT,

U.S. foreign policy is made by the President, with the assistance and advice of the National Security Council and the State Department, and with the approval of Congress. The President has the power to negotiate treaties and executive agreements, and to appoint ambassadors, while Congress has the power to approve or reject treaties and executive agreements, and to confirm ambassadors. The National Security Council and the State Department are responsible for providing the President with advice and information on foreign policy issues.

That’s how many people see it.  Except it doesn’t work that way.  More than anything, America is an oligarchy rooted in capitalism and driven by greed and profit.  Foreign policy, therefore, is most often driven by powerful corporate interests, especially those tied to the military, hence President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex.  When looking at foreign policy, one must always factor in the interests of Wall Street and its small army of lobbyists and especially powerful corporate interests in fossil fuels and similar trillion-dollar industries.

Again, when looking at U.S. foreign policy, its decisions and commitments, one should first ask, Cui bono?  Who benefits the most from the decisions made?  Second, one should keep in mind the golden rule, as in they who have the gold make the rules.  Presidents, Secretaries of State, ambassadors, and the like come and go, but the moneyed interests remain.  And with “dark money” now endemic in politics, it’s difficult to parse exactly who is giving what to whom.

I don’t mean this as a great revelation.  In the 1950s C. Wright Mills wrote of the “power elite,” which I cited in an article on greed-war.  This is what Mills had to say:

the high military, the corporation executives, the political directorate have tended to come together to form the power elite of America … a triangle of power [that is] the key to any understanding of the higher circles in America today.

C. Wright Mills knew the score

That power elite largely drives and determines U.S. foreign policy today.  Recall as well that the Pentagon budget today (almost $860 billion) is 14 times greater than the State Department (roughly $60 billion).  Basically, State is a tiny branch of the Pentagon.  I wonder who calls the shots?

We’d like to think we the people have some say over foreign policy.  Don’t we elect our members of Congress?  Don’t we elect our president?  But when both parties are thoroughly corporatized, when both respond to lobbyists and special interests while ignoring the rest of us, the truth is we essentially have no choice and no influence.

That truth can be hard to believe because we like to think we have some agency.  But we have none.  Even so, the power elite will pretend that our opinions matter, even as they resolutely ignore them.  Consider the most important foreign policy decision any nation can make: whether war is to be declared and our troops are to be sent off to fight and die.  We haven’t made that decision as a nation since December of 1941.  Every war America has fought since World War II has been undeclared.  That should tell us something about who’s in control.  Hint: It’s not us.

The rich and powerful will tell you and sell you what “truth” to believe in.  So, we’re told and sold the idea that Joe Biden is making vitally important decisions in the White House, even as Joe nowadays has trouble reading from a teleprompter.  We’re told and sold the idea that Congress represents our interests when it most definitely doesn’t (as the Princeton Study proved).  We’re told and sold the idea that America cares about fostering democracy in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine, but a bit of digging reveals the real forces and interests at play, such as oil, pipelines, strategic metals, market dominance, and the like.

Look, I’ve taken standard college courses on U.S. foreign policy.  I learned a lot from them.  But even in college I didn’t learn much about the colossal power of America’s military-industrial complex; the enormous influence of mega-corporations; the way in which foreign policy is shaped by economic profit and the pursuit of resources, some of which is captured in that old saw that “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.”

Well, GM may have waned in influence, but other industries and financial interests have taken its place. Again, if America’s foreign policy decisions confuse you, clarity should come when you ask yourself, who benefits (not you, of course), and when you remember the golden rule, as in they who have the gold make the rules.

What’s the best way to end a war?

W.J. Astore

Sending more weapons to Ukraine isn’t the answer

U.S. foreign policy is a place where logic goes to die.

Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said yesterday that the quickest way to end the Russia-Ukraine War is “to give Ukraine a strong hand on the battlefield,” by which he meant more and more weaponry, including Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Patriot missile systems together with Challenger II tanks from Great Britain. Not surprisingly, then, the White House also hinted at yet another aid package for Ukraine, which may be announced “as soon as the end of this week.”

A “strong hand” for Ukraine?

Logic suggests the quickest way to end a war is to stop fighting. Announce a cease fire, negotiate, and find acceptable terms for an armistice or peace treaty. Stop the killing—stop the war.

Of course, the U.S. State Department is really a tiny branch of the Pentagon. It’s been that way for decades. The Pentagon budget, $858 billion for this year, is 14 times greater than the State Department’s at $60 billion. It often seems that a primary mission of the State Department is to market and sell U.S. weaponry overseas. Small wonder that Blinken sees more deadly weaponry in Ukraine as the answer to ending a catastrophic war.

In a way, Blinken’s blinkered thinking is typically American. What’s the quickest way to end a war on crime? A drug war? Or almost any other problem in America? Obviously, more guns, more security cameras, more metal detectors, more body armor, and so on. Think about our “solutions” to gun violence in schools, which include armored backpacks for eight-year-olds and semi-automatic pistols for teachers. Too many Americans look to guns as a “solution” to life’s problems; count Blinken among the gun-lovers, at least when it’s in the form of U.S. arms exports.

While it’s true U.S. arms exports and aid may keep Ukraine from losing quickly, it’s highly unlikely these same weapons will help Ukraine to win quickly and decisively. Russia can and likely will match any escalation to this war, and at a cheaper price than the U.S. taxpayer is currently paying (now over $100 billion and rising).

Blinken’s bloodless language about war is also revealing. It’s all about giving Ukraine “a strong hand on the battlefield,” as if Ukraine and Russia are playing a polite game of poker. More weapons to Ukraine means more bloody death and destruction; attrition or even escalation is far more likely than a quick end in Ukraine’s favor.

Blinken probably knows this, but a large part of his intellectual training was spent at Harvard and Columbia Law, just as Jake Sullivan, his younger counterpart at the National Security Council, trained at Yale and Yale Law. These men aren’t stupid, they’re just narrowly trained and partisan functionaries willing to spout whatever the empire needs them to say in the cause of imperial hegemony.

And so U.S. lawyers continue to send guns and money to Ukraine, especially guns, while saying this is the best and quickest way for Ukraine to beat Putin and end the war with Russia. Logic, however, suggests more fighting and dying and a lack of decision for either side.

Best not confuse a “strong hand” with a dead man’s one.

War Profits Soar as Diplomacy Sinks

W.J. Astore

I came across a remarkable stat while reading William Hartung’s latest article, “The Profits of War,” at TomDispatch.com. The giant military contractor, Lockheed Martin, received $77 billion in federal funds in FY2020 (Lockheed Martin builds the F-35 fighter jet), almost double the entire budget for the U.S. State Department (roughly $44 billion). So as President Biden gives speeches about favoring diplomacy over military action, he might want to consider how the Pentagon’s budget (and related spending on weaponry, including new nuclear weapons) is roughly 20 times that of the State Department. Biden once said, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value. Looks like weaponry and war remains number one and job one. USA! USA!

I had to laugh when I saw this headline from the New York Times in my email this morning: “At U.N., Biden calls for diplomacy, not conflict, but some are skeptical.” Readers, I can’t fathom any skepticism about U.S. intentions, can you? We are a peace-loving nation. We just choose to show it by constantly building new weapons in a febrile quest for “full-spectrum dominance” as we showcase our global reach and global power with assassin drones and endless wars. Does any other country in the world have 750 overseas military bases in 80 countries? Does any other country in the world slice and dice the map into regional commands (Africa Command, Central Command, and so on) led by four-star generals and admirals? Proving the world is not enough, America now seeks to dominate space with our “Space Force” and virtual worlds like cyberspace.

Time to practice some “diplomacy” in space.

Remember how Teddy Roosevelt said to speak softly but also to carry a big stick? That needs to be amended. The U.S. policy for decades has been: Shout loudly and swing a big stick. And that “big stick” is the U.S. military, which routinely gobbles up more than half of the federal discretionary budget.

Let me know when the State Department’s budget soars to $750 billion and the Pentagon’s budget plunges to $44 billion and maybe I’ll believe Joe Biden’s words about the new importance of diplomacy in America.

America is a force for good …

W.J. Astore

A friend sent along the following statement from the U.S. State Department:

IMG_0921

My Commentary:

Sovereignty is just fine, Iraqi people — as long as you do exactly what America says.  By the way, I thought ISIS was 100% eliminated, according to President Trump.

I’m sure the Iraqi government can’t wait to have this “conversation” with the U.S. government.  Note, however, that any “conversation” about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq is already forbidden.  So much for sovereignty!

Wikileaks and America’s Boorish, In Your Face, Diplomacy

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With the recent arrest of Julian Assange in London with the goal of extraditing him to the U.S. to face charges, I thought I’d revive this article that I wrote back in 2010.  Assange and Chelsea Manning helped to reveal war crimes by the U.S. as well as a pattern of boorish, imperious, “in your face” behavior by its officials and diplomats.

George W. Bush claimed that the terrorists hated us for our freedoms — but maybe they simply hate us for our behavior?  If we ride roughshod over the “little people,” they might just remember — and bite back.

Anyway, the main sin of Assange and Manning was embarrassing the powerful while shedding light on their behavior.  And the powerful know how to hang on to a grudge…

Written in 2010:

Boorish, “in your face” behavior is everywhere. Most of the time, I’m able to avoid it, or walk away from it.  Nevertheless, afoot in America is an astonishing sense of imperious entitlement. People are told they can have it all – heck, that they deserve it all – and to hell with anyone who raises an objection. Rugged individualism is not enough; roughshod individualism is the new American ethos.

Now, what has this to say about WikiLeaks? Take a close look at many of the State Department cables and tell me how you would feel to be on the receiving end of roughshod American imperiousness. So what if we kidnap the wrong German citizen and torture him? Not only do we have no need to apologize: We’ll even bully the German government into silence. And we can bully Spain too, if need be, to inhibit Spanish attempts to prosecute Americans for torture or murder. Need more information about the United Nations and its diplomats? Let’s not only spy on them in traditional ways, but let’s steal their passwords, their biometric data: Heck, let’s even take DNA samples from them. If they complain, too bad: They shouldn’t have taken a drink from the cup we offered them. And the list goes on: We’ll even strike secret deals with Britain to hide our cluster bombs.

In these memos, it never seems to be America’s fault. Being a loud and boorish and imperious American means never having contritely to say you’re sorry.

Are we oblivious? Do we just don’t care? Neither question will matter if the resentments we breed overseas find their way to America’s homeland.

Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com.

Hillary Clinton’s Email Fiasco

Trust me!
Trust me!

W.J. Astore

Once again, Hillary Clinton is in the news for the wrong reason.  She used a private email account while she was Secretary of State, rather than an official government email account.  As a result, not all of her (unclassified) emails are part of the public record. Many may be “lost,” consigned to the dustbin of history, whether by accident or design is hard to say.  In the press conference she then gave to explain herself, she was less than forthcoming.  And it now appears that her email server wasn’t even encrypted for the first three months she served as Secretary of State, meaning her official emails were eminently hackable and readable by foreign governments.

Just another meaningless scandal, right?  No — what this reveals is the arrogance of power. Official rules may apply to “little people” like you and me, but to the Clintons, those rules can be ignored.  They think they can do whatever they want.  It’s a clear double standard, and it’s just one more reason why the prospect of Hillary Clinton as president disturbs me.

I remember when Hillary Clinton served as First Lady and worked on health care reform in the early 1990s.  Her right-hand man was Ira Magaziner.  I’d heard of Magaziner since he had served as an outside consultant to my hometown. According to Wikipedia:

“After Oxford, Magaziner and a group of former Brown students attempted to implement social democratic reforms in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts. These reforms included starting an agricultural cooperative, supporting liberal candidates for city council, strengthening the union movement, and printing a progressive town newspaper. Magaziner soon abandoned the project, after the group recognized that the effects of foreign business competition on the local manufacturing base would undercut their efforts.”

Not as I heard it.  Magaziner thought he could come to Brockton and serve as its “instant expert,” remaking the city in his image without paying much attention to the desires of the locals.  Brockton is working-class, fairly conservative, and tough-minded, proud of its championship boxers (Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler).  The people of Brockton were less than enamored with Magaziner and his fellow “experts” telling them what to do and how to do it.  So Magaziner withdrew, mission unaccomplished.

Magaziner then took his know-it-all approach and applied it to health care reform, working hand-in-hand with Hillary Clinton and her team.  They concocted a massive reform of the health care system with no buy-in from major stakeholders.  Arrogant policy wonks, they believed their ideas and reforms were so brilliant and compelling they’d easily win assent from Congress.  Instead, they fell flat on their faces.

Nobody likes being dictated to.  And nobody likes people who make their own rules while dancing on the heads of the little people. Hillary’s latest fiasco once again reminds us of her imperious nature, her arrogance, her lack of political deftness.

She’d make a formidable empress.  But a president?  No thanks.