Biden’s Foreign Policy ‘Experience’

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s choice of Joseph Biden as his running mate has drawn sharp criticism from many Democrats as a result of the Delaware senator’s support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, his flagrantly false claims about the alleged Iraqi threat, and the abuse of his position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to suppress antiwar testimony before Congress prior to the invasion.

A look at the senator’s 35-year record on Capitol Hill indicates that Iraq was not an isolated case and that Biden has frequently allied with more hawkish Democrats and Republicans. This is of particular significance, since Obama and other leading Democrats have acknowledged that the choice of Biden was largely because of his foreign policy leadership, thereby raising concerns that, as president, Obama may end up appointing people to important foreign affairs and security matters of a similar ideological orientation.

At the same time, Biden has not consistently allied with neoconservative intellectuals or the unreconstructed militarists who have so heavily influenced the foreign policies of the Bush administration and the foreign policy positions of Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Indeed, Biden has often taken some rather nuanced positions and, rather than being a right-wing ideologue, is generally recognized by his colleagues as being knowledgeable and thoughtful in addressing complex foreign policy issues, even if often taking more hard-line positions than the increasingly progressive base of his party.

For example, he has called for diplomatic engagement with the Iranian government and — unlike Clinton and some other Democratic senators — voted against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which was widely interpreted as potentially paving the way for war with Iran. Biden has challenged the Republicans’ unconstitutional insistence that the executive has the power to wage war without consent of Congress, even going so far as to threaten impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush if he attacked Iran without congressional authorization. He has also raised strong objections to some of the Bush administration’s efforts to develop new nuclear weapons systems and abrogate existing arms-control treaties. He helped lead the fight against Bush’s nomination of the far-right John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

During the 1980s, Biden opposed aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and vigorously challenged Reagan administration officials during the Iran-Contra hearings (in contrast to the tepid leadership of the special committee chairman, Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.) He was also a cosponsor of a 1997 resolution that would have effectively banned the U.S. production and deployment of landmines, an initiative taken despite objections from the Clinton administration.

Yet Biden’s progressive foreign policy positions have often been the exception rather than the norm. In fact, his positions have sometimes been so inconsistent as to defy clear explanation. For example, Biden is one of the very few members of Congress who voted against authorizing the 1991 Gulf War — which the UN Security Council legitimized as an act of collective security against the illegal Iraqi conquest of Kuwait — but then voted in favor of authorizing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the UN Security Council didn’t approve, and was an illegitimate war of aggression.

Center-Right Agenda

On most foreign policy issues, Biden has allied with congressional centrists and conservatives. For example, despite all the recent media attention given to Biden’s working-class roots and his support for labor, and despite his more recent opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Biden has largely embraced corporate-backed neoliberal globalization, particularly during the 1990s. Biden voted to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), which have both proven so devastating for American workers and have so greatly contributed to increased inequality and environmental damage worldwide.

Despite Biden’s support for the principle of “free trade,” even with some governments that suppress labor rights, Biden supports tough economic sanctions against Cuba. He has even opposed Obama’s restrained proposals for loosening restrictions on the right of Americans to travel to that socialist country and the right of Cuban-Americans to provide remittances for family members still living there.

Biden has aggressively pushed for NATO expansion eastward. He supports NATO membership for the former Soviet republic of Georgia, despite that government’s attacks on South Ossetia and the risks that such a formal military alliance could drag U.S. forces into a war in the volatile Caucasus region. Biden correctly criticized Russia for its military incursion deep into Georgian territory and its disproportionate use of force. But in rhetoric reminiscent of the darkest days of the Cold War, he incorrectly assigned all the blame for the recent fighting on the Russians, failing even to mention the Georgian assault on the South Ossetian capital that provoked it. While condemning Moscow for its efforts “to subvert the territorial integrity” of Georgia, Biden seems to have forgotten that he was a key cosponsor (along with Senators McCain and Lieberman) of a Senate resolution introduced last year that called for active U.S. support for the independence of the autonomous Serbian region of Kosovo.

Biden was perhaps the Senate’s most outspoken supporter of the 1999 U.S. war on Yugoslavia. He teamed up with McCain as one of the two principal sponsors of the resolution authorizing the 11-week bombing campaign of Serbia and Montenegro, which short-circuited efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and pro-democracy Serbian groups to resolve the crisis nonviolently. Biden’s efforts to use Serbian oppression of Kosovar Albanians as an excuse for advancing post-Cold War U.S. hegemony in Eastern Europe became apparent in his insistence that “if we do not achieve our goals in Kosovo, NATO is finished as an alliance.”

In addition to stacking his Senate committee’s hearings prior to the Iraq war vote with fabricators of WMD claims and supporters of a U.S. invasion, Biden has often failed to use his platform to ask tough questions during confirmation hearings for many of the Bush administration’s more controversial nominees. For example, during John Negroponte’s three confirmation hearings Biden avoided any questions regarding the controversial official’s alleged support for right-wing death squads while ambassador to Honduras during the 1980s.

As ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee during the 1990s, Biden teamed up with the right-wing Republican chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) to try to squash efforts by Russell Feingold (D-WI) and other liberals to end U.S. military training of Indonesian counterinsurgency forces repressing occupied East Timor. Biden was among a minority of Democrats to support increasing military aid — in the name of anti-narcotics efforts but in reality for counter-insurgency operations — to Colombia’s repressive government. He even voted against an amendment that would have transferred some of the money to support effective but underfunded drug treatment programs in the United States.

Biden also was among a minority of Senate Democrats to vote against a resolution that would have required the administration to certify, prior to selling or otherwise providing cluster bombs to a foreign government, that they would not be used in civilian areas. Such opposition to this important and widely supported humanitarian effort likely indicates that Biden would use his position as vice president to stifle efforts by other administration officials who might press for greater sensitivity in U.S. foreign policy toward human rights concerns.

Despite embracing much of the Bush administration’s alarmist rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear program, Biden’s actual concerns regarding nonproliferation are rather suspect. For example, he voted against a number of proposed amendments that would have strengthened provisions of the nuclear cooperation agreement with India designed to insure that U.S. assistance would not help India’s nuclear weapons program.

While opposing some Reagan-era weapons programs, such as the Pershing II missile, Biden supported full funding of the Trident D-5 Submarine Missile Program a full decade after the end of the Cold War for which it was designed. He has also voted against a series of amendments that would have redirected wasteful military spending to support domestic education programs and limited war profiteering by military contractors with links to the current administration. Biden has also been a strong advocate of increasing military spending even beyond the Bush administration’s bloated levels.

Far Right Agenda on Israel/Palestine

In addition to Iraq, (on which he was among the minority of congressional Democrats who voted to authorize the illegal invasion of that oil-rich country and supports continued unconditional war funding) the foreign policy issue with which Biden has most closely aligned himself with right-wing Republicans is Israel. Long opposed to Palestine’s right to exist as an independent country, he came around to supporting the idea of creating some kind of Palestinian state alongside Israel only after the Bush administration and the Israeli government went on record accepting the idea. Similarly, Biden has long insisted that it isn’t the Israeli occupiers, but the Palestinians under occupation, who constitute the “one…side that can impact on ending [the conflict.]”

Biden has defended extra-judicial killings by Israeli forces in the occupied territories, Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, Israel’s annexation of greater East Jerusalem and other Arab territories seized by military force, and collective punishment against Palestinian civilians in retaliation for crimes committed by the radical Hamas movement.

When Bush goaded Israel into attacking Lebanon during the summer of 2006 — blocking international efforts to impose a cease fire even as civilian casualties mounted into the hundreds — Biden argued that the Bush administration didn’t back Israel quickly or vehemently enough. As the outcry from human rights groups and UN agencies mounted over the widespread devastation inflicted on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure, Biden declared “we’re left with no option here, in my view, but to support Israel in what is a totally legitimate self-defense effort.”

Following the war, Biden blocked investigations into Israeli violations of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act despite a report provided to his Senate committee from the State Department indicating that there was considerable evidence of widespread use of U.S.-supplied cluster bombs against civilian targets. His refusal to allow for such congressional oversight does not give much hope that, once in the executive branch himself, he would support an Obama administration upholding its legal obligations either.

Obama had previously criticized the Clinton administration for its one-sided approach to the peace process and, more recently, has pledged to make facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement a priority as president. Nevertheless, Biden insists that the United States should not take any role in the peace process that isn’t coordinated with the Israeli government. Indeed, Biden explicitly insists that that there should be “no daylight between us and Israel” and that “the idea of being an ‘honest broker’… like some of my Democratic colleagues call for, is not the answer.”

Unfortunately, there’s little to suggest that any mediating party has ever successfully facilitated a peace settlement between two hostile nations without being an honest broker. Indeed, Biden strongly objected to findings by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and widely supported by the majority of the foreign policy establishment. The Group’s report emphasized the importance of the United States pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement in order to restore its credibility in the greater Middle East.

Democrats Unify Around Biden

Even the party’s left wing largely refused to support proposals challenging the Biden nomination from the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Prominent Democratic antiwar stalwarts such as Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-CA) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) — in the name of “party unity” — rejected calls by some delegates for a roll-call vote in which Biden would be pitted against an antiwar challenger for the vice-presidential nomination

The residual grumblings from antiwar Democrats, and threats to defect to the campaigns of Green Party nominee Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader in response to the Biden nomination largely evaporated, however, when Republican nominee John McCain announced his choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Despite Biden’s history of notoriously poor judgment on some foreign policy issues, the veteran senator’s knowledge and experience began to look increasingly important compared with his strikingly inexperienced, unknowledgeable, and extremely right-wing Republican counterpart.

For example, in one of the few public statements Palin had made on the Iraq war, she insisted that the invasion was part of “God’s plan” and that prosecuting the war is “a task that is from God.” In contrast, the Roman Catholic church (of which Biden is a member) and virtually every mainline Protestant denomination came out in opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Only the right-wing fundamentalist denominations went on record supporting it. While Biden’s support for the 2002 Iraq war resolution did put him on the side of right-wing Christian fundamentalists on the critical question of what constitutes a just war, he has never claimed the invasion of that oil-rich country was part of God’s plan.

Similarly, while Biden’s hard-line views regarding Israel also put him at odds with the moderate positions taken by the Catholic Church and the mainline Protestant denominations, Palin goes so far as to embrace the dispensationalist wing of Christian Zionism. As such, she believes that a militarily dominant Israel is a necessary requisite for the second coming of Christ and the Israeli government should therefore not be pressed to withdraw from any occupied Arab lands.

The Task at Hand

Obama’s choice of Biden — the quintessential figure of the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment on Capitol Hill — raises serious questions as to whether the Illinois senator really represents “change we can believe in.” At the same time, Biden has demonstrated a greater-than-average willingness to shift to more moderate positions if the prevailing pressure is from the left. His growing skepticism over Bush policy in Iraq, his calls for the withdrawal of most American combat forces, his outspoken opposition to the surge when it was put forward last year, and his tough questioning of General David Petraeus in hearings before his committee has undoubtedly been a reflection of the growing antiwar sentiment within the Democratic Party.

When Biden first ran for the Senate in 1972, he was willing to represent the prevailing mood at the time in strongly denouncing the Vietnam War, calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, and voting against aiding the dictatorial South Vietnamese government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The following decade, his initial support for U.S. backing of the repressive junta in El Salvador was reversed in the face of growing opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America. While not among the first to endorse the proposed freeze on the research, testing, development and deployment of new nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons systems, he did throw his weight behind the initiative as the nuclear freeze campaign grew in popular support.

As a result, continued advocacy by peace and human rights activists for a more enlightened foreign policy can likely minimize the damage that Biden might otherwise have on an Obama administration’s foreign policy.

In addition, Obama may have selected the hawkish Biden as his running mate primarily as a political maneuver to enhance his chances of winning the November election rather than as an indication of the kind of people he would appoint for key foreign policy positions or the kinds of policies he would pursue. Indeed, despite the more recent inclusion of some of the more hawkish former Clinton advisors into his foreign policy team, Obama’s core advisors on international affairs have generally hailed from the younger, more liberal, and more innovative wing of the Democratic Party.

Like Dick Cheney, Biden pushed for an invasion of a country on the far side of the world that was no threat to us, misled the public regarding nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction,” and sought to silence critics of the war. However, even assuming the worst regarding Biden’s hawkish worldview, he would not be able to use his office in the same manner. Though bringing into an Obama administration a certain gravitas on foreign affairs as a result of his knowledge and experience, the fact remains that Biden — unlike the current vice-president — would be serving a president who is quite intelligent and who is quite capable of making his own decisions on the critical foreign policy issues facing the United States.

U.S. Intervention in Bolivia

The alleged support by the United States of wealthy landowners, business leaders, and their organizations tied to the violent uprising in eastern Bolivia has led U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg’s expulsion from La Paz and the South American government’s demands that the United States stop backing the illegitimate rebellion. Goldberg had met with some of these right-wing oppositionist leaders just a week before the most recent outbreak of violence against the democratically elected government of Evo Morales, who won a recall referendum in August with over 67% of the popular vote.

U.S. subversion has assumed several forms since the leftist indigenous leader became president in 2005. For example, the U.S. embassy — in violation of American law — repeatedly asked Peace Corps volunteers, as well as an American Fulbright scholar, to engage in espionage, according to news reports.

Bolivia gets approximately $120 million in aid annually from the United States. It’s an important supplement for a country of nine million people with an annual per capita income of barely $1,000. Presidential Minister Juan Ramón Quintana has accused the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of using some of this money to support a number of prominent conservative opposition leaders as part of a “democracy initiative” through the consulting firm Chemonics International. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia last year revealed a USAID-sponsored “political party reform project” to “help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors” (MAS stands for Movimiento al Socialismo, the party to which Morales belongs.). Despite numerous requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the Bush administration refuses to release a list of all the recipient organizations of USAID funds.

Decades of Intervention

The history of U.S. intervention in support for rightist elements in Bolivia is long. The United States was the major foreign backer of the dictatorial regime of René Barrientos, who seized power in a 1964 military coup. The CIA and U.S. Special Forces played a key role in suppressing a leftist peasant uprising that followed, including the 1967 murder of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a key leader in the movement.

When leftist army officer Juan José Torres came to power in October of 1970, the Nixon administration called for his ousting. When an attempted coup by rightist general Hugo Bánzer Suárez was threatened by a breakdown in the plotters’ radio communications, the U.S. Air Force made their radio communications available to them. Though this first attempted takeover was crushed, Bánzer was able to seize power by August of the following year in a bloody uprising, also with apparent U.S. support. Thousands of suspected leftists were executed in subsequent years.

The United States largely supported Bánzer and subsequent dictators in the face of a series of protests, general strikes and other largely nonviolent pro-democracy uprisings, which eventually led to the end of military rule by 1982 and the coming to office of the left-leaning president Hernán Siles Zuazo. The United States refused to resume economic aid, however, until the government enacted strict neoliberal austerity measures.

Democratic Bolivia

A series of center-left and rightist civilian governments ruled the country over the next 20 years, most of which were corrupt and inept and none of which could come close to meeting the basic needs of ordinary Bolivians, who — with the exception of the Haitians — are the poorest in the Western hemisphere. Despite the restoration of democracy, the strict austerity programs pushed by the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resulted in the Bolivian people, more than two-thirds of whom live in poverty, having little say in the decisions that most impacted their lives. Furthermore, even though the majority of the population is indigenous, the country’s leaders continued to be white or mestizo (of mixed-race heritage).

The 2005 election of Evo Morales, a left-wing activist and the first indigenous leader in the nearly 500 years since the Spanish conquest, marked a major shift in Bolivia’s politics. His commitment to a radical reform of the country’s inequitable social and economic system has proven to be even more critical than his racial and cultural identity.

To understand Bolivian sensitivities to U.S. aid and its conditions, as well as concerns regarding U.S. intervention, it is important to look at what happened to Bolivia’s first leftist government, which governed back in the 1950s.

Undermining the 1952 Revolution

In 1952, a popular uprising against a rightist military regime led to the left-leaning nationalists of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) coming to power promising political freedom and radical economic reform. As with Morales and MAS, his political party, that revolutionary government had strong support from militant worker and peasant political movements. And, also like today, the new government’s policies were strongly nationalistic, particularly in regard to the country’s natural resources, in which U.S. investors had substantial interests.

It wasn’t long, however, before the United States forced a dramatic shift in the regime’s priorities.

With its landlocked location, dissipated gold reserves, increased costs of production and imports, and huge trade deficits, Bolivia’s revolutionary regime couldn’t counter the economic power of the United States. U.S. aid wasn’t enough to improve the standard of living in Bolivia, but it did manage to make the country more dependent. The Bolivian Planning Board noted that “rather than an impulse to improvement, the aid has represented a means only of preventing worse deterioration in the situation as it existed.”

The ruling MNR recognized that it couldn’t afford to anger Washington. Their fear stemmed not just from the threat of direct intervention (like what took place in Guatemala against the nationalist Arbenz government less than two years later), but also from the fear of economic retaliation, not an unimportant concern given Bolivia’s dependence on the U.S. to process its tin ore and provide needed imports.


Indeed, it was clear from an early stage of the revolution that the economic weakness of Bolivia, combined with the economic power of the United States, allowed the U.S. to establish clear parameters for the revolution. For example, the United States forced Bolivia to pay full compensation to the wealthy foreign owners of recently nationalized tin mines rather than use the funds for economic development. The Petroleum Code of 1955, written by U.S. officials and enacted without any public debate or alterations by Bolivian authorities, forced the Bolivian government to forego its oil monopoly. Bolivia was then forced to sign an agreement to further encourage U.S. investment in the country. It was due only to this desperate need for an additional source of foreign exchange and pressure from the U.S. government that the once strongly nationalistic MNR agreed to these concessions.

The following year, the U.S. took more direct authority over Bolivia’s economy by imposing an economic stabilization program, which the Bolivian government agreed to, according to U.S. officials, “virtually under duress, and with repeated hints of curtailment of U.S. aid” (This quote is from Inflation and Development in Latin America: A Case History of Inflation and Stabilization in Bolivia, a book by George Jackson Eder.). The program, which bore striking resemblance to the structural adjustment programs which have since been imposed on dozens of debt-ridden countries in Latin America and elsewhere, consisted of the devaluation of the boliviano; an end to export/import controls, price controls and government subsidies on consumer goods; the freezing of wages and salaries; major cutbacks in spending for education and social welfare; and an end to efforts at industrial diversification.

The result, according to U.S. officials which forced its implementation, “meant the repudiation, at least tacitly, of virtually everything that the Revolutionary Government had done over the previous four years.” It not only redirected the economic priorities of the revolution, particularly its efforts at economic diversification, but altered the revolution’s political structure by effectively curbing the power of the trade unions and displacing socialist-leaning leaders of the MNR.

In the end, the United States was able to overthrow the Bolivian revolution without having to overthrow the government.

Structural Adjustment

In many respects, U.S. policy towards Bolivia proved to be a harbinger for future U.S. domination of Latin America in this age of globalization, where the so-called “Washington consensus,” backed by U.S.-supported international financial institutions, created a situation where even wealthier Latin American countries had as few choices in choosing their economic policies as did impoverished Bolivia during the 1950s.

This has begun to change, however. Thanks in part to Venezuela’s oil wealth and the willingness of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, in the name of Latin American solidarity, to help its poorer and financially-strapped neighbors, a number of Latin American governments have had their debts reduced or eliminated. The strengthening of regional trade blocs and increased trade with Europe and China has also made it easier for South American nations to wean themselves from dependency on the United States.

Under Morales, Bolivia has attempted to strengthen the Andean Community of Nations and the signing last year of a “People’s Trade Treaty” with Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba is indicative of the desire to strengthen working economic and political alliances outside of direct U.S. influence in order to be better able to stand up to Washington.

As a result, Morales and the MAS seem better positioned to withstand economic pressure from the United States. Unlike the MNR in the 1950s, Morales comes out of a popular mass movement of the country’s poor and indigenous majority, which is very different than the predominantly white middle-class leadership of reformist officers under the previous government. Combined with economic support from oil-rich Venezuela and Morales’ efforts at strengthening its economic relationships with Bolivia’s Latin American neighbors, MAS has made it possible for the Bolivians to resist buckling under the kind of pressure imposed by the United States a half-century earlier.

The Current Uprising

It’s this very ability to better withstand the kind of economic pressures the United States had until recently been able to exert, either directly or through international financial institutions, which has led to recent violence in Santa Cruz and elsewhere in the wealthier white and mestizo-dominated eastern sectors of the country. As a result of the reduced leverage of their friends in Washington, which had previously enabled them to rule the country, certain elite elements now appear willing to violently separate themselves and the four eastern provinces in which they are concentrated.

With much of Bolivia’s natural gas wealth located in the east, and taking advantage of the endemic racism of its largely white and mestizo population against the country’s indigenous majority, now in positions of political power for the first time, these right-wing forces appear ready to either bring down Morales or secede from the country. Earlier this year they sacked and burned government buildings, murdered government officials and supporters, attacked journalists, sabotaged a key natural gas pipeline, and renounced any allegiance to Bolivia’s democratically elected government.

While the leadership of the Organization of American States and virtually every Latin American president has condemned the uprising the U.S. government has not, adding to concerns that United States may indeed have a hand in the violence.

The apparent triumph of the neoliberal model of globalization in the early 1990s and the resulting hegemonic domination by the United States over poorer countries — for which Bolivia served as the prototype 40 years earlier — made it appear as if the days of cruder forms of U.S. interventionism in Latin America were a thing of the past.

Recent events in Bolivia, however, may be a frightening indication that this is no longer the case.

Assessing the Republican Party Platform

Among the more frightening aspects of the platform is its unconstitutional assertion that the president has sole prerogative to make decisions on matters of war, rejecting any role for Congressional “interference” in foreign policy matters. This appears to be a pre-emptive assertion by the Republican Party that, in the event of a John McCain win in November, they would reject any attempt by the likely Democratic-controlled Congress to impose any checks and balances to prevent a possible war on Iran or other dangerous executive initiatives.

The Republican platform calls for the development and deployment of both national and theater missile-defense systems. These incredibly expensive weapons systems, which are unlikely to work in any case, violate arms-control agreements signed and ratified under the Nixon administration.

Also disturbing is the platform’s classification of immigration as a national security issue, which has serious ramifications in terms of the nature of legislation and enforcement. It also claims that warrantless wiretapping of American citizens is “vital” to America’s national security.

And, despite the Clinton administration’s increases in the already bloated military budget after the end of the Cold War, the Republican platform insists that “national defense was neglected and under-funded by the Clinton Administration.” The platform then calls for a significant increase in the size of the American armed forces, even though the United States – at barely 4% of the world’s population – already accounts for over one-half of the world’s military spending.

Attacking the United Nations

Nearly a full quarter of the foreign policy segment of the Republican platform is devoted to attacking the United Nations and international law. The party of the most scandal-ridden and corrupt administration in modern U.S. history ironically attacks the UN as “scandal-ridden and corrupt.” It condemns the UN for alleged discrimination against Israel, apparently for its insistence that Israel comply with international humanitarian law. And the platform applauds the successful U.S. effort to have Israel included in the UN’s regional grouping of Western European nations although Israel is located in the Middle East.

In apparent reference to unsuccessful efforts by the international community to insist that the United States and Great Britain comply by the UN charter and not launch their illegal invasion of Iraq, the platform insists that the UN should not “prevent our joining with other democracies to protect our vital national interests.” In peacekeeping operations, while maintaining that Americans should be able to command armed forces of other countries, the platform asserts that “as a matter of U.S. sovereignty, American forces must remain under American command.”

The platform rejects the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), designed to prosecute war criminals such as the Sudanese leaders responsible for the genocidal war in Darfur, claiming that it would somehow limit the ability of the United States to “act abroad to meet global security requirements.” The platform goes so far as to back legislation punishing other countries that do ratify the ICC agreement. Such legislation would authorize the president to use military force against countries – such as the Netherlands, where the ICC is located – that detain citizens of the United States or allied nations held by or on behalf of the ICC.

The platform also rejects the Law of the Sea Treaty, which defines the rights and responsibilities of the world’s nations in their use of the planet’s oceans, establishing guidelines for environmental protection and the management of marine natural resources. The treaty has been ratified by 80% of the world’s nations.

The platform condemns the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women as “radical social engineering” that fails to “respect the fundamental institutions of marriage and family.” The United States is currently the only country besides Somalia – notorious for its use of child soldiers – that has refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It strongly affirms the Bush administration policy of not supporting UN programs that fund family planning or other women’s health work as long as any of the funds go to any non-governmental organization that, even in activities totally unrelated to the UN-funded programs, engages in any work related to abortions.

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Republican platform calls for nothing less than an outright “military victory” in Iraq, something which has eluded the United States for over five years despite its overwhelming military might. As the Bush administration has claimed every year since the 2003 U.S. invasion, “A stable, unified, and democratic Iraqi nation is within reach.” Yet, despite the relative lull in violence in recent months, such a scenario appears to be as far from reality as ever. The platform rejects any timetables for a U.S. withdrawal. Despite the ruling Iraqi coalition’s domination by sectarian fundamentalist Shia parties and their militias, the platform argues that continuing to sacrifice American lives and dollars to keep that regime in power would somehow “give us a strategic ally in the struggle against extremism.”

Using language remarkable similar to that of the Nixon administration in its defense of policies that needlessly and tragically prolonged the war in Vietnam, the platform insists that “To those who have sacrificed so much, we owe the commitment that American forces will leave that country in victory and with honor.”

The Republican platform claims that a military victory in Iraq is necessary in order to “deny al-Qaeda a safe haven” and “limit Iranian influence in the Middle East.” But al-Qaeda had no safe haven in Iraq and Iran had virtually no influence in Iraq until the Republican administration invaded Iraq and overthrew its government, which had until then successfully suppressed both pro-Iranian elements as well radical Sunnis who could potentially align with al-Qaeda.

By claiming that victory is in reach, however, the platform prepares the ground for blaming all subsequent terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda affiliates and ongoing Iranian influence in the Middle East on the Democrats for not “finishing the job” in Iraq should they win in November.

Despite ongoing reversals in Afghanistan in the face of a resurgent Taliban, the Republican platform claims that “there has been great progress” in that country. By rejecting “the Democratic Party’s idea that America can succeed in Afghanistan only by failure in Iraq,” the platform equates the redeployment of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan as surrender.

Other Middle Eastern Issues

The Republican platform singles out the Kingdom of Morocco for its “cooperation and social and economic development” even though Morocco continues its illegal occupation of Western Sahara and brutal suppression of nonviolent pro-independence activists. The family dictatorships of the Arabian peninsula are given similar praise and, despite their ongoing oppression of women, are validated for their progress “especially with regard to the rights of women.” The platform claims that these monarchies, despite their recent ties to the Taliban and other Islamic extremists, “deserve our appreciation and assistance” for their supposed support in “the war on terror.”

In contrast to those suffering under repressive U.S-backed regimes in the Gulf region, the Republican platform expresses its support for “the people of Iran who seek peace and aspire to freedom” and “have a right to choose their own government.” Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans killed in Iraq have died at the hands of Baathist, Salafi Sunni, and other anti-Iranian guerrillas, the platform claims that it is Iran that “provides weapons that are killing our troops in Iraq.” Though the United States has, in recent years, invaded two countries bordering Iran, the platform claims that it is Iran which “threatens its neighbors.” And, despite a lack of opposition to the nuclear weapons arsenals of India, Israel, and Pakistan, the platform declares that the United States “will not allow the current regime in Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.”

The platform rejects Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s proposals to negotiate with the Iranians and calls for stricter sanctions against that country. The Republicans also call for stricter sanctions against foreign companies doing business with Iran, even though such restrictions against private third-party entities directly violates provisions of the World Trade Organization that the United States insists on upholding in other contexts. More ominously, using hyperbolic language similar to that of the current Republican administration in justifying the invasion of Iraq six years ago, the Republican platform insists that “the U.S. must retain all options in dealing with a situation that gravely threatens our security, our interests, and the safety of our friends.”

Despite the withdrawal of Syrian forces and the end of Syria’s de facto control of the Lebanese government as a result of the nonviolent Cedar Revolution of 2004, the platform insists that Lebanon is neither independent nor sovereign. This language serves as a possible justification for future Israeli incursions into that country. Despite the Republicans’ support of Israel’s 1978-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon in violation of no less than 10 UN Security Council resolutions as well as its renunciation of the UN’s authority to uphold international law elsewhere in the document, the platform calls for “the full implementation of all UN resolutions concerning that country,” presumably in reference to those calling for the disarmament of militia which had fought off previous U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on Lebanon.

The Republican platform goes on record defending Israeli attacks against populated Lebanese and Palestinian areas as legitimate acts of self-defense; insists that Jerusalem be the undivided capital of Israel (but not of Palestine) and that the United States break with other nations by moving its embassy there; that there be no timetables or pressure on Israel to find a resolution in negotiations with the Palestinians; and that a final peace agreement be based upon “changes that reflect today’s realities,” presumably meaning Palestinian acceptance of the large-scale Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank.

Latin America and Africa

The platform strongly endorses the proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia. It claims that Democratic Party opposition to the agreement is based not on concerns over the widespread repression by the Colombian regime and allied right-wing paramilitaries of labor activists and others, but because of pressure from “union bosses.” The platform also refers to the Colombian regime, which has been repeatedly condemned by human rights groups for its gross and systematic human rights abuses, as “a courageous ally.”

Though silent on far greater human rights abuses by U.S. allies, the platform singles out the government of Cuba for criticism for oppressing its people and holding political prisoners. It calls for continuing strict trade sanctions and the ban on Americans traveling to that socialist country. The platform endorses the work of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which is dedicated to hastening Cuba’s transition to a free-market economy. It also calls for “a dedicated platform for transmission of Radio and Television Martí into Cuba,” presumably meaning flying aircraft with radio and television transmitters just north of the island to broadcast propaganda from right-wing Cuban exiles based in Miami.

Similarly, the platform notes how the “promise of democracy and freedom in Africa is diminished by the government of Zimbabwe,” citing the repression of the Mugabe regime, and the violence and intimidation that has made free and fair elections impossible. However, there is no mention of Equatorial Guinea, Swaziland, Congo, Cameroon, Togo, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda, Gabon, Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, or any other U.S.-backed regimes in Africa that engage in similar repression. While supporting sanctions against Zimbabwe, which have thus far been unsuccessful, the platform fails to consider simply withholding U.S. military aid and economic support for these other dictatorships.

More of the Same

As this platform indicates, should the Republicans win in November, U.S. foreign policy will continue in its unilateralist and militaristic direction, with little regard for international law and human rights except for their highly selective application to advance U.S. policy goals. While the Democratic platform is disturbingly similar to that of the Republicans in a number of areas – particularly regarding Israel, Afghanistan, and military spending – it parts company with the Republican Party’s emphasis on military solutions to complex political problems and American exceptionalism within the community of nations.

Most Americans see the domestic economy as the primary concern this election season. Nevertheless, the Democrats would do well to highlight their differences with the Republicans on foreign policy issues. After all, public opinion polls indicate that on most of the issues highlighted above the incumbent party appears to be out of sync with the majority of American voters.

The 2008 Democratic Party Platform and the Middle East

The excitement over the nomination of Barack Obama as the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party has been tempered by some key foreign policy planks in the 2008 platform, particularly those relating to the greater Middle East region. These positions appear to run counter to Obama’s pledge early in the primary race to end the mindset that led to the Iraq War.

At the same time, substantial improvements in some foreign policy planks of the 2004 platform indicate at least modest successes by progressive Democratic activists in challenging the more hawkish proclivities of the party’s traditional leadership.

Among the positive aspects of the platform is a commitment to take concrete steps towards nuclear arms control and eventual disarmament. These include ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and recognizing U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The platform also contains new commitments to sustainable development in the Global South and treating Latin American nations as “full partners” with “mutual respect.” There is also a call to develop a civilian capacity to promote global stability and improve emergency response by creating a Civilian Assistance Corps of skilled experts to provide aid in international emergencies. And the platform pledges to rebuild international alliances, partnerships, and institutions so badly damaged by the arrogant unilateralism of the Bush administration.

Regarding the greater Middle East, however, the Democrats don’t appear to have yet learned the lessons of the past 40 years: that the more the United States militarizes the region, the less secure we become. Indeed, while rebuking some of the excesses of the Bush administration, the platform in some areas appears to be taking the country down the same dangerous path.


In 2004, the Democratic Party platform supported the ongoing Iraq War and occupation. Its only criticism of Bush policy was that the administration did not send enough troops or adequately equip them. With the defeat in the primaries and caucuses of Hillary Clinton and others who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion, the Democratic Party – with a standard-bearer who had forcefully opposed the invasion at the outset – might be expected to have adopted a strong antiwar plank. And, indeed, this year’s platform calls for the redeployment of U.S. combat brigades by the middle of 2010.

Still, however, the 2008 platform endorses an ongoing U.S. military role in that violent oil-rich nation. It calls for an unspecified number of U.S. troops to remain as a “residual force” for such “specific missions” as “targeting terrorists; protecting our embassy and civil personnel; and advising and supporting Iraq’s Security Forces, provided the Iraqis make political progress.”

A troubling aspect to these exceptions is the vagueness of the language. Given that the Bush administration has referred to all Iraqi insurgents fighting U.S. forces as “terrorists,” it raises questions as to what degree U.S. military operations and the number of troops to sustain them will actually be reduced. In addition, the U.S. “embassy” – the largest complex of its kind in the world, taking up a bigger area than Vatican City and situated in the heart of Baghdad – requires a substantial military force to adequately defend. And the number of “civil personnel” in the country is in the tens of thousands and would presumably require many thousands of troops to protect them. It is also unclear what kind of “support” is required for Iraqi Security Forces, which have thus far shown little ability to engage in major military operations without substantial U.S. personnel involved.

The platform also fails to mention that the invasion was an illegal war of aggression in violation of the UN Charter, the U.S. constitution and the most fundamental principles of international law, raising concerns as to whether the Democratic Party is willing to renounce the Bush Doctrine of “preventative war.” Indeed, the platform insists that the United States “must also be willing to consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense.”

Another concern is that rather than calling for bringing the troops home to their families following their withdrawal from Iraq, the platform insists that they will instead be redeployed on unspecified “urgent missions.” Given that, despite the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Iraq, the Democratic Party platform also calls for increasing the armed forces by nearly 100,000 troops and dramatically increasing the already-bloated military budget, it is quite troubling to consider what future battlefronts the Democrats will deem as “urgent.”

On a positive note, the platform recognizes the humanitarian crisis created by the U.S. invasion and occupation. It calls for the United States to provide “generous assistance to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons.” In addition, recognizing that diplomacy is “the only path to a sustainable peace,” the platform declares that the United States should “launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic surge to help broker a lasting political settlement in Iraq,” though there are some questions as to whether, even under a Democratic administration, the United States still has the credibility to lead such an effort. Importantly, the platform also declares that “we seek no permanent bases in Iraq.”


Even as it promises a de-escalation of the war in Iraq, the Democratic platform proposes to escalate the war in Afghanistan by sending “at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, and use this commitment to seek greater contributions – with fewer restrictions – from our NATO allies.” Even assuming that the threat the Taliban poses to Afghanistan and the threat al-Qaeda poses to the United States and other countries require military responses, there is little evidence that sending additional combat brigades to Afghanistan will improve a situation that is deteriorating – not because of the lack of adequate U.S. war-making capability but in part in reaction to it.

Recognizing that the current emphasis on conventional army forces and airpower is inadequate, the platform does call on the United States to place greater emphasis on “special forces and intelligence capacity, training, equipping and advising Afghan security forces, building Afghan governmental capacity, and promoting the rule of law.” It also calls for increasing economic assistance to the Afghan people, grass roots economic development, support for education, investing in alternatives to poppy-growing for Afghan farmers, and cracking down on drug trafficking and corruption.

The platform also recognizes the danger posed by al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in the tribal regions of Pakistan and criticizes the Bush administration’s support for the Pakistani dictator recently forced from power.

Yet there is no indication in the platform that the Democratic Party recognizes what may be the most critical policy shift needed in Afghanistan: to cultivate stronger ties to more moderate, responsible, and democratic leaders within the national and regional governments, and end the Bush administration’s counterproductive policies of backing warlords and other criminal elements simply because they are willing to oppose the Taliban.

Combating Terrorism

While warning that there must be “no safe haven for those who plot to kill Americans,” the platform also calls for a “comprehensive strategy to defeat global terrorists” that “draws on the full range of American power, including but not limited to our military might.” In an implied rejection of the unilateral approach of the Republican administration, the Democratic platform calls for “a more effective global response to terrorism” [emphasis added] and enhanced counter-terrorism cooperation with countries around the world.

Recognizing the need to empower the vast majority of Muslims who “believe in a future of peace, tolerance, development, and democratization,” the platform recognizes how “America must live up to our values, respect civil liberties, reject torture, and lead by example.” The platform calls for the United States “to export hope and opportunity – access to education that opens minds to tolerance, not extremism; secure food and water supplies; and health care, trade, capital, and investment.” The platform also pledges the Democratic Party will “provide steady support for political reformers, democratic institutions, and civil society that is necessary to uphold human rights and build respect for the rule of law.” However, given the extreme anti-Americanism that has grown in Islamic countries in recent years, overt backing of opposition elements could in some cases backfire and be used to discredit indigenous movements for human rights and democracy.

Israel and Palestine

Though the Middle East is awash in arms, the Democratic Party platform endorses President Bush’s memorandum pledging an additional unconditional $30 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel. The platform thereby rejects calls by human rights activists that military assistance to foreign governments be made conditional on their compliance with international humanitarian law and outstanding UN Security Council resolutions. U.S.-supplied Israeli weapons and ordnance have killed thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in recent decades, and Israel continues to violate a series of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its illegal settlements, its nuclear program, its annexation of greater East Jerusalem, and other policies.

Though strategic parity has long been considered the most peaceful and secure relationship between traditional antagonists, the Democrats instead call upon the United States “to ensure that Israel retains a qualitative edge” in military capabilities. As such, the platform implies that the principal U.S. concern isn’t Israeli security but the expansion of the U.S. ally’s hegemonic role in the region. Indeed, the platform doesn’t call for a reduction in the large-scale U.S. arms transfers to Arab governments historically hostile to Israel, a logical step if the Democrats actually were concerned about that country’s security.

The Democratic Party platform does support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which reverses the categorical rejection of Palestinian statehood that the party maintained as recently as 16 years ago. Yet the platform calls only for compromises from the Palestinian side in order to make such a two-state solution possible. Even though the Palestinians have already unilaterally recognized Israeli sovereignty over 78% of historic Palestine and are demanding statehood only on the remaining 22%, the Democratic platform dismisses as “unrealistic” any obligation for Israel to completely withdraw from lands seized in its 1967 conquests. It also denies the right of return to Palestinian refugees, insisting that they should instead only be permitted to relocate to a truncated Palestinian state that Israel might allow to be created some time in the future. While the Palestinians may indeed be open to minor and reciprocal adjustments of the pre-1967 borders and would likely offer a concession on the right of return, the Democratic platform unfortunately demands specific compromises by those under occupation while making no specific demands for compromises by the occupier.

Similarly, the Democratic platform appears to endorse the Bush administration’s racist double standards regarding Israel and Palestine. It pledges to “continue to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism, recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and abides by past agreements” while failing to call for isolating Likud and other extremist Israeli parties that similarly fail to renounce attacks against civilians, recognize Palestine’s right to exist, and abide by past agreements. Similarly, the platform insists that “Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of Israel” without mentioning the possibility of it becoming the capital of an independent Palestine.

Still, this one-sided party platform – which appears to be more closely aligned with Israel’s center-right than more progressive Israelis – seems at odds with the increasingly balanced perspective of Democratic voters. Party supporters are beginning to recognize the interrelatedness of Israeli security and Palestinian rights as well as the platform’s stated goal for the United States “to lead the effort to build the road to a secure and lasting peace.”

Human Rights

The platform takes what appears to be a strong stand in support of human rights and freedom, arguing that the United States must be “a relentless advocate for democracy” and a steadfast opponent of repressive regimes. Promoting democracy became a key rationalization in the bipartisan call for the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Ironically, however, the platform only mentions by name autocratic governments over which the United States has relatively little influence. For example, the platform states, “We will stand up for oppressed people from Cuba to North Korea and from Burma to Zimbabwe and Sudan.” Meanwhile, the platform fails to mention any allied autocracies over which the United States could potentially have far more significant influence. It says nothing about standing up for oppressed people from Saudi Arabia to Equatorial Guinea and from Brunei to Egypt and Azerbaijan, whose governments all receive U.S. aid and diplomatic support.

Like the Bush administration, the Democrats seem to believe that defending freedom is not important if your government is deemed to be a U.S. ally. (Ironically, the platform criticizes the U.N. Human Rights Council for being “biased and ineffective.”)

Regarding Cuba, the Democratic platform insists that the United States “will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations” only if that socialist country “takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners.” However, the platform makes no demands for the release of the tens of thousands of political prisoners held by allied dictatorships. Nor does it call for withholding normal relations or even suspending military aid or police training and assistance to regimes pending “significant steps toward democracy.” What appears to most bother the Democrats, then, is not Cuba’s authoritarianism, but its socialism.

Similarly, while the platform demands that “Russia abide by international law and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors,” it says nothing in regard to such obligations regarding U.S. allies Morocco and Israel – over which the United States has far more leverage – which are engaged in illegal military occupations of neighboring countries.

When prominent Democrats do criticize human rights abuses by allied governments, the party leadership attempts to silence them. For example, in what was perhaps the most dramatic repudiation ever of a former president by his own party at a national convention, the Democrats marginalized Jimmy Carter in apparent retaliation for his outspoken support for Palestinian human rights. They limited his appearance in Denver to a videotaped segment speaking in praise of Barack Obama and interviewing survivors of Hurricane Katrina. (Some of Obama’s aides have falsely accused Carter of referring to Israel as an apartheid state, when he in fact had explicitly stated he was referring only to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the establishment of Jewish-only roads, Jewish-only settlements, and other strict segregation policies do indeed resemble the old South African system.)


Though scores of countries currently possess nuclear power plants and nuclear reprocessing facilities, the Democratic Party platform singles out Iran by insisting that it alone be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. Though calling for “aggressive, principled, and direct high-level diplomacy, without preconditions” with the Islamic republic, the platform also calls for tougher sanctions against that country. Curiously, the platform demands that Iran abandon its “nuclear weapons program” even though the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the most recent U.S. National Security Estimate recognize that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program. Nor does the platform mention the already-existing nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems of India, Israel or Pakistan. It fails to even mention proposals for a nuclear weapons-free zone for the region – such as those already in effect for Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America. As such, the platform is in apparent agreement with the Bush administration’s position that the United States, not international treaties based on principles of universality and reciprocity, should determine which countries can and cannot have nuclear weapons.

The platform also demands that Iran end its “threats to Israel,” but does not call on Israel to end its even more explicit threats against Iran. Failure to accept such demands, according to the platform, will result in “sustained action to isolate the Iranian regime.” Furthermore, despite years of U.S. refusal to even negotiate with Iranian officials, the Democrats insist that “it is Iran, not the United States, choosing isolation over cooperation.”

Toward a More Progressive Platform

Though many aspects of the 2008 Democratic Party platform’s language regarding the Middle East and related issues are well to the right of most Democrats, delegates at the national convention in Denver could do little about it. In 1968, despite the successful efforts by party bosses to hand the presidential nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey instead of the more popular antiwar candidates, the convention at least allowed debate and discussion of minority planks by liberal opponents to hawkish aspects of the party platform. This time around, however, the leadership allowed no such challenges from the floor.

This silencing of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing comes despite its critically important support of Barack Obama for the party’s presidential nominee. Furthermore, based on a series of foreign policy statements related to the Middle East and other policy areas prior to becoming a serious contender for the nomination, Obama himself may be somewhat to the left of the platform on a number of issues. The Democratic Party establishment, powerful military and economic interests, and an apparent fear of right-wing attacks have all apparently forced Obama to abandon some of his more principled foreign policy positions.

With a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic Party leaders have rarely led. They have usually been forced to adopt more progressive policies as a result of pressure from the grass roots of the party. For example, the Democratic Party in 1968 had a platform supporting the war in Vietnam War and a pro-war nominee. By the next presidential election in 1972, the Democratic Party had a strong antiwar platform and an outspoken antiwar nominee in Senator George McGovern, which helped force the Nixon administration to sign a peace treaty by January of the following year. The four years in between saw massive antiwar mobilizations with hundreds of thousands of people protesting in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, as well as large-scale civil disobedience campaigns, widespread draft resistance, and other forms of opposition.

Other examples include the Nuclear Freeze campaign’s success in pushing the party to support major arms-control treaties, the anti-apartheid movement’s successful campaign to get the party to support sanctions against South Africa, the Central America solidarity movement’s eventual victory in forcing the party to challenge the Reagan administration’s support for the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran junta, and supporters of self-determination for East Timor forcing a reluctant Clinton administration to a cut off military aid and training for the armed forces in Indonesia.

Grassroots pressure has already helped shift the foreign policy positions of leading Democrats in this decade. Indeed, every single candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008 advocated more progressive positions on Iraq, Iran, international trade, nuclear weapons, climate change, and a number of other foreign policy issues than did the 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, who was then considered one of the more liberal members of the U.S. Senate. As such, although aspects of this year’s Democratic platform fall short on the Middle East and some other foreign policy issues, an engaged activist community can ensure that a better platform will emerge by the next elections.