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Home/Daniel Larison

What Will the Democratic Party Decide?

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have both dropped out of the 2020 race, and they will be endorsing Biden tonight:

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg plans to endorse former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the Democratic presidential race, according to a person informed of the decision, as the Democratic Party’s moderate wing quickly began coalescing around Mr. Biden in an effort to stop Senator Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Buttigieg’s endorsement, which is set to come at a Biden campaign event Monday night in Dallas, follows the news that another moderate candidate, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, was quitting the race and throwing her support to Mr. Biden. She also plans to back Mr. Biden at the Dallas event.

The decision to endorse Biden isn’t all that surprising given the candidates’ views and ambitions, but it is a bit curious that they waited as long as they did. Endorsements practically at the last minute before Super Tuesday aren’t likely to have much effect on voting, and lots of early votes have already been cast in many states. The “centrist” rallying to Biden is what anti-Sanders Democrats have been demanding for weeks, but it seems that no one wanted to do it until Biden actually won at least one contest. It is probably too late to beat Sanders in most of the contests tomorrow, and Klobuchar’s decision to quit makes it easier for Sanders to win in Minnesota. Biden spent so much of his time and energy on South Carolina because it was essential that he win it, and he won it convincingly, but that came at the cost of neglecting the states that hold their elections tomorrow. Many people have noted that this is the first time in his three presidential campaigns that Biden has won anything, so it is reasonable to question how many more wins he can get.

The “centrist” rallying to Biden will be useful in clarifying the race and testing the dubious theory that most Democratic voters prefer a “centrist” candidate. If they have to choose between Biden and Sanders, there is good reason to think that most Democratic voters would prefer the latter. We will begin to find out tomorrow if that’s the case. A straight-up contest between Biden and Sanders would be useful in forcing the party to choose between its past and its future. David Klion made this point earlier today:

Bloomberg’s continued presence in the race will remain a boon to Sanders, and he will provide Warren with an easy target for as long as she chooses to stay in the race. Not only does Bloomberg reduce Biden’s chances of winning in most places tomorrow, but he has served as an avatar of the kind of politics that Sanders is running against. The longer Bloomberg persists in his vanity campaign, the better Sanders’ chances of becoming the nominee are. Luckily for Sanders, Bloomberg is far too arrogant and entitled to acknowledge this. Warren seems to be betting on a contested convention outcome, but for the life of me I don’t understand what she hopes to get out of that.

For the moment, Sanders remains the front-runner for the nomination, and he has an opportunity tomorrow to amass a significant lead in the delegate count. He is in a good position to win California by a large margin. Sanders is likely to sweep the three Northeastern states, he should carry Colorado and Utah, and he may win Texas and Minnesota. If Biden is going to pick up any wins, it is likely to be in Oklahoma and the Southern states, but he could very well end up losing North Carolina and Arkansas. After tomorrow, it will effectively be a two-candidate race.

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The Government Has Been Flying Blind in Its Coronavirus Response

The federal government’s inadequate testing for coronavirus over the last two months has meant that the authorities have been oblivious to the full extent of the outbreak in the U.S.:

The coronavirus has been circulating undetected and has possibly infected scores of people over the past six weeks in Washington state, according to a genetic analysis of virus samples that has sobering implications for the entire country amid heightening anxiety about the likely spread of the disease.

The researchers conducted genetic sequencing of two virus samples. One is from a patient who traveled from China to Snohomish County in mid-January and was the first person diagnosed with the disease in the United States. The other came from a recently diagnosed patient in the same county, a high school student with no travel-related or other known exposure to the coronavirus. The two samples look almost identical genetically, said Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who announced the results of the research on Twitter late Saturday night.

“This strongly suggests that there has been cryptic transmission in Washington State for the past 6 weeks,” Bedford wrote. “I believe we’re facing an already substantial outbreak in Washington State that was not detected until now due to narrow case definition requiring direct travel to China.”

When the administration is determined to minimize the significance of the outbreak and to pretend that all is well, they are signalling to the relevant agencies that they don’t want to hear contradictory information. It then requires whistle-blowers inside those agencies to call attention to serious lapses and failures in the government’s response, and if it weren’t for these people the public would be even more in the dark about what is happening and how the government is reacting. The administration’s handling of the response has already proven itself to be quite poor, but that still doesn’t fully capture how chaotic and confused it has been:

Interviews with nearly two dozen administration officials, former White House aides, public health experts and lawmakers — many speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid assessments and details — portray a White House scrambling to gain control of a rudderless response defined by bureaucratic infighting, confusion and misinformation.

“It’s complete chaos,” a senior administration official said. “Everyone is just trying to get a handle on what the [expletive] is going on.”

The government was ill-prepared for this outbreak and then frittered away what time they had to get ready. The Trump administration previously dismantled the part of the National Security Council concerned with organizing a response to pandemics (thank you, John Bolton). Laurie Garrett wrote about this last month:

Public health advocates have been ringing alarm bells to no avail. Klain has been warning for two years that the United States was in grave danger should a pandemic emerge. In 2017 and 2018, the philanthropist billionaire Bill Gates met repeatedly with Bolton and his predecessor, H.R. McMaster, warning that ongoing cuts to the global health disease infrastructure would render the United States vulnerable to, as he put it, the “significant probability of a large and lethal modern-day pandemic occurring in our lifetimes.” And an independent, bipartisan panel formed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that lack of preparedness was so acute in the Trump administration that the “United States must either pay now and gain protection and security or wait for the next epidemic and pay a much greater price in human and economic costs.”

The Trump administration opted for weakening protections for public health on the off-chance that the bill wouldn’t come due while they were in office. Like so many other short-sighted things they have done over the last three years, this has blown up in their face to the country’s detriment.

ProPublica reported last week on the CDC’s mistakes that led to the lack of adequate testing:

As the highly infectious coronavirus jumped from China to country after country in January and February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost valuable weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in the United States because it insisted upon devising its own test.

The federal agency shunned the World Health Organization test guidelines used by other countries and set out to create a more complicated test of its own that could identify a range of similar viruses. But when it was sent to labs across the country in the first week of February, it didn’t work as expected. The CDC test correctly identified COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.

As a result, until Wednesday the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration only allowed those state labs to use the test — a decision with potentially significant consequences. The lack of a reliable test prevented local officials from taking a crucial first step in coping with a possible outbreak — “surveillance testing” of hundreds of people in possible hotspots. Epidemiologists in other countries have used this sort of testing to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals.

Jeremy Konyndyk explains how the CDC effectively blinded itself to the reality of the problem by defining it so narrowly that they missed what was happening:

The U.S. has been flying blind in response to the outbreak of this virus. Our government is lagging badly behind more effective efforts at detection and treatment in other countries, and the public will pay the price for this negligence and unpreparedness.

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A Chance to End America’s Longest War

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, sprint across a field to load onto a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 4, 2014. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Joseph Scanlan / released)

The agreement signed in Doha today by the U.S. and the Taliban offers the prospect of finally ending a war that has dragged on for more than 18 years. That would be a very good thing for the U.S., and if it happens the Trump administration will deserve credit for it. The U.S. could withdraw without an agreement with the Taliban, and the war could have been ended on these terms long ago, but a late end is better than never ending the war. There is guaranteed to be a lot of pressure on the administration in Washington to renege on this agreement outright or to find some pretext for delaying the withdrawal, so it will be important for antiwar activists and advocates of restraint to counter that pressure as much as possible. This is a chance to end America’s longest war, and it must not be squandered.

There are several hitches that could prevent the agreement from being fully implemented. Adam Wunische from the Quincy Institute comments:

The Trump administration will likely seek to sell the U.S.–Taliban deal as both a peace accord and a U.S. military withdrawal. However, the deal President Donald Trump has struck only brings troop levels back to the level they were when he took office three years ago; that is, a reduction to 8,600 troops from the current levels of 13,000. A fuller withdrawal will only take place if the Taliban fully implements all elements of the deal, effectively giving the Taliban a veto on U.S. troop withdrawals. There are also indications that the U.S. intends to leave special forces troops in the country indefinitely for counterterrorism operations. Additionally, the numerous complications and barriers that remain to be overcome will provide ample ammunition for those arguing for a continued U.S. presence at current force levels. President Trump himself has indicated that the slightest unrest will provide justification for re-engagement. The requirement that the Taliban renounce al–Qaeda and prevent them from operating in their territory is a condition few actually expect the Taliban to follow through with. If this is not, in reality, a deal for a military withdrawal, it should be. The military has little left to offer in determining the outcome of the Afghan war.

As Wunische observes, Trump has promised troop withdrawals before in Syria only to reverse himself and come up with new excuses to keep some U.S. forces involved there. The challenge in getting to a full U.S. withdrawal is that the president is easily distracted and easily provoked, so any number of things could happen this year to derail the agreement. The Taliban will probably fail to fulfill some of their commitments, but if our government conditions our military presence on that we are setting ourselves up to never leave. We know that the Trump administration is quick to use even the slightest violation as an excuse to rubbish agreements, and we also know that they sometimes tear up deals even when they are working perfectly.

Wunische warns that withdrawal is tied to so many conditions that it probably won’t happen:

Trump has truly committed only to a withdrawal of forces to the troop strength when he took office, 8,600. And he has placed so many conditions on a full withdrawal that Afghanistan is quickly looking like a repeat of the late–2019 failure to withdraw from Syria.

The longer that U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, the weaker our bargaining position becomes. Whatever follows U.S. withdrawal, it will not be made any better by delaying the withdrawal any further. If the withdrawal is completed, there is the additional danger that the U.S. will be tempted to intervene again at some point in the future. U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has to be total, and it also has to be permanent. We have seen in Iraq how easily the U.S. can fall into the trap of rushing back into a country where our forces shouldn’t be. When all U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, we need to make sure that they aren’t sent back again in just a few years.

To make this agreement stick, American political and military leaders have to reconcile themselves to the reality that there is nothing in Afghanistan that justifies a continued U.S. military presence. The U.S. has no vital interests there, so there is no reason to continue risking the lives of American soldiers and Marines there.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Learning from the banality and aftermath of Bolivia’s coup. Drew Holland Kinney compares the overthrow of Evo Morales last year to other coups and finds that it was “a typical example of a military coup d’état.”

Bernie’s outsider on the inside. Robbie Gramer profiles Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ top foreign policy adviser.

Why Europe should disregard the Menendez-Graham plan. Eldar Mamedov explains why the “new deal” being offered is worthless.

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Blowing the Whistle on the Administration’s Coronavirus Incompetence

The New York Timesreports on the contents of a whistle-blower complaint in the Department of Health and Human Services that describes the government’s incompetent handling of the quarantining of Americans exposed overseas to the coronavirus. This incompetence appears to have led to the spread of the virus into the general population:

Federal health employees interacted with Americans quarantined for possible exposure to the coronavirus without proper medical training or protective gear, then scattered into the general population, according to a government whistle-blower.

In a portion of a complaint filing obtained by The New York Times that has been submitted to the Office of the Special Counsel, the whistle-blower, described as a senior leader at the health agency, said the team was “improperly deployed” to two military bases in California to assist the processing of Americans who had been evacuated from coronavirus hot zones in China and elsewhere.

The staff members were sent to Travis Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base and were ordered to enter quarantined areas, including a hangar where coronavirus evacuees were being received. They were not provided training in safety protocols until five days later, the person said.

Without proper training or equipment, some of the exposed staff members moved freely around and off the bases, with at least one person staying in a nearby hotel and leaving California on a commercial flight. Many were unaware of the need to test their temperature three times a day.

The federal government’s response to the coronavirus has been woefully lacking from the start. Between the president’s own attempts to dismiss the severity of the situation and the CDC’s inexplicable delays in testing patients, it is clear that the relevant authorities are not taking this outbreak as seriously as they should be. The administration seems to be more concerned with the damage that the virus could do to the president’s political fortunes than they are with halting its spread and providing the necessary resources to treat those infected by it.

The exposure of federal health workers occurred in the same part of California where the first domestic case of coronavirus recently appeared:

The account surfaced after President Trump sought to play down the danger of a domestic coronavirus outbreak amid bipartisan concern about a sluggish and disjointed response by the administration to an illness that public health officials have said is likely to spread through the United States. The first American case of coronavirus in a patient with no known contact with hot zones or other coronavirus patients emerged near Travis Air Force Base this week.

The article details the inadequacy of the preparation and training provided to the staff that received the evacuees:

The staff members, who had some experience with emergency management coordination, were woefully underprepared for the mission they were given, according to the whistle-blower.

“They were not properly trained or equipped to operate in a public health emergency situation,” the official wrote. “They were potentially exposed to coronavirus; appropriate measures were not taken to protect the staff from potential infection; and appropriate steps were not taken to quarantine, monitor or test them during their deployment and upon their return home.”

It appears that the administration’s shoddy handling of the situation has already put the public at greater risk of exposure unnecessarily, and this episode hardly inspires confidence that they will be able to manage a larger outbreak here in the U.S.

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A Coup By Any Other Name Would Be Just as Wrong

Former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi (Mohamed Elsayyed/Shutterstock)

Drew Holland Kinney explains why Morales’ removal from power in Bolivia was a coup, and the refusal to call it what it is impedes our understanding of military interventions in politics:

With these historical patterns in mind, a familiar drama predictably unfolded surrounding characterizations of last November’s coup in La Paz, as opponents of Evo Morales claimed revolutionary credit for pushing out the leader at the barrel of a gun. Nothing about these events was unique to coup politics or Bolivia, where there have been 43 instances of regime change since independence from Spain. Senior military officials typically lead coups during protests, which tend to initially lack violence. A repressive wake then follows, likely when “the incentives for restraint disappear,” according to Erica De Bruin.

Despite Morales detractors’ best efforts to label his ouster as a revolution, it is hard to deny that this was a banal example of military intervention, not a unique something-by-another-name. Unfortunately, until we reclaim civilian participation as “normal” in coup politics, civil-military allies will continue to successfully spin their seizures of power as revolutionary heroism. Engaging in this post-coup name-game hinders our ability to recognize coups as such — and to recognize that the event itself and its justifications are conceptually distinct but normatively related.

When the military intervenes in politics, it often does so in tandem with civilian protests and military leaders use those protests as a pretext for their intervention. The involvement of civilians in the effort to overthrow a leader does not make it any less of a coup. That is a common feature of many coups around the world. Kinney continues:

This was a typical example of a military coup d’état. Emblematic of military interventions that are preceded by protests and supported by civilian elites, Morales’s opponents and international observers immediately questioned the coup label. The former president’s critics maintain there was no coup because his election was illegitimate and the military was merely “playing peacekeeper,” even as events after his departure exhibit all the trademarks of a coup.

There were very few American politicians that correctly characterized Morales’ overthrow as a coup. Bernie Sanders happens to have been one of them, as I mentioned last month:

Sanders criticized the way that Morales was removed from power and argued that it was a coup, but it is quite a stretch to say that he “supported” the Bolivian leader. Whatever one thinks about Morales, it is reasonable to characterize his removal from office as a kind of coup, and as a general rule we should expect American politicians to disapprove of coups against elected leaders regardless of their politics.

Sanders’ willingness to call the coup in Bolivia by its right name is one of the things that is so refreshing about his foreign policy views. There was no political advantage to be gained in criticizing Morales’ overthrow, but he said it anyway because he saw it for what it was and objected to it on principle. Most politicians in the U.S. either shrugged at or approved of the result of the coup, but Sanders protested because he thought it was wrong.

To appreciate how rare this is in U.S. politics, let’s consider how our political leaders usually respond to coups in other countries. The first question they usually ask is, “Did we support the leader who was overthrown?” If the leader is perceived to be an adversary or even non-aligned with the U.S., the coup is often touted as a great victory for democracy. If the leader was a client ruler, it is judged to be a terrible setback for freedom and humanity. When the Egyptian military intervened in 2013 and removed Morsi from power, this obvious coup was spun as something else because it was useful to the post-coup government and to the U.S. to pretend that it was not a coup. John Kerry absurdly claimed that the military was “restoring democracy” by removing Egypt’s first democratically elected president. A little over six years later, Egypt is ruled by a dictatorship that is far more repressive than it was even during Mubarak’s dictatorship, and U.S. support for the dictator in Cairo is as strong as ever. If the U.S. had followed our own laws, Egypt should have been cut off from all military aid following the coup, but there was never a complete cutoff and even the limited restrictions that were put in place were lifted after a short interval. Our government deplores coups, provided that they are directed against people that we like. The rest of the time, euphemisms and excuse-making are the order of the day.

We saw this again last year in Venezuela when the attempted coup there failed. The U.S. government and some major newspapers clearly wanted there to be a coup, they had wished that it had succeeded, but even then they pretended that it had not been an attempted coup at all. Coup supporters know that coups are still considered illegitimate, and so they are careful to describe it as anything but that, but it doesn’t change the reality of what they are trying to do.

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Bloomberg’s Warped Perception of China

Bloomberg is determined not to call Xi Jinping a dictator:

In a CNN town hall on Wednesday, Bloomberg declined to call Chinese President Xi Jinping a dictator, saying “it’s a question of what is a dictator,” and that while China is not a democracy, leaders are still chosen by a small group of people and are replaced periodically.

“I think the question is, if your definition is a democracy where people vote and pick their leaders, that is not what China is about,” Bloomberg said. “They like their system, and I think they’re wrong, I think they’d be better off opening things up.”

Bloomberg’s unwillingness to use the word dictator to describe the head of a one-party authoritarian state is strange. This isn’t a matter of diplomatic politesse. It is possible to call things by their right names and still pursue cooperation with another government when our interests and theirs overlap. The former mayor is sticking to his Politburo defense:

Well it’s a question of what is a dictator. They don’t have democratic — a democracy in the sense that they have general elections, that is true. They do have a system where a small group of people appoint the head, and they churn over periodically.

If you go back and look at the last two or three decades there’ve been a number of people that had the same position that Xi Jinping has.

It’s true that Xi has had predecessors in the same role. It’s also true that this periodic change in leadership doesn’t make their system any less of an authoritarian dictatorship. Bloomberg also ignores how much Xi has consolidated power over the last seven years. Under Xi, they have removed term limits, so he will probably be able to remain in that position for the rest of his life. Xi has cultivated a cult of personality around himself more than any previous leader since Mao:

President Xi Jinping, poised to rule over China indefinitely, is at the center of the Communist Party’s most colorful efforts to build a cult of personality since the death of People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong in 1976.

Xi’s image dominates the front pages of state newspapers, hours of state television broadcasts, magazine covers, posters sold at markets, billboards around parks and signs posted along sidewalks.

On television, Xi is often depicted as being wildly adored by anyone from factory workers and farmers to space engineers and soldiers who typically applaud Xi for several minutes.

This is common knowledge, and it has been going on for years. Bloomberg must know this, but he hides behind this idea of a periodic “churn” in leaders as if that matters. The problem here is not just that Bloomberg refuses to use the accurate term, but that his refusal reflects an unwillingness to tell the truth about what the Chinese government is because so much of his business is tied up in their market. This is not Bloomberg’s failing alone, but he is representative of business leaders that bend over backwards to avoid offending the Chinese government. Bloomberg’s perception of the Chinese government is unavoidably warped by his dealings with them, and it raises the fair question of why anyone should trust his judgment about the U.S.-China relationship.

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A Foreign Policy ‘Consensus’ Imposed from Above

Mark Hannah observes that a bipartisan foreign policy consensus stifles legitimate debate and that it is antithetical to democratic politics:

In 1948, after bowing out of a bid to defeat Democratic President Harry Truman, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) declared, “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.” In other words, we should confine our disagreements to domestic policy and project unity to our foreign friends and foes. But that unity was merely a product of the geopolitical realities at the dawn of the Cold War. More often, an elite consensus feeds stale policy, allows bad ideas to go unchallenged and narrows the range of new proposals welcomed as legitimate. There’s a word that describes a politically powerful person making a high-minded exhortation to “stop politics.” That word is not “democracy.”

There is no tradition of — nor enduring allegiance to — bipartisan consensus in America’s international relations. Nor should there be.

Americans have always been divided on foreign policy questions, and it is only when there is a sufficiently grave external threat or there is a concerted effort to impose a particular view that those divisions recede temporarily. These divisions will always resurface because our country is too large and too diverse for our population to reach a settled consensus for very long. When there is a consensus among politicians and foreign policy professionals, it masks these divisions and frequently fails to represent the views of large numbers of Americans. The existence of such a consensus is not a case of politics “stopping at the water’s edge.” It is the establishment of a particular set of assumptions about U.S. power and its role in the world that define the boundaries of what is acceptable in foreign policy debate.

The bipartisan consensus that most of our political leaders subscribe to and reinforce is made first in Washington and then handed down to the country. It has been and continues to be very much a top-down process in which the public is offered a limited menu of options, and they are then told that even most of those options are unworkable. Once they are created, consensus views become excessively rigid, and the policies informed by them lag behind changing circumstances. That produces inadequate and unrealistic policies because new and unconventional ideas are discouraged or dismissed out of hand because they do not follow consensus assumptions. Like any working set of ideas, consensus views may start out being timely and appropriate for their circumstances, but when they settle and harden into an idol they become an impediment to informed and effective policymaking.

For example, the goal of North Korea policy across multiple administrations was to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons and then to pressure North Korea into giving up the weapons that it had obtained. Perversely, the first policy contributed directly to its own failure by driving North Korea to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to test its first nuclear device, and then the last two administrations have tried in vain to reverse that outcome. North Korea’s denuclearization has been a consistent U.S. goal under presidents from both parties, but repeated failure has not yet forced our leaders to adapt and try something else. Everything else related to North Korea has been held hostage to this wild goose chase of seeking complete denuclearization that will never happen. The bipartisan consensus doesn’t just enshrine mistaken assumptions as wisdom, but it actively fights against those that try to make the consensus more responsive to contemporary realities.

Defenders of the bipartisan consensus discourage and penalize analysts and writers that diverge too much from it on the assumption that the consensus is somehow integral to maintaining U.S. security. Instead of recognizing the rigidity of the consensus as a weakness that leads to repeated failures, defenders of the consensus see rejection of consensus assumptions as the real danger. This is what leads to ritual denunciations of “isolationists” and “appeasement” and “being soft” on this or that government. Adherence to consensus assumptions also means never having to say you’re sorry for any costly policy failures that they produce. One reason why there is no real accountability in foreign policy is that adherents of the bipartisan consensus never penalize their own for causing debacles overseas, so that even the authors of the greatest crimes and blunders are gradually rehabilitated and feted as wise men and women. When so many of the same people with the same assumptions are permitted to set policy, we should expect to see one failure after another, and sure enough that is what we have had for decades.

One of the things that many advocates of restraint have talked about in recent years is the need to democratize U.S. foreign policy. That not only means holding the government accountable for what it does and insisting on Congress’ role in matters of war, but it also means accepting a much wider range of views on how the U.S. should be acting in the world. It would mean actually forging a consensus that is much more representative of what Americans want our government to be doing in the world.

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Being Honest About U.S. Foreign Policy

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill speaking March 7 about the bill he has co-sponsored demanding vote on war in Yemen. (George O'Neill Jr.)

There was a statement that Sanders made at the debate last night that deserves more attention, because it gets at the heart of the manufactured controversy over Sanders’ own past statements and the glaring hypocrisy that defines so many of our foreign policy discussions. Sanders said this:

Excuse me, occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy [bold mine-DL], and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran. And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans do something good, you acknowledge that. But you don’t have to trade love letters with them.

Several of Sanders’ opponents last night were not interested in being honest about U.S. foreign policy. If they had been interested, they would have to admit that U.S. politicians acknowledge positive developments that take place under authoritarian regimes all the time, and most of the time they do this to justify U.S. support for those governments. The fact is that both Bloomberg and Biden have sometimes said very positive things about repressive authoritarian states without any caveats. They haven’t prefaced their praise by saying that this is an oppressive government that violates human rights. They didn’t say anything that could be construed as a criticism. Biden touted Mubarak as an ally and refused to call him a dictator just weeks before his ouster. Bloomberg praised the Saudi crown prince and his Vision 2030 plan last year without qualification:

But Bloomberg has praised another murderous dictator – Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS – as recently as last year, long after he was implicated in the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a September 2019 interview with Arab News, Bloomberg praised Mohammed bin Salman’s “Saudi Vision 2030” plan, focusing especially on its loosening of some restrictions on Saudi women. “I have had a number of women come up to me and say you don’t understand this is the best thing that has ever happened to Saudi Arabia because half the population was cut out and now they are going in the right direction,” Bloomberg said. He lauded King Salman and MBS for their efforts “to take that country into the new world,” saying, “They have made progress going in the right direction.”

He didn’t acknowledge that MBS had jailed and tortured some prominent Saudi women activists. And Bloomberg didn’t mention that 11 months earlier, U.S. permanent resident and Saudi journalist Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by MBS’s own henchmen. International investigators and the CIA later concluded that the killing was a premeditated crime ordered by MBS himself.

This wasn’t just a case of Bloomberg letting optimism get the better of him. By the time he said these things, the increasingly repressive nature of the Saudi government under Mohammed bin Salman was well-known. The many war crimes and atrocities committed by his government in Yemen had been in the news for years (and they continue to happen), Khashoggi’s murder had happened almost a year earlier, and he could not have missed the stories about the ongoing detentions and torture of political activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, who is still imprisoned to this day. As far as political rights are concerned, Saudi Arabia has clearly been moving in the wrong direction, but Bloomberg chose to ignore all of that.

It would be fair to acknowledge that there have been some positive changes in Saudi Arabia over the last few years at the same time that the crown prince has been cracking down on dissent, killing critics, and consolidating power, but if you’re going to talk about those changes it would be important to state opposition and condemnation of the Saudi government’s myriad abuses. On that occasion, Bloomberg only offered praise, and there is no evidence that he expressed any concern about Saudi government crimes and abuses until he was starting to run for president. The Saudi Arabia example is a telling one, because for the last several years many American politicians and media outlets embarrassed themselves by lavishing nothing but praise on the Saudi crown prince for his “reforms.”

As a matter of U.S. policy, Saudi Arabia has been given a pass for the many atrocities it has committed in Yemen because the current administration places more value on selling them weapons and the previous administration wanted to “reassure” them of our support. The issue here is not just the double standard applied to U.S. clients, but that many of our leaders give these governments a pass on their human rights violations and war crimes in order to justify U.S. policies of support for those clients that cause even more death and destruction. In other words, when U.S. politicians praise authoritarian clients, it is usually part of an effort to whitewash the client government’s record and to justify providing them with more weapons and aid. There are real consequences and human costs when politicians turn into cheerleaders for these governments.

Biden was vice president when the shameful policy of supporting the war on Yemen began, and when he was part of the Obama administration there is no evidence that he opposed this policy or spoke against it at any point. He has since turned against that policy, but he had nothing to say about it when he could have done something about it. While Bloomberg was singing the crown prince’s praises, Sanders has been one of the leading critics of the Saudi government’s crimes and an opponent of U.S. enabling of those crimes. Which one would you rather have making foreign policy decisions as president: Mohammed bin Salman’s cheerleader or one of his most vocal critics?

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