Feckless on Foreign Policy

Feckless on Foreign Policy

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US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 01/23/17
By Michael Shank

The vote for Trump’s defense secretary shows how the left rolls over on military issues.

The Senate Democrats’ sound and fury over President Donald Trump’s cabinet picks and his political agenda is apparently signifying nothing – at least on defense policy. The fact that the Senate quickly confirmed General James “Mad Dog” Mattis by a vote of 98-1 late Friday afternoon in the wake of inauguration activities shows that even progressive Democrats, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, don’t have the stomach for a foreign policy fight with Trump’s new Pentagon. That’s how effectively Trump and perhaps even Mattis’ defense industry connections are already bullying Washington into submission.

Sanders justified his vote by saying that while Mattis wasn’t the nominee he preferred, “in a Trump cabinet likely to be loaded up with right-wing extremists, all of whom I will oppose, I hope General Mattis will have a moderating influence on some of the racist and xenophobic views that President Trump advocated throughout the campaign.” This is incredibly wishful and relativistic thinking. Mattis will never be a moderating influence, and he’s already exhibited racist and xenophobic thinking by the ways in which he views the adversary.

The Pentagon’s new secretary of defense believes, and is on record saying, that we should “have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” that “if you f*ck with me, I’ll kill you all,” and that “there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot”.

Bombastic braggadocios aren’t helpful at the Pentagon helm. This language may serve a purpose within the defense industry, as it props up their for-profit modus operandi. But in terms of aiding international affairs, it’s caustic and antagonistic and will only get us into more wars, not fewer.

Mattis, moreover, thinks that shooting people is “just business” and that it’s “a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” This is exactly the kind of attitude that leads to U.S. Marines urinating on dead Afghan bodies. When our new defense secretary says that killing is “a hell of a hoot,” and that “It’s fun to shoot some people,” we are inculcating a culture of indiscriminate violence. This is not level-headed and will undoubtedly lead to more trickle-down killing and callousness.

This is also not emblematic of cooler heads capable of prevailing amid the myriad precipitous, conflict-ridden cliffs that we will invariably face in a Trump foreign policy agenda. Yet, every single Democrat in the Senate – with the exception of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand – voted to send that message to the world. What a lost opportunity to send a different message.

What’s most frustrating here, however, is that this problem – of progressives rolling over to more militaristic foreign policy players in Washington – is prevalent within the progressive policy community. It’s also what plagued Sanders’ presidential campaign. Many progressive policymakers don’t have sufficient foreign policy experience to competently push back when questioned about a violent conflict overseas. They’ve largely not spent time in conflict zones without military escort, which is part of the problem, of course, as Pentagon protection offers an extremely selective and ultimately biased perspective. Nor have they prioritized meetings with community-based organizations in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria or Pakistan, that are cleaning up after the death and destruction from our drone strikes, airstrikes, ground raids and weapons trafficking.

This is a serious and serial problem. Progressive Democrats often get elected to Congress after years of local and state service on legislatures, county and school boards, and commissions, but arrive in Washington with little foreign service or foreign policy expertise of any kind. They haven’t seen for themselves – and our mainstream media are rarely showing – the disastrous wake left behind by our military invasions. And they often can’t properly pronounce a foreign or adversary’s town, tribe, territory or tactic in a debate, getting trounced by more militarily minded opponents.

This happens over and over and over again. And it was very visible in debates between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. She was clearly perceived as the security expert, even if it came with email blunders, because she had exposure while at the State Department to the language, the lexicon and the litany of defense apparatuses that are useful to presidential debate.

It’s high time progressives in Congress – elected officials and their senior staff – get over to places like Bayda province in Yemen, where the Trump administration’s first drone strikes occurred over the weekend, Somalia’s Galmudug region, where the U.S. killed nearly two dozen government soldiers in September, and anywhere in Afghanistan, where the U.S. under the Obama administration increased air strikes by 40 percent in 2016. And insist to see it with the assistance and collaboration of local actors and international aid and relief organizations.

Then, progressive members of Congress might be able to go toe-to-toe with the Mattises of this world. Until then, progressives have no fighting chance on the foreign policy front.

Michael Shank teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and served as a senior policy adviser to U.S. Rep. Michael Honda between 2009-2013.