Democrat Foreign Policy Strategy for 2016: Shhhhhh

by William Skink

Democrat strategists like Stephanie Cutter are trying to cast foreign policy as a Republican base issue. Here’s how a Huffington Post piece starts out:

There’s a decent chance the 2016 presidential election will be about national security.

If that’s the case, recent spin by Democratic pundits may undercut former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign before it has much of a chance to establish itself.

“I think foreign policy is a Republican base issue, which is why you see Republicans coming out of the gate talking about it,” Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said on NBC’s Meet the Press on June 14. Challenged on that, she said, “It’s a Republican establishment issue, and it always has been.”

Really? The article continues:

From the rise of ISIS, to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chest-thumping, to Israel’s struggles with the Palestinians, to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, to cybersecurity, trade, China’s rise and tensions with North Korea, foreign policy has become all-consuming for the executive branch and will take up a huge chunk of the 45th president’s time and energy.

But one of the most prominent Democratic strategists in the country is ready to cede foreign policy to the Republicans about nine months before each party knows who its nominees will be. And this idea — that foreign policy and national security are topics that simply fire up the Republican base — is a theory I’ve heard repeated by multiple Democratic operatives in the past week, meaning it’s a line of spin some of the party is beginning to adopt.

If you’re interested in the plausible angles of this strategy, read the rest of the article. I’m not because the way in which the list of foreign policy issues is framed already contains enough manipulative spin to suit me fine. Let me try to pick a few things apart.

Describing Putin as “chest-thumping” ignores U.S. complicity in igniting a civil war in Ukraine. Israel’s “struggle” with Palestinians is the criminal and inhumane struggle to kill or displace every last one of them. Cyber security is for corporations, not citizens. For us citizens we get out constitutional rights violated on pretty much a daily basis by the national security state. Trade? You mean the continued corporate takeover the Obama administration is trying to facilitate with all those secret trade agreements?

Foreign policy will be difficult terrain for Democrats to navigate, so I can understand the avoidance strategy. Not avoiding it, the way Bernie Sanders did with his comments to Wolf Blitzer supporting more Saudi-led proxy wars to further atomize Middle East nation states, just leads to attack the messenger and disparage the source tantrums.

And don’t even get me started on the Neocon darling herself, Hilary Clinton.

Robert Parry, who has a website that isn’t called Counterpunch, put up a piece today, titled Will Peace Find a 2016 Advocate? In that piece he gives credit to Sanders’ opposition to the Iraq war:

Though Sen. Bernie Sanders, her [Hilary Clinton] principal challenger, also has chosen to downplay foreign policy issues in favor of economic ones, the Vermont “democratic socialist” can at least point to his prescient opposition to the Iraq War in 2002.

In a Senate floor speech, Sanders cited five reasons for voting against President George W. Bush’s war resolution: the death and destruction that would result, the dangerous precedent of “a unilateral invasion,” the damage to the war on terror, the “extremely expensive” price tag of “a war and a long-term American occupation,” and the “unintended consequences.”

On the last point, Sanders asked: “Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in [an] ensuing civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority be exacerbated? And these are just a few of the questions that remain unanswered.”

Those were all prescient questions to ask. Now the question to ask is this: what happened to that Bernie Sanders?

I don’t have an answer. Instead, here’s more from Parry:

When Sanders has spoken about the Mideast, he has framed his comments in ways that make them acceptable to Official Washington but that ultimately make little sense. For instance, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Sanders suggested that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich sheikdoms replace the United States as the region’s policeman in the fight against Sunni terrorists in the Islamic State (also called ISIS).

“Saudi Arabia is the third largest military budget in the world,” Sanders said. “They’re going to have to get their hands dirty in this fight. We should be supporting, but at the end of the day this is fight over what Islam is about, the soul of Islam, we should support those countries taking on ISIS.” [See’s “Sanders’s Screwy Mideast Strategy.”]

Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Sanders is that naïve. A core reality of the Mideast crisis is that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni Gulf states have been the principal funders and ideological supporters of the Sunni extremists who have organized into violent jihadist movements, including Al Qaeda, its Syrian affiliate Al Nusra Front, and a hyper-violent spinoff, the Islamic State.

Vice President Joe Biden blurted out this reality at Harvard’s Kennedy School last October, when he said: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria … the Saudis, the emirates, etc., what were they doing? They were so determined to take down [President Bashar al-] Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” [Quote at 53:20 of clip.]

Biden had confirmed something that was well-known in the region and inside the U.S. intelligence community, that many of these terrorist groups were supported, directly and indirectly, by elements of Saudi Arabia’s royal family and by oil-rich sheiks around the Persian Gulf who see themselves fighting a sectarian war against Iran and the Shiites. The Vice President later apologized for speaking the truth, but the cat was out of the bag.

The cat is out of the bag only for those paying attention. The task of Democratic strategists is to ensure its base pays as little attention to foreign policy as possible. They are so far doing a great job.

Right now, Bernie Sanders has a tremendous platform to speak to enthusiastic crowds of people. Despite the freakout by white progressives against BLM targeting Bernie in Seattle, the Sanders campaign reacted adeptly by diversifying staff and specifying policy. Unfortunately there is nothing similar coming from the anti-war movement because there isn’t really an anti-war movement to speak of.

Pete Talbot pushed back against that assertion with this:

“do we even have anti-war protesters anymore or have progressives conceded that ground to the military-industrial-congressional complex for good?” says Skink. Wow. I don’t know where to start, do you? Should we meet at Daines’, Zinke’s or Tester’s office with our protest signs? We could re-instate the draft. That might get a few more people out in the streets. Tell me – I’m a progressive as are many of my friends at the Jeanette Rankin Peace Center – what should we do? After you’ve answered my first question about obtaining peace in the Middle East, you can tell us progressives how to go about dismantling the military-industrial complex.

Since Pete, keeping it local, drags in the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center to our disagreement, I’ll provide an answer he can relate to his progressive friends there: speak up, and speak accurately. Write an op-ed about the crisis in Yemen and America’s role, be critical of Hillary’s role in destroying Libya, acknowledge the purposeful silence on foreign policy by Democrat strategists. Start a campaign to strip Obama of his Nobel Peace Prize.

A bunch of origami peace cranes looks pretty when displayed, but what else is the Peace Center doing? Feel good repositories of trinkets and free trade coffee is nice and all, but while that day-to-day is managed, a Democratic President has solidified and extended dangerous war powers that will be passed on to the next war criminal, Democrat or Republican, it really doesn’t matter.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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24 Responses to Democrat Foreign Policy Strategy for 2016: Shhhhhh

  1. JC says:

    At least republicans are outsourcing their foreign policy preps for the ’16 elections and trying to sound coherent. The Hay Initiative seems to be doing a good job of keeping their message cohesive, and they are ready to step in as soon as they have a republican candidate, and possibly the white house. ALEC is nothing compared to these neocons. They’re ready to rock and roll.

    There’s a good reason so many GOP candidates seem to be well-prepared yet uncannily in sync when it comes to foreign policy: Most of them have tapped the same group of experts for guidance, a shadow foreign policy campaign infrastructure just waiting for a nominee to emerge.

    Ever since Mitt Romney lost the race in 2012, his foreign policy team has been working to remain intact, become a resource for as many primary candidates as possible, and position itself to influence the next president, if he or she is a Republican. For candidates who haven’t the time or resources to build their own foreign policy staffs at this stage, the project, called the John Hay Initiative, is a handy tool to get smart fast on complicated subjects and even hand off some heavy lifting on national security issues.

    For the party itself, the group’s omnipresence behind the scenes is shaping a hawkish, right-of-Hillary-Clinton foreign policy agenda that is quickly becoming the established position of the party hopefuls going into 2016.

    All dems can do is shout: “WHAT”S THE ALTERNATIVE (to Obama’s incoherent foreign policy)?”

  2. petetalbot says:

    I shouldn’t have mentioned the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center in one of my comments. Its work speaks for itself. My mistake and I apologize to the center for speaking on its behalf. This much I know, though: its members are the Women in Black who stood on the Higgins Ave. Bridge every Friday afternoon for years protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It advances the message of peace through political and media outreach; works on labor, justice and sustainability issues and has a fair trade store.

    Sorry it doesn’t meet with your high standards. I guess it should start a blog.

    • if they did start a blog, and if they criticized Democrat candidates, would you leave the same asshole comments on their site as you do here?

      • petetalbot says:

        Apparently you’ve never read any of my posts or comments where I’ve criticized Democrats on a number of issues. And surely you jest, “asshole comments?”

        • I mean, really, what the fuck do you guys want?

          yeah, Pete, asshole comments. you are being snide, sarcastic and when you ask me a question, and I answer it, I would appreciate it if you don’t ask me the same fucking question again.

        • Apparently you think that some criticism of Democrats now and then (usually followed by “nonetheless, I will still vote for Democrat X as a better alternative”) qualifies as independent thinking. It does not. It is pro forma, meant to convey the impression that you think for yourself. Not getting that from you. as I see it, you always vote for Democrats, and think that occasionally holding your nose makes you thoughtful.

        • petetalbot says:

          “A bunch of origami peace cranes looks pretty when displayed … ” Talk about snide and sarcastic. It’s a two-way street, Skink.

        • unlike you, I won’t shrug my shoulders and pretend I’m not doing it.

        • petetalbot says:

          Let me see if I understand your last comment. It’s okay for you to make snide and sarcastic comments but someone else comes to this site and does it in kind and you’re offended? So much for the back-and-forth.

        • unlike you, I won’t pretend I’m not doing it.

    • JC says:

      Pete, I know some of those women, and have high regard for the work they did. Unfortunately, the leadership of the JRPC currently hasn’t managed to activate a younger demographic to follow in their footsteps. I know that different times will necessitate different tactics.

      But I don’t find that the boutique approach to anti-war “activism” to be either compelling or effective. When is the last time that a woman from the JRPC has followed in Jeannette Rankin’s footsteps and ran for statewide office on a peace ticket vowing to vote against every war bill in Congress? You asked about dismantling the MIC and working for peace in the ME in another post. Why isn’t the JRPC inspiring women to run for office to do this?

      It’s just that I see the JRPC suffering from the same sort of gentrification that plagues many nonprofits. They become comfortable places for certain types of individuals to embed themselves into a nice cushy position where they can garner the affection of the community without accomplishing a whole lot, while doing just enough to keep the organization going to perpetuate their existence. Careerism in the nonprofit world is the next worst thing to founder syndrome.

      If folks want to see another group in action taking over for the oldsters at JRPC, follow the work of Rocky Mountain Rising Tide. Their climate work is amazing! They are taking climate justice and making it into the ultimate peace issue — you can’t have peace while waging war on the environment.

      • petetalbot says:

        I found a Northern Rockies Rising Tide after a brief search. Is it one and the same?

        • JC says:

          Yep. It’s where young activists are gravitating to in Missoula. These are the future leaders in environmental and progressive areas. It would be good if democrats could appreciate them for who they are and what they do. Scorning them just turns them off to politics.

        • Rob Kailey says:

          So, in other words, they will be the next generation of people paid to be ineffective, eventually gentrified by their revulsion to politics.

          (See, Lizard, that comment was snide, sarcastic and assholish, if absolutely accurate. I didn’t find anything Pete wrote to be what you accuse it to be. Exasperation is hardly evidence of a will to be an asshole.)

        • steve kelly says:


          Always a kind word, eh? I’m sure it’s hard to be you, but really, have you ever done anything beyond the dog-pile with “snide, sarcastic and assholish” comments to demean or get your kicks? It’s quite a show you’ve got there. Why not put all that brilliance to work somewhere constructive? Run for something, perhaps.

        • Rob Kailey says:

          Steve, I don’t suffer foolishness well, even from myself. So, given your critique, wouldn’t it be terribly foolish for me to ‘run for something’? Unlike some others, I learned that about myself a long time ago. I’m not electable, and even if I were to win, I would make a poor representative for any but the smallest of constituencies.

          Whether what I wrote was ‘kind’ or not, it was exactly accurate given JC’s own arguments. I still believe in activism, which is why I don’t waste my time on argument after argument for why it can’t and won’t work. Nor do I have the greatest amount of patience for those who do, and still desire it to be effective. At that point, I would suggest that snark isn’t ‘getting my kicks’. It’s actually kind of required, if one is to honest, or have ‘moral courage’ as some would suggest.

  3. steve kelly says:

    The foreign policy silence will be broken the minute Biden enters the race.

  4. Pete, I don’t have much patience and tolerance right now, and you’re in part getting redirected frustration. while people talk and talk and talk about changing and reforming things in our community, there are how many women who have been raped downtown? Meth has blown up since January, heroin use is increasing—how many od’s have their been just at the Colonial? I could go on and on, but I can’t.

    what I can do is talk about the things America is spending money doing in other parts of the world, because it represents more than half of every dollar the federal government extracts from us.

    I don’t have the capacity for investing any more hope in a presidential candidate, sorry if that upsets you enough to be a dick about the posts I write. I thought you’d be happy enough with the 4&20 eviction. I guess not.

    I’m not going to respond to any more of your comments in this thread. it’s been a long fucking week.

  5. 4&20 eviction was interesting. Jay would rather shut it down than tolerate thought crimes. While the level of intellectual curiosity for both is near zero, Democrats are in my experience far more intolerant of criticism than the other party. I think it has to do with the degree of self delusion.

  6. Eric says:

    This blog post surely went off track.

    The Title says it all – all Dem candidates must not bring up the foreign policy messes created by the Obama regime.

    It started almost from Day 1 of The Great Leaders first term – they were soft on our enemies, untrustworthy to our allies, they proved that they can’t protect secrets, and neither of their Secretary of States had/have any successes. Hillary Clinton thinks that flying a jet to Paris is some sort of accomplishment, when it means simply to sit on her ass for several hours.

    John Kerry, who I am convinced that if you super glued a couple of nubs on his neck would be a perfect image of ‘Lurch’ off the Adams Family, is pushing for an Iran deal so bad that Dems are afraid of supporting it.

    The point that did not get made here, is that bad foreign policy decisions may be the excuse that the Dems need to dump Hillary as their presumptive nominee. The Obama Regime and the Clintons have never liked each other, all the way back to when Bill told Ted Kennedy that if Barack wasn’t black he’d be bringing them coffee. If I were Hillary, I wouldn’t have wanted the Obama Regime access to my emails either, as any incriminating ones would already have been fed to the media to derail her campaign.

    So when the regime pushes forward Joe Biden, with Elizabeth Warren as the VP candidate, don’t be surprised to see the foreign policy blame start oozing off the back of the regime, to being Hillary’s fault. Or they may even be bolder, and outright blame her for Libya, Benghazi, Syria, Ukraine, etc.

    I hope Joe fails though, because he’d be a much tougher candidate for the GOP to defeat than Hillary.

    I never could resist a good magic show, should be good.

    • Now, as an assignment for extra credit, go back through and read older blog posts so you can see for yourself how easily I see that you’ve never actually read a blog post. Here.

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