It’s déjà vu all over again. We’re hearing more and more from anti-establishment types that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, that it doesn’t make a real difference to the United States or the world which candidate wins in November. We’ve been here before, and this idea is very, very wrong.
We heard similar arguments back in 2000 when Ralph Nader ran as the Green Party candidate for president. I voted for Nader in 2000 because I agreed with (and still do now) the key planks of the Green Party platform. But we know now that Nader was one reason, but certainly not the only one, that George W. Bush won the presidency, based on a very close vote in Florida that ultimately required the Supreme Court to step in and stop the recount.
In a 5-4 conservative majority decision, the Supreme Court took action on what was a fundamentally political question. And they gave the presidency to a man who is widely considered now to have been one of our worst presidents of all time.
This isn’t a partisan conclusion: The survey I linked to included 238 presidential scholars. Bush’s presidency included monumental mistakes and tragedies, including primarily the Iraq War that began in 2003 and led to the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqis, and is still reverberating today with entities like ISIS arising directly from that war as well as from previous U.S. foreign policy decisions in Pakistan and elsewhere in the 1980s and '90s.
President Obama has unfortunately reignited the Iraq War after bringing it to a close in 2011. In 2014, he began sending troops and air forces back into Iraq in an effort to stop ISIS from taking over the whole country. This is so far a very limited re-engagement when compared to the all-out invasion that Bush ordered in 2003. For example, only a few thousand ground troops are engaged in Iraq and Syria so far, compared with more than 160,000 at the height of the war.
The 2003 Iraq War is the most egregious example of U.S. foreign policy mistakes in the past couple of generations and is this generation’s Vietnam War. The Vietnam War led to the deaths of 58,000 American soldiers and, depending on how you count, about 3 million Vietnamese. That war was a clear defeat for the United States, and the general consensus today is that that war was an unnecessary war of choice that led not only to loss of stature on the world stage but also to massive death, suffering and destruction.
The history of U.S. wars over the past century, however, shows fairly clearly that the Republican Party can rightly claim the mantle of being the war party and has almost always been the more belligerent of the two major parties.
Since our next president is going to be either Trump or Clinton, this is not just an academic debate. Literally millions of lives may hang in the balance because Republicans are historically more likely to start wars than Democrats.
It is not, then, a matter of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in this election. There are real differences.
Stephen Kinzer’s books Overthrow and Brothers provide a great overview of U.S. unilateral wars and regime change operations from 1893 onward. That year marked the first U.S. regime change operation, in Hawaii, in which a small group of American Hawaiians overthrew Queen Lili’uokalani in a coup with the backing of the U.S. Marines but without the knowledge or consent of President Grover Cleveland. Cleveland actually worked to reverse the coup but wasn’t able to do so. When President William McKinley succeeded him in 1897, McKinley pushed successfully for annexation of Hawaii and in 1898 Hawaii officially became part of the United States after a congressional resolution passed.
This was the first in a long line of U.S. regime change operations and unilateral wars, but there is an obvious pattern in looking at the 14 regime change operations that Kinzer focuses on in his book Overthrow: All but one were conducted by Republican presidents or, in the case of Hawaii, without any presidential involvement (at least until after the fact). The major exception to this rule is the Vietnam early war engagement and later regime change operation, supported by Democrat Kennedy, which led to Diem’s death at the hand of his CIA-backed captors and eventually all-out war by his successors Lyndon Johnson (Democrat) and Richard Nixon (Republican).
Here is a quick history of the major U.S. unilateral wars and regime change operations since 1893:
» 1893: White Hawaiians of American descent, with the help of the U.S. Marines but without official U.S. support until after the fact, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Democrat President Cleveland made some weak efforts to reverse the coup but failed. Republican McKinley officially annexed Hawaii in 1898 with the support of Congress.
» 1898: Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico are seized from Spanish control by Republican McKinley after the Spanish-American War.
» 1912: U.S. under Republican William Howard Taft invaded Nicaragua and occupied the country until 1925.
» 1953: U.S. under Republican Dwight Eisenhower and British agents planned and supported a coup in Iran that overthrows and kills democratically-elected Mossadegh and brings the Shah to power for 26 years until the Iranian revolution that brought hard-line Islamists to power. This was the first action where the new CIA was actively involved, under the direction of John Foster Dulles. This began a decade of active U.S. regime change operations around the world, ostensibly in the name of fighting communism.
» 1954: U.S. (under Eisenhower again) invaded Guatemala, removed the government from power and installed the first in a line of U.S.-backed dictators.
» 1963: Democrat John F. Kennedy initiated armed intervention in Vietnam in 1961 and this escalated over the next two years (about 16,000 U.S. soldiers were on the ground by the time that Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963). In 1963, Kennedy supported a coup by Vietnamese against the leader Diem and Diem is assassinated despite Kennedy’s statements opposing an assassination. The war is continued and expanded under Democrat Johnson and Republican Nixon.
» 1973: U.S. under Republican Nixon supported a coup against Salvador Allende, a democratically elected leader in Chile, resulting in his death and the coming to power of right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet who ruled Chile with an iron fist for 17 years. The CIA also actively supported Pinochet after he came to power.
» 1976: Republican President Ford backed a right-wing coup in Argentina, which led to major purges, disappearances, torture, executions and suppression of leftists and perceived enemies of the state in what is known now in Argentina as the Dirty Wars. New information is only now coming to light showing the U.S. role in this horrific history.
» 1984: U.S. forces under Republican Reagan invade and topple the Grenada government.
» 1989: U.S. forces under Republican Bush invade Panama and topple the Noriega government.
» 2001: U.S. forces under Republican Bush invade Afghanistan and topple the Taliban government, leading to the longest (still-running) U.S. war in history.
» 2003: U.S. forces under Republican Bush invade Iraq and kill Saddam Hussein, leading to the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqis. The country is still reeling from the repercussions of this illegal invasion and conflict is ongoing on many fronts.
» 2011: U.S. forces under Democrat Obama, but led by British and French forces under a United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians, invade Libya by air and, going far beyond the authority of the U.N.’s mandate, topple the Qaddafi regime. This country is still reeling from the air invasion and death of Qaddafi and is now considered a major recruiting ground for the Islamic State.
Keep in mind that this is a very brief list of U.S. military engagement around the world. The full list of historical U.S. troop deployments in other countries numbers in the hundreds.
How does history affect today’s parties?
We can’t know, of course, how Clinton or Trump will act on foreign policy because we can’t know the future. The best we can do is to make educated speculations. Even the candidates don’t know how they’ll act on foreign policy because no one can know what events will unfold in the world. Foreign policy is sometimes more a matter of reacting to world events rather than making them happen.
We can, however, look to history and to how foreign policy choices are made in making our educated speculations. Foreign policy choices, while ostensibly made by the president, are in actuality made by teams of people, and vast numbers of advisers to each team member, as well as lobbyists and anyone who has access. And we can look to history in making sound judgments about how presidents of each party will make foreign policy decisions.
There are, as history shows us, general trends in how Republican and Democratic presidents react to the world. We’ve already covered one of those major trends: the history of U.S. unilateral wars and regime change since 1893. We also can see that there is an entrenched tendency to military “solutions” in U.S. foreign policy at certain times in our history.
Kinzer’s book Brothers is a good overview of the many examples of regime change led by Allen and John Foster Dulles during the 1950s under President Eisenhower. Allen Dulles was chief of the CIA during this time, and John Foster was head of the State Department. Combined with a very aggressive Eisenhower (at least behind the scenes), these three men led regime change and related operations in numerous countries around the world, including Guatemala, the Congo, Iran and Cuba.
As Kinzer describes, the CIA’s core purpose during this decade was to take out leaders that we didn’t like around the world and to foment unrest in any manner required in order to make these regime changes occur. It is only now that we are learning the degree to which U.S. leadership was highly aggressive and unscrupulous in seeking to change the world according to their desires during the decades after World War II. The ostensible reason for this aggressiveness was, of course, the Cold War and the perceived threat of the Soviet Union.
Kinzer relates how the perceived Soviet threat was somewhat understandable given the expansionism of the Soviet Union and the degree to which its ideology differed so drastically from U.S. capitalism. But at the same time, those in power and those with access to good intelligence should have known that the Soviets didn’t pose anywhere near as big a risk to the West as was then widely perceived. And it is hardly reasonable to behave aggressively and with an expansionist agenda in order to show that the Soviets’ aggressive and expansionist behavior was wrong.
One of the many ironies in our foreign policy history is that Eisenhower, despite pursuing an extremely aggressive policy of regime change around the world during his tenure as president, left office and secured his place in history by warning strongly of the role of the military-industrial complex in distorting democracy through great wealth and lobbying power.
These long-term trends toward militarism are still present and perhaps more so today than even during the Cold War. For example, Obama won election based in part on promises not only to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but to “end the mindset that got us into the Iraq War.” When he became president, however, his tune changed rather remarkably. He took three years to end the Iraq War and still hasn’t ended the Afghanistan war. And after ending the Iraq War in 2011, he began it again in 2014 after the rise of ISIS prompted a re-engagement in Iraq and Syria.
Topping these actions he actually led the United States into yet another war in Libya in 2011, but limited to an air war, that toppled Qaddafi and sent that country into a devastating mess similar to the mess faced in Afghanistan and Iraq after our invasions of those countries.
It is thus highly ironic that Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, his first year in office. Even Obama seemed to recognize how strange this award was and it seemed at the time to many observers, including me, that the Nobel Committee was awarding their prize in a prospective manner, urging Obama to return the U.S. to a less war-like path after the eight disastrous Bush years as the U.S. responded far too aggressively to the 9/11 attacks.
In witnessing and reading about Obama’s war decisions, as they happened, it seemed to me that he genuinely wanted to take the less militaristic path in many situations but that he felt constrained by the people around him and, of course, by his military advisers in the various branches. Even though he does, as commander in chief, have the leeway to make orders contrary to all of his advisers, it is a rare and foolhardy president who ignores his advisers on matters not squarely within his expertise.
The 9/11 effect
U.S. foreign policy in the past 15 years has been more militaristic than normal primarily because of 9/11 and the reaction to that major event. I have personally disagreed with every war undertaken by the U.S. since that event because I don’t think military solutions generally achieve any beneficial outcomes except enriching the military-industrial complex and providing political points to elected leaders. But because of these two major “benefits,” however, we are returned again and again to military “solutions.”
It just so happens that military solutions are accepted far more frequently by Republican presidents than Democratic presidents. This is where leadership at the top really does matter. So even though there is a certain bipartisan consensus in some manner that benefits the military-industrial complex at the expense of taxpayers and the world, there is still significantly less appetite for war under Democratic presidents.
Given this history and given the composition and unfortunate longevity of the military-industrial complex in American policymaking, it seems clear that Trump would be the more militaristic president rather than Clinton. More war-like tendencies are built into the Republican Party’s foreign policy establishment and voter base more so than is the case with Democrats.
This conclusion is certainly complicated by the fact that Clinton has a rather hawkish record on foreign policy, as well as by the fairly aggressive foreign policy record under Obama, with which she is strongly associated since she was secretary of state for the first four years of Obama’s presidency. My biggest fear is that she will conduct an even more aggressive foreign policy than Obama has thus far, particularly with the international drone program that is already actively assassinating suspected enemies in a number of countries around the world, again contrary to international law.
Clinton looks to Gen. Jack Keane as her key military adviser. She also was described in a recent endorsement by ex-CIA chief Michael Morell in The New York Times as being strongly for military action in Libya and Syria. I think military “solutions” in these countries are the opposite of what is needed because we’ve seen time and time again that military solutions don’t work in the Middle East. All we’re doing with massive military action is further inflaming our enemies and support for our enemies, while also causing ongoing bloodshed and misery for the poor populations that are the targets of our bombs and other weapons of war.
Trump, however, is, when it comes to his foreign policy, simply unpredictable, reactionary and vindictive in the extreme and his foreign policy statements reflect a muddled confusion of tweets and generally off the cuff statements that show a very poor grasp of world events. He was for the Iraq War before he was against it. He was for leaving Iraq in 2011 before he was against it. He was for using nukes on our enemies before he was against it. And he was adamant that Obama and Clinton were the “founders” of ISIS before he walked back those crazy statements by claiming that he was engaging in good old sarcasm.
I have, to be fair, been encouraged to hear Trump say many things on foreign policy that contradict the “tough-minded” foreign policy consensus of the Republican Party. For example, he’s asked why we wouldn’t want to return to good relations with countries like Russia and China, and I agree that this would be good, all else being equal. I also agree that much of the current ill will toward Russia with respect to Crimea and Ukraine is overblown because it is a complex part of the world with a long history of Russian populations and Russian presence in Ukraine.
I also have been happy with Trump’s statements that the Iraq war was a major mistake. But that’s the new Trump, of course, contradicting the 2003 Trump who was all for the Iraq War and would probably call his 2016 self an idiot.
In sum, there is no coherent Trump foreign policy in any manner and given the man’s obvious emotional immaturity, his mean-spiritedness, his lack of any history of public service or compassion for anything or anyone beyond his own career and ego, it would be a massive mistake to give this man the ultimate power available in our world today.
When it comes to who would be the more responsible leader on foreign policy, it is an easy choice: even with Clinton’s rather aggressive foreign policy record, we have to choose her. It is highly unfortunate that in a world where an ostensibly dovish Democratic president is leaving office with four active wars under way (Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and strong support for the Saudi war in Yemen), two of which he began, that voters who prefer non-military solutions must choose his Democratic successor, who will likely be even more aggressive than him, simply because the alternative is likely to be so much worse.
A potential silver lining of this sorry state of affairs is that the Republican Party may be forced to undergo a serious rethink of its core foreign policy values, including the far-too-frequent willingness to intervene in very serious and damaging ways in other countries.
— Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Hilo, Hawaii, and served in the U.S. armed forces as an enlisted soldier from 1990 to 1994 and at Schofield Barracks on Oahu from 1992 to 1994. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.