The Real Issue

(From the preface of The Turkey and the Eagle: The Struggle for America’s Global Role, Algora Press, New York, 2010)

In early 2007 I was sitting in a staff meeting in the palatial office of Congressman Bill Delahunt, a hulking, charming Boston-Irish lawyer who reveled in playing the part of just another dumb guy on the Boston T. Bill’s rumpled demeanor and rambling musings were the last things hundreds of defendants remembered before being convicted during his 20 years as the district attorney. It was scary to watch him pleasantly lead hostile witnesses in congressional hearings down a path that suddenly cornered them into contradicting their original claims. I was not surprised that as a prosecutor he had at times found himself having to apologize and arrange compensation when evidence emerged after a conviction that revealed the defendant’s innocence.

I had just joined Bill’s staff, returning to the congressional cockpit where I had battled for 20 years before taking a five-year sojourn as a professor. He had asked me to help him plan strategy for the foreign policy subcommittee he would chair now that the Democrats controlled the House for the first time in his 10 years in office. Settling comfortably into a puffy chair, I listened with half an ear as one of my colleagues on the subcommittee staff summarized a list of other Members’ bills that Bill had co-sponsored in past years and should sign onto again. Suddenly I was startled out of my lethargic state and nearly out of my seat when Bill grunted his assent to one of the bills. “Say that one again?” I asked. “That’s not the real issue.” Suddenly it all came back to me: liberal Democrats were still fearing national security as the rock on which their ship would break, so they were avoiding a debate on the real issue and instead seizing on tangential matters to discredit Republican policies.

The Democratic party has lived in the valley of the shadow of fear for the 65 years since World War II, worried about the electoral consequences of being seen as weak on foreign and military policy. To defuse a constant Republican refrain of “soft on communism” or more recently “soft on terrorism,” a sizable minority and at times a majority of Democrats in Congress have provided the margin of victory for votes to fund the weapons, foreign aid, and wars that have established the United States as a dominant, interventionist superpower allied with friendly dictators who supply it with military bases, covert collaboration, strategic minerals, and economic access. Liberal Democrats like Bill who are trying to minimize the damage done by this global role know that they can’t gain the votes of the “Dixies” -- their more conservative, mostly Southern colleagues in the party -- for an alternative strategic vision, so they focus their efforts instead on tactical initiatives that constrain, rather than confront, American domination.

At its best, this practice of ducking the real issue to tie things up with side issues results in the building of a coalition that stops a misuse of American power that has become counterproductive even its own terms, like the Vietnam war, or the U.S.-funded wars in Central America in the 1980’s. At its worst, it results in bills like the one in question. The “American Parity Act” required that for every dollar spent on reconstruction in Iraq, a dollar also be spent on similar projects in the United States. It had been introduced in 2005 by Rahm Emanuel, who later became President Obama’s chief of staff.

I said something along the lines of: “Wait -- that’s just plain silly – nobody serious about foreign policy would sign up for that. If you’re against the war in Iraq, if you believe that it’s morally wrong or it’s damaging our security, you don’t want to give Bush any money to support the occupation; if you are for the war, if you believe that it’s morally right or that maintaining a cooperative government there is important to our security, you’re not going to condition your support on increased domestic spending. It’s fine to reach out to moderates by pointing out what we could have done at home with the money we’ve wasted in Iraq, but it’s crazy to say we should waste more as long as we get some goodies for the district! That’s just not serious; it’s a cheap shot to get people riled up, but it obscures the real issue that they should be riled up about.”

Bill laughed and said: “That’s because we’re Democrats -- we’re not serious, and we specialize in cheap shots. But we’ll stay off the bill. So tell me, what is the real issue?” The real issue, I replied, is the convenient assumption of American exceptionalism that policy-makers have used since the birth of the Republic to justify the expansion of U.S. power, the same assumption that led the Founders to choose the rapacious, wide-ranging Bald Eagle as the symbol of the United States, rather than the industrious, home-loving Wild Turkey favored by Benjamin Franklin. All policy decisions are made, and all public discussion takes place, within the assumption of exceptionalism. Once you start arguing tactics, I said, you lose the debate over the goals, and you validate the guiding assumption.

Bill replied that he was a “samurai warrior” who fought desperate little fights in his immediate front, not a “philosopher king” who looked to the grand design of America’s role in the world, but this disclaimer was just more of his blarney, a smokescreen to mask a well-developed and consistent world view. Like virtually all liberal Democrats, he saw U.S. foreign policy as bedeviled by poor tactics rather than a selfish goal. Bill was a Soft Eagle, not an anti-imperial Turkey, which was appropriate for the representative of the district where Governor John Winthrop landed in 1630. Winthrop originated exceptionalism in a sermon calling the Massachusetts Bay Colony a biblical “city upon a hill” that God had established to guide the world after helpfully clearing the area of Indian tribes by decimating them with European diseases.

Bill and I spent the next two years, as I had my 20 years in and around Congress from 1982 to 2002, walking the fine line between being philosopher-kings trying to present a vision of a moral, cooperative U.S. foreign policy, and being samurais coming up with cheap shots. Only slightly less transparent than Emanuel’s, our cheap shots were crafty compromises that build bridges toward winning a majority in important little foreign policy fights that would distract the Bush administration and deny it a clear field for its peculiarly aggressive and unilateral version of American domination. Bill wanted to start down the harder route of being for something, and speak up for his own vision of how to achieve American security and promote American interests. To be a credible congressional player, though, he had a responsibility to continue taking the easy path of accepting the mainstream vision but being against the unrestrained way that it was being pursued.

The Emanuel bill was a logical result of the way Democrats approached the war in Iraq – all samurai and no philosopher. In trying to stop first the invasion of Iraq and then the occupation, liberal Democrats seized on any tactical issue that could discredit the administration, ducking the real issue of whether we have the right to dominate the Middle East and determine by force who is in its governments and what their policies are. Before the vote authorizing the invasion liberal Democrats hammered away on whether there was proof of programs to produce and hide weapons of mass destruction, and whether there was a workable plan to restore order, protect civilians, and rebuild Iraq. I did the same thing in my own public speeches as a professor, which lambasted claims about Iraq’s nuclear program by explaining the physics used by U.S. agencies to “sniff” the air in a region to detect and hone in on the enrichment of uranium. The case for war was so weak and fraudulent in its own terms that it was far easier and less controversial to discredit the war as stupid rather than debate its morality.

During the occupation the issues were spending levels, torture, incompetence, withdrawal schedules, the dysfunctional Iraqi parliament and regional structure, the constitutional uncertainty about whether just executive branches or legislatures as well in had to approve the U.S.-Iraq troop agreement, Iranian gains in regional power, corruption and waste in contracting, rules of engagement, length of military tours, body armor and reinforced vehicles for U.S. troops, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, and dozens of others that highlighted the disastrous absurdity of the situation. But by always debating tactics, opponents of the war ceded the debate on the real issue -- what made us think we had the right to invade in the first place?

The war in Afghanistan is even more mired in a debate over tactics and not assumptions, over side issues and not the real issue. The original stated goal that led Congress to approve the war was the worthy one of denying al-Qaeda access to a base after it had attacked the United States. Liberals in Congress who first supported the war and later questioned its length and feasibility have shied away from challenging its core assumption -- that al-Qaeda’s war on America is founded on an irrational hatred of America and its values, and so can only be defeated by killing all of its members and all of its Taliban hosts. In fact, like most totalitarians, al-Qaeda’s leaders have been explicit about their motivations, providing us with a roadmap for defusing the threat. We were attacked for maintaining the two repressive, undemocratic allies that had been the target of al-Qaeda’s jihad, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Until we do what we what we should have long ago for moral reasons, which is end our support for Middle Eastern autocrats, al-Qaeda will retain its appeal and ability to recruit in the Muslim world, and we will never be safe from another attack. The reality that the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which has spilled over to destabilize a much larger and more volatile country, Pakistan, is increasing the risk of attack; this risk is obscured by the strength of the prevailing national security paradigm.

Bill tried to challenge that paradigm by developing and broadcasting a vision of a new American global role of cooperation and mutual respect, even as we built the short-term coalitions against the worst excesses arising from the old role of domination. He held a series of hearings and issued a report highlighting polling data showing that it was the invasion of Iraq, torture, and support for repressive regimes that had led to the sharp decline in America’s reputation since 2002, and not some hatred of American values. But mostly we focused on tactical questions, holding hearings and preparing legislation on the neglected congressional obligation to make the decision to go to war, a billion dollar scholarship fund for 30,000 low-income international students to attend American colleges, cutting off aid to various dictators, blocking a plan to base U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely, cases of rendition and torture by current covert operatives, and seeking to bring a former CIA operative, Luis Posada, to justice for airline terrorism.

Our failure to push our legislation aggressively once led me to complain to Bill, “We’re not delivering on our promises.” He good-naturedly replied: “We’re not Domino’s – we don’t deliver. Anything decent we could pass, Bush would veto. All this is about creating the atmosphere for Obama to win. That is the most important thing we can do in this Congress.” There is no denying that without the rebuke to Bush’s aggressive approach to foreign policy that was delivered by Obama’s victory over John McCain, there would be no chance to develop a new vision of America’s role in the world. On the other hand, Obama’s support for friendly dictators and the long war to control the Middle East shows that his approach is largely the classic one couched in softer language.

As an inside agitator, an anti-imperialist trapped in imperial Washington, I have been privileged to work with, and at times cross swords with, some remarkable people. I’ve seen well-known figures as Senate Appropriations Chairman Mark Hatfield, House Armed Services Chairman Ron Dellums, Students for a Democratic Society founder Tom Hayden, and Costa Rican president Oscar Arias toil for a just foreign policy alongside unsung heroes like non-governmental advocates Holly Burkhalter, Cindy Arnson, and Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch; veteran congressional staffers like Ed King, Edie Wilkie, Cindy Buhl, Kathy Gille, and Tim Rieser; and hard-bargaining worker bees in Congress like Matt McHugh, Barbara Boxer, Joe Kennedy, David Bonior, and Cynthia McKinney. With all their talents, why couldn’t they achieve more than they did, which was essentially damage control? Why is America still dominating other countries, when they worked so hard to move us toward cooperation? Why do they spend their time and talents on side issues, and not the real issue of Americans’ assumption of their own exceptionalism? Consider this example.

In 1987, during Nancy Pelosi’s first term in Congress, she came to a meeting in George Miller’s office of the task force on El Salvador that he chaired and I staffed for the congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus. Nancy had been hammered in her San Francisco district by the Central American “solidarity” groups for not doing more to end the war in El Salvador. As we kicked around legislative ideas for little constraints that would tie some U.S. aid to the investigation of various murders either carried out or covered up by the Salvadoran army, she interrupted, almost shrieking in her frustration at the limited nature of our proposals: “People are dying! Children are being killed!” An awkward silence filled the room, and then George spoke tongue-in-cheek for the other ten or so Members – “Thanks for that information, Nancy – we didn’t know!”

And we went right back to discussing how to frame the minimal amendments that might gain the support of Members from Kansas, Texas, and Indiana, whose only local lobbying on Central America consisted of American Legion presidents blasting them for even thinking about questioning President Reagan’s wars on the communists. One of George’s favorite sayings was: “Before you can save the world, you have to save your seat.” He already knew what Nancy learned as she became a leader of the party, and masterfully held its liberal and conservative wings together as House speaker throughout the trials of the George W. Bush administration. Congress is fundamentally reactive -- and Members need backing in their districts before they can challenge a president on national security. I soon found out first-hand why that backing is so hard to obtain.

In 1997 I was angered by the opposition of a Republican Member of Congress from my part of upstate New York to some initiatives of the advocacy group I was directing, like an end to arms sales to dictators, a 50 percent cut in military spending, and a ban on anti-personnel landmines. I moved back home with my family and became his Democratic opponent in the 1998 election. My hope was to engage voters on the issues that had made me run, but I quickly found out that most of them just didn’t have time to care. They had other things on their minds – their jobs, their medical needs, their kids, their communities, in short, their lives. They understood that these things were connected to foreign policy decisions, but the link was too indirect to sustain their interest.

As for asking them to support me because of the damage our policies were doing to others, I chickened out on that almost from the start. The people in my district must have missed the John Kennedy speech about asking what you could do for your country, because they mostly wanted to know what their country could do for them, in a hurry. And there sure was no clamor for doing something for the people of other countries. The longer I campaigned, the less I brought up foreign policy, and the more I promised to spend my time and energy getting them their piece of the federal pie. I developed an even deeper admiration for the Members of Congress who oppose domination, because I saw that there was little interest in, or payoff for, their activities back home.

Nearly 30 years ago I was called back into Dean Jerry Ziegler’s office at Cornell University for my celebratory glass of sherry upon having defended my dissertation on U.S. policy in Southern Africa. Jerry and the other professors on my Ph.D. committee asked me what I was going to do with my degree. “I’m going to Washington, to make a new foreign policy,” I announced. In mock horror the professors looked at each other, and one said, “I’m sorry, didn’t we tell you? Foreign policy is made in the districts. It’s only ratified in Washington.” They were aware, of course, that both places play a role. But my time in and around Congress has convinced me that at heart, my professors were right. The boundaries of the main thrust of America’s foreign policy are set through some mysterious process by the American people. Since 1945 they have chosen, or at least accepted, domination, under the veneer of America bringing its exceptional goodness to the world. Until Americans have a debate in the districts that discredits exceptionalism, Turkeys in the advocacy groups and Soft Eagles in Congress will continue to fight ineffectually on the terms set by the Hard Eagles.

Someday the American empire, like all empires in history, will end. But will it end because of cost or because of conscience? The former would set the stage for just another in a series of global hegemons. The latter would inspire people around the world to make sure that it would not be theirs. In that case, America could, finally, rightly claim to be exceptional.

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