Most Americans want a more progressive foreign policy, but they're unlikely to get it

Most Americans want a more progressive foreign policy, but they're unlikely to get it
Comment: Even the most progressive of candidates would have the weight of a skewed system to contend with once in the Oval office, writes CJ Werleman.
7 min read
25 Oct, 2019
18 Democratic candidates are vying for the party nomination [AFP]
The United States' "War on Terror" has now been going on for so long, that Americans who were born after 9/11 are now being deployed to avenge the attacks that targeted New York and Washington DC nearly two full decades ago.

The cost in blood and treasure is measured at 7,000 US military personnel dead, and the expenditure of more than $6 trillion, while not overlooking the fact that US-led wars have caused the deaths of 38,000 civilians in Afghanistan, 205,000 in Iraq, and 23,000 in Pakistan, according to a study conducted by Brown University.

When you also add the loss of innocent life that has come as a direct result of US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, alongside the fact that the invasion of Iraq gave birth to a sectarian conflict, and then the genocidal actions of the Islamic State (IS), the death toll stretches into the realm of multiple millions of people. 

Ultimately, we may never know the total direct and indirect death toll in these wars, a reality noted by the authors of the study published by Brown University, who warn these numbers barely "scratch the surface of the human consequences of 17 years of war," largely due to the challenges of collecting accurate data.

Thankfully, however, American voters are not only fed up with wasting lives and taxpayer dollars in foreign wars, but also are eager for a "progressive overhaul of American foreign policy," according to a newly published survey conducted by Data For Progress.

"When it comes to the role of the US in the world, voters reject Trump-esque 'America First' isolationism, but they also reject the 'American exceptionalism' framing that demands a blank cheque for maintaining global military supremacy and whitewashes harm that some US foreign policy has done in the world," observe the authors of the report.

Until Trump is removed or elected out of office, US foreign policy will continue to be carried out on a transactional basis

American voters also want an end to endless wars, the arming of authoritarian regimes and governments that carry out human rights violations. Instead, they seek national security policies that put the pursuit of diplomacy, human rights, and peace before knee-jerk military interventionism.

A majority support the reallocation of money away from the military and towards domestic needs, including healthcare, infrastructure, education and protecting the environment.

These findings are consistent with a poll conducted earlier this year by the Center for American Progress and GBAO Strategies, which also found that American voters "favour some form of balanced engagement with the world that relies on diplomacy and economic tools more than the military."

If this is what the majority of US voters want, then what is standing in the way?

The first thing to recognise is that US President Donald Trump remains the current commander-in-chief, and with an even money chance he will continue to preside over US foreign policy for a further half-decade.

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Trump has, at times, signaled a desire for what some also see as a more 'progressive' foreign policy - albeit one couched in ultranationalist terms - promising "an end to endless wars" and drawing down troop commitments in Syria. But he has also has deployed thousands of soldiers to Saudi Arabia to protect the Kingdom's oil refineries, escalated tensions in the Gulf by withdrawing from the Iran deal, fulfilled every item on Israel's wish list, and killed many more civilians in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in three years than his predecessor did in eight.

Essentially, Trump has put a "for sale" sign on US foreign policy, as made abundantly clear by the recent revelation he threatened to make military aid to Ukraine dependent on the country's president digging up dirt on the son of rival presidential candidate, Joe Biden. Until Trump is removed or elected out of office, US foreign policy will continue to be carried out on a transactional basis, and one that almost exclusively benefits the current president.

Read more: Erdogan returns much-mocked 'tough guy' letter to Trump at White House meeting

As for Trump's potential 2020 challengers, pretty much all of the Democratic Party hopefuls have advocated what can be described - in the current context - as a progressive foreign policy. Two of the leading contenders - Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) - have couched theirs in terms of economics, rather than national security, focusing less on how they will use US military power abroad, and more on reshaping policies, including rejecting free trade deals, to better benefit working and middle class families.

"What they [Sanders and Warren] offer instead are positions on distinct global flashpoints. And on these, they are typically aligned. Both advocate rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, removing American troops from Afghanistan, supporting a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, ending uncritical US support for Saudi Arabia, including for its war in Yemen, and assisting a negotiated settlement in Venezuela," observes Stewart M. Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Both favour a posture of US restraint, with less militarism, more diplomacy and renewed attention to human rights."

Obama's administration demonstrated how the realities of the Oval Office can quickly undermine a progressive foreign policy

As for the current Democratic frontrunner, Biden has called for a repudiation of Trump's "reckless" and "dangerous" unilateralism, and a renewed "commitment to multilateral diplomacy," saying he will strengthen the country's relationship with UN member states and long time allies.

In a foreign policy speech he gave in July, Biden assailed Trump for lauding authoritarian dictators, including Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un, and denigrating democratic allies, including European Union member states, saying, "He [Trump] undermines our Democratic alliances while embracing dictators who appeal to his vanity."

However attractive Bernie and Warren's policies may appear, there are significant obstacles to their implementation - should either candidate find themselves in the Oval Office. A newly sworn in president is presented with an array of national security threats that he or she may not have been aware of as candidates.

Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, perfectly sums up just how quickly the realities of the Oval Office can undermine a progressive foreign policy by demonstrating how President Obama was drawn back into a conflict in the Middle East, despite expressing skepticism of military interventions, writing:

"By 2014, Obama had pulled American troops out of Iraq and was holding fast against involvement in Syria. But the rise of ISIS, the beheading of hostages, and the fall of Mosul created a groundswell of public pressure to deal directly with the threat. It was a reminder that even a president skeptical of intervention is one terrorist attack away from getting involved. That dynamic will not change in 2021."

Also running counter to voters' desire for a more progressive foreign policy is the influence and control special interests groups have over both major political parties in the United States. These include defense contractors, petroleum corporations, and lobby groups that seek to advance the priorities and preferences of Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and others by funneling millions of dollars each year into the coffers of every elected lawmaker in the country.

The American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for instance spent $3.5 million on lobbying US lawmakers to advance Israel's interest in 2018 alone - and at the same time other pro-Israel groups spent $22 million.

So, while a majority of Americans might wish for a more progressive policy towards Israel, it's more likely the status quo will continue, maintaining the US' role as underwriter of Israel's illegal occupation and blockade of the Palestinian territories, and the system of apartheid under which 2 million Arab citizens of Israel currently exist.

Ultimately, the foreign policy of the United States is shaped by less by the whims of one president and the desires of voters, and more by the forces that influence the priorities and decisions of the 534-member US Congress. Forces that have far longer purse strings than you or me.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.