Democrats duck from the truth about the American empire

Jon Schwarz writes that in the Democratic debate on Tuesday, none of them grappled with the fact of how American imperialism has been a bipartisan debacle years in the making and the incoherence on what to do about the current situation with Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds is just a manifestation of it. His view is a more fleshed out version of my briefer reaction.

Thanks to President Donald Trump’s recent green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria and assault the Kurds there, the debate contained an unusual amount of discussion about foreign policy.

That was the upside. The downside was that almost all of the discussion was totally specious, because no one on stage wanted to tell Americans the awful truth. That truth is, first, that the grim reality in Syria available for viewing via Twitter videos is the climax of decades of bipartisan foreign policy. And second, by this point the only choices available are either wretched or horrible or both.

The worst offenders were South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and former Vice President Joe Biden. But even Sanders and Warren came nowhere near the honesty of their domestic policies.

Sanders said little about Syria, mostly just echoing Buttigieg’s concern about the rest of the world losing trust in America. By contrast, Warren and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard dipped their toes into the complicated truth before scurrying away.

Warren said, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” This sounds great, but what is this right, smart way? When even Noam Chomsky wants U.S. troops to stay in Syria, it’s a little tricky.

Gabbard did aggressively challenge standard U.S. foreign policy blather. She decried “this regime change war” in Syria and mentioned the unfortunate facts about “the U.S. actually providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria, like Al Qaida, HTS, al-Nusra and others.”

What Gabbard didn’t say is that, by this point, any plausible exit by the U.S. will be extraordinarily ugly, with the Assad regime brutally reestablishing control over Syria. The U.S. certainly bears some of the blame for that, as Gabbard said. But she did not mention that Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are also responsible for the past, present, and future carnage. Most importantly, she did not mention the much larger context for what’s happening.

And it’s that context that Democrats must get comfortable talking about, if they ever want to deal with the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Any politician brave enough to do that Tuesday night would have had to say something like this:

Look, the U.S. is the center of the most powerful empire that’s ever existed. We’re not in the Mideast for moral reasons, like protecting the Kurds, so you can forget about that. We’re there to keep the oil flowing (even though any Mideast government will happily sell their oil to anyone buying), to get whatever profits we can for U.S. corporations and to make sure our Saudi friends recycle their profits back into the American economy.

We can protect people like the Kurds only with a massive enlargement of our empire. So if you care about them, get ready for much higher taxes and your kids dying in Rojava. Or we can get rid of our empire — in which case you better start thinking about how to restrain all the other countries who’d like to run the Mideast and care about the people there as much as we do. Or we can muddle along in our current half-assed fashion, in which we agree not to ask too much of you and you agree not to ask any tough questions. You tell us!

Don’t expect any politician from any of the major parties to tell the truth abut America’s role in the world. It would require them to tell ugly truths about the nature of empire and shatter the comforting self-delusions that the American public have been carefully indoctrinated with from the time that the country was created.


  1. aspleen says

    It’s a false choice to say we can only protect the Kurds with a massive enlargement of our empire. U.S. forces were not numerous in Syria and they did serve to protect the Kurds there. Trump’s snap decision after giving in to Erdogan to yank those forces out allowed for a massacre of Kurds to happen there and the fleeing of tens of thousands of civilians away from their homes. All Trump had to do was say “no” to a withdrawl and it wouldn’t have happened. As a result, it’s allowed Assad along with Russian military forces to occupy the area and you can be sure they won’t be leaving anytime soon. So Turkey gets what it wants by dealing a blow to Kurdish autonomy in Syria, which was no threat to Turkey itself. And ISIS now can regroup and threaten not only Syria but also Iraq, thanks to Trump’s fecklessness.

  2. says

    The US has enough soft power to have told the Turks “sit down” and they would have. The US could offer to throw Turkey out of NATO and promise to pressure the EU into dropping them out of the customs union. The fact is that Turkey is not even a second-rate power. But the US has not even taken the situation that seriously. So Trump is dancing like a pig to protect his hotels -- that is exactly the reason why the US should not have a president with foreign entanglements.

    This is as much Obama/Clinton’s fault as it is Trump’s. Basically the US has been playing with people’s lives because they mean nothing to Americans. None of the stuff that has happened in Syria has any point at all -- it could have all been handled diplomatically. It just shows you how the US puts its least qualified, venal, vicious and incompetent political hacks in charge of others’ lives.

    The British empire did a fine job of ineffably screwing up the middle east -- in a way that should have earned them generations of hatred and terrorist revenge attacks. The the US says “oh yeah? Hold my beer.”

  3. says

    I believe it was Sulla who walked, alone, in his senator’s toga, and told Mithdrates “withdraw. now. Rome commands.” And Mithradates did. The Romans knew how to empire the way empiring is supposed to be empired.

    The US actually has comparable power over Turkey. Because of our relentless “we’re the good guys” propaganda, the US empire has to pretend that it has “reasons” for what it does, so you have absurdities like magnifying a civil war in Syria to “regime change” for “the good of the people.” We tie our hands with our own lies. But congress certainly knows what’s going on; the excuses are just for the stupid citizens, most of whom would he hard-pressed to find Syria on a map. If we actually dealt in terms of the ridiculous power we have accumulated, we could tell puny dictators like Erdogan or Assad. Our desire to pretend not to be vicious and violent leads us to make the situation worse because we cannot deploy violence or the threat of violence effectively.

  4. aspleen says

    This is as much Obama/Clinton’s fault as it is Trump’s.

    Not at all. Obama didn’t go in for “regime change” in Syria and only ordered U.S. military forces to the area in response to ISIS seizing territory in Iraq, including Mosul. The Kurds were also threatened by ISIS and partnered with the U.S. to defeat ISIS not only in Iraq but in Syria where ISIS had occupied Kurdish areas. If you think ISIS could have been handled diplomatically you’re going to have to explain how.

  5. says

    Not at all. Obama didn’t go in for “regime change” in Syria and only ordered U.S. military forces to the area in response to ISIS seizing territory in Iraq,

    Obama ordered the secret invasion of Syria (all this action is about defending a covert US drone base) and greenlit the Saudis and Qataris delivering weapons to the rebels. The CIA was also training the rebels and sharing satellite intelligence with them. We can’t be sure but the CIA may well have had a hand in creating the rebel forces in the first place.

    Obama’s clusterfuck negotiation with Iraq, which caused the US to officially leave (except secret bases) had a lot to do with why the Iraqi army collapsed and ran when ISIS began to form. If you think Trump is a fuckup for his Syria fuckup, you’ve got to think that Obama is a fuckup for his Iraq fuckup and his Syria fuckup (to say nothing of his Libya fuckup)

    The US’ policy of regime change in Syria has been ongoing and the Obama administration had CIA and special forces operators in there for months before Obama made his famous “no boots on the ground” lie.

  6. aspleen says

    We can’t be sure but the CIA may well have had a hand in creating the rebel forces in the first place.

    ISIS grew out of disaffected Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria who previously were resisting the Iraqi government. You might recall the firefights in Fallujah back in 2006 and how that insurrection was defeated. It didn’t eliminate the threat though, and it was able to rebuild and seize parts of Iraq that were left defended by only regular Iraqi Army forces that abandoned Mosul back in 2014. Those forces also attacked the Kurds and were a real threat to the Iraqi state, so Obama ordered U.S. military forces to move against ISIS.

    The notion that the creation of ISIS was a CIA covert operation is a hypothesis that has no need, leaving aside the lack of any evidence that it was.

  7. says

    I was talking about the Syrian rebels not ISIS -- that is why i called them “rebels” not “ISIS”

    The US has been destabilizing Syria for decades.

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