On June 2, Hillary Clinton, campaigning against Bernie Sanders in the California Democratic primary, gave what was touted to be a major foreign policy speech that would pivot her candidacy toward confronting Republican challenger Donald Trump. Interestingly enough, the address seemed influenced by the Trump model of personal attack while providing few policy specifics. In seeking to expose Trump’s deficiencies of knowledge and temperament, Clinton assumed the bipartisan mantle of leadership that has characterized American foreign policy since the Cold War and creation of the national security state. While there is much with which one might concur in Clinton’s critique of Trump as dangerously ignorant and thin-skinned, does the traditional foreign policy embraced by Clinton assure a better and safer world?
In the wake of violence at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Clinton’s response appears reasoned and nuanced in contrast with the ranting and raving of Trump, who is again attempting to employ the issue of terrorism to spread fear among Americans. Despite the early investigation portraying the shooter as an angry young man who was homophobic and perhaps influenced by Islamic State propaganda, Trump has reduced the issue to Muslim immigration that must be temporarily banned to assure the safety of American citizens.
Although the shooter in Orlando was born during the 1980s in New York, Trump asserts that the most relevant factor is that the young man’s parents were from Afghanistan. While chastising Clinton and President Obama for endangering American security by allowing immigration from Muslim nations, Trump conveniently overlooks the fact that the shooter’s family was allowed into the United States while Ronald Reagan was president and encouraging jihad against the Soviet Union.
Trump has also implied support for conspiracy theories, going back to the businessman’s association with the birther movement, that Obama is a Muslim who may be covertly aiding an Islamic assault upon the United States. The willingness of Trump to give credence to such nonsense and his overall reaction to the shootings in Orlando lends weight to Clinton’s argument that Trump is temperamentally unfit to exercise the powers given to the commander in chief.
When contrasted with Trump, Clinton is the very model of reason; yet, the policies she endorses have not always served the United States and the world well. Perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s classic satire Dr. Strangelove (1964) might be instructive here. In the film, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) launches an unauthorized attack upon the Soviet Union as he holds Moscow responsible for an international communist conspiracy advocating fluoridation of the American water supply (a conspiracy theory actually promoted by the John Birch Society) that rendered the General sexually impotent.
In contrast to the ravings of Ripper, President Muffley (Peter Sellers) is a man of reason and the consensus who hopes to reach some type of understanding with the Soviet leadership. Yet, Muffley is an advocate for the policy of mutually assured destruction (MAD) which the films lampoons as an insane idea that eventually culminates in nuclear war and destruction of the planet. Kubrick’s nightmare satire and vision suggests that the post-World War II bipartisan model of foreign policy dedicated to preventing the spread of communism as a threat to the American way of life actually posed a danger to humanity.
The election of Hillary Clinton is preferable to the dangerous Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger, but Clinton in the White House will only perpetuate the American empire and foster discontent with America’s role in the world.
In response to the idea that isolationism and lack of military preparedness made the United States vulnerable to the aggression of Germany and Japan in the 1930s, the national security state with bipartisan support was created to address the expansion of a monolithic communism directed by the Soviet Union. Ignoring indigenous conditions that fostered nationalistic revolutions against the yoke of Western colonialism in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the United States constructed hundreds of military bases around the world to protect the American empire and its allies.
Liberal Democrats joined with conservative Republicans in a consensus foreign policy that threatened nuclear war while supporting dictators, military interventions, and covert operations; and on the domestic front dissent was limited through FBI surveillance, Congressional inquiries, and McCarthyism. Under the Truman Doctrine, U.S. military assistance was provided to any government battling communism. This policy led the United States to support dictatorships around the world; ranging from Nicaragua to the Philippines to the Greek military junta.
American covert actions through the Central Intelligence agency helped to topple democratic governments in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile. In Indonesia, American assistance to the rebellion of Suharto against Sukarno culminated in the murder of hundreds of thousands Indonesians accused of having communist ties.
American intervention seemed to reach its peak as opposition grew to the Vietnam War, yet President Reagan was able to reinvigorate the Cold War in the 1980s with demonizing the Soviet Union, aid to anticommunist dictatorships and death squads in Central America, and massive increases in defense spending.
Even the conclusion of the Cold War failed to mark an end to American military intervention as George H. W. Bush sought to erase the so-called Vietnam syndrome with the First Persian Gulf War in which the United States moved against its former anticommunist ally Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Antagonism toward the United States in the Middle East has been fostered by American support for Israel and authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The 2003 invasion of Iraq only exacerbated instability and conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.
Yet, this action earned the support of then New York Senator Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, Clinton supported American intervention in Libya, and she advocates a more active role in Syria than that proposed by President Obama. In addition, she has voiced approval of the drone warfare, and its considerable collateral human damage, pursued by the Obama administration—although this aggressive policy certainly seems to undermine the Trump assumption that Obama is a Muslim who embraces the killing of Christian Americans.
Thus, Hillary Clinton stands firmly in the tradition of empire and intervention that has characterized American foreign policy since the Second World War.
To his credit, Trump has expressed some reservations regarding the extent of American military commitments, but Clinton is right that he is temperamentally unfit and his ban on Muslims will foster even more animosity in the Arab world toward the United States.
Of course, there are other alternatives. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party offer a critique of the national security state and American empire missing from the Clinton campaign. Yet, the Libertarian option also includes a devotion to the goddess of the marketplace that will do little to address the issue of income inequality so well-articulated by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Thus, the options for 2016 seem limited. The election of Hillary Clinton is preferable to the dangerous Donald Trump having his finger on the nuclear trigger, but Clinton in the White House will only perpetuate the American empire and foster discontent with America’s role in the world.
Progressives would seem to have limited options such as supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein who offers a consistent critique of American empire or continuing the efforts of Sanders to reform the Democratic Party.
However, the infusion of young people, unafraid of ideas such as democratic socialism, into the political process through the Sanders campaign offers considerable hope for the future.
It is time to move beyond the policies of militarism, intervention, exploitation of resources, and empire that have made the United States an anathema to much of the world.