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.