Paul Jay: Certainly President Obama had more support for the war in Afghanistan from the Republican Party than he ever did from within his own party. But might this mean increased pressure for a more aggressive stance towards Iran? . . . What’s your take? How do you think this election might affect US foreign policy?
Robert Naiman: One thing we can say for sure is that some critics of militaristic US foreign policy have been removed from the playing field — some key critics. For example, Senator Feingold, who was the leader of the anti-war forces in the Senate, led the way in pushing a timetable for military withdrawal from Iraq, led the way in pushing a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan — he’s gone. So that’s a big setback for people trying to end the war there. In the House we lost Alan Grayson, who’s a very articulate spokesman for people critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Iran, again, you’ve seen critics of aggressive policy removed, and some of the winners are advocates of an aggressive policy. Mark Kirk, apparently the next US senator from Illinois, as a member of the House, has been a leader of the forces pushing for a more aggressive policy towards Iran, in terms of legislation.
Paul Jay: Now, Robert, it’s kind of a peculiar situation. One of the main things that helped the Republicans win was the rebranding with the Tea Party movement. A big section of the Tea Party movement are libertarians like Rand Paul, who at least up until this election were against what they said were US empire policies, against the more militarist attitude towards Iran. In fact, Rand Paul was against both wars. What do you make of how that might play itself out now?
Robert Naiman: Well, I think the main driver of the election result was the economy. You know, the measure of unemployment now is 9.6 percent. We were 7.7 percent when Obama came into office. The economic stimulus that was proposed and was passed was nowhere near sufficient to match the fall in demand resulting from the collapse of the housing bubble. I don’t think the Tea Party’s the main story, although, you’re right, there is a strain of libertarian thinking in the Tea Party — it’s a diverse movement. But the driving force by now, it’s really a Republican thing. I don’t really expect that much change from that quarter. We’ll see. It’s true a mix of candidates have come in. You know, the forces in Washington are already preparing to school the new Republican candidates. So, for example, you had some of the Republican candidates coming in saying: We want to vote no on the entire foreign ops budget, the entire foreign aid budget, you know, ’cause we hate foreign aid. Well, the Washington way of thinking is that the foreign aid budget is part of the empire policy. So they’re going to school these members, saying, yeah, yeah, but you know. For example, Eric Cantor is saying: aid to Israel’s in the foreign aid budget; maybe we’ll take that out and put it in the defense budget. So we’ll see. I think the history of the Republican Party in recent years indicates that it’s very centralized. There’s a central party discipline that says you’ve got to support the empire, you’ve got to support the war. Look what happened to Michael Steele when he criticized the war in Afghanistan. So if you extrapolate from the past, that’s probably the trend of the future.
Paul Jay: Although they’ve never dealt with people like Ron Paul types. Of course, not all the Tea Party candidates are libertarians like Rand Paul. So I guess we’ll see how strong a stand they take. But at any rate. . . .
Robert Naiman: Sarah Palin’s a leader in the Tea Party. She’s, you know, 100 percent neocon.
Paul Jay: And was close to Cheney and all the rest. And the Karl Rove group in fact wound up financing a lot of Rand Paul’s campaign. So he’s beholden to some of the people he had been previously opposed to. So, going forward, how do you think this new shape of things will affect Obama’s foreign policy?
Robert Naiman: It definitely improves the terrain for people who are pushing for a more militaristic policy across a broad range of fronts. You had Speaker Pelosi, who supported McGovern’s amendment calling for a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, said she expected to see a significant withdrawal next summer. She’s being replaced by Speaker Boehner, who has the opposite position. The Republicans have been saying: We love, we support, President Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, except for his announcement that troops will start to be withdrawn in July.
Paul Jay: Robert, let’s stay in Afghanistan for a minute. We’ve been reading and hearing that there’s been a lot of pressure coming from the Pentagon for an actual significant increase in troops in Afghanistan, never mind a pullout. Does this now give the Pentagon a fairly powerful ally in this discourse?
Robert Naiman: I think the main show is not a potential for a significant increase in troops. I think the main show is slowing the drawdown. President Obama announced the drawdown, he’s always been very firm on the date, but the wiggle room is: what’s the pace going to be? How many troops, how fast? And the Pentagon, Petraeus, Gates have been pushing for just a token withdrawal at the beginning and then very slow pace. So I think that’s where the fight is: how fast, how significant, is the withdrawal that begins in the summer? And, of course, closely tied to that is: how seriously does the US pursue a negotiated political settlement? Because that’s key to creating the dynamics that would facilitate a more significant and decisive withdrawal.
Paul Jay: And how this will affect the Iran policy.
Robert Naiman: I think that there’s going to be a much greater pressure from Congress and from the right wing of the Democratic Party for a more militaristic policy, just as you said. Remember the Obama administration’s split. You have a faction that wants to seriously pursue negotiations with Iran. You have another faction that wants to just go through the motions in order to better isolate Iran when talks fail. The change in Congress is going to strengthen the faction that doesn’t want real talks and wants to lay the groundwork for a confrontation. We already saw, even before the election, David Broder‘s op-ed Sunday in Washington Post saying: Republicans are going to win; now Obama’s chance is to cut a new path by engineering a military confrontation with Iran. So those voices are going to become louder on the Republican side, and the Democratic voices are going to become louder as well.
Paul Jay: How do you think this might affect US attitude towards China? In this election we heard the beginnings of some drumbeats about not just currency wars but, you know, “China’s taking advantage of us,” “China’s stealing our jobs.” And then we heard from others. In fact, Larry Wilkerson in an interview I did with him a couple of months ago said that Cheney was very keen on using the downing of that US aircraft a few years ago as a beginning of an opportunity to start a new Cold War with China. With this far right coming in on the Republican side, do you think it could affect US-China policy?
Robert Naiman: . . . Some of the rhetoric around the election, it’s hard to say how much that will translate. After all, when Bill Clinton ran for president, he ran the first time with a kind of anti-China rhetoric, which quickly flipped once he came into power. So some of this is just opportunistic stuff around the election. The US government’s going to be a little bit careful because China’s a real power. It’s not Korea. So you have to be careful being too confrontational.
Paul Jay: And just quickly, in terms of the Middle East, will this change anything? ‘Cause Israel seems pretty entrenched in what they’re doing anyway.
Robert Naiman: There was some pressure by the Obama administration on Israel that did have some effect. The right wing in Israel is going to be very happy with this. People like Mark Kirk coming in and Republicans controlling the House, it’s going to be harder than it was already for the Obama administration to exercise pressure on the Israeli government politically. On the other hand, the main driver of whatever US pressure there is is not Congress. Congress is horrible overall, Democrat or Republican. It’s the foreign policy elite, it’s the military, that sees how Israeli policies are jeopardizing US interests in the region. I think that dynamic is going to remain.
Robert Naiman is Director of Just Foreign Policy. This video was released by The Real News on 14 November 2010. The text above is an edited partial transcript of the interview.