by Dan DeWalt
As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination intensifies, Hillary supporters and many pundits have started to talk about her superior knowledge and capability in the realm of foreign policy. After the South Carolina debate, NPR political reporters were musing on why in the world Sanders would bring up an ancient topic like the misguided U.S. overthrow of Mussaddegh in Iran in 1953. One speculated that he was an old man living in the past and wondered how that could be relevant to the millenials who are flocking to his campaign. This blithe ignorance of history and the lessons that should be learned from it is commonplace in the media and political establishment. This kind of thinking does us no favors, we need to learn from that history and let it inform our actions in the future.
Hillary has not been President, and can’t be blamed for other Presidential actions (including her husband’s), but she clearly has embraced the general continuum of American foreign policy, especially as excercised by Democratic Presidents, and she wants to be seen as the steady hand of experience who embraces the vision of America as the leading power and influence in world affairs. Unfortunately, she has shown that she is not very good at learning from history herself. She repeatedly tells Sanders to forget about her wrong Iraq vote, saying that we don’t need to harp on past mistakes, but should concentrate on new solutions. But if you don’t learn from your past mistakes, then your new solutions won’t be new at all, but will just be variations of the approaches that have failed us so miserably in the past.
Consider the Mossaddegh overthrow. Iran had democratically elected a new leader in free and fair elections. One would suppose that the U.S. government would welcome this new addition to democratically elected governments supported by their citizens. But Mossadegh represented a threat to U.S. and English oil interests. Choosing to represent big oil rather than democracy, we and the English engineered a coup that imprisoned Mossaddegh and installed a regime under Shah Pahlavi that ruled through fear, violence, intimidation and torture until the Iranian people finally revolted in 1979. The Shah had repressed civil opposition, but he was unable to repress religious opposition, especially when its leader, Ayatholla Komeini was living in exile in France. So the Iranian revolution was not led by seekers of a new democracy but was instead an Islamic revolution. Not only a blow to the Shah and his coterie, it was also directed virulently against the nation most responsible for putting him in power, the U.S. The new Iran established itself as an implaccable foe to the U.S. and our policies.
Fast forward a few years; after invasion and occupation, Russia has been driven out of Afghanistan. American supported mujaheddin warlords will not work together to control the country. Atrocities against civilians are an everyday occurrence and the Taliban are formed in reaction.
In large part, because Iran is against the Taliban, America offers the Taliban at least tacit support through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as direct clandestine help from the CIA. At the time, Iran and Turkmenistan were talking about building a gas pipeline that would help the economies of newly emerged Central Asian countries as well as Iran. U.S. obsession with opposing Iran led Bill Clinton to support Pakistan in its bid to install the Taliban and then to build a pipeline running through Afghanistan avoiding Iran.* As we know, this never worked out, because the Taliban never considered cooperating with the U.S., or for that matter, even with their chief sponsors, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Without the help of those two countries, abetted by the U.S., the Taliban would never have been able to gain complete control over Afghanistan. By the time the Clinton admisitration decided that the Taliban were too violent and misogynistic to support, it was too late and the Taliban were in power, violating the rights of women and all who were not precise co-religionists with the Taliban, as well as hosting Osama bin-Laden, while he prepared al-Quaeda for its atacks on America in September of 2001. When America could have really used Iran as an ally, we instead did everything we could to keep them out of the Afghanistan conversation, ignoring the reality of their regional prominence, further worsening relations and antagonizing Iranians towards U.S. policy.
Bill Clinton acted like most American presidents, looking for short term maneuvers to play hackneyed geo-political games and ignoring the long term consequences. Tragically, U.S. reaction to the rise of Islamic State shows that we have learned nothing. The Bush/Cheney war on Iraq created I.S. We toppled Sadaam Hussein, and despite many years of occupation and coercion, the country is still in a shambles and fostered a wonderful breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists.
Hillary advised Obama to oust Khadafi in Libya without a clue as to what would follow, and now we’re faced with another stronghold for the Islamic State. Now she is wedded to the goal of overthrowing Syria’s President Assad, which almost certainly would lead to the same bad result. Mrs. Clinton can talk until she’s blue in the face about coalitions and vetting and supporting opposition groups, but those are simply phrases that sound good to Americans that have little or no bearing on the reality on the ground.
Senator Sanders is right to point out that he has consistently excercised better judgement and has shown a greater understanding of the unpredictable outcomes that American military adventurism have led us, even when it has the best of intentions. At that same debate, Hilaary ridiculed Sander’s suggestion that he could get Saudi Arabia and Iran to work together to combat Islamic State. She implied that he was naïve and said flatly that it wouldn’t happen. Less than a week later, Iran announced that it is willing to try to work with Saudi Arabia to combat I.S. If Hillary’s experience simply means doing many things over and over, based on ideology and American mythology without fully understanding the consequences or the possiblities, then Senator Sanders’ superior judgement looks like a much better option for the future of our nation.
*[I am indebted to Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban for details about Afghanistan.]