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Peter Van Buren: Back to the Future

Five Questions That Weren't Asked During the 2012 Presidential Debates and Are Unlikely to Be Asked in 2016.

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Image taken from Flickr user Irish Typepad

By Peter Van Buren
By arrangement with TomDispatch

The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to “destroy” the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else—except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.

In that light, here’s a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions—they form the section headings below—that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.

And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that’s not good news. Now, let’s consider them four years later, one by one.

Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?

That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one’s even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don’t even notice.

The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.

In 2012, I wrote, “The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial. While the US pulled its troops out of Iraq… the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it’s clear that northern Mali is heading our way).”

Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can’t release most of the others without lots of approvals by… well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.

Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew US troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn’t take long for the US to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.

As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier—it’s a drone.

As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, “generational” American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016—no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There’s still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen—albeit now mostly via America’s well-armed proxies the Saudis—and Africa is more militarized than ever.

As for the most common “American” someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it’s no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier—it’s a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation’s airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.

In 2012, I also wrote, “Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of ‘al-Qaeda Number 3’ guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama’s drone-meister, has put it this way: ‘We’re not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas.’”

Four years later, whack-a-mole seems to still be as polite a way as possible of categorizing America’s strategy. In 2013, the top whacker John Brennan got an upgrade to director of the CIA, but strangely—despite so many drones sent off, Special Operations teams sent in, and bombers let loose—the moles keep burrowing and he’s gotten none of the rest he was seeking in 2012. Al-Qaeda is still around, but more significantly, the Islamic State (IS) has replaced that outfit as the signature terrorist organization for the 2016 election.

And speaking of IS, the 2011 war in Libya, midwifed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, led to the elimination of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, which in turn led to chaos, which in turn led to the spread of IS there big time, which appears on its way to leading to a new American war in Libya seeking the kind of stability that, for all his terrors, Qaddafi had indeed brought to that country during his 34 years in power and the US military will never find.

So an end to the Global War on Terror? Nope.

Do today’s foreign policy challenges mean that it’s time to retire the Constitution?

In 2012 I wrote, “Starting on September 12, 2001, challenges, threats, and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can’t accommodate terror threats to the Homeland.”

Since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state.

At the time, however, our concerns about unconstitutionality were mostly based on limited information from early whistleblowers like Tom Drake and Bill Binney, and what some then called conspiracy theories. That was before National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden confirmed our worst nightmares in June 2013 by leaking a trove of NSA documents about the overwhelming American surveillance state. Snowden summed it up this way: “You see programs and policies that were publicly justified on the basis of preventing terrorism—which we all want—in fact being used for very different purposes.”

Now, here’s the strange thing: since Rand Paul dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, no candidate seems to find it worth his or her while to discuss protecting the Bill of Rights or the Constitution from the national security state. (Only the Second Amendment, it turns out, is still sacred.) And speaking of rights, things had already grown so extreme by 2013 that Attorney General Eric Holder felt forced to publicly insist that the government did not plan to torture or kill Edward Snowden, should he end up in its hands. Given the tone of this election, someone may want to update that promise.

In 2012, of course, the Obama administration had only managed to put two whistleblowers in jail for violating the Espionage Act. Since then, such prosecutions have grown almost commonplace, with five more convictions (including that of Chelsea Manning) and with whatever penalties short of torture and murder are planned for Edward Snowden still pending. No one then mentioned the use of the draconian World War I-era Espionage Act, but that wasn’t surprising. Its moment was still coming.

Four years later, still not a peep out of any candidate about the uses of that act, once aimed at spying for foreign powers in wartime, or a serious discussion of government surveillance and the loss of privacy in American life. (And we just learned that the Pentagon’s spy drones have been released over “the homeland,” too, but don’t expect to hear anything about that or its implications either.) Of course, Snowden has come up in the debates of both parties. He has been labeled a traitor as part of the blood sport that the Republican debates have devolved into, and denounced as a thief by Hillary Clinton, while Bernie Sanders gave him credit for “educating the American people” but still thought he deserved prison time.

If the question in 2012 was: “Candidates, have we walked away from the Constitution? If so, shouldn’t we publish some sort of notice or bulletin?” In 2016, the answer seems to be: “Yes, we’ve walked away, and accept that or else… you traitor!”

What do we want from the Middle East?

In 2012, considering the wreckage of the post-9/11 policies of two administrations in the Middle East, I wondered what the goal of America’s presence there could possibly be. Washington had just ended its war in Iraq, walked away from the chaos in Libya, and yet continued to launch a seemingly never-ending series of drone strikes in the region. “Is it all about oil?” I asked. “Israel? Old-fashioned hegemony and containment? History suggests that we should make up our mind on what America’s goals in the Middle East might actually be. No cheating now—having no policy is a policy of its own.”

Four years later, Washington is desperately trying to destroy an Islamic State “caliphate” that wasn’t even on its radar in 2012. Of course, that brings up the question of whether IS can be militarily destroyed at all, as we watch its spread to places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. And then there’s the question no one would have thought to ask back then: If we destroy that movement in Iraq and Syria, will another even more brutish group simply take its place, as the Islamic State did with al-Qaeda in Iraq? No candidate this time around even seems to grasp that these groups aren’t just problems in themselves, but symptoms of a broader Sunni-Shi’ite problem.

In the meantime, the one broad policy consensus to emerge is that we shouldn’t hesitate to unleash our air power and Special Operations forces and, with the help of local proxies, wreck as much stuff as possible. America has welcomed all comers to take their best shots in Syria and Iraq in the name of fighting the Islamic State. The ongoing effort to bomb it away has resulted in the destruction of cities that were still in decent shape in 2012, like Ramadi, Kobane, Homs, and evidently at some future moment Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, “in order to save” them. Four American presidents have made war in the region without success, and whoever follows Obama into the Oval Office will be number five. No questions asked.

What is your plan to right-size our military and what about downsizing the global mission?

Plan? Right-size? Here’s the reality four years after I asked that question: Absolutely no candidate, including the most progressive one, is talking about cutting or in any way seriously curtailing the US military.

Not surprisingly, in response to the ongoing question of the year, “So how will you pay for that?” (in other words, any project being discussed from massive border security and mass deportations to free public college tuition), no candidate has said: “Let’s spend less than 54 percent of our discretionary budget on defense.”
Call me sentimental, but as I wrote in 2012, I’d still like to know from the candidates, “What will you do to right-size the military and downsize its global mission? Secondly, did this country’s founders really intend for the president to have unchecked personal war-making powers?”

Such questions would at least provide a little comic relief, as all the candidates except Bernie Sanders lock horns to see who will be the one to increase the defense budget the most.

Since no one outside our borders buys American exceptionalism anymore, what’s next? What is America’s point these days?

In 2012, I laid out the reality of twenty-first-century America this way: “We keep the old myth alive that America is a special, good place, the most ‘exceptional’ of places in fact, but in our foreign policy we’re more like some mean old man, reduced to feeling good about himself by yelling at the kids to get off the lawn (or simply taking potshots at them). Now, who we are and what we are abroad seems so much grimmer… America the Exceptional, has, it seems, run its course. Saber rattling… feels angry, unproductive, and without any doubt unbelievably expensive.”

Yet in 2016 most of the candidates are still barking about America the Exceptional despite another four years of rust on the chrome. Donald Trump may be the exceptional exception in that he appears to think America’s exceptional greatness is still to come, though quite soon under his guidance.

The question for the candidates in 2012 was and in 2016 remains “Who exactly are we in the world and who do you want us to be? Are you ready to promote a policy of fighting to be planetary top dog—and we all know where that leads—or can we find a place in the global community? Without resorting to the usual ‘shining city on a hill’ metaphors, can you tell us your vision for America in the world?”

The answer is a resounding no.

See You Again in 2020

The candidates have made it clear that the struggle against terror is a forever war, the US military can never be big enough, bombing and missiling the Greater Middle East is now the American Way of Life, and the Constitution is indeed a pain and should get the hell out of the way.

Above all, no politician dares or cares to tell us anything but what they think we want to hear: America is exceptional, military power can solve problems, the US military isn’t big enough, and it is necessary to give up our freedoms to protect our freedoms. Are we, in the perhaps slightly exaggerated words of one foreign commentator, now just a “nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries”?

Bookmark this page. I’ll be back before the 2020 elections to see how we’re doing.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the “reconstruction” of Iraq in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at We Meant Well.His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. His next work will be a novel, Hooper’s War.

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