Obama, Romney, and the Foreign Policy Debate

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the third and final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign was the similarity between the two candidates on many basic foreign policy issues. Part of the reason is that, as he did in the first two debates, GOP candidate Mitt Romney reversed himself on a number of extreme right-wing positions he had taken earlier in a desperate effort to depict himself as a moderate. At the same time, Obama’s hawkish stances served as yet another reminder of just how far to the right Obama has evolved since running as an anti-war candidate just four years ago.

Indeed, Romney’s perceived need to lie about Obama’s record and his reluctance to provide much in the way of specific policy alternatives is indicative of how little difference there actually is between the two when it comes to the U.S. role in the world.

Both candidates agree on American exceptionalism, as exemplified by Obama’s insistence that “America remains the one indispensable nation.” And both agreed that this hegemonic role in international affairs would be enforced militarily. For example, Obama bragged that, despite record deficits and painful cutbacks in important domestic programs, “our military spending has gone up every single year that I’ve been in office.” Furthermore, he pointed out his policy “is not reducing our military spending. It’s maintaining it.” U.S. military spending is now higher than it was during the height of the Cold War and comes close to equaling the military budgets of every other country in the world combined. Despite this—and his supposed concerns about the federal debt—Romney has called for dramatic increases in military spending.

The Red (and Blue) Line on Iran

Both candidates insisted that not only was the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons unacceptable, but even suggested they would forbid Iran from having a nuclear program of any kind— despite provisions in the Nonproliferation Treaty guaranteeing the right to develop nuclear energy. For example, Romney declared that “an Iranian nuclear program is not acceptable to us,” and Obama concurred that the only deal the United States would accept with Iran was one in which “they end their nuclear program.” Neither candidate mentioned the shared assessment of U.S. and Israeli intelligence that the Iranians have not actually begun building a nuclear weapon, or even decided to build one.

Neither candidate hinted at sanctions against Israel, India, or Pakistan for their nuclear programs, despite their having developed actual nuclear weapons and despite their ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions targeting their nuclear programs. However, Obama touted the way he had helped lead an international effort to impose “the strongest sanctions against Iran in history,” which he noted are “crippling their economy.” This comes despite appeals by that country’s pro-democracy movement that these increased sanctions have actually resulted in enormous human suffering and ultimately hurt their cause. Romney, meanwhile, complained that Obama’s sanctions were not strict enough.

Once again, Obama repeated the false claim—which Romney has also asserted previously— that Iranian president Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” This statement was long ago demonstrated to have been a mistranslation. Romney twice insisted that, as result of this alleged threat, he would have Ahmadinejad “indicted under the Genocide Convention,” despite the inability of a U.S. president to do so—particularly on the grounds of saying something he never actually said.

Such lies are being used to distract Americans from the failure of the bipartisan U.S. policy of unfairly singling out Iran for its nuclear program while failing to support a nuclear weapons-free zone for the entire region, which would lead to eliminating the nuclear arsenals of U.S. allies and would forbid the United States from bringing tactical nuclear weapons into the region.

Human Rights Slighted

Obama and Romney’s double standards also pertain to human rights issues. For example, Obama talked about going to the Israeli border town of Sderot, which had suffered rocket attacks from Hamas forces in the Gaza Strip. He described how he “saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children’s bedrooms, and I was reminded of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles.”

A total of four Israeli children have been killed by Hamas rockets. Fortunately, none have been killed in Sderot or other parts of Israel by Hamas rockets since 2004, well before the U.S.-funded Iron Dome program was instigated. By contrast, the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem estimated that 252 Palestinian children aged 15 and younger were killed by Israeli forces in the nearby Gaza Strip in a three-week period alone not long after Obama’s 2008 visit—which Obama has failed to condemn. Indeed, despite Amnesty International’s call for foreign countries to cease military aid to both Israel and Hamas because of their attacks against civilian areas, Obama has actually increased military aid to Israel. Indeed, neither Obama nor Romney has any problems providing weapons to allied governments that use them against civilian targets, even children.

Despite Israel’s violation of scores of UN Security Council resolutions, ongoing gross and systematic human rights violations, and unprecedented intransigence in the peace process, Obama bragged during the debate that “we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history.” Incredibly, Romney criticized him for not supporting the right-wing Israeli government enough!

Indeed, unable to place himself much further to the right when it comes to supporting Netanyahu’s government, Romney has repeatedly insisted that Obama had explicitly called on creating “daylight” between the United States and Israel, despite repeated analyses from fact-checkers that Obama actually never said that. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak has praised U.S. support for Israel’s security needs under the Obama administration as unparalleled.

Obama stressed that now that Egypt has a democratically elected government, “they have to make sure that they take responsibility for protecting religious minorities — and we have put significant pressure on them to make sure they’re doing that — to recognize the rights of women, which is critical throughout the region.” Unfortunately, the administration has shown little inclination to push for the rights of women and religious minorities under non-elected allied governments like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Despite his poor human rights record in the Middle East—which has included supporting the Mubarak dictatorship prior to the uprising which ousted him and providing his repressive military and internal security forces with over $4 billion in security assistance between 2009 and 2011—Obama chose to rewrite history by claiming that he “stood on the side of democracy” in Egypt and elsewhere. Romney, meanwhile, has promised to “deepen” what he refers to as “critical cooperation” with allied dictatorships.

The rise of al-Qaeda-allied extremists in northern Mali was mentioned twice in the debate, but not how the U.S.-backed war in Libya—which was supported by both candidates—directly contributed to this troubling development. Nor did either candidate mention how the U.S.-backed war resulted in the proliferation of militias—now totaling over 200,000 fighters in a country of less than 6 million people—including the radical Islamist group that attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans and has become a strange obsession of Romney and the Republican Party in the waning days of the campaign. Despite all this, Obama claimed during the debate that the U.S. intervention in Libya was done “in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with.”

Over the objections of American labor unions and human rights groups, both candidates have supported expanding free-trade agreements to additional countries—including Colombia, a country in which trade unionists have been brutally suppressed. Obama has also pushed through free-trade deals with South Korea and Panama. Despite this, Romney has claimed that Obama “has not signed one new free trade agreement.”

Romney’s Bizarre Statements

On several occasions, despite the disappointing similarities between the two candidates, Romney was nevertheless able to prove himself far less adept at addressing foreign policy issues—and often showed his willingness to make demonstrably false claims about Obama’s record.

Romney twice criticized President Obama for supposedly being “silent” during the 2009 pro-democracy uprising. In reality, while recognizing that being too outspoken in his support for the revolution would backfire, Obama did call on the Iranian government to “stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.” Obama further demanded that the Iranian regime “respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.”

Romney also seemed rather ignorant regarding basic geography, such as his claim that Syria was important to Iran because it is “their route to the sea.” Iran doesn’t border Syria, and Iran has over 1,500 miles of coastline.

Romney even raised the long-disproved Republican canard that Obama went on an “apology tour” to the Middle East in 2009 “criticizing America.” As fact-checkers have documented repeatedly, President Obama has not once ever apologized for the United States. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have made distinctions between their own foreign policies and those of their predecessors. Yet Romney even tried to rebuke Obama’s acknowledgement of the well-documented fact that the United States had previously dictated to other nations by saying, “America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”

One particularly bizarre claim by Romney was that he believed Iranian diplomats should be treated as “pariahs” like the United States “treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.” In reality, the United States had full diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout the apartheid era, and the regime had a full complement of diplomats in Washington. By contrast, the United States hasn’t had diplomatic relations with Iran for 33 years.

Romney’s understanding of Latin America didn’t seem much stronger, such as his statement that economic opportunities presented by Latin America “have just not been taken advantage of fully.” Indeed, the U.S. history of “taking advantage” of Latin America economically is a major reason why many countries in that region are electing leftist governments, which have in large part rejected U.S. efforts to strengthen such ties.

Throughout the debate, Romney repeatedly insisted that the vaguely defined “strong leadership” he would provide—essentially a promise to be even more militaristic and confrontational than President Obama—would somehow make the United States more influential and the world more secure. In reality, history has shown just the opposite.

Perhaps the most disturbing prospect of a Romney presidency in regard to foreign policy is that his team of foreign policy advisers is made up overwhelmingly of neoconservative veterans of the Bush administration.

So while there may indeed be relatively few substantive disagreements between Romney and Obama on many foreign policy issues, given the power wielded by the president of the United States, even small distinctions can mean huge differences in the lives of many millions of people around the world. This is something to keep in mind, despite understandable cynicism about Obama, in deciding how to vote in the upcoming election.

Remembering George McGovern

Getting to know George McGovern – who died Sunday morning at age 90 – as a friend, collaborator, co-author and co-teacher has been among my proudest and most fulfilling experiences.

As a 15 year-old high school sophomore, I volunteered for his 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern won my county (one of the few in the South that went Democratic that year), but lost the state and the nation in a near-record landslide, thanks in large part to attacks by the right wing of the Democratic Party during the primaries and the dirty tricks by the campaign of incumbent President Richard Nixon during the fall campaign.
These illegal acts, along with the resulting cover-ups, eventually led to impeachment procedures that forced Nixon’s resignation. Polls taken less than a year after the election showed that, if the election had been held then, McGovern would have won.

He later told me in a 1993 interview that the campaign was “the most creative, stimulating and courageous presidential campaign I’ve ever witnessed. We took head-on the fundamental questions facing the country. Even though we lost, I don’t have any regrets that we tried.” I told him I couldn’t agree more.

A former student of mine once described how she had “felt dirty” campaigning for 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a strong supporter of the Iraq War who had made a series of false claims about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” to justify his vote to authorize that illegal invasion and occupation.

By contrast, none of us felt dirty campaigning for McGovern. We knew our candidate would never fabricate nonexistent threats to justify foreign conquests. As he once put it, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

Indeed, it was McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War for which he is most remembered. Despite being a bomber pilot World War II – and one of the most highly-decorated veterans to ever run for president – his principled opposition to that immoral and unnecessary war resulted in ridicule from both Republicans and much of the Democratic Party establishment. Despite being a strong advocate for US engagement in the world, including humanitarian intervention, he was falsely labeled as an isolationist for his opposition to illegal and unilateral military interventions in support of autocratic allies. And, despite his belief in a strong military, he was depicted as a naïve pacifist because of his concerns about excessive military spending.

McGovern and Hunger
The cause for which McGovern most wanted to be remembered, however, was the struggle against world hunger, inspired in part by the enormous poverty he witnessed growing up in rural South Dakota during the Great Depression and the dustbowl.

Toward the end of McGovern’s second term in the US House of Representatives in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him as the first director of Food for Peace, which helped provide US agricultural surpluses to nations experiencing food shortages. When he was elected to the US Senate two years later, he began 18 years as an influential member of the Senate Agricultural Committee, where he became a passionate advocate for small farmers and for the hungry, both at home and abroad. In 1998, President Bill Clinton – who, as a young man, managed McGovern’s presidential campaign in Texas – appointed McGovern as US ambassador to the United Nations agencies in Rome, where he represented the United States at the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agricultural Development until 2001.

In 1999, wanting some new ideas, George asked me to help him write a new book on world hunger, the result of which was “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time.”* (The title makes reference to Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” the third of which was, “freedom from want.”) There were some real differences in our approaches, with McGovern steeped in liberal New Deal-style solutions while I was influenced by the more radical analyses of Food First and other leftist structural critiques. We learned from each other, however. Despite some disagreements regarding trade policies, GMOs and some other things, it ended up being an effective collaboration and the final product was a solid liberal/radical synthesis, which proposed realistic steps to eliminate hunger by 2020.

Scholar and Family Man
Despite Republican efforts to link him with some of the excesses of the 1960s, George McGovern was always a deeply religious family man. The son of a Methodist minister and heavily influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel movement, he entered Divinity school at Garrett Theological Seminary, but later enrolled in the graduate program in History at Northwestern University under the noted historian Arthur S. Link – who considered him the best student he had ever taught. McGovern’s 450-page doctoral dissertation on the 1913-14 Colorado coal strike was a sympathetic portrayal of the miners’ revolt in the epic coalfield wars against Rockefeller interests.

Had he been elected president, McGovern would have been the only president besides Woodrow Wilson with a PhD. He taught history and political science at his alma mater Dakota Wesleyan prior to entering politics.

And he was an outstanding college teacher. In 2005, he and I co-taught a course on US Foreign Policy since 1945, during winter term at the University of San Francisco. In those 20 classes, he kept students’ attention not just by his engaging style of lecturing and command of that history, but the fact that he lived the subject matter, including serving 18 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

McGovern was a top-notch debater in college, one reason Nixon refused his calls for a debate during the 1972 campaign. He met his wife Eleanor when they competed against each other in a tournament in which he suffered a rare defeat. They were married for 62 years until her death five years ago, and raised five children. Despite this, and being a devout Methodist, he was defeated for re-election in 1980 by a closeted gay Republican who was supported by the Christian Right and campaigned on a conservative “family values” platform.

George and Eleanor had put a lot time and attention assisting their daughter Terry, who struggled with alcoholism. When she was found dead in a snow bank outside a Wisconsin bar in 1994, rather than keep quiet so to avoid embarrassing publicity, McGovern instead went very public – writing a powerful memoir on her struggle and their efforts to save her. Taking advantage of his status as a public figure, he embarked on a book tour and a series of interviews and lectures on the disease of alcoholism, leading hundreds of victims and their families to seek help.

His subsequent books (“The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition” and “What it Means to Be a Democrat”) emphasized the importance of proudly embracing liberal values as the party he once headed continued to move to the right. Despite this, in 2007 he endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton – a favorite of the party establishment – for president. The following April, however, I convinced him to rescind his endorsement and endorse Barack Obama, who was by then on the verge of winning the nomination. Part of what won him over were the parallels I drew between what she was doing to Obama and what Hubert Humphrey had done to him at a comparable period in the 1972 primaries -attempting to re-write the delegate selection rules ex post facto to steal the nomination, and attacking him from the right in a manner that would provide fodder for the Republicans in the fall campaign. Still respected as an elder party statesman, others soon followed McGovern’s lead and Clinton withdrew from the race not long afterwards.

Public opinion polls today indicate that, on most issues, the majority of registered Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents are closer to McGovern than to either Clinton or Obama. Yet, the idea of someone like McGovern getting the presidential nomination today seems quite remote since, in McGovern’s words, both parties “are now feeding out of the same trough” of special interest money when it comes to campaign financing. Yet McGovern never gave up hope that through a combination of popular movements and electoral politics, we could “come home” to reclaim the best of American values of justice, fairness and real democracy. With his passing, it is that hope and that legacy we need to embrace more than ever.

*In order to keep the narrative in the first person and to make it not appear to be ghost-written, my name isn’t on the cover, but I was responsible for about one-quarter of the content.

The ongoing attack on democracy in the Maldives

A political struggle now under way on a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean has huge implications for the global struggle for democracy and human rights. Western powers which profess to support democratic and accountable governance need to act decisively to prevent this Muslim nation, whose protracted nonviolent freedom struggle was an important precursor for the Arab Spring, to continue its slide back into authoritarianism.

Despite superficial media reports depicting the situation in the Maldives as simply a power struggle between competing political factions, it appears increasingly to involve an illegal seizure of power by authoritarian criminal elements in an effort to reconsolidate control by the former dictator Mamoun Abdul Gayoom and his associates.

The nation’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed was deposed last February, less than four years after celebrating the triumph of a nonviolent pro-democracy revolution. A popular human rights activist and environmentalist who helped lead the struggle against the former dictatorship, Nasheed was – as feared and predicted – finally arrested on October 8 when fifty heavily-armed police in full riot gear and wearing masks broke down the door of a home where Nasheed and some aides were staying on a political visit to a Maldivian island. Despite offering no resistance, former cabinet officials and other pro-democracy activists were attacked with pepper spray.

As president, Nasheed had become one of the world’s most outspoken figures in the struggle against climate change, given the impending impact of rising sea levels on his country’s survival. Following his overthrow by allies for the former dictatorship earlier this year, he has sought to revive the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle that forced Gayoom to agree to free elections in October 2008, in which Nasheed emerged victorious.

Nasheed’s career-long commitment to nonviolent resistance against corruption and authoritarianism resulted in his being awarded the 2012 James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action, named after the prominent US civil rights leader. Now, however, this tragic reversal of an apparent triumph by a mass nonviolent freedom struggle could embolden other former tyrants to attempt to reverse democratic gains elsewhere – unless the international community supports serious measure to restore the necessary conditions for Maldivian democracy.

A journalist by training, Nasheed was repeatedly jailed and tortured for his writings exposing government corruption and other abuses under the Gayoom regime. He eventually found himself leading a campaign of nonviolent protests and civil disobedience which eventually brought an end to a thirty-year dictatorship which had facilitated corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, significant parts of the old regime’s police and judicial system remained in place after Nasheed took office. When he attempted to investigate and pursue reforms of the system, he was detained and – facing threats against his family and prominent supporters – was forced to resign.

His vice-president, Mohamed Waheed, who was apparently part of the plot, assumed the presidency and promptly dismissed Nasheed’s ministers, replacing them with conservative Islamists opposed to Nasheed’s liberal reforms as well as nine key figures from the former dictatorship, including Gayoom’s son and daughter. The United States immediately recognized the new government, refusing to acknowledge the coup, instead referring to the ouster of the democratically-elected president as simply a “transition of power.” Similarly, US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland commended as “thorough and conclusive” a highly-problematic Commission of Inquiry which claimed Nasheed’s resignation was not under duress, despite its failure to consider important evidence to the contrary or allow for key witnesses.

But regardless of the circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s resignation, it seems clearer every day that the regime that replaced his government has little regard for human rights or the democratic process. Indeed, the real test of a government’s legitimacy is its tolerance of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Since the coup
Since the coup, more than 2,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested, many suffering severe beatings by security forces. Amnesty International has described the situation in the Maldives as a “human rights crisis,” documenting widespread brutality by security forces and arbitrary arrests. The US State Department, however, has simply called “for restraint by all sides to prevent possible violence.” In a visit to the Maldives last month, assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robert Blake announced a plan to work with the regime’s military and police to “strengthen them” and “build up their capacity.”

The repression is not just taking place against those on the streets. In recent months, key leaders in Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have been arrested on politically-motivated charges and now Nasheed himself appears to be suffering the same fate.

Nasheed and his supporters, apparently confident of victory in any free and fair poll, have called for elections as early as possible – as did the British foreign secretary last month. In parliamentary elections prior to the coup, Nasheed’s NDP won the largest number of votes. Even the head of the Commission of Inquiry, a judge from the autocratic country of Singapore, has endorsed the call for elections as soon as feasible.

The regime, however, has reneged on its promises for early elections and has refused to announce a future date for them. There is some speculation that, even if the regime does eventually allow for elections, the filing of charges against the popular deposed president and restricting his movement are designed to prevent him from campaigning or from running altogether. Indeed, if the leader of the democratic opposition is detained, it raises serious questions regarding the regime’s commitment to anything resembling a normal democratic process. And Nasheed’s legal troubles may only have begun. The regime’s Home Affairs Minister has threatened to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Even simply restricting Nasheed to the capital island of Male would make it impossible for him to travel through his country or abroad to rally support. The latter is critical, because for a country as dependent on tourism and foreign trade as Maldives, even relatively mild sanctions by Great Britain, the United States, Australia or India could be a major constraint on those who have taken power and whose democratic intentions are widely distrusted, including by most Maldivians.

Indeed, it is the lucrative tourism industry which has contributed to the country’s crisis. Gayoum and a handful of his family members and cronies are reputed to own well more than half of the island properties where expensive hotel resorts are located, a source of the enormous wealth that Gayoom used to buy the loyalty of corrupt judges and security forces.

Before 2008, Nasheed and pro-democracy activists were able to force free elections and influence Gayoom to honour the result because of the threat of western sanctions. They will have a very difficult time forcing free elections again without similar pressure, which has thus far not been forthcoming.

If western governments are unwilling to implement even modest measures which could significantly advance democracy in the Maldives, what hope is there for those involved in nonviolent struggles for democracy in more complicated circumstances?

Indeed, if western countries are unwilling to place any pressure against a regime of questionable legitimacy, which is allied with a former dictator and hard-line Islamists, and if they fail to provide any support for a popularly-elected leader committed to democracy and to nonviolence, what kind of message does that send to those struggling nonviolently for freedom elsewhere in the world?

Popular nonviolent struggles in poor countries emerging from authoritarianism and fighting corruption must know that the international community has their back.

Fortunately, leading human rights activists, environmentalists, academics, actors, and others are mobilizing in support for democracy in the Maldives. The question is whether the world will listen.