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This Election Is About Trump’s Pandemic Failures. But What Happens Next?

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 11:41am


In 2008, Americans voted for hope and change. In 2016, they voted for fire and fury — and change. In 2020, the vote for change comes from an entirely different quarter.

The novel coronavirus has killed more than a million people worldwide and claimed over 230,000 victims in the United States. Infecting people from the heartland to the White House, COVID-19 has also exposed grave defects in the status quo — and a deep yearning for transformational change.

The United States was supposed to have the best hospitals in the world. The pandemic made a mockery of that boast, overwhelming medical systems in rural areas and big cities alike. Many people died simply because hospitals lacked necessary medical supplies.

The pandemic triggered a global economic downturn, and the U.S. economy will shrink by an estimated 4 percent in 2020. The social safety net has not been able to protect the tens of millions of the newly unemployed, with Beltway breakdowns in negotiations over relief leaving vast numbers of Americans on knife’s edge.

In a country that feeds the world, nearly 30 million Americans don’t have enough to eat, triple the number of people from two years ago.

COVID-19 has also exposed political dysfunction in the United States. The country could not overcome political divisions in the face of what should have been a unifying threat. The federal government failed to coordinate an effective response with the states.

A near civil war has erupted between the masked and the maskless, the lockdowners and the open-uppers.

As a result, the upcoming presidential election has been turned into a referendum on the pandemic response.

Americans are rightly upset that their country, with only 4 percent of the world’s population, has suffered 20 percent of the world’s deaths. China and South Korea have already restarted their economies while the United States is still struggling to return to some semblance of normality.

Donald Trump promised to make America great again. In no election in recent memory has the gap between campaign promise and political reality been so enormous.

The president spent his term deriding experts and their scientific advice. He has minimized the threat of COVID-19 even to the point of endangering his own life and the lives of those around him. He shrugged off the U.S. death count with a cavalier “it is what it is.”

If Trump loses in November, it will largely be because of his handling of the pandemic. With voters braving the disease to line up on Election Day or sending in an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, November 3 will go down in history as the “pandemic election.”

But the COVID-19 virus is non-partisan. Its call for change goes beyond merely rotating personnel in the White House or Congress.

Consider, for instance, America’s funding priorities. It makes no sense to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on military hardware to protect the homeland when those weapons are useless against threats like a lowly virus — particularly at a time when public health and the social welfare system need a serious upgrade.

COVID-19 should have been an opportunity for countries to come together to address a common threat. Instead, wars have continued, the United States and China have descended into deeper acrimony, and countries are competing rather than cooperating to identify a vaccine and ensure equitable distribution.

The pandemic is a wake-up call. COVID-19 is a catastrophe, to be sure, but even it pales in comparison to a threat like climate change, which is making itself known coast-to-coast in record-setting wildfire and hurricane seasons.

The good news? The United States and the world will have a second chance to get things right.

Governments managed to locate enormous funds to rescue economies battered by the pandemic. With temperatures rising and quality of life plummeting, they will have to go to the well again, this time to transform the economy along sustainable lines. Politicians can find the resources; they just have to find the political will.

The November election will not spell the end of the COVID nightmare. But it can represent the first step in a necessary pivot — away from the flawed status quo that was incapable of handling the pandemic emergency and toward a more resilient, sustainable, and equitable future.

The post This Election Is About Trump’s Pandemic Failures. But What Happens Next? appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the new book The Pandemic Pivot.

Building a Cross-Border Culture of Solidarity

Thu, 10/29/2020 - 9:44am

Tijuana, Baja California Norte, 1998–Police arrive to escort strikebreakers into the struck Han Young maquiladora (David Bacon)

Since the North American Free Trade Agreement has been in effect, the economies of the United States and Mexico have become highly integrated.  Working people on both sides of the Mexico/U.S. border are not only affected by this integration: they are its object. Corporate-controlled integration seeks to maximize profits and push wages and benefits to the bottom, manage the flow of people displaced as a result, roll back rights and social benefits achieved over decades, and weaken working-class movements in both countries.

U.S. and Mexican workers are part of a global system of production, distribution, and consumption. It’s not just a bilateral relationship. Jobs go from the United States and Canada to Mexico in order to cut labor costs. But from Mexico, those same jobs go China or Bangladesh or dozens of other countries where labor costs are even lower.

Multiple production locations undermine unions’ bargaining leverage. Grupo Mexico, a giant Mexican mining corporation, can use profits gained in mining operations in Peru to subsidize the costs of breaking a strike in Cananea and then buy the copper mines in Arizona and force U.S. workers out on strike as well.

The privatization of electricity in Mexico, which the Mexican Electrical Union (SME) has fought for two decades, does not just affect Mexicans.  When Mexico’s laws restricting electricity generation to the government were weakened, a prelude to attacking the union directly, companies like San Diego Gas and Electric set up plants across the border. They produce power for the U.S. grid, at lower wages and with less regulation.

Energy maquiladoras, in effect, give utility unions in the United States a reason to help Mexican workers resist privatization. Cooperation, however, requires more than solidarity between unions facing the same employer. It requires solidarity in resisting neoliberal reforms like privatization and supporting the SME when it demands renationalization, as it does today.

It’s not just production. The United States also exports ideology. Education reform in Mexico comes from the Gates and Broad foundations. They are the same privatizers that attack U.S. teachers. In Mexico they’re supported by USAID, and their partner is Mexicanos Primero, which is run by Claudio X. Gonzalez and Claudio Gonzalez Guajardo, one of the wealthiest families in Mexico. Their attacks on teachers set the climate for the disappearance and murder of the 43 students in Ayotzinapa.

In both countries, the main union battles seek to preserve what workers have previously achieved, in a hostile political structure over which we have little control. Mexican unions are trapped in a state labor process, in which the government certifies unions’ existence, and to a large degree controls their bargaining. In the United States, labor is endangered by economic crisis, falling density, and a pro-corporate legal and political system. Trump and COVID certainly made this worse, but the crisis existed before they came along.

When Vicente Fox and the National Action Party defeated Mexico’s ruling party, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI), in 2000, it created a new situation in which government-allied unions began to lose their privileged position. Employers and the government became more willing to use force and repression. Contingent employment became legal and widespread, as it has in the United States. Mexican unions today debate whether the situation of unions and workers has changed dramatically with the new administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, whom the left supported.

In the United States, labor law reform, national healthcare, and other basic pro-worker reforms have become almost politically impossible, even under Democratic presidents. The U.S. public sector, the most politically powerful section of the U.S. labor movement, has become the target of the U.S. right.

As the attacks against unions grow stronger, solidarity is becoming necessary for survival. Unions face a basic question on both sides of the border—can they win the battles they face today, especially political ones, without joining their efforts together?

Fortunately, this is not an abstract question, because important progress has taken place over the last two decades.

The Emergence of Trans-Border Solidarity

The years after the passage of NAFTA saw a big rise in joint activity by U.S. and Mexican workers. Benedicto Martinez, general secretary of the Authentic Labor Front, described it this way: “NAFTA shocked a lot of U.S. unions out of their inertia—not so much their national leaders, but people in local unions, who began pushing to move on globalization, to form new international relations and look for solidarity. That’s what moved their leaders to pay attention to the border.”

Martinez and grassroots activists from both countries organized during the NAFTA debate to show U.S. workers that Mexican workers were not their enemy. They had to do this bottom-up because the AFL-CIO still supported free trade and had relations only with the most corrupt unions in Mexico, because they were the most anti-Communist. These leftwing activists went from city to city and union hall to union hall to organize the Mexican Network Against Free Trade, which still exists today.

In the solidarity upsurge of the late 1990s, many unions found counterparts across the border. The first solidarity network, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, was created while NAFTA was still being debated. Most of its efforts were directed to supporting workers trying to organize independent unions on the border, to get out of the sweetheart protection contracts signed by pro-company unions behind their backs.

In Tijuana, workers organized an independent union at Plasticos Bajacal in 1992. When the company fired the leaders, union activists in San Diego raised the money to pay them their lost wages so they could keep on organizing. Workers rebelled at the huge Sony plant in Nuevo Laredo and were beaten and attacked with fire hoses when they tried to elect their own leaders. In the late 1990s, workers demanding their own union went on strike twice at Tijuana’s Han Young factory, one of the largest, longest, and most important efforts to organize an independent union on the border.

Other workers tried the same thing at Duro Bag, Custom Trim/Auto Trim, and Levis/Lajat, which are U.S.-owned companies. The Comite Fronterizo de Obreras organized workers at Alcoa/Fujikura, and is still doing it today in cooperation with the Mexican miners union (the Mineros) and the United Steelworkers.

The NAFTA debate helped to strengthen the relationship between the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT),, based on equality and real campaigns on the ground. The Communications Workers of America established a close relationship with the Mexican Telephone Workers. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent delegations, first to Veracruz when its dockers union was smashed, and then to Pacific Coast ports as they were being privatized.

After John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president, the old anti-Communist policies began to change, and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center was set up to take the place of the old Cold-War structures. The Solidarity Center assisted the formation of the Workers Support Center (CAT) in Puebla.

CAT used cross-border leverage against Mexican and U.S. employers, producing for the U.S. market. United Students Against Sweatshops protested garments sold in college stores produced at Kuk Dong’s plant in Puebla, where workers were beaten for trying to organize an independent union.  Student support helped win a contract. Auto workers in assembly plants in Michigan told Ford and GM not to bring in parts from Johnson Controls unless it signed a contract with the Mineros in Mexico.

The Mineros and the United Steel Workers are locked in an all-out conflict with the Grupo Mexico.  During the 12-year strike in Cananea U.S. unions sent money and food across the border, organized support actions in the U.S., and gave refuge to the Mineros president in Canada when the Mexican government would have thrown him in prison.

They built an alliance with environmentalists after a huge toxic spill from the Cananea mine devastated towns along the Sonora River. Then, even after years of deprivation, miners in Cananea sent support to their sisters and brothers in Arizona and New Mexico when Grupo Mexico forced them on strike a year ago.

U.S. unions stayed out of early fights over the privatization of electrical generation, in part because the SME was affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a big no-no during the Cold War. That prohibition changed, and the SME got support through the Trinational Solidarity Alliance and meetings between with AFL-CIO leaders. In 2013 over 50,000 workers, students, and human rights activists demonstrated at Mexican consulates around the world.

A Tri-National Coalition to Defend Public Education was organized in 1993, the year before NAFTA took effect. During the 2006 strike by Mexican teachers against corporate education reform, teachers from Oaxaca traveled to California and spoke at the convention of the California Federation of Teachers. California has a huge number of Mexican students in its schools, and many immigrants themselves now work as teachers, so cross-border teacher solidarity is growing.

Gradually, unions are seeing the importance of workers with feet planted on both sides of the border. The UFW, for instance, developed a strategic partnership with the Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB). It hired Oaxacan organizers, fluent in indigenous languages, and protested police harassment and immigration raids in indigenous communities in Greenfield in the Salinas Valley of California.

Between 2013 and 2105, Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers, migrants from Oaxaca, went on strike in both Baja California and Burlington, Washington. They then mounted an international boycott of Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry company. They won a contract in Washington, and in Baja California they organized an independent union that’s still fighting for a contract there. Bonifacio Martinez, a farmworker in Baja California, explained, “If the companies are international now, we the workers must also become international.”

In the 2000s, though, the level of cross-border activity declined. The war on terror in the United States and the drug war in Mexico had a big impact on workers and unions. Along the border, the murders of women maquila workers in Juarez, the discovery of the bodies of hundreds of migrants in mass graves, and vastly increased violence all took a toll on workers.

Despite the terror, workers went on strike for an independent union in Juarez in 2017 at some of the largest factories in North America. Then, in Matamoros, over 40,000 workers struck U.S. assembly plants when their owners refused to pay the increase in the minimum wage ordered by AMLO just as he took office in 2018. And most recently, workers struck U.S.-owned plants that refused to obey the government’s order to stop production during the COVID crisis. At the Lear plant alone, 13 workers have died from the virus.

In response, the companies called on President Trump. The U.S. defense industry increasingly depends on continuous production from those plants. The U.S. State Department threatened the Mexican government, and the companies were allowed to restart production. Yet there was virtually no outcry by labor activists and leaders in the United States when the government forced workers back into those plants, knowing that many of them would die as a result.

The Future of Cooperation

In north Mexico, the maquiladora industry is still enormous. Three thousand plants employ over 1.3 million workers. A vibrant and strong labor movement on the border would change Mexico’s politics and U.S. politics too.

Millions of people coming to the U.S are a bridge between the two countries. Organizing Mexican workers at carwashes in Los Angeles and Chicago, for instance, will help U.S. unions grow, without a doubt. But it will also help unions in Mexico, by giving more power to workers who know how important it is to support miners in Cananea or electrical workers in Mexico City.

U.S. labor’s support for ratification of the new trade agreement, however, did not live up to the idea of fighting together, and defied what unions know to be true from three decades of experience. U.S. unions know what the purpose of NAFTA was, on both sides of the border: to bring the U.S. and Mexican economies closer together, lower the price of labor in both countries,  and weaken unions and the social protections for workers. And they know what NAFTA did. The United States lost a million jobs. Millions of Mexicans were thrown off their land and out of their jobs as well. The number of people who had to cross the border to survive rose from 4.5 to 12 million in just 15 years.

The purpose of the new trade agreement, the USMCA, is no different, and the large-scale impact will be the same. Labor shouldn’t confuse the bones thrown to get votes in Congress with the real social, economic, and political effect they know it will have. Mexican labor law reform, something Mexican union have fought decades to win, was treated as a bargaining chip to protect jobs in factories in the United States. To defeat the free trade regime requires a common fight.

After all, miners blacklisted in Cananea, or electrical workers fired in Mexico City, become workers and union organizers in Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York. The farmworkers of the west coast, whether they work in San Quintin, Watsonville, or Burlington, Washington, come from the same communities, speak the same languages, and face the same agribusiness giants.

As painful as it has been for Mexicans themselves, Mexican migration to the United States has been a source of strength for U.S. unions. Millions of people are a bridge between the two countries and labor movements. Fighting for the rights of Mexican and immigrant workers in the United States is part of solidarity.

A culture of solidarity means that workers understand that their own welfare is connected to the welfare of other workers, and that they’re ready to act on that understanding. Workers can’t simply be satisfied that they have a job and a contract with a wage that can support a family, and then turn away from a worker on strike in San Quintin or Cananea, or an electrical worker on a hunger strike in Mexico City, or a worker fighting the closure of a factory in California.

We are all tied together.

The post Building a Cross-Border Culture of Solidarity appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book is In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte, University of California Press, Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017. This article is based on a presentation given to a webinar organized by Global Exchange and the California Trade Justice Coalition, an affiliate of the Citizens Trade Campaign.

After Trump, Throw Out the Old Foreign Policy Establishment, Too

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 5:13pm


The so-called Age of Trump is also an age of instantly forgotten bestselling books, especially ones purporting to provide the inside scoop on what goes on within Donald Trump’s haphazard and continuously shifting orbit. With metronomic regularity, such gossipy volumes appear, make a splash, and almost as quickly vanish, leaving a mark no more lasting than a trout breaking the surface in a pond.

Remember when Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House was all the rage? It’s now available in hardcover for $0.99 from online used booksellers. James Comey’s Higher Loyalty also sells for a penny less than a buck.

An additional forty-six cents will get you Omarosa Manigault Newman’s “insider’s account” of her short-lived tenure in that very White House. For the same price, you can acquire Sean Spicer’s memoir as Trump’s press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci’s rendering of his tumultuous 11-day stint as White House communications director, and Corey Lewandowski’s “inside story” of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Bibliophiles intent on assembling a complete library of Trumpiana will not have long to wait before the tell-all accounts of John Bolton, Michael Cohen, Mary Trump, and that journalistic amanuensis Bob Woodward will surely be available at similar bargain basement prices.

All that said, even in these dismal times genuinely important books do occasionally make their appearance. My friend and colleague Stephen Wertheim is about to publish one. It’s called Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy and if you’ll forgive me for being direct, you really ought to read it. Let me explain why.

The “Turn”

Wertheim and I are co-founders of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a small Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That Quincy refers to John Quincy Adams who, as secretary of state nearly two centuries ago, warned his fellow citizens against venturing abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

Were the United States to do so, Adams predicted, its defining trait — its very essence — “would insensibly change from liberty to force.” By resorting to force, America “might become the dictatress of the world,” he wrote, but “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” While his gendered punchline might rankle contemporary sensibilities, it remains apt.

A privileged man of his times, Adams took it for granted that a WASP male elite was meant to run the country. Women were to occupy their own separate sphere. And while he would eventually become an ardent opponent of slavery, in 1821 race did not rank high on his agenda either. His immediate priority as secretary of state was to situate the young republic globally so that Americans might enjoy both safety and prosperity. That meant avoiding unnecessary trouble. We had already had our revolution. In his view, it wasn’t this country’s purpose to promote revolution elsewhere or to dictate history’s future course.

Adams was to secretaries of state what Tom Brady is to NFL quarterbacks: the Greatest Of All Time. As the consensus GOAT in the estimation of diplomatic historians, he brought to maturity a pragmatic tradition of statecraft originated by a prior generation of New Englanders and various slaveholding Virginians with names like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. That tradition emphasized opportunistically ruthless expansionism on this continent, avid commercial engagement, and the avoidance of great power rivalries abroad. Adhering to such a template, the United States had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the wealthiest, most secure nation on the planet — at which point Europeans spoiled the party.

The disastrous consequences of one European world war fought between 1914 and 1918 and the onset of a second in 1939 rendered that pragmatic tradition untenable — so at least a subsequent generation of WASPs concluded. This is where Wertheim takes up the story. Prompted by the German army’s lightning victory in the battle of France in May and June 1940, members of that WASP elite set about creating — and promoting — an alternative policy paradigm, one he describes as pursuing “dominance in the name of internationalism,” with U.S. military supremacy deemed “the prerequisite of a decent world.”

The new elite that devised this paradigm did not consist of lawyers from Massachusetts or planters from Virginia. Its key members held tenured positions at Yale and Princeton, wrote columns for leading New York newspapers, staffed Henry Luce’s Time-Life press empire, and distributed philanthropic largesse to fund worthy causes (grasping the baton of global primacy being anything but least among them). Most importantly, just about every member of this Eastern establishment cadre was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). As such, they had a direct line to the State Department, which in those days actually played a large role in formulating basic foreign policy.

While Tomorrow, The World is not a long book — fewer than 200 pages of text — it is a tour de force. In it, Wertheim describes the new narrative framework that the foreign-policy elite formulated in the months following the fall of France.

He shows how Americans with an antipathy for war now found themselves castigated as “isolationists,” a derogatory term created to suggest provincialism or selfishness. Those favoring armed intervention, meanwhile, became “internationalists,” a term connoting enlightenment and generosity. Even today, members of the foreign-policy establishment pledge undying fealty to the same narrative framework, which still warns against the bugaboo of “isolationism” that threatens to prevent high-minded policymakers from exercising “global leadership.”

Wertheim persuasively describes the “turn” toward militarized globalism engineered from above by that self-selected, unelected crew. Crucially, their efforts achieved success prior to Pearl Harbor. The Japanese attack of December 7, 1941, may have thrust the United States into the ongoing world war, but the essential transformation of policy had already occurred, even if ordinary Americans had yet to be notified as to what it meant. Its future implications — permanently high levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases stretching across the globe, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry — would only become apparent in the years ahead.

While Wertheim is not the first to expose isolationism as a carefully constructed myth, he does so with devastating effect. Most of all, he helps his readers understand that “so long as the phantom of isolationism is held to be the most grievous sin, all is permitted.”

Contained within that all is a cavalcade of forceful actions and grotesque miscalculations, successes and failures, notable achievements and immense tragedies both during World War II and in the decades that followed. While beyond the scope of Wertheim’s book, casting the Cold War as a de facto extension of the war against Nazi Germany, with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a stand-in for Adolf Hitler, represented an equally significant triumph for the foreign policy establishment.

At the outset of World War II, ominous changes in the global distribution of power prompted a basic reorientation of U.S. policy. Today, fundamental alterations in the global distribution of power — did someone say “the rise of China”? — are once again occurring right before our eyes. Yet the foreign-policy establishment’s response is simply to double down.

So, even now, staggering levels of military spending, a vast network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry remain the taken-for-granted signatures of U.S. policy. And even now, the establishment employs the specter of isolationism as a convenient mechanism for self-forgiveness and expedient amnesia, as well as a means to enforce discipline.

Frozen Compass

The fall of France was indeed an epic disaster. Yet implicit in Tomorrow, The World is this question: If the disaster that befell Europe in 1940 could prompt the United States to abandon a hitherto successful policy paradigm, then why have the serial disasters befalling the nation in the present century not produced a comparable willingness to reexamine an approach to policy that is obviously failing today?

To pose that question is to posit an equivalence between the French army’s sudden collapse in the face of the Wehrmacht’s assault and the accumulation of U.S. military disappointments dating from 9/11. From a tactical or operational perspective, many will find such a comparison unpersuasive. After all, the present-day armed forces of the United States have not succumbed to outright defeat, nor is the government of the United States petitioning for a cessation of hostilities as the French authorities did in 1940.

Yet what matters in war are political outcomes. Time and again since 9/11, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or lesser theaters of conflict, the United States has failed to achieve the political purposes for which it went to war. From a strategic and political perspective, therefore, the comparison with France is instructive, even if failure need not entail abject surrender.

The French people and other supporters of the 1930s European status quo (including Americans who bothered to pay attention) were counting on that country’s soldiers to thwart further Nazi aggression once and for all. Defeat came as a profound shock. Similarly, after the Cold War, most Americans (and various beneficiaries of a supposed Pax Americana) counted on U.S. troops to maintain an agreeable and orderly global status quo. Instead, the profound shock of 9/11 induced Washington to embark upon what became a series of “endless wars” that U.S. forces proved incapable of bringing to a successful conclusion.

Crucially, however, no reevaluation of U.S. policy comparable to the “turn” that Wertheim describes has occurred.

An exceedingly generous reading of President Trump’s promise to put “America First” might credit him with attempting such a turn. In practice, however, his incompetence and inconsistency, not to mention his naked dishonesty, produced a series of bizarre and random zigzags. Threats of “fire and fury” alternated with expressions of high regard for dictators (“we fell in love”). Troop withdrawals were announced and then modified or forgotten. Trump abandoned a global environmental agreement, massively rolled back environmental regulations domestically, and then took credit for providing Americans with “the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” Little of this was to be taken seriously.

Trump’s legacy as a statesman will undoubtedly amount to the diplomatic equivalent of Mulligan stew. Examine the contents closely enough and you’ll be able to find just about anything. Yet taken as a whole, the concoction falls well short of being nutritious, much less appetizing.

On the eve of the upcoming presidential election, the entire national security apparatus and its supporters assume that Trump’s departure from office will restore some version of normalcy. Every component of that apparatus from the Pentagon and the State Department to the CIA and the Council on Foreign Relations to the editorial boards of the New York Times and Washington Post yearns for that moment.

To a very considerable degree, a Biden presidency will satisfy that yearning. Nothing if not a creature of the establishment, Biden himself will conform to its requirements. For proof, look no further than his vote in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. (No isolationist he.) Count on a Biden administration, therefore, to perpetuate the entire obsolete retinue of standard practices.

As Peter Beinart puts it, “When it comes to defense, a Biden presidency is likely to look very much like an Obama presidency, and that’s going to look not so different from a Trump presidency when you really look at the numbers.” Biden will increase the Pentagon budget, keep U.S. troops in the Middle East, and get tough with China. The United States will remain the world’s number-one arms merchant, accelerate efforts to militarize outer space, and continue the ongoing modernization of the entire U.S. nuclear strike force. Biden will stack his team with CFR notables looking for jobs on the “inside.”

Above all, Biden will recite with practiced sincerity the mantras of American exceptionalism as a summons to exercise global leadership. “The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” Those uplifting sentiments are, of course, his from a recent Foreign Affairs essay.

So if you liked U.S. national security policy before Trump mucked things up, then Biden is probably your kind of guy. Install him in the Oval Office and the mindless pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” will resume. And the United States will revert to the policies that prevailed during the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — policies, we should note, that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the White House.

The Voices That Count

What explains the persistence of this pattern despite an abundance of evidence showing that it’s not working to the benefit of the American people? Why is it so difficult to shed a policy paradigm that dates from Hitler’s assault on France, now a full 80 years in the past?

I hope that in a subsequent book Stephen Wertheim will address that essential question. In the meantime, however, allow me to make a stab at offering the most preliminary of answers.

Setting aside factors like bureaucratic inertia and the machinations of the military-industrial complex — the Pentagon, arms manufacturers, and their advocates in Congress share an obvious interest in discovering new “threats” — one likely explanation relates to a policy elite increasingly unable to distinguish between self-interest and the national interest. As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams never confused the two. His latter-day successors have done far less well.

As an actual basis for policy, the turn that Stephen Wertheim describes in Tomorrow, The World has proven to be nowhere near as enlightened or farseeing as its architects imagined or its latter day proponents still purport to believe it to be. The paradigm produced in 1940-1941 was, at best, merely serviceable. It responded to the nightmarish needs of that moment. It justified U.S. participation in efforts to defeat Nazi Germany, a necessary undertaking.

After 1945, except as a device for affirming the authority of foreign-policy elites, the pursuit of “dominance in the name of internationalism” proved to be problematic. Yet even as conditions changed, basic U.S. policy stayed the same: high levels of military spending, a network of foreign bases, a penchant for armed intervention abroad, a sprawling “national security” apparatus, and a politically subversive arms industry. Even after the Cold War and 9/11, these remain remarkably sacrosanct.

My own retrospective judgment of the Cold War tends toward an attitude of: well, I guess it could have been worse. When it comes to the U.S. response to 9/11, however, it’s difficult to imagine what worse could have been.

Within the present-day foreign-policy establishment, however, a different interpretation prevails: the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War ended in a world historic victory, unsullied by any unfortunate post-9/11 missteps. The effect of this perspective is to affirm the wisdom of American statecraft now eight decades old and therefore justify its perpetuation long after both Hitler and Stalin, not to mention Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, are dead and gone.

This paradigm persists for one reason only: it ensures that statecraft will remain a realm that resolutely excludes the popular will. Elites decide, while the job of ordinary Americans is to foot the bill. In that regard, the allocation of privileges and obligations now 80 years old still prevails today.

Only by genuinely democratizing the formulation of foreign policy will real change become possible. The turn in U.S. policy described in Tomorrow, The World came from the top. The turn needed today will have to come from below and will require Americans to rid themselves of their habit of deference when it comes to determining what this nation’s role in the world will be. Those on top will do all in their power to avert any such loss of status.

The United States today suffers from illnesses both literal and metaphorical. Restoring the nation to good health and repairing our democracy must necessarily rate as paramount concerns. While Americans cannot ignore the world beyond their borders, the last thing they need is to embark upon a fresh round of searching for distant monsters to destroy. Heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams might just offer an essential first step toward recovery.

The post After Trump, Throw Out the Old Foreign Policy Establishment, Too appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

Ending Regime Change — in Bolivia and the World

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 4:50pm

MAS supporters with president-elect Luis Arce, La Paz, Bolivia (Shutterstock)

Less than a year after the United States and the U.S.-backed Organization of American States (OAS) supported a violent military coup to overthrow the government of Bolivia, the Bolivian people have reelected the Movement for Socialism (MAS) and restored it to power.

In the long history of U.S.-backed “regime changes” in countries around the world, rarely have a people and a country so firmly and democratically repudiated U.S. efforts to dictate how they will be governed. Post-coup interim president Jeanine Añez has reportedly requested 350 U.S. visas for herself and others who may face prosecution in Bolivia for their roles in the coup.

The narrative of a rigged election in 2019 that the U.S. and the OAS peddled to support the coup in Bolivia has been thoroughly debunked. MAS’s support is mainly from indigenous Bolivians in the countryside, so it takes longer for their ballots to be collected and counted than those of the better-off city dwellers who support MAS’s right-wing, neoliberal opponents.

As the votes come in from rural areas, there is a swing to MAS in the vote count. By pretending that this predictable and normal pattern in Bolivia’s election results was evidence of election fraud in 2019, the OAS bears responsibility for unleashing a wave of violence against indigenous MAS supporters that, in the end, has only delegitimized the OAS itself.

A History of Intervention

It is instructive that the failed U.S.-backed coup in Bolivia has led to a more democratic outcome than U.S. regime change operations that succeeded in removing a government from power. Domestic debates over U.S. foreign policy routinely presume that the U.S. has the right, or even an obligation, to deploy an arsenal of military, economic and political weapons to force political change in countries that resist its imperial dictates.

In practice, this means either full-scale war (as in Iraq and Afghanistan), a coup d’etat (as in Haiti in 2004, Honduras in 2009, and Ukraine in 2014), covert and proxy wars (as in Somalia, Libya, Syria, and Yemen) or punitive economic sanctions (as against Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela) — all of which violate the sovereignty of the targeted countries and are therefore illegal under international law.

No matter which instrument of regime change the U.S. has deployed, these U.S. interventions have not made life better for the people of any of those countries, nor countless others in the past.

William Blum’s brilliant 1995 book, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, catalogues 55 U.S. regime change operations in 50 years between 1945 and 1995. As Blum’s detailed accounts make clear, most of these operations involved U.S. efforts to remove popularly elected governments from power, as in Bolivia, and often replaced them with U.S.-backed dictatorships like the Shah of Iran, Mobutu in the Congo, Suharto in Indonesia, and General Pinochet in Chile.

Even when the targeted government is a violent, repressive one, U.S. intervention usually leads to even greater violence. Nineteen years after removing the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the United States has dropped 80,000 bombs and missiles on Afghan fighters and civilians, conducted tens of thousands of “kill or capture” night raids, and the war has killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans.

In December 2019, the Washington Post published a trove of Pentagon documents revealing that none of this violence is based on a real strategy to bring peace or stability to Afghanistan — it’s all just a brutal kind of “muddling along,” as U.S. General McChrystal put it. Now the U.S.-backed Afghan government is finally in peace talks with the Taliban on a political power-sharing plan to bring an end to this “endless” war, because only a political solution can provide Afghanistan and its people with the viable, peaceful future that decades of war have denied them.

In Libya, it has been nine years since the U.S. and its NATO and Arab monarchist allies launched a proxy war backed by a covert invasion and NATO bombing campaign that led to the horrific sodomy and assassination of Libya’s longtime anti-colonial leader, Muammar Gaddafi. That plunged Libya into chaos and civil war between the various proxy forces that the U.S. and its allies armed, trained and worked with to overthrow Gaddafi.

A parliamentary inquiry in the U.K. found that, “a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into an opportunist policy of regime change by military means,” which led to “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [Islamic State] in north Africa.”

The various Libyan warring factions are now engaged in peace talks aimed at a permanent ceasefire and, according to the UN envoy “holding national elections in the shortest possible timeframe to restore Libya’s sovereignty” — the very sovereignty that the NATO intervention destroyed.

Senator Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy adviser Matthew Duss has called for the next U.S. administration to conduct a comprehensive review of the post-9/11 “War on Terror,” so that we can finally turn the page on this bloody chapter in our history.

Duss wants an independent commission to judge these two decades of war based on “the standards of international humanitarian law that the United States helped to establish after World War II,” which are spelled out in the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions. He hopes that this review will “stimulate vigorous public debate about the conditions and legal authorities under which the United States uses military violence.”

Such a review is overdue and badly needed, but it must confront the reality that, from its very beginning, the “War on Terror” was designed to provide cover for a massive escalation of U.S. “regime change” operations against a diverse range of countries, most of which were governed by secular governments that had nothing to do with the rise of Al Qaeda or the crimes of September 11th.

Notes taken by senior policy official Stephen Cambone from a meeting in the still damaged and smoking Pentagon on the afternoon of September 11, 2001 summarized Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s orders to get “best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H. [Saddam Hussein] at same time — not only UBL [Osama Bin Laden]… Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

At the cost of horrific military violence and mass casualties, the resulting global reign of terror has installed quasi-governments in countries around the world that have proved more corrupt, less legitimate, and less able to protect their territory and their people than the governments that U.S. actions removed. Instead of consolidating and expanding U.S. imperial power as intended, these illegal and destructive uses of military, diplomatic and financial coercion have had the opposite effect, leaving the U.S. ever more isolated and impotent in an evolving multipolar world.

Rejoining the Multipolar World

Today, the U.S., China, and the European Union are roughly equal in the size of their economies and international trade, but even their combined activity accounts for less than half of global economic activity and external trade. No single imperial power economically dominates today’s world as overconfident American leaders hoped to do at the end of the Cold War, nor is it divided by a binary struggle between rival empires as during the Cold War. This is the multipolar world we are already living in, not one that may emerge at some point in the future.

This multipolar world has been moving forward, forging new agreements on our most critical common problems, from nuclear and conventional weapons to the climate crisis to the rights of women and children. The United States’ systematic violations of international law and rejection of multilateral treaties have made it an outlier and a problem, certainly not a leader, as American politicians claim.

Joe Biden talks about restoring American international “leadership” if he is elected, but that will be easier said than done. The American empire rose to international leadership by harnessing its economic and military power to a rules-based international order in the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the post-World War II rules of international law. But the United States has gradually deteriorated through the Cold War and post-Cold War triumphalism to a flailing, decadent empire that now threatens the world with a doctrine of “might makes right” and “my way or the highway.”

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, much of the world still saw Bush, Cheney and the “War on Terror” as exceptional, rather than a new normal in American policy. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize based on a few speeches and the world’s desperate hopes for a “peace president.” But eight years of Obama, Biden, Terror Tuesdays, and Kill Lists followed by four years of Trump, Pence, children in cages and the New Cold War with China have confirmed the world’s worst fears that the dark side of American imperialism seen under Bush and Cheney was no aberration.

Amid America’s botched regime changes and lost wars, the most concrete evidence of its seemingly unshakeable commitment to aggression and militarism is that the U.S. military-industrial complex is still outspending the ten next largest military powers in the world combined, clearly out of all proportion to America’s legitimate defense needs.

So the concrete things we must do if we want peace are to stop bombing and sanctioning our neighbors and trying to overthrow their governments; to withdraw most American troops and close military bases around the world; and to reduce our armed forces and our military budget to what we really need to defend our country, not to wage illegal wars of aggression half-way round the world.

For the sake of people around the world who are building mass movements to overthrow repressive regimes and struggling to construct new models of governing that are not replications of failed neoliberal regimes, we must stop our government — no matter who is in the White House — from trying to impose its will.

Bolivia’s triumph over U.S.-backed regime change is an affirmation of the emerging people-power of our new multipolar world, and the struggle to move the U.S. to a post-imperial future is in the interest of the American people as well. As the late Venezuela leader Hugo Chavez once told a visiting U.S. delegation, “If we work together with oppressed people inside the United States to overcome the empire, we will not only be liberating ourselves, but also the people of Martin Luther King.”

The post Ending Regime Change — in Bolivia and the World appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

Medea Benjamin is the cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and the author of several books, including Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection and Inside Iran: the Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nicolas J. S. Davies is an independent journalist, a researcher with CODEPINK, and the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. 

People to Autocrats: Not So Fast

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 4:18pm


Despite all the obstacles, Americans are voting in huge numbers prior to Election Day.

With a week to go, nearly 70 million voters have sent in their ballots or stood on line for early voting. The pandemic hasn’t prevented them from exercising their constitutional right. Nor have various Republican Party schemes to suppress the vote. Some patriotic citizens have waited all day at polling places just to make sure that their voices are heard.

Americans are not alone.

In Belarus and Bolivia, Poland and Thailand, Chile and Nigeria, people are pushing back against autocrats and coups and police violence. Indeed, 2020 may well go down in history alongside 1989 and 1968 as a pinnacle of people power.

Some pundits, however, remain skeptical that people power can turn the authoritarian tide that has swept Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modi into office.

“People power, which democratized countries from South Korea and Poland in the 1980s to Georgia and Ukraine in the 2000s and Tunisia in 2010, has been on a losing streak,” writes Jackson Diehl this week in The Washington Post. “That’s true even though mass protests proliferated in countries around the world last year and have continued in a few places during 2020 despite the pandemic.”

Diehl can point to a number of cases to prove his point. Despite massive popular resistance, many autocrats haven’t budged. Vladimir Putin remains in charge in Russia, despite several waves of protest. Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have only consolidated his power in Turkey. And who expected Bashar al-Assad to still be in power in Syria after the Arab Spring, a punishing civil war, and widespread international condemnation?

Even where protests have been successful, for instance most recently in Mali, it was the military, not democrats, who took over from a corrupt and unpopular leader.

Rather than slink out of their palaces or send in the tanks for a final stand by, autocrats have deployed more sophisticated strategies to counter popular protests. They’re more likely to wait out the storm. They use less overtly violent means or deploy their violence in more targeted ways to suppress civil society. Also, they’ve been able to count on friends in high places, notably Donald Trump, who wishes that he could rule forever.

Pundits tend to overstate the power of the status quo. Autocrats may have the full panoply of state power at their disposal, but they also tend to dismiss challenges to their authority until it’s too late. As Americans await the verdict on Donald Trump, they can take heart that the tide may be turning for people power all over the world.

Overturning Coups: Bolivia and Thailand

One year ago, Bolivia held an election that the Organization of American States (OAS) called into question. The apparent winner was Evo Morales, who had led the small South American nation for nearly 14 years. The OAS, however, identified tampering in at least 38,000 ballots. Morales won by 35,000 votes.

Pressured by the Bolivian military, Morales stepped down and then fled the country. A right-wing government took over and set about suppressing MAS, the political party of Morales. It looked, for all the world, like a coup.

The OAS report set into motion this chain of events. Subsequent analysis, however, demonstrated that the OAS judgement was flawed and that there were no statistical anomalies in the vote. Granted, there were other problems with the election, but they could have been investigated without calling into question the entire enterprise.

It’s also true that Morales himself possesses an autocratic streak. He held a referendum to overturn the presidential term limit and then ignored the result to run again. He came under criticism from environmentalists, feminists, and his former supporters. But Morales was a shrewd leader whose policies raised the standard of living for the country’s poorest inhabitants, particularly those from indigenous communities.

These policies have enduring popularity in the country. With Morales out of the political equation, Bolivians made their preferences clear in an election earlier this month. Luis Arce, the new leader of MAS, received 55 percent of the vote in a seven-way race, a sufficient margin to avoid a run-off. The leader of last year’s protest movement against Morales received a mere 14 percent. MAS also captured majorities in both houses of congress. An extraordinary 88 percent of Bolivian voters participated in the election.

The victory of MAS is a reminder that the obituaries for Latin America’s “pink tide” have been a tad premature.

The Bolivians are not the only ones intent on overturning the results of a coup.

In Thailand, crowds of protesters have taken to the streets to protest what The Atlantic calls the “world’s last military dictatorship.” In the past, Thailand has been nearly torn apart by a battle between “red shirts” (populists) and “yellow shirts” (royalists). This time around, students and leftists from the reds have united with some middle-class yellows against a common enemy: the military. Even members of the police have been seen flashing the three-finger salute of the protesters, which they’ve borrowed from The Hunger Games.

The protesters want the junta’s figurehead, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, to step down. They want to revise the military-crafted constitution. And they want reforms in the monarchy that stands behind the political leadership. Anger at the royals has been rising since the new king took over in 2016, particularly since he spends much of his time with his entourage in a hotel in Bavaria.

It’s not easy to outmaneuver the Thai military. The country has had more coups in the modern era than any other country: 13 successful ones and nine that have failed. But this is the first time in a long time that the country seems unified in its opposition to the powers that be.

Finally, the prospects for democracy in Mali received a recent boost as the military junta that took over in August orchestrated a transition to more-or-less civilian rule over the last month. The new government includes the former foreign minister Moctar Ouane as prime minister and several positions for the Tuaregs, who’d previously tilted toward separatism. Military men still occupy some key positions in the new government, but West African governments were sufficiently satisfied with this progress to lift the economic sanctions imposed after the coup. National elections are to take place in 18 months.

Standing Up the Autocrats: Belarus and Poland 

Protesters in Belarus want Alexander Lukashenko to leave office. Lukashenko refuses to go, so the protesters are refusing to go as well.

Mass protests have continued on the streets of Minsk and other Belarusian cities ever since Lukashenko declared himself the winner of the presidential election in August. The last European dictator has done his best to suppress the resistance. The authorities detained at least 20,000 people and beat many of those in custody.

This Sunday, nearly three months after the election, 100,000 again showed up in Minsk to give punch to an ultimatum issued by exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: Lukashenko either steps down or will face a nationwide work stoppage.

Lukashenko didn’t step down. So, people walked out.

The strikes began on Monday, with workers refusing to show up at enterprises and students boycotting classes. Shops closed down, their owners creating human chains in Minsk. Even retirees joined in.

Notably, the protest movement in Belarus is directed by women. Slawomir Sierakowski describes one telling incident in the New York Review of Books:

After receiving reports of an illegal assembly, a riot squad is dispatched to disperse it. But when they get there, it turns out to comprise three elderly ladies sitting on a bench, each holding piece of paper: the first sheet is white, the second red, the third white again — the colors of the pro-democracy movement’s flag. Sheepishly, these masked commandos with no identification numbers herd the women into a car and carry them off to jail.

How many sweet old ladies can a regime lock up without looking ridiculous? 

Women are rising up in neighboring Poland as well, fed up the overtly patriarchal leadership of the ruling Law and Justice Party. The right-wing government has recently made abortion near-to-impossible in the country, and protesters have taken to the streets. In fact, they’ve been blockading city centers.

It’s not just women. Farmers and miners have also joined the protests. As one miner’s union put it, “a state that assumes the role of ultimate arbiter of people’s consciences is heading in the direction of a totalitarian state.”

Strengthening the Rule of Law: Chile and Nigeria

Chile has been a democracy for three decades. But it has still abided by a constitution written during the Pinochet dictatorship.

That, finally, will change, thanks to a protest movement sparked by a subway fare increase.  Beginning last year, students led the demonstrations against that latest austerity measure from the government. Resistance took its toll: around 36 people have died at the hands of the militarized police. But protests continued despite COVID-19.

What started as anger over a few pesos has culminated in more profound political change.

This week, Chileans went to the polls in a referendum on the constitution, with 78 percent voting in favor of a new constitution. In April, another election will determine the delegates for the constitutional convention. In 2022, Chileans will approve or reject the new constitution.

The protests were motivated by the economic inequality of Chilean society. A new constitution could potentially facilitate greater government involvement in the economy. But that kind of shift away from the neoliberal strictures of the Pinochet era will require accompanying institutional reforms throughout the Chilean system. A new generation of Chileans, who have seen their actions on the streets translate into constitutional change, will be empowered to stay engaged to make those changes happen.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, the recent protests have focused on an epidemic of police killings. But the protests have led to more violence, with the police responsible for a dozen killings in Lagos last week. Which only generated more protest and more violence.

Activists throughout Africa — in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and elsewhere — have been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to challenge the police brutality in their own countries. Accountable governments, transparent institutions, respect for the rule of law: these are all democratic preconditions. Without them, the elections that outsiders focus on as the litmus test of democracy are considerably less meaningful.

The Future of People Power

People power has caught governments by surprise in the past. That surprise factor has largely disappeared. Lukashenko in Belarus knows what a color revolution looks like and how best to head it off. The government in Poland contains some veterans of the Solidarity movement, and they know from the inside how to deal with street protests. The Thai military has played the coup card enough times to know how to avert a popular take-over at the last moment.

But in this cat-and-mouse world, people power is evolving as well. New technologies provide new powers of persuasion and organizing. Greater connectivity provides greater real-time scrutiny of government actions. Threats like climate change provide new urgency.

Sure, authoritarians can wait out the storm. But the people can do the same.

Here in the United States, periodic demonstrations have done little to push the Trump administration toward needed reforms. Nor have they led to his removal from office. Trump delights in ignoring and/or disparaging his critics. He rarely listens even to his advisors.

But the four years are up on Tuesday. The American people will have a chance to speak. And this time the whole world is listening and watching. Judging from the president’s approval ratings overseas, they too are dreaming of regime change.

The post People to Autocrats: Not So Fast appeared first on Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the new book The Pandemic Pivot.