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Report from The Nation Cruise: Is There an Obama Doctrine in Foreign Policy?

By Christopher Renner
News | December 14, 2009

GRAND TURK, Turks And Caicos Islands - The participants on the 12th Annual Nation Cruise engaged in lively debate on the issue of foreign policy at the second panel seminar on Monday afternoon.

2009 Nation Cruise
Katrina vanden Heuvel, Robert Scheer, Steven Cohen, William Greider, Howard Dean
Members of the panel included: Robert Scheer, a 30-year veteran journalist, Nation columnist and editor of Truthdig.com; Steven Cohen, retired head of the Russian Department at Princeton University; Willian Greider, journalist, Nation columnist, and author of numerous books including The Soul of Capitalism (2003) and Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (2009); and Howard Dean, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, presidential candidate and six-term Governor of Vermont.

The stage of the MS Eurodam's performance theatre provided the backdrop as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, set the tone for the panel discussion by saying that "the cost of war can undermine change." While this was a major theme of the Obama campaign, vanden Huevel also reminded the audience that while Obama ran as an anti-Iraq War candidate, he did not run as an anti-war candidate and that is a notable difference.

Each panelist was given 10 minutes to state his positions, beginning with Steven Cohen, after which they could have two-minute responses followed by questions from the audience. For the purpose of this article, the content of the opening statements is reported.

While Cohen said he would primarily focused on the US - Russia relationship, he opened by outlining five threat to US security that impacted our foreign policy: 1) The nuclear arms race; 2) shortage of energy; 3) confrontation with the Islamic world; 4) Iran (as it relates to 1 - 3); and, 5) destabilizing wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cohen underscored the fact that without Russian cooperation these issues cannot be resolved by stating that Russia has the most nuclear weapons of any country on earth and they are at grave risk given the instability of the Russia county, its economy and the rise of ultranationalists within the Russian political system.

Russia also lies between the Western world and the Islamic world; it has over 20 million citizens who at followers of the Islamic faith; it has a friendly relationship with Iran; and it has major first-hand knowledge of Afghanistan and controls major supply routes to that country. As such the US needs Russia on our side in solving the problems we face in our foreign policy and thus it remains our primary national security interest.

However, the US has failed twice to take advantage of opportunities that could have brought our two nations closer and these missed opportunities have created a good deal on antagonism that could cause us great harm in the long run.

The first missed opportunity was during the Clinton administration following the period between '88 and '91 when Gorbachev dramatically changed the direction of his country and together with Reagan brought an end to Communism. Instead of strengthening our ties with the new Russian Republic, Clinton expanded NATO to include former Soviet-block allies, thus raising Russian concerns for its on national security.

Then following 9-11, Bush really blew our second chance. The first country to respond in our time of need was Russia. Putin said "whatever we can do, we are with you." Russian did more to help us in the first Afghanistan War than any other country to route al Qaeda. And how did we show our gratitude? By further expanding NATO a second time and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

These two foreign policy blunders negatively impacted the Russia political class by raising the level of anti-America feeling. America had "deceived and betrayed" Russia in their opinion.

In particular Secretary of State Albright's policies caused this sentiment and thus Russia turned to China as well as Germany for partnership in foreign policy. The Russian- Germany partnership is especially worrisome for Cohen.


Steve Cohen
Obama has showed no interests in reversing the mistakes of the Clinton and Bush administrations. In fact, the efforts underway to expand NATO to include the Ukraine and Georgia will only further alienate the Russia political class. In the case of Georgia, we have seen what the Russia government is willing to do to protect their interests. This should be a clear warning to us.

Cohen concluded by stating that the US isn't the super power we believe we are. We are increasingly isolated and alone in our foreign policy dealings and this should have every American worried because it sets up situations more dangerous than anything we have faced since the end of World War II.

William Greider opened by saying that we are at a decisive turning point in our history that will have profound impacts on our future.

Grieder believes that while Obama has laid out a new vision for what the US ought to become, he recognizes that for many Americans - like those gathered in the audience - Obama fell short of the vision we hoped for. Using the metaphor of a large cruise ship, Greider said Obama is "trying to turn around a huge ship with a 50 - 60 year history." It is a very difficult task, but as with any large ship it needs pilot boats and progressives can be the pilot boats for the change Obama is trying to create.

Greider said: "Obama is a great teacher, I don't know if he is a great leader."

With this statement Greider turned to the issue of militarism that is now deployed by our country around the world. While we at home might not see it for what it is, the rest of the world sees the forward deployment of the US military for what it is: preparation for the next war.

"The pilot ship has to crack open the war party that straddles both parties," said Greider "that is a treat to American peace and security."

The rise of militarism grows out of the hubris that came out of the WWII. The governing elites decided that if economic power didn't carry our nation through, our military power would, thus in building up the military industrial complex, they planted the seeds for the next war through their policies of forward deployment.

Forward deployment serves as the trip wires for the next war, most probably that will take place in Africa. For some time now the military has been conducting a dry run in Somalia through bombings and special forces missions that Americans don't know about, but Africans, Europeans and Asian all do.

Progressives have to sound the warning and demand the dismantling of forward deployment as a foreign policy. For Greider this isn't a "right-left" issue but rather a changing in our foreign policy from an offensive to a defensive mode. He also believes that this sort of anti-militarism cuts across many sectors of US society, including many military leaders.

Military leaders understand they cannot fulfill the expectations that have been place on them over the course of recent history. To be able to get out of this situation, they need broad support from both the right and the left that understands "anti-militarism" isn't the same and "anti-military." Anti-militarism is redirecting the fundamental US foreign policy from wagging war, to using warfare only when total victory is the goal, as was the case in WWII.

Greider believes that if we have this as our goal, we can generate a debate that will span many groups and in the process liberate the military and all of us from the yoke of militarism that has become the normative policy of the US.

Howard Dean opened by saying: "I'm a Democrat because I believe in social justice." He went on to say that he evaluates people by how they treat others. He uses the same parameters when he looks at governments. For him it isn't so much important as to what form of government people have, but how that government treats its people and what kind of results it gets that formulates his ideas on foreign policy.

For Dean the European Union is the most an important experiment in democracy since our own revolution in 1776. While it is very much a work in progress, it is an important step in governing the factionalized sectors of humanity.

Dean brought up the need for a new foreign policy paradigm, one in which we stand up for human rights and democracy and expand the European Union without expanding NATO.

To achieve this new paradigm, Dean believes we need to use diplomacy and not threats. He brought up the issue of creating an independent Kosovo - something we said we wouldn't do when the factions of ex-Yugoslavia declined into civil war. Southeastern Europe must be part of the European Union and for the most part it already is integrated. Romania, Bulgaria, Hungry, Slovakia, and Slovenia are all on the road to membership.

But as a nation we have to begin thinking out of the box when it comes to formulating foreign policy and especially when we are dealing with ethnic conflict. Carving ex-Yugoslavia up as we have done has done nothing to lower tensions between the different groups and has done a great deal to heighten mistrust between them.

Dean believes that Obama believes in the rule of law - a dynamic departure from the Bush administration. He pointed out that the US and Russia are meeting to discuss cyber terrorism and cyber attacks, and important step since Russia has used both against former Republics in recent years. Obama is also changing the US relationship with Israel as seen in the recent confrontations between the prime minister and his base. Dean believes that real pressure is being applied and he is hopeful that Obama will finally broker a deal that changes the status quo of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Dean concluded that at this point no "Obama Doctrine" has emerged, but what we have seen is real engagement with the rest of the world. It is a tough world, a hard world, but for Dean engagement is the answer for our foreign policy.

Robert Scheer's take on Obama's foreign policy was passionate and contrasted sharply with Dean's assessment.

Scheer opened by saying "If McCain had won and sent 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, we would not think the ship was turning" - in reference to Grieder's metaphor. He felt Obama's Nobel speech is ominous in its reference to the US as the good guys out to take care of the world. "Progressive are being had," he said.

Citing historical references to George Washington's warning our nation that we cannot have a democracy and an empire:

Over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.

Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.

-George Washington

and Eisenhower's warning:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Scheer when on to say,"When we look back over the last 50 years, we see one lie after another" when it comes to US foriegn policy. To bring home this point, he read from his book, The Pornography of Power:

The topic today is an adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United State of America. This adversary is one of the world's last bastions of central planning. It governs by dictating five-year plans. From a single capital, it attempts to impose its demands across time zones, continents, oceans, and beyond. With brutal consistency, it stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk.

Perhaps this adversary sounds like the former Soviet Union, but that enemy is gone; our foes are more subtle and implacable today. You may think I'm describing one of the last decrepit dictators of the world. But their day, too, is almost past, and they cannot match the strength and size of this adversary. The adversary is closer to home: It's the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Donald Rumsfeld, September 10, 2001.

The following day, "an enemy who's weapons you can buy at Home Depot for $70.00" shoved Rumsfeld's tirade against the military industrial complex into the forgotten annals of history and as a result our nation received the biggest build up of the military industrial complex in our history.

What we have in Scheer's opinion is people "playing President" with no adults watching the store that has resulted in "a permanent war economy." Our foreign policy has now generated a war against Islam, a scary and though-provoking reality in and of itself, but what we cannot lose sight of is fact that it was this very military industrial complex that funded and armed the very people we now call the enemy in Afghanistan.

For Scheer, we have a highly militarized society where the imposters of patriotism are leading us toward the abyss. Americans have to stop accepting the argument that the military industrial complex is good for our economy, it is draining the very lifeblood from it. Imagine what could be done, if we were able to spend the money currently going to military expenditures to rebuild the economy; to provide education for American youth people; to provide health care for everyone!

This comments created a good deal of observations and questions for the seminar participants, but they also map a progressive strategy for what needs to be done to make our foreign policy more humane, more supportive of our democracy, and more international in scope.

Next,The Nation Cruise addresses the issue of health care reform, our next installment from MS Eurodam.


1 Comment

Christopher, thank you for posting reviews of things happening on the Nation Cruise. I am supposed to be there with you, but was forced to cancel at the last minute. Sounds delightful! Is there any other cruise blog? Send updates bspicer@austin.rr.com


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