Foreign Policy Myths and the 2020 Election

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Foreign Policy Myths and the 2020 Election

Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (V-VT) speak to press Wednesday about new joint resolution demanding U.S. military gets out of Yemen. (You Tube)

Jonathan Tepperman is the latest writer to assert that the 2020 Democratic candidates aren’t talking about foreign policy:

One of the most striking things about the Democratic primary so far—aside from the sheer number of candidates running—is how little any of them has said about foreign policy. With very few exceptions (like one-off essays by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), the group has ignored the rest of the world and focused on domestic issues.

It is very strange to watch a falsehood become conventional wisdom as it happens. As I have shown in several recent posts, the assertion that the 2020 Democratic candidates aren’t talking about foreign policy isn’t true. In the case of some of the candidates, it is wildly misleading to say that they are ignoring these issues. It may be that relatively few candidates have delivered full-length speeches or published essays solely on foreign policy, but that doesn’t mean that they are all neglecting the subject. Many of them have spoken about and taken positions on a number of issues, including their commitments to reentering the JCPOA, their opposition to the war on Yemen, and their views about current crisis in Venezuela and what role, if any, the U.S. should have in it. To claim that they are neglecting these issues is to admit that you haven’t been listening to the candidates very closely at all. If this is what we can expect from coverage of the 2020 foreign policy debates, we are in serious trouble.

It may be the case that foreign policy analysts and pundits would like the candidates to say more about foreign policy than they have, but that’s always true and not very interesting. Compared to previous presidential cycles, many of the 2020 candidates are talking about foreign policy and national security issues more often and earlier than candidates did in the past, and some of them have had quite a lot to say. It is too bad that so many analysts and pundits are wasting time complaining about the candidates’ imaginary neglect of the issues when it seems that they are the ones neglecting what the candidates are saying and doing.

Tepperman continues:

The second reason it’s a problem that the candidates are ignoring foreign policy is that many of the threats now facing the country were caused—or at least intensified—by Washington itself. For Americans, that thought should be chastening. But it should also be a source of hope. While the United States has made a number of big, consequential mistakes in recent years, the good news is that, what Washington did, it can, in many cases, also undo—or at least work to remedy. But only if its leaders, and the country as a whole, start facing up to the issues.

Many of the candidates now running for the Democratic nomination are aware of this and they have been “facing up” to at least some of the issues he raises. Tepperman’s article is even stranger than most of the other complaints because he specifically mentions Yemen as an example of a contemporary conflict where the U.S. has made things worse (we know it has), but he doesn’t seem to notice that several of the presidential candidates have been speaking and voting in opposition to U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen both before and after they declared their candidacies. Bernie Sanders has been one of the leading opponents of U.S. involvement in the Senate, and it was the antiwar resolution that he co-sponsored that was passed by both houses earlier this year before Trump vetoed it. Elizabeth Warren has spoken out regularly against the war as well. Tulsi Gabbard has been scathing in her criticism of the Saudis and the Trump administration for its ongoing support for the coalition’s war. Since Tepperman makes a point of bringing up Yemen in his article, he must be aware of some of this, but their opposition to the war doesn’t come up. That is a pretty big and glaring omission in a long Foreign Policy article that purports to tell us about what the 2020 candidates have said about foreign policy!

It would indeed be a serious failing if the people who want to become president were flatly ignoring the area of policy where the president has enormous latitude and responsibility. Some individual candidates may deserve this criticism, and in an absurdly large field of more than 20 people there are bound to be a few. But to say that the entire field has been neglecting foreign policy when several of them have been doing anything but that is thoroughly misleading and fails to take seriously what many of these candidates have already had to say. It is misleading, it feeds into lazy stereotypes about Democrats and foreign policy, and it deprives the public of serious engagement with the candidates’ views. It isn’t possible for citizens to talk about our foreign policy problems constructively when the people responsible for covering these issues fail to provide them with accurate information.

The theme of Tepperman’s article is that the candidates are neglecting foreign policy in much the same way that the U.S. has become “indifferent” and withdrawn from the rest of the world:

But in every case, they’ve been made worse by American blunders and, above all, by the perception that the United States is withdrawing from the world.

The second part of the article is no more convincing or accurate than the first. For example, Tepperman asserts that Obama pursued “a policy of retrenchment,” but this did not happen. The U.S. was unfortunately every bit as involved and entangled in the affairs of other nations and was engaged in even more illegal wars when Obama left office than when he entered. He then asserts that there is “a growing consensus that the United States no longer cares much about the world beyond its borders.” If such a consensus exists, it is likewise detached from reality. Unfortunately for the world beyond our borders, the U.S. government professes to “care” very much about what goes on everywhere else, and it is meddling in the affairs of other nations as much as ever. Whether it is waging economic war on Iran, trying to overthrow the Venezuelan government, throwing support behind a Libyan warlord, or backing the Saudi coalition to the hilt, the Trump administration has been anything but indifferent or withdrawn, and its sins have mostly been sins of commission. The problem with U.S. policy in Yemen is not that the U.S. is “indifferent” but that it is deeply invested in backing one side of the conflict. No doubt the administration is indifferent to the massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen that they have helped to perpetuate and worsen, but that is a function of their determination to support the Saudis and Emiratis no matter what they do. A genuinely indifferent U.S. that wasn’t involved would at least be better than that.

The two parts of Tepperman’s article are both myths. The 2020 Democratic candidates aren’t ignoring foreign policy, and the U.S. hasn’t been withdrawing from the world. So why promote myths that are so easily debunked? I can only guess, but this is what I think is happening. I assume that the 2020 Democratic candidates aren’t saying what some foreign policy analysts and pundits want to hear, and so instead of criticizing them directly these people simply pretend not to hear them. Likewise, advocates of an activist, meddlesome foreign policy can’t or won’t admit that the U.S. foreign policy has actively contributed to making foreign conflicts and crises worse, and so instead we are treated to a fairy tale about how U.S. “withdrawal” has led to chaos. Like a lot myths, these can be comforting for some people, but they aren’t real and they get in the way of understanding the world and the debate about America’s role in it.

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