I'm listening to Dierks Bentley playing alongside the legendary Garth Hudson, Larry Campbell, and Jessi Alexander on "Chest Fever" in the 2012 tribute to Levon Helms (Love for Levon: A Benefit) on AXS tv. Jorma Kaukonen, John Prine, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams. (Yes, Gregg Allman and Joe Walsh too!) And don't get me started on Marc Cohn's "Listening to Levon"and My Morning Jacket. Thank whatever spirits that may be for concerts on TV.
What a pleasure.
But, back to business.
The London Review of Books (LRB) has an en pointe essay which should be required reading for fans of the onrushing Hillary Armada.
Clinton’s hawkishness is a matter of moral and intellectual conviction. In Hard Choices, she tries to construct a coherent rationale for an interventionist foreign policy and to justify it with reference to her own decisions as secretary of state. The rationale is rickety: the evidence unconvincing. Recent history becomes a series of rescue missions, staged opportunities for heroism worthy of Hollywood: mobs of brown-skinned extras look up to see helicopters – we are saved! The Americans have arrived! Such are the dreams that hover unarticulated in our political unconscious, allowing our leaders to redefine war as humanitarian intervention.
Clinton’s outlook epitomises the bipartisan wisdom of the Washington foreign policy establishment, which claims to offer a pragmatic centrist alternative to the extremes of right and left. Yet the centrists turn out to be at least as ideologically driven as the zealots they deplore. The core of their ideology is the belief that the US has a uniquely necessary role to play in leading the world towards an inevitably democratic (and implicitly capitalist) future. The process is foreordained but can be helped along through neoliberal policy choices. This muddle of determinism and freedom is a secular residue of providentialist teleology, held with as much religious fervour and as little regard for contrary evidence as other dogmatic faiths derided by self-styled liberal pragmatists.
. . . For Clinton, the business-government partnership means promoting General Electric in Algeria and Boeing in Moscow as well as enabling direct communication between ambassadors and American businessmen who want to break into emerging markets. Amazon, she notes, has already opened a customer care centre in Cape Town with five hundred employees. If conditions at other Amazon facilities are any guide, these lucky few can look forward to being worked to death, or near it. These are the jobs on offer in the emerging neoliberal utopia.
. . . Clinton’s utopian faith depends on fantasies of a reified technology, unmoored from class and power relations and operating autonomously as a global force for good. . . . She believed that tech CEOs could collaborate with State Department officials in offering carrots and sticks to Bashar Assad: when he refused to co-operate, the State Department waived sanctions for Skype, allowing the company to operate in Syria in the hope that it could help bring the regime down.
The futility of that hope epitomised the general failure of 21st-century statecraft, at least when its practitioners tried to use technology to get round inequalities of power. The magic of social media did nothing to change the outcome of the Iranian elections; Skype didn’t bring down Assad. Technological panaceas proved inadequate elsewhere as well.
. . . In Congo, Cohen and Alec Ross, who headed Clinton’s ‘innovation team’, brought high-tech solutions to intractable bureaucratic problems: a mobile app for the military’s muddled pay system, a text-message warning system for refugee camps threatened by militias. In both cases, as in Syria and Iran, fantasies about the power of technology proved unable to overcome existing structures of political, military and legal power. This would be a pattern in the Clinton State Department: rhetoric would outstrip results.
Despite her supposed pragmatism, Clinton shows little concern for the actual consequences of ideas. Her indifference is most apparent in her attachment to the failed military policies of the recent past.
While she admits she ‘got it wrong’ in voting for the invasion of Iraq, she shows no sign of having learned from her mistake.
So National Amnesia is the plague of our day?
Beware of the Hillary Train ride to freedom.
Cause freedom means having (personally) nothing left to lose?
Clinton’s courtship of Petraeus reveals a deeper amnesia. Like most other Washington policymakers, she has forgotten the failure of counterinsurgency in Vietnam. She praises Petraeus’s strategy for its focus on ‘winning Iraqis’ “hearts and minds, ”’ but she does not seem to remember the history of that phrase. It entered American public discourse in Lyndon Johnson’s admonition that ‘the ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there,’ which he repeated many times.
The phrase was soon appropriated by the antiwar movement as an ironic shorthand for the futility and mendacity of US policy. Eventually the filmmaker Peter Davis used the phrase as the title for his 1974 documentary which exposed the American invaders’ casual brutality and indifference towards Asian lives. Clinton was involved, however tangentially, in the antiwar counterculture. Yet, like everyone else in Washington, she uses ‘hearts and minds’ to refer to the latest version of counterinsurgency. She assumes Petraeus’s ‘clear, hold and build’ operation was a success in Iraq and the model for a further success in Afghanistan. She cites no evidence.
Clinton’s admiration for Petraeus demonstrates the irrelevance of actual military achievements in the world of the Washington consensus. Petraeus was a powerful man still on the way up and Clinton needed his support.
If that meant ignoring the facts, judging his counterinsurgency strategy ‘successful’, so much the worse for the facts.
Indeed, Clinton’s aims at the State Department, as Allen and Parnes describe them, were more a matter of public relations than of public policy: to rebuild morale at the department, to rebrand the US in the world and to ‘fortify her own brand’ so she could run for president.
Clinton’s exceptionalism promotes an implicit double standard that separates the US from the rest of the world. Consider the Asia Pivot: according to Clinton, ‘we needed to send a message to Asia and the world that America was back’ in its ‘traditional leadership role in Asia’ – managing competition, fostering co-operation, maintaining stability. This was ‘forward-deployed diplomacy … borrowing a term from our military colleagues’. The Chinese perception, naturally enough, was that the US was determined to block its rise. Why China shouldn’t claim a ‘leadership role’ in its own part of the world, and the US should, is one of the mysteries of the exceptionalist faith.
Nothing could be more appropriate to an emerging multipolar world (the world we actually inhabit) than the idea that nations have a more legitimate interest in what happens near their borders than in events occurring half a world away. Yet exceptionalists dismiss the concept of spheres of influence as an obstacle to the global march of democracy.
This is a residue of the Cold War, when American policymakers insisted on seeing everything the Russians did as ideologically motivated. George Kennan spent years trying to convince various presidents that Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe was motivated less by ideology than by the desire to block invasion from the west, which had occurred three times over the previous century and a half. It didn’t excuse the Soviet occupation but did help explain it. Cold Warriors, rejecting the very idea of a Soviet sphere of influence, insisted that Stalin’s occupation of Eastern Europe was the beginning of a drive for world domination.
Clinton makes a similar mistake when she characterises Nato’s expansion as a bulwark against Putin’s aggression, rather than a provocation and a betrayal of a previous American pledge. The first Bush administration promised Gorbachev that Nato would not move ‘one inch to the east’, in the words of the then secretary of state, James Baker. But Bill Clinton ignored the Russians’ wish to keep a cordon sanitaire and his predecessor’s promise by pushing Nato expansion to the east – betraying a trust, in Russia’s view. The eastward march of Nato continues. One can only imagine the American response if the roles were reversed.
Hillary Clinton is just as intent as her husband (or her Republican rivals) on demonising Putin as a modern tsar who wants to reassert Russia’s imperial claims. Putin’s ambition is for her the only way to explain why he put pressure on Yanukovych not to form closer ties with the European Union and why, after Yanukovych’s government collapsed, he annexed Crimea.
You can deplore that invasion without ignoring (as Clinton does) the complexity of the history behind it: the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea, the long-standing Russian desire to keep the region in friendly hands.
She also ignores the US role in undermining the corrupt but democratically elected Yanukovych government, treating its disintegration as the work of ordinary Ukrainians who ‘dreamed of living in a prosperous European democracy’ – a formula that overlooks the right-wing nationalists among the rebels and the draconian austerity programme demanded by the EU. Putin’s Eurasian Union, she believes, was an attempt to ‘re-Sovietise’ Russia’s periphery, rather than a means of bailing out the sputtering Ukrainian economy. Ultimately, she concludes, ‘strength and resolve were the only language Putin would understand.’
Not everyone accepts the casting of Putin as ‘bad guy’, in the adolescent male idiom favoured by American journalists. Among the dissenters is Henry Kissinger, whose realism is more reliable in a European setting than in Latin American or Asian ones.
‘For the West, the demonisation of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one,’ he wrote last year. ‘Putin is a serious strategist – on the premises of Russian history. Understanding US values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point among US policymakers.’ Clinton seems likely to continue that tradition.
Putin fills the bad guy role vacated by Osama bin Laden, whose assassination by American Special Forces occupies an honoured place in Hard Choices. To State Department colleagues worried about offending Pakistan’s national honour by circumventing its law-enforcement procedures, Clinton replied ‘in exasperation’: ‘What about our national honour?’ Once Bin Laden has been killed and the euphoria has dissipated, she reflects that ‘violent extremism is bound up with nearly all of today’s complex global problems …That is an argument for America to be engaged in the hardest places with the toughest challenges around the world.’ The war on terror may be officially over but the pursuit of ‘violent extremism’ provides an open-ended excuse for global military intervention.
The tendency to view the Middle East through the lens of ‘violent extremism’ has predictable consequences with respect to Israel, Palestine and Iran. Careful to acknowledge that Palestinians deserve ‘the self-determination that Americans take for granted’, Clinton nevertheless blithely defends the Israeli air war on Gaza: ‘Every country has the right to defend itself.’ You cannot negotiate with Hamas or other terrorists ‘because you will never be pure enough’.
So force is the only option. Clinton’s ‘staunchly pro-Israel’ stance apparently also means being anti-Iran – ‘Israel’s mortal enemy’, as Allen and Parnes call it, giving the consensus view. Despite Obama’s stated intention to initiate diplomacy with Iran, Clinton continued to fuel the fears that an Iranian nuclear weapons programme would ‘threaten Israel, their neighbours and the world’, and warned the Iranians that if they launched a nuclear strike on Israel, ‘we would be able to totally obliterate them’.
Lacking an excuse to obliterate Iran, she settled for ‘crippling sanctions’ against the country. Netanyahu ‘told me he liked the phrase so much that he had adopted it as his own,’ she writes. The key aim of the sanctions, according to her aide Jim Steinberg, was to make Iran ‘feel that it had no champions, no place to turn, no out’. In this view, sanctions are a means of solitary confinement for rogue nations, which undercuts the claim that they are a humane alternative to violence.
Sickness, starvation and social disintegration are their legitimate offspring. Even Clinton acknowledges the suffering sanctions inflicted, though she blames the Iranian ‘leaders’ choice to continue defying the international community’. To placate ‘pro-Israel voters’, Allen and Parnes write, she would have liked the sanctions to be even tougher.
When it comes to opportunities to demonstrate toughness, nothing sets Clinton’s pulse racing like a good humanitarian intervention. She supported US involvement in Nato operations in Libya, sharing the enthusiasm of Sarkozy, who was eager to reassert French imperial prerogatives in North Africa.
The Franco-American friendship began with a mishap. Walking up the stairs of the Elysée palace, Clinton stepped out of her shoe; Sarkozy ‘gracefully took my hand and helped me regain my footing’. She sent him a photo of the incident inscribed, ‘I may not be Cinderella but you’ll always be my Prince Charming.’ Like this event, the intervention in Libya had a fairy-tale quality – the troll-like dictator Gaddafi; the West, once more into the breach, led by fantastic figures like the action intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who rode into Libya from the Egyptian border on a vegetable truck.
Clinton describes this ubiquitous poseur as ‘a dramatic and stylish figure, with long wavy hair and his shirt open practically down to his navel’. Here was a man who embodied the Hollywood fantasies of heroism that so often energise military intervention. It was all very exciting, but not everyone was convinced that American military involvement was a good idea. The secretary of defense Robert Gates, the vice president Joseph Biden and the former Nato commander Wesley Clark were all opposed, while Clinton, the UN ambassador Susan Rice and national security council aide Samantha Power urged action. Obama was typically reluctant to commit either way.
There were good reasons for caution. The biggest problem was the ambiguity of the mission: was it the maintenance of a no-fly zone to protect civilians, as its proponents initially claimed? Or was it the toppling of Gaddafi, which is what actually happened? Clinton slides from the first rationale to the second without explaining or justifying the transition.
But she does raise the unavoidable question for advocates of ‘regime change’: ‘who were these rebels we would be aiding, and were they prepared to lead Libya if Gaddafi fell?’ The question soon became more urgent. By the late summer of 2011, the rebels had captured Tripoli, and Gaddafi and his family had fled. When Gaddafi was killed, Clinton was jubilant. ‘“We came, we saw, he died,” she crowed, laughing as she clapped her hands,’ Allen and Parnes report.
‘Libya’s liberation, for better and worse, was Hillary’s War.’
Clinton is more circumspect, in retrospect, than her journalist courtiers – there are no unseemly celebrations over Gaddafi’s death in Hard Choices. ‘The revolution had succeeded, and the hard work of building a new country could begin,’ she writes, acknowledging that ‘law and order remained a real problem.’ This may be the blandest understatement in a relentlessly bland book.
Libya quickly descended into civil war; the country’s infrastructure collapsed; thousands of noncombatants were left homeless, maimed or dead. The chaos was the precondition for the burning of the American compound in Benghazi when four American diplomats were killed.
The upheaval in Libya made the entire Middle East more unstable. The freeing of Gaddafi’s stockpiled munitions fostered a flourishing arms trade south to Mali, west to Algeria, and east to Egypt and Syria, intensifying tensions between Islamist and secular groups throughout the region.
As early as October 2013, international observers had officially dubbed Libya a ‘failed state’.
Clinton has nothing to say about this. Her reflections on Benghazi are some of the strangest passages in her book. She says she appointed Chris Stevens as ambassador to the Libyan rebels’ new government because he knew that the most dangerous places in the world were ‘the places where American interests and values were most at stake’ and seasoned diplomats were most needed.
This assertion deserves some attention. Are the most dangerous places really the most crucial to US national interests merely by virtue of the danger? ‘When America is absent, extremism takes root, our interests suffer, and our security at home is threatened,’ she writes.
It would be possible to rewrite the same sentence, substituting ‘present’ for ‘absent’.
Syria was the next testing ground for Clinton’s creed. She makes clear that she was behind the rebellion against Assad from the beginning, trying to unite the ‘international community, including Russia and China … behind a political transition that would go to a democratic future’. Unlike Gaddafi, Assad wasn’t a pushover. He was more deeply entrenched, and had more powerful allies.
But how could the Syrian people go back to dictatorship after ‘a taste of freedom’, Clinton wonders. The exceptionalist teleology was starting to click into place: democracy was inevitable; we needed to be on the right side of history. But the situation was complicated: many of Assad’s opponents were jihadists – democrats maybe, but not the sort we wanted to take power.
So the question was how to keep the wrong rebels from winning.
In 2012, Clinton started exploring ‘what it would take to stand up a carefully vetted and trained force of moderate Syrian rebels who could be trusted with American weapons’. She enlisted Petraeus, by then head of the CIA, in her campaign: encouraging the right sort of rebels, they argued, would get us in the game so we could be more effective in isolating the militants and empowering the moderates.
The moderates were (or would be) mainly a creation of the CIA.
The plan to arm them resembled the search for a mythic Third Force between communism and capitalism, the dream that animated Graham Greene’s Quiet American in Vietnam in the 1950s, and that has inspired counterinsurgency fantasists ever since.
Obama was unpersuaded. He asked for ‘examples of instances when the US had backed an insurgency that could be considered a success’, Clinton recalls. She didn’t have an answer and Obama stood firm.
It was one of the high points of his presidency: for once a pragmatic concern for consequences shaped policy.
But last August Obama finally yielded to interventionist demands amid the hysteria over Isis, leaving us with the incoherent policy of opposing both the Assad regime and its main challengers (though the administration now seems to be inching towards tacit tolerance of Assad).
Clinton can claim that she was urging this muddle on Obama long before he finally and reluctantly accepted it. That is cold comfort for anyone envisioning her in the White House.
The exceptionalist faith transcends evidence. We can be sure that during the run-up to the 2016 election, democracy will continue its inexorable forward march, in the rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans if not in the world at large. Among the current crop of candidates, the only challenges to exceptionalism come from Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, and Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia.
Paul has defended civil liberties more outspokenly than any other congressman in either party; he is a consistent libertarian, as opposed to the warfare state as to the welfare state. He is a loose cannon, with many repellent views on domestic policy. Still, it would be good for democratic debate to see him take on Clinton’s foreign policy.
It will be even better to see Webb, who has already announced his candidacy, take her on.
Webb is a Vietnam veteran and was secretary of the navy under Reagan; no one can tag him with the ‘isolationist’ label so often used to dismiss anti-imperialists. He was also an architect of the Asia Pivot. But he has been a forceful and consistent critic of reckless military intervention abroad.
Unlike Clinton, he warned that the Iraq War was unwinnable, a ‘strategic blunder’ unmatched in recent military history.
‘There is no such thing,’ he said more recently, as ‘humanitarian war’ – the vague and self-contradictory concept promoted by Clinton, Rice, and Power.
If terrorists are a direct threat, we should fight them, but only on carefully chosen terrain, never by occupying foreign territory and never by entering ‘a five-sided argument’ like the one currently raging in Syria.
Webb’s scepticism is a refreshing alternative to the sanitised abstractions of the Washington consensus. He has troubling idiosyncrasies, among them a tendency to defend Reagan and an Arlington apartment packed with military artefacts. Still, he remains a rare contemporary example of the pragmatic realist tradition, a worthy successor to Fulbright and Kennan (who also had troubling idiosyncrasies).
But Webb is also a white male, with no capital to invest in the identities market.
The most likely nominee remains Hillary Clinton, whose success would embody the failure of the American political imagination and the tragedy of identity politics. But after all, it’s her turn.
And Roger Waters raises the red cap he received from Levon after the Berlin Wall fell.
These concert videos are so much more entertaining.