Foreign Policy: Do Republicans And Democrats Really Disagree?

Governor Romney promises, “This century must be an American Century…We must have a military that is second-to-none.” President Obama and Romney may dispute tactics but Obama also pledges “so long as I'm commander in chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known.” Indeed, few Democrats have recently challenged the necessity and morality of American domination and the United States feeling free to intervene wherever it deems appropriate.

Few commentators could find major substantive difference between Romney and Obama in the October 22 debate on foreign policy.  Some wondered who was the more hawkish.  In the New York Times the next day, Alessandra Stanley felt Romney “made President Obama… sound almost like a Republican hard-liner.”  In the same issue of the Times, former President Carter implied Obama has given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a free hand to abandon the two-state solution and a blank check to do what he wants in the West Bank and Gaza.

Candidate Obama may have opposed the Iraqi War, but President Obama could only end it “honorably,” without wondering if it is possible to ever have an honorable end to a dishonorable war. While seeking the presidency, Obama felt forced to sever ties with a former mentor, Reverent Jeremiah Wright, who asserted “We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children…America is still the No. 1 killer in the world.” This is almost the same conclusion Martin Luther King offered at the height of the Vietnam War, when he declared that the United States government is the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Today’s failure to debate the morality of US global hegemony is a tragic disservice to the nation and the world. It is hiding the real underlying  purpose of US foreign policy and eroding support for Obama in his own progressive base.

The language offered by Wright and King is mpw seldom heard.  During the War in Vietnam, opponents charged that the war was not a mere error in a sound moral purpose, but a consequence of a militarist empire seeking world domination.   Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the mainstream discourse became:  America is an inherent force for good.  Any war it fights is a glorious magnanimous adventure. The only proper reward for the troops’ sacrifice is victory. 

Fear of being dismissed as un-American subdued many of the most adamant detractors.  They felt they could question the wisdom of the more aggressive approaches to United States supremacy, but could not reject the fundamental goal.  Perhaps America should use “softer” tactics, more diplomacy, fewer bombings, but America must prevail, not only over foe, but friends as well.

John Kerry rose to national prominence as a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but when he ran for president in 2008, he presented himself as a war hero rather than a “peace hero,” a concept absent from US public discourse. Indeed, Bush publicized his anti-war activities, while Kerry avoided them. 

Liberals may feel that offering alternative routes to American domination is the path to electoral victory, but if they allow the Right to define the parameters of debate, they are bound to lose. If the goal is to have the United States rule, than whoever rattles the saber the loudest will prevail.  It is more effective to ask what really are the benefits to having America serve as the world police force.  For Exxon-Mobile and BP-Amoco, who gain access to the Middle East’s oil, the benefits may be obvious.  However for the average citizen whose job can be outsourced to Korea, where the American army maintains bases, the gains are less clear.

After two world wars, the United States took the mantle of global sheriff from the British and French empires. Europe and Japan decided to reduce their military and focus their energy on rebuilding their domestic infrastructure and civilian quality of life.   As a result, today United States spends more on armaments than the next twenty countries combined, but it ranks number 38 in life expectancy, number, 39 in cleanest environment, number 17 in amount of average leisure time, number 13 in adult literacy, number 12 in percentage of college graduates, and number 11 in per capita income.  On the other hand, the United States does lead the world in how many times the average CEO earns compared to the average worker.

Romney proclaims “American exceptionalism” and liberals, including Obama, dare not disagree. The United States is exceptional in global hegemonic domination, but not quality of life. If the contest is to see who can build a more aggressive empire, then the Republicans may have the advantage. 

Slight differences in foreign policy may actually be vital. In 1960, the foreign policy differences between Kennedy and Nixon may have been less than between Obama and Romney. However, if Nixon had been in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world might not have survived.  A slogan from the 1984 presidential campaigns may still be relevant: “Vote for Mondale. You may live to regret it.”

Democratic Party leaders such as Obama are not likely to rethink their strategy of hegemonic global domination. But we believe that many grass-roots Democrats are beginning to question US hegemony, hoping to build a better life for the 99%. We think the time is ripe for a broader challenge by the peace movement and the Democratic base to US hegemony and the Democratic leadership’s support of it.

Electing Obama has marginal short-term advantages; it is probably less likely that he, rather than Romney would strike Iran or be as willing to permit Israel to do.    In the long-term, Obama’s election would make it easier for peace activists – within and outside the Democratic Party – to bring to the public the anti-hegemonic agenda that we are calling for. With Democrats in power, peace arguments are likely to find more traction in the public, since a Romney Presidency would likely marginalize these prospects and turn the conversation toward more extreme neo-conservative ideals of hegemony.

The most important value of a second Obama term may, then, be a new possibility for the peace movement and progressive Democrats to confront and contest Obama’s hegemonic policy – and to move a new anti-militarist conversation into US mainstream political discourse.

Yale Magrass, Chancellor Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and Charles Derber, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, and are co-authors of The Surplus American (Paradigm 2012) and Morality Wars (Paradigm 2010). 

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