The Democratic candidates have introduced a raft of radical progressive proposals on the domestic policy front, from Medicare for All to free public college to universal basic income. Yet that appetite for radicalism has been sorely lacking on the foreign policy front, with the candidates mostly mouthing the same noncommittal platitudes we’ve come to expect from cautious presidential contenders. Why is it that the policy area in which American presidents have the most power and the most freedom to shape world events is so often overlooked in our political campaigns? Atlantic contributor and City University of New York professor Peter Beinart joins Mehdi Hasan to talk about why Democrats are so timid on foreign policy.
Peter Beinart: There is a notion of what is responsible in foreign policy that is often not seriously and thoughtfully questioned, a notion that the expansion of the American military footprint is always synonymous with enhancing the well-being of ordinary Americans.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan. When oh, when are we gonna talk foreign policy? It feels like no matter how many foreign wars the U.S. is fighting, no matter how many people are dying, no matter how much it matters, what happens abroad, overseas, far away, in the ‘obscure’ and ‘complex’ realm of foreign policy, that feels like a bit of an afterthought for most of the Democratic presidential candidates.
PB: They’re not really trying to break down the ideological boundaries that have defined foreign policy in the way they are with domestic policy.
MH: That’s my guest today, the journalist, academic, and author Peter Beinart. On today’s show, he and I will be asking and trying to answer the question: why won’t the Democrats take a stronger, more radical stand on changing America’s awful, awful foreign policy?
Here’s what really frustrates me: we’re only a few months into the Democratic presidential race and we’ve already seen candidates from across the political spectrum make big, bold moves on a variety of domestic policy issues. Take Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s enjoying a bit of a bump in the polls right now.
Elizabeth Warren: There are people who are ready for big structural change in this country. They’re ready for change and I got a plan for that.
MH: Her plans range from a new wealth tax on assets over $50 million and a new tax on corporate profits to student debt cancellation, free college, universal child care. Then there’s Senator Bernie Sanders, the only socialist in the race who has made healthcare his number one issue.
Harry Smith: What’s your big idea?
Bernie Sanders: Medicare for all.
HS: Does that mean all?
BS: Yeah, it means all.
MH: Senator Kamala Harris wants, among other things, a national moratorium on the death penalty and the decriminalization of sex work. Senator Cory Booker wants to use baby bonds to close the racial wealth gap. Congressman Eric Swalwell wants to ban assault weapons and do a government buy-back.
Several of the presidential candidates have signed onto the ambitious Green New Deal to fight climate change. In fact, Washington governor Jay Inslee has been praised for introducing a massively detailed plan to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy. So too has former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke, who unveiled a $5 trillion plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Beto O’Rourke: We’re talking about five trillion invested in infrastructure, in innovation. This is by far the most ambitious plan to confront climate change that we have ever seen.
MH: But while the Democrats have got much more radical, much more progressive, much more ambitious on domestic policy — whether it’s tax policy, energy policy, housing, healthcare, education, etc — we’ve heard very, very little when it comes to foreign policy. I mean, look, yes, Bernie Sanders has said some stuff. Last week, he used MoveOn’s Big Ideas forum to pitch a pretty strong antiwar message.
BS: We have got to stop endless wars. We have got to cut military spending.
MH: And Mayor Pete Buttigieg said this week that he wants Congress to take back its constitutionally designated role when it comes to deciding matters of war and peace:
Pete Buttigieg: The time has come for Congress to repeal and replace that blank check on the use of force and ensure a robust debate on any future operations.
MH: And yet, as a general rule, I think it’s fair to say that foreign policy has taken a backseat in this Democratic presidential race so far. Which is so weird on so many levels. Because presidents actually have way more power and freedom when it comes to foreign policy than they do on domestic policy. Most presidencies are defined as much by foreign policy as they are by domestic policy – if not more so. Think of Nixon and the war crimes in Southeast Asia; Reagan and the Berlin Wall, George Bush Sr. and the Gulf War; George Bush Jr. and the War on Terror; Obama even and his Libya war, his drone war, his Iran Deal.
And yet while there’s been this shift to the left on domestic policy from almost all of the major presidential candidates, there hasn’t been an equivalent left-wing shift on foreign policy. In fact, on the issue of Russia, Democrats including Bernie Sanders have attacked Trump from the right. And speaking of Trump, this president has been a disaster on the international stage. So why aren’t Democrats making more of that?
Last year, the New York Times got hold of a White House document sent to Congress which made it very clear that the United States government right now is fighting wars in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger. Candidate Trump remember, claimed to be the Republican isolationist candidate, the anti-war candidate.
Donald J. Trump: For years, we have been caught up in endless wars and conflicts under the leadership of failed politicians and a failed, totally failed, foreign policy.
MH: And yet, President Trump has escalated or expanded U.S. involvement in every single one of those seven conflicts. So much for ‘Donald the Dove!’
Then there’s Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition continues to bomb and besiege the poorest country in the Middle East with U.S. diplomatic and military support. Why aren’t Democrats putting out ads saying this president is pro-genocide? He’s pro-killing kids? Because he blatantly is. When he signed that veto in April, when he blocked a bill that was pushed by some Republicans but mainly by Democrats to end the Yemen war, that conflict became, lock, stock and barrel, Trump’s war, not just Obama’s war.
But maybe that’s part of the equation. Maybe Democrats don’t want to draw attention to how much Obama got wrong when it comes to foreign policy: his support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen when it kicked off in 2015; the complete botched U.S. covert intervention in Syria and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in that country on Obama’s watch; the war in Libya which has left that country looking like a Mad Max hellscape; the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen with their civilian death tolls; the failure to make progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict; the failed pivot to Asia; the failed reset with Russia.
Maybe Democrats also can’t agree on what a progressive new foreign policy should look like. Because let’s face it: a lot of conservative Democrats, and even some liberal ones, are quite hawkish and like big wars. Maybe they’re also just as influenced as the Republicans are by the pro-Israel and pro-Saudi lobbies, by the military-industrial complex, by the foreign policy think tank Blob in Washington DC. Or, maybe, they just assume, rightly or wrongly, that ordinary Americans don’t give a damn about foreign affairs, about faraway conflicts in faraway lands.
MH: So I wanted to talk about some of this stuff with Peter Beinart, contributing editor at The Atlantic, senior columnist at the Forward, and a professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.
He’s written a bunch of pieces recently on the Democrats’ failure to come up with a China policy that varies from Trump’s, the party’s hawkishness on Iran, and the weakness of the rhetoric coming from most Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to Israel and the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Peter, by the way, as editor of the New Republic magazine back in 2003 enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq. But I think it’s fair to say he holds very different view today, and is now a leading U.S. media critic of the “forever wars.” He joins me now.
Peter, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.
PB: My pleasure.
MH: Peter, am I being unfair when I say the Democrats haven’t just failed to match the boldness and radicalism on domestic policy that they’re showing these days, with boldness and radicalism on foreign policy? They haven’t just failed to match that on foreign policy, but the foreign policy isn’t even getting a look in when you look at the campaigns of the most of the Democratic presidential candidates.
PB: No, I think that’s fair. They’re not talking about it very much, partly because it’s not what’s mostly on voters minds, which is the norm in the United States when the United States is not in a war where a lot of Americans are dying. That’s just the reality of our political system. But I also don’t think they’re doing very much to kind of generate the kind of conversation in the Democratic party that will be necessary for them to build a mandate to really change things if they get in office.
MH: Good point, people always forget about the idea that you have to, you know, lay the groundwork, if you want to make changes in office and the way they have done in Medicare for all, for example. It’s been going on for a few years now moving that debate on health care. The Democrats on foreign policy seem to want to go back to business as usual on foreign policy back to a pre-Trump era, even though I would argue that business as usual, and the pre-Trump era was pretty shitty in terms of American policy on human rights, democracy, greenhouse gas emissions and the rest.
PB: Yeah, I think Sanders is a little bit, Bernie Sanders is a little bit of an exception to that. Hillary Clinton, I think it’s worth remembering in 2016, was running a little bit to Obama’s right on foreign policy. She was a little bit more hawkish. To be fair, the Democrats aren’t doing that they might be even a quarter of a step more dove-ish than Obama, but what they’re not doing, which is the big distinction that you’re rightly making, is they’re not really trying to break down the ideological boundaries that have defined foreign policy in the way they are with domestic policy. And I think —
MH: Why do you think that is?
PB: I think it’s, again, I think, partly because they don’t feel that they’re being, the public is not demanding it. But I also think that the foreign policy establishment, the people who make foreign policy, many of whom are you know, good, well-meaning people, but I think they are more insulated from public pressure. And they are not, they’ve not had to kind of grapple with the deep sense of failure and radicalism that has emerged among ordinary grassroots Democrats, they remained fairly insulated from that. That’s because foreign policy in the United States is a much more elite-driven business than domestic policy.
MH: Yes, with very little accountability, the people who got Iraq wrong or other wars wrong, they’re still around advocating for new wars. You mentioned the whole concept of whether you’re a tad to the left or right of Obama, or Clinton. You wrote a piece late last year for The Atlantic, where you made the point, in fact, a very valid point that a lot of the Democrats, senior democrats in DC have been attacking Trump from the right on foreign policy, when you look at things like China or Russia or North Korea, do you think that’s a strategic move on their part where they genuinely believe this stuff, but you know, they genuinely want to have a hawkish position on North Korea forever?
PB: I think it’s a bit of both. I think there is certainly a long hangover, which started from the post-Vietnam era and was re-invigorated a little bit in the post 9/11 era of Democrats always looking over their right shoulder and fearing not to be seen as tough enough, especially when it comes to anything — And that’s partly because the Republican Party had kind of become the party that was more entrenched in the military over the decades. But I also think that there is a notion of what is responsible in foreign policy that is often not really, very seriously and thoughtfully questioned.
So, you know, a notion that, kind of, that the expansion of the American military footprint is all things being equal, kind of, always synonymous with enhancing the well-being of ordinary Americans. And I think one of the reasons that Trump won the Republican primary in particular, and that also helped him the general election is that he was actually willing to challenge that equation. And I think that Democrats, although Trump’s own foreign policy has been totally disastrous. I think actually, that would be a good place for Democrats to start in rethinking some of the basic assumptions that tend to lead to this kind of expansionist foreign policy that we have.
MH: It was amazing in 2015, 2016, the way in which he up ended the Republican party consensus on foreign policy compared to Mitt Romney’s platform in 2012. I remember seeing, you know, when he made the comment about John McCain, you know, I like people who aren’t captured. We thought his campaign was over in 2015. You can’t attack a war hero on the right. And he got away with it. When he stood in the debates, I remember watching the debate on TV where he said, Well, George W. Bush, what did he say 9/11 happened on his watch? He kind of mocked Jeb.
And the crowd, some people in the crowd booed but others cheered. And the next day, it didn’t affect his poll rating at all. And of course, he went on about how he had been anti-war in Iraq, which he wasn’t he lied, but he said he was. He said he was anti-war in Libya. Again, he lied, but he said he was and it all helped him. It didn’t hurt him. And I wonder where in 2020 in this race on the Democratic side, we talked about — Let’s talk about Bernie. Is Bernie Sanders the person who’s willing to do that in this race, up-end things?
PB: More than any other candidate. Again, I think it’s partly because just he’s more distant from the Democratic foreign policy establishment. And I think he’s begun to do some of that. So, he has, for instance, asked the question, really, you know, is Saudi Arabia really morally superior to Iran, for instance, why necessarily? You know, the mainstream Democratic view is kind of, yes, the Iran deal was good but we need to take a very hawkish position on Iran, because they are a uniquely aggressive and immoral actor in the Middle East. So, you see a kind of a half step in a positive direction towards Trump, but not a really fundamental kind of questioning of some of the deeper assumptions, right?
I mean, I think the Islamic Republic of Iran is a pretty, is a really odious regime, in terms of what they do domestically and I think they do a lot of bad stuff in the region. But when one looks at their prime regional competitors, particularly, you know, Saudi Arabia, in the UAE, I find it very difficult to see that there’s an important moral distinction. And I think it would be better for the United States to actually try to have a business-like working relationship with both of those regimes in order to give ourselves the most leverage, and for us to try to cool down, try to kind of diffuse the Cold War in the region, rather than heating it up. And it’s striking to me that that’s still not, except for Bernie a little bit, that’s not really something you hear from the Democratic candidates.
MH: No, and we’ll come on to Elizabeth Warren in a moment. But she’s been very hawkish on Iran in the past, I remember. What’s interesting about Bernie, I interviewed him in 2017 on foreign policy before he gave this big speech on foreign policy. And of course, I’m sure many of our listeners remember that Bernie was actually attacked in 2016, for not having any foreign policy, for not being willing to talk about foreign policy. He was up against a former secretary of state who was touting her national security foreign policy credentials.
I remember Bernie was asked who advises you and he came up with a few names and all those people then denied that they were advisers to Bernie Sanders. What’s interesting is since then, he’s hired people like Matt Duss, kind of progressive foreign policy thinker and we’ve seen the shift again. He’s laid the groundwork on Yemen, on Israel, on dealing with Iran and Saudi Arabia. I remember when I interviewed him 2017, he said at the time, why are we not equidistant between Iran and Saudi? In fact, I think the Iranian people are probably more pro-American than the Saudis are. And it was kind of radical to hear him say that at the time, again, the bench that you know, the bar is so low, the benchmark is so low.
But what’s interesting is this idea of staffing. If Elizabeth Warren —who’s also said some very interesting things on foreign policy, talking about ending the war in Afghanistan, you know, the use of nuclear weapons and resisting that — if someone like her became president, see what you think about this scenario, Peter. I like Elizabeth Warren. I think she’s got great policies on the domestic front. She’s got a whole “I’ve got a plan for that” stuff. If she becomes president, is there a danger that she’s really progressive radical on the domestic front, and that’s what she knows. That’s her baby. That’s what she knows about. That’s what she instinctively cares about. And then she then ends up outsourcing foreign policy to the democratic foreign policy establishment, to the Clinton retreads, which is what Obama did on economic policy if you remember, in 2008, when he came in, he kind of hired Larry Summers and Tim Geithner and that was reflected in the policy, the staffing matters.
PB: It matters enormously. I think you’re making a very, very good point and you have to work very aggressively to overcome the powerful inertia that exists. You know, there’s a history. If you look at John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, they were all on foreign policy to the left of their most powerful adviser. You know, they were all more willing to reconsider, in the case of Kennedy and Carter, the Cold War. And then in the case of Obama, the war on terror, and they were in many ways circumscribed and hemmed in by the people they had brought in to be their top advisers who were people who came from an establishment that they felt like they needed to curry favor with.
MH: Well, Obama had Robert Gates, former Republican. He had Leon Panetta, former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff, yeah.
PB: Right, and Hillary Clinton was more established than him and James Jones remember his first national security adviser had been friends of John McCain. And this, to shift this is not easy. It requires you actually to have people who are willing to push, in a weird way, it almost requires you to have your own versions of the John Boltons of the world. People who are willing to push aggressively through a bureaucracy to try to make change, otherwise, you end up being hemmed in. I mean, if you look at Obama’s Afghanistan decision, it was pretty clear that he realized that he didn’t think that sending more troops to Afghanistan in his first year was going to do a lot of good, but he really was very hemmed in by the military in particular, which is, you know, has enormous weight in these interagency debates. And I think right now, my worry that Elizabeth Warren, who I also admire a lot, in a lot of ways, is not positioning herself necessarily to do that.
MH: No, it’s a very good point. And of course, Trump himself who played this fake anti-war card when he was running, he had the same decision to make on Afghanistan as Obama in terms of troop numbers, troop levels, and we know that his then National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, put a lot of pressure on him not to pull troops out in the way that Trump wanted to, and we’re still in Afghanistan now. I think, what is it, I saw somewhere that they’re now sending troops to Afghanistan, who were not born on 9/11. We’ve now reached that point in America’s longest war, which is an astonishing statistic.
PB: Right, I mean, we even see this in this bizarre way with Trump, whereas in some ways, the person who’s putting the brakes on the possibility of war with North Korea and Iran is Trump, you know, because he has kind of Republican establishment foreign policy advisers who basically pursue an ultra-confrontational policy with these countries.
MH: Yeah, it’s a weird, bizarre combo there. It’s interesting you mentioned Bolton. I was having a conversation with a colleague just before we started recording this interview and I was talking about, you know, what I’m going to be talking to you about. We were talking about the same issue of staffing and like, who would Bernie Sanders make his national security advisor? And I was kind of joking about the fact that — maybe it’s not a joke — that Trump has changed all the rules. He’s brought in such weird, unqualified, freakish people.
You know, when you have Sebastian Gorka, as a special assistant to the president working in the White House with zero real, zero qualifications, why couldn’t Bernie Sanders — in the aftermath of a Trump presidency and a John Bolton as a national security adviser — why couldn’t Bernie Sanders pluck some lefty academic who no one’s ever heard of to be his national security adviser or deputy national security adviser and bring some of that what we’re talking about some of that resistance to the U.S. military establishment and ministry, military industrial complex? It might be feasible.
PB: Yes, I mean, the question is always do those people understand the bureaucracy well enough? I mean, the reason that Cheney was so dastardly effective, and that Bolton is only as effective is because they understand the bureaucracy. I think what I would hope is that I think there are more people on the periphery of the kind of Clinton/Obama foreign policy where I think of someone like Rob Malley, for instance —
MH: Yes, who has been on the show. He’s great.
PB: Yeah, who now runs the International Crisis Group, you know, who I think were more willing to kind of step back and think differently. One of the issues that I think you know, is important to think about and to recognize here is, you know, if you read a book like “The Best and the Brightest,” Halberstam’s famous, you know, kind of book about Vietnam. One of the things that he points out is that a whole a whole group of scholars who really understood Asia were basically exiled from American government, because of their position on China during the McCarthy era. And that prevented the kind of internal conversation about Vietnam that was desperately necessary in the mid 1960s.
I think one of the things that has happened on American policy towards the Middle East, is that because of the kind of rigid lines that have been drawn around the debate over Israel, there is, there’s a group of people, I think, I would think, put Stephen Walt, in this category, I would put Charles Freeman in this category series of people. And Malley was virtually in this category, he couldn’t get a job at the beginning of the Obama administration, who would be very valuable for their expertise on other things, but essentially, because they ran afoul of the Israel consensus, haven’t really been able to have a significant role in foreign policy in general.
MH: I’m going to come back to the Israel consensus in a moment, just while we’re on the subject of staffing and people. I mean, you could also go to some of the newer members of Congress. You look at someone like Ro Khana who has made some amazing moves on foreign policy in terms of war in Yemen, in terms of, you know, even speaking out on Venezuela when there’s a strong consensus to intervene in Venezuela, to recognize Juan Guaido as president, he’s come out on that. I mean, someone like Ro Khana, why couldn’t he be appointed to State Department position?
PB: I think you’re right.
MH: A fresh voice.
PB: And I think he’s, I think he’s really doing a lot of the most interesting and kind of serious rethinking that exists among Democrats in Congress on these issues right now. Chris Murphy, I think it’s someone else who’s been doing some good work.
MH: I mean, they’ve done amazing work on Yemen. Pete Buttigieg who of course, served in the military as he constantly reminds us. Mayor Pete, he gave a big foreign policy speech on Tuesday night. As we were preparing for the show, I was kind of joking with my producer saying, you know, we’re doing this show on how the Democrats don’t talk about foreign policy Sod’s Law, Pete Buttigieg is giving a big speech on foreign policy. And you’ve written about his speech for The Forward. I looked at the speech before we started recording, just the transcript.
When you look at the speech, though, it’s kind of underwhelming, he lays out five major foreign policy proposals: repeal and replace the 9/11 AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force, which has been used to justify all sorts of wars over the last 18 years, don’t allow U.S. aid money to be used by the Israelis to annex the West Bank and Gaza, the occupied Palestinian territories, to rejoin the Paris Climate Change Agreement, to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal, and to invest in green energy. Now, those are all well and good. But I think you would agree with me when I say they’re pretty low bars to cross to say, I’m going to rejoin international agreements that Obama joined that then Trump pulled us out of. It’s not exactly hugely ambitious, is it?
PB: No, it’s not. I mean, it’s look, it’s all sensible. And certainly, a huge relief from Trump. And I think that there are, you know, there were a lot of to use American baseball, you know, he hit a lot of singles in that speech. But what I don’t think he did was try to make bigger and more structural changes. And to think you know, if you’re going to say, for instance, on the Israel question that you don’t want American money to be used to annex settlements, then why don’t you say, but you don’t want American money to be used to support settlements at all? Since surely, the problem is that the settlements exist, rather than simply that Israel might formalize its control.
MH: Also, you want to get applause for saying we’re not going to fund violations of international law? Bravo. I mean, what a low bar. Obviously, you couldn’t fund the annexation of the West Bank. That’s a war crime.
PB: Right, and, you know, and beyond that, I feel like it’s, you know, it’s one thing to say we should rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal, of course, but I think that, again, what he didn’t do was talk about a question of what’s the value of all these sanctions we have on Iran? Which are causing a, you know, hugely damaging effect to the people of Iran and undermining its ability to be the long, the pro-American, liberal democracy we want or even for that matter, North Korea, I mean, I’m waiting for a Democrat to come and say, look, the emperor has no clothes. The North Koreans have nuclear weapons. They’re never going to give up their nuclear weapons. And the massive sanctions we are putting on this monstrous regime are simply making the realities for their people even worse and we need to move towards reconciliation.
MH: But that requires questioning the underlying premises of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which is North Korea denuclearization, which, as you say, is absurd. They’re not going to give up nuclear weapons anytime soon, or ever. That requires questioning the premise of yes, we support Israel right and wrong, even when they’re violating international law in the occupied territories. And on Iran, as you say, you know, okay, we’re not going to ditch the Iran Nuclear Deal but we still think Iran is the enemy. And remember Obama’s line, which used to always annoy the hell out of me. He always used to say “All options on the table,” which, you know, why can’t a candidate say actually no, I have no military plan for Iran right now. You know, if Iran were to attack us, obviously, we would deal with it then. But right now, I have no plans during my presidency to go to war with Iran. How about raising the bar a little more than just saying I’ll rejoin the nuclear deal?
PB: Right. Right. You know, and even the fact that you use the word war, you know, one of the things that, again, foreign policy is so euphemistic linguistically in the United States, you know, that ones always talking about, you know, military intervention or assertive action or muscular foreign policy, right. When you put it more boldly, it becomes in some ways clear how absurd it is which is that there’s no, absolutely no reason that we should be going to war with Iran, absent them actually, in some way, which is very hard to imagine actually attacking the United States.
MH: You wrote a piece last week for The Forward headlined “Thirteen Democrats Recorded Messages About Israel. Only One Spoke with Courage.” Who was that one? And what was wrong with the other 12 presidential candidate messages?
PB: So, that was Bernie Sanders. You know, this was a speech to the American Jewish Committee, and I think the American Jewish Committee is exactly the kind of American, established American Jewish group, which really needs Democrats to say, you know, we support Israel. We believe in the principles of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. We believe that Israel is profoundly violating those principles in ways that are devastating to Palestinians. And we are going to try to take action to change that. And instead, that would have been an act of courage because that crowd doesn’t usually hear that kind of thing. And only Sanders did. The rest of them were extraordinarily weak and euphemistic, and at times even dishonest in, you know, including, again, candidates who I admire in other realms. And I, again, my fear is that, especially on this issue, they just want to take the path of least resistance and focus on other things. And I think that will mean —
MH: On the least resistance path, you’re one of the country’s best known Jewish American political journalists. Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish American presidential candidate if he wins these primaries. Is it because he is Jewish that he feels he can maybe push the boundaries a little bit more than others on this debate, without being accused of anti-Semitism?
PB: Perhaps a little bit. I think, again, it also matters immensely, that he has advisors like Matt Duss, who are deeply invested in this issue and have worked with him on this issue. I mean, Jewish or not, there’s no question that I think elements of the organized American Jewish community, if they see Sanders emerging from this, in this field, are going to rally very, very strongly against him for any almost any of his opponents.
MH: That would be amazing. I mean, think about that the first Jewish American presidential candidate, and he won’t have the support of the organized American Jewish Committees because of his position on Israel.
PB: Right, because the organized American Jewish Committee in many ways is quite very distinct ideologically from the actual mass of American Jews. But I, you know, in my experience with a lot of politicians, and frankly, this goes for a lot of journalists too, non-Jewish, maybe some Jewish too, but especially non-Jewish, they see this whole Israel debate as basically walking blindfolded through a minefield. And what they want is just to be able to get through to the other side of the minefield without being blown up. And that encourages you to take the most tentative cautious positions, and rather than the ones that actually accord with your own values.
MH: Although having said that, just be fair to these Democratic presidential candidates, a lot of them have, as you’ve acknowledged, and I have as well, thanks to Netanyahu being such a freakish, right-winger, all these issues, you have people like Beto O’Rourke coming out and calling him a racist, which I could never imagine a previous American presidential candidate calling an Israeli Prime Minister a racist in that way.
PB: Yes and that does show that there has been a shift inside the party. And a lot of that, I think is you know, Americans tend to often see the rest of the world by analogy, vis a vis the United States. I mean, one of the reasons the anti-Apartheid movement was able to grow so powerful United States was because of the analogy with the Civil Rights Movement. And I think because people see Netanyahu through the analogy of Trump that has emboldened them a bit. If they can call Trump a racist, then why not call Netanyahu a racist. He’s the Israeli Trump.
MH: Especially when they’ve allied together and it’s no longer a bipartisan issue in the way it was. Just before we run out of time, you talked about a shift. Can we talk about your own shift, your own journey, your own evolution on some of these foreign policy issues? Because some might say you were part of this Blob that Ben Rhodes and others have talked about his foreign policy centrist view of the world. You were editor of the center left New Republic Magazine that all of the establishment Democrats love to read. You were pro the Iraq War in 2003. You even wrote a book about the war on terror, I think called “The Good Fight” back in 2006. You were a liberal hawk, weren’t you? What changed?
PB: I think, you know, I thought a lot about this. My second book, “The Icarus Syndrome” was really about this. It’s about hubris in American foreign policy. I think for me, it had to do with a series of events that I witnessed coming out of college. First, the Gulf War, then Bosnia and Kosovo in the mid 1990s, which were immensely influential for liberal hawks. And I think, which led again, along with this notion that the 1990s were an end of history, along with America becoming the singular global power and the end of the budget deficit that led to a kind of culture of hubris that I was very, very much a part of that existed on the eve of 9/11. And then when 9/11 happened and the sense of righteous indignation, was married with this hubris about America’s military, and the kind of the American power and about American wisdom to intervene and remake other countries. It was, in retrospect, a really toxic combination. But unfortunately, it took me seeing the disaster of that war and seeing the effect it had even on people close to me, who suffered as a result of it to be able to recognize that in retrospect.
MH: And I’ve got to ask one last question. We can’t have this discussion about foreign policy in the Democratic president without asking this question. How bad a president on foreign policy would Joe Biden be?
PB: It’s a little hard to tell because Biden has been all over the place on foreign policy, but I think that, you know, there were times where his view, kind of, was actually a little bit more minimalist than Obama’s. But I fear that it would be — I mean, look, I think it will be very much probably a return to Obama. And yet, I think Obama in his heart probably wanted to go further in reconsidering things and just couldn’t because of the political limitations. And I fear that Obama [sic] will be a return to the Obama-era. Certainly, it will be much better than Trump, but I don’t think we’ll have the fundamental reckoning that we really need to have.
MH: Much better than Trump is a very low bar, sadly. That’s what I worry about, that we’re going to kind of give these people a pass because anyone is better than Donald Trump. But Joe Biden, in terms of the field we’ve been talking about, obviously, he’s the only candidate running who voted for the Iraq War. He still calls himself a personal friend of Benjamin Netanyahu, you know, some of his dealings in Ukraine are now catching all sorts of news attention. I just worry how bad a president would he be? I take your point that he was minimalist on some issues like Afghanistan. But really if we’re going to talk about changing foreign policy, surely he’s the candidate who’s least likely to change anything on this front.
PB: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, again, if we’re looking for a fundamental rethinking, which I think America very badly needs, because we’re now basically acting in a series of extremely reckless ways with power which we don’t even have anymore. You know, and it’s just a matter of time until other countries around the world start calling our bluff in ways that I think will be very, very painful for Americans and we really need to try to get ahead of that. And I agree, I think Biden is probably the least likely to do that.
MH: Peter, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
PB: My pleasure, thanks.
MH: That was Peter Beinart, contributing editor at The Atlantic, senior economist at The Forward discussing U.S. foreign policy and whether these Democratic presidential candidates are up to the challenge, the huge challenge of breaking with the U.S. foreign policy consensus, breaking with the hawks, breaking with the people who want it to be business as usual, who want to go back to a pre-Trump era, which wasn’t very good to begin with.
I think he and I both agree that Bernie Sanders has clearly kind of set out his stall on foreign policy. He could still go much further, but at least he’s asking big questions, taking some stands, the other 23 candidates, not so much. A little bit of Warren, a little bit of Buttigieg. Biden, disastrous on this issue, in my view, Iraq war hawk. What are the rest of them going to do? And what are we going to do in terms of pressuring these candidates to talk about foreign policy? What are we as journalists going to do to talk more clearly about all of the human rights abuses that the U.S. has been complicit in? That is a burden on us all, a responsibility on us all.
MH: That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at [email protected] Thanks so much!
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