- Interview by
- Daniel Bessner
When Bernie Sanders first ran for the Democratic nomination in 2016, Matt Duss was among those who identified foreign policy as an underdeveloped area in the progressive critique of the party consensus. At the time, Duss was the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He joined Sanders’s Senate staff in early 2017, and later worked on the Sanders campaign as its foreign policy advisor, playing a key role in developing the broader vision that was articulated in 2020.
In this interview with Jacobin contributing editor Daniel Bessner, Duss talks about his background, his experience with Washington’s foreign policy establishment, and what a progressive US foreign policy would mean for Europe, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The views here are Duss’s own.
Duss’s opinions don’t always reflect those advocated in Jacobin. Nonetheless, they offer a sophisticated articulation of the arguments of the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party and reflect the ideas that would have influenced foreign policy should Sanders have won the election.
More than any other candidate in recent memory, Sanders — with his centering of both American and non-American citizens, his criticisms of the defense budget, and his support for Palestinian rights — has pushed the foreign policy debate to the left. In coming years, it will be up to democratic socialists to continue this effort and persuade their fellow Americans that, regardless of what politicians and media elites might tell them, they don’t benefit from the Empire.
How did you become involved in left-wing foreign policy thinking, and how did you get connected to Senator Sanders?
Going back to 9/11 and the response to the attacks, both culturally and politically, I found myself watching that and being concerned and revolted by a lot of it. That’s when understanding America’s role in the world, particularly in the Middle East region, became a more serious pursuit for me. But in more specific terms, I came to Washington [DC] in early 2007, having just completed a master’s degree in Middle East Studies, intending to work in journalism, but I always wanted to have a policy focus.
I started writing for the American Prospect in the summer of 2007 and then moved over to ThinkProgress at CAP [the Center for American Progress] in February 2008, which was a good opportunity. It’s a big, influential, and well-known think tank. I learned a lot, worked with some great folks, but the experience was also educational in terms of showing what the limits are when it comes to the foreign policy debate, and how those limits are enforced.
What would you say were the limits that you confronted at CAP? What did you learn there about Washington, and the realities of working within the foreign policy community?
One thing was observing how members of Congress and other people in the policy world can advocate violence against other countries, making wild, unsubstantiated claims, essentially engaging in incitement, without fear of any pushback. And people who should be working to create that pushback, say at big liberal think tanks, just aren’t interested in doing so.
I remember in particular there was one statement from former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman about threatening Iran with war — part of his vast library of ridiculous statements. I wrote something about it and after ThinkProgress posted my response, somebody from another department at CAP stopped me in the hallway to say, “Listen, we’re working with Lieberman on this other, completely unrelated thing, and his office is upset that you wrote this.” Seen in isolation, there’s nothing scandalous about that exchange, but if it happens repeatedly, as it did, it amounts to a form of internal censorship.
That’s a very particular kind of situation with think tanks or any large policy organization, but it’s just one example of how, if you want to work with leaders and their offices, you have to restrain yourself even when they say something that’s just wildly inaccurate and dangerous.
Now obviously part of coalition-building is recognizing that you need to work with people who aren’t aligned on every issue to make progress on those goals on which you are aligned, but it should also be pretty obvious that someone who’s trying to start up another war that will kill hundreds of thousands of people ultimately probably isn’t going to be a very reliable progressive ally. And there was also pressure brought to bear on CAP by political actors, consultants, donors, etc., when we were writing things that were seen as too critical of the so-called “foreign policy consensus.”
Often on the Left, we talk about the foreign policy establishment as if it’s a conspiracy, but it seems to me that it’s more like a collection of people who share particular assumptions, especially the idea that the United States should govern the world, “even if it’s made mistakes.” People who disagree with that claim struggle to make a career in Washington and find it almost impossible to propose a heterodox foreign policy while working within mainstream institutions. Would you say that’s accurate?
It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. It’s fine if you’re one person that the establishment can dismiss as marginal, but mounting a sustained critique that the establishment can’t ignore is harder. What made the stuff we were doing at ThinkProgress so dangerous was the fact that we were writing under CAP’s banner. So it was effectively the organization itself putting these ideas into the mix, and that could not be allowed to persist.
It couldn’t be allowed because it would threaten the establishment’s presuppositions about the US role in the world as well as CAP’s donor base. I imagine most people there believed in American primacy and the idea that the United States had a historic role to play in fostering world peace and prosperity.
Well, I think that’s right, but there are also a lot of people in the leadership who just don’t really care much about foreign policy. And I want to be clear, CAP’s foreign policy team has produced some outstanding work over the years, like Michael Werz’s stuff on climate and migration, Ken Gude on intelligence and surveillance reform, Sarah Margon on sustainable security, our reports on Islamophobia, just to name a few things.
But at the end of the day, like so many who came up in the Democratic Party in the eighties and nineties, or were mentored by people who did, there’s an ingrained aversion to staking out any bold territory on foreign policy; it’s seen as a distraction. They would rather not get enmeshed in politically costly and inconvenient debates about the people we’re killing in foreign countries and the various repressive regimes we’re supporting.
And so the critics of a progressive approach to foreign policy come to CAP’s leadership and say: “You don’t want this headache. Everything will be fine if you just quiet these people down.” And it’s an appealing argument for someone whose main goal is to reform immigration or reform health care, all of which are obviously important goals.
But the argument that gets made is: “If you want to achieve these other goals, you need to stop screwing around on foreign policy.” And I think those lessons are inculcated and absorbed and assimilated into people’s DNA. So you see a lot of these folks who would just never even think of coloring outside the lines, because they know deep in their bones that they will have problems if they do.
If they want to have a career as a political appointee, let alone something that needs to be confirmed, they don’t want to say or write things that could create turbulence for them down the road. And you have this entire machinery whose purpose is to make clear that you will have trouble down the road.
So, at CAP you came up against the limits of the foreign policy establishment. How did you get connected to Bernie?
I moved over to the Foundation for Middle East Peace in 2014, which was fortuitous. The offer came from their board of directors, a collection of really great and experienced retired Middle East diplomats and policy hands, who basically said, “Would you like to come and run this organization, and do what you’re doing now, with better pay and a lot of support from us, instead of getting hassled?” So that was a good opportunity to jump, to run my own shop, support a number of projects, and help push some ideas out there.
Back in 2016, I wasn’t affiliated with Bernie or with any campaign, but I thought the Democrats were missing an opportunity to have a debate about foreign policy. Bernie eventually brought in a foreign policy coordinator named Bill French, who I knew. He reached out for some work on the Middle East, so I was happy to give them some advice informally. In June 2016 they asked me to testify on behalf of the campaign before the Democratic platform committee on Middle East issues. That’s how I became known to Bernie’s team.
After the 2016 election, I heard through my friend Faiz Shakir, who had also hired me at CAP when he ran ThinkProgress and went on to run the Bernie 2020 campaign, that Bernie was interested in bringing on a foreign policy advisor, so he made the intro. I came in and talked first to his senior staff, then I had a couple of conversations with Bernie himself, and we just hit it off. His sense of humor was something I got immediately.
We went through a whole range of issues, went through a bunch of questions. For myself, I was curious to find out how serious he was about really pushing the foreign policy debate. I was quickly convinced that he was serious, and he’s shown that without a doubt. It’s an extraordinary privilege to help him do it, and certainly expanded my own conception of what is possible.
What is your general philosophical framework for understanding the US role in the world? How does your view compare to Bernie’s?
I think there are a few important areas. One is that we both have backgrounds as the children of immigrants, and we have that awareness of our family’s history and what it meant for them and so many others to come to the United States to find refuge and opportunity here. Bernie has also talked about his family growing up without a lot of money — what that means, to really struggle.
We share the belief that America can do better, not just for ourselves, but for all of our communities. We can treat each other better. We have the resources. We can expect more from our government. And the reason that’s not happening is because certain entrenched interests are stopping us, because they make more money out of the way things are now.
And there are systems in place to protect and enrich those interests at the expense of the rest of us. And that’s fucked up and it should change. And we have the power to change it if we all work together. That’s as simple as I can put it.
But I also think there is something else — I grew up in the evangelical church. There was a very strong emphasis in my home on modeling Christ to the world through kindness and care for others. And Bernie, even though he’s not what people might call traditionally religiously observant, there is something, I think, deep in his understanding of Judaism, about what it means to see the divine in every person. Every person on this planet is a reflection of the divine, and we honor that through our kindness and care for each other — including our care for people we haven’t met.
I think there’s a transhumanism to your and Bernie’s politics, which is in my opinion one of the foundational elements of a socialist politics.
Exactly. One of Bernie’s favorite refrains, it shows up in a lot of his speeches, is “we share a common humanity.” We are bound together, all of us on this planet, and not only should we recognize that, but it needs to inform how we relate to each other and how we write policy, and how we use and distribute resources.
How does this perspective inform the way you and Bernie understand the US role in the world? And in particular, does this shape how you think about US primacy?
I think first there’s a recognition that in order to have an actually effective foreign policy we need to address some of the deep and enduring problems in our own society. Racial and economic inequality here and militarism abroad are mutually reinforcing. The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the crazily militarized police response should have made that abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already.
But what I would also mention — and Bernie talks about this a lot — is our shared understanding that because military violence leads to so many unintended consequences, to outcomes that we can neither foresee nor control, American foreign policy needs to dramatically de-emphasize military power.
We Americans have so many euphemistic terms that we use to distance ourselves from the fact that we are dropping bombs that shred people’s bodies. We can’t shy away from that when we discuss American power. There are a number of things that Bernie talks about, like the coups in Iran and Latin America, the Vietnam War, and of course the Iraq War, that should give us pause when we proclaim our own power.
Even if we take the neocons or the Bush administration at their word about their desire to use the military to build democracy abroad — which we shouldn’t — we have to ask: “How did that go?” One of the things that pisses me off about the foreign policy debate today is that “seriousness” is instantly ascribed to someone willing to advocate the use of force. And the more wantonly and carelessly they talk about it, the more serious they must be. And I think that is just completely backward. We need to call such people what they are: psychopaths.
Given that perspective, which I share, when, if ever, is violence justified in foreign affairs?
Well, obviously if you’re under threat, if someone is about to use violence against you. One of the most important jobs for the US government is to protect the American people. Physical security is, I think, the most immediate and important component of that protection.
There are also cases when violence can be used to protect others, internationally. I do think there’s great value in establishing a set of norms against mass atrocities, genocide, violence against civilians, with the understanding that at some point the use of violence may be necessary to uphold them.
Now again, that’s just a set of basic principles, and there are questions that have to be answered in any given situation: “Do we have the force of international law behind us? Are we working with allies? Will we make the situation better, rather than worse, at an acceptable risk?”
When I discuss so-called humanitarian intervention with my students, I always frame the debate around this question: “Who doesn’t want to save babies?” But then the question that I have is, if the United States has the martial capabilities to save babies, that means the nation is maintaining its military hegemony. To intervene for humanitarian purposes, you need to have access to powerful and deadly means of intervention.
Right. I mean, if we didn’t have the Fifth Fleet based in the Gulf — if it took so much longer and was so much more of an investment of time and resources to move those forces into place, the equation between risk and cost changes dramatically.
What is your position regarding the structure of US primacy? What do you think the United States should do with its eight hundred bases and its enormous military budget? Should the United States continue to deploy Special Forces throughout the world?
I believe we have to ask: What are those Special Forces doing? What kind of other forces are they helping to train? What negative consequences does the presence of these forces create? And, most importantly, what goals are we actually trying to achieve?
I think there is some evidence to suggest that US forces remaining in some places leads to less risky behavior on the part of both allies and adversaries. But we have to at least be willing to open the books on our posture abroad, to have a real debate about it, to be able to say it’s based on a real political consensus, and not just one that maintained and enforced inside the Washington bubble.
We need to look squarely at this empire that we have created and ask whether the people of the world want this, whether the American people want this. Do they understand what we’re actually doing — what’s required, or allegedly required, to keep us safe?
What strikes me about Bernie is that, unlike any other major presidential candidate in American history, he has a real appreciation for what the United States historically did in the world. He knows — and more importantly acknowledges repeatedly — that the United States helped overthrow democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile, for instance.
This knowledge, coupled with his transhumanism, made him a truly unique candidate. Building off this, what was the major message about foreign policy that you wanted to send during the campaign?
One is that the global war on terror has been a disaster: in economic terms, in human terms, in strategic terms, and that we need to move away from it. It wasn’t just that the Iraq War was a mistake. It was a mistake that grew out of an entire conception of American power that is wrong and needs to be discarded.
We’ve essentially been on a permanent war footing since 9/11, and not only has it been a disaster in terms of human, strategic, and financial costs, it has corroded our own politics in a way that’s becoming much clearer. Trump is a consequence of it. The authoritarianism we see rising in democracies around the world is a consequence of it.
I’ve returned a number of times in different interviews to this quote from Obama in the 2008 primary debate: “I don’t want to just end the Iraq War, I want to end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place.” I think that is just a great one-sentence encapsulation of the progressive foreign policy project.
People will have differences regarding the details, but as a basic idea it means: “It’s not just this one discrete policy. It’s not this one intervention, or that intervention. It’s the entire set of illusions that surround American power that is wrong.” And this pandemic just makes the case better than anyone could imagine.
We’ve been investing in all these weapons and military interventions, yet in the face of this virus our own country is revealed as basically a “failed” state. We haven’t invested in our infrastructure, in our own people, our own health care, our own manufacturing base. And we’re governed by an incompetent grifter and his team of grifters who gained power in large part by exploiting the inequality and bigotry exacerbated by militarism, which they in turn accelerated.
To shift away from this, we must confront the zero-sum approach to global engagement that Trump and other authoritarians endorse, and we must appreciate that this approach is rooted in conservatism generally. We need to invest more in multilateral institutions. The pandemic is just one stark example of the need to cooperate with others, and climate change is another.
Some lazier journalists have referred to Bernie’s so-called “neo-isolationism,” which is obviously silly. There is no remotely reasonable reading of Bernie’s internationalist vision that justifies that descriptor. But that’s how screwed up our foreign policy debate is: when someone comes along and says, “maybe we should have fewer wars,” the response from the DC furniture is, “oh, you want to pull up the drawbridge and withdraw from the world,” because they’ve been so deeply indoctrinated in this policy culture of global military hegemony that they can’t even think seriously about anything less. They’ve been listening to death metal for so long that now even Led Zeppelin sounds like smooth jazz.
Given this, what should the project of the Left be in the coming decades? I personally think it’s important to build public support for the idea that the United States must abandon some of its sovereign powers to transform, and perhaps even create, truly democratic regional and international institutions. But this will be quite difficult, as very few people want to abandon sovereignty. Should this be a goal of the Left?
The answer is partly yes, but we also need to make sure it’s grounded in a genuine democratic debate. We see the sovereignty argument being brought up by the authoritarian right all the time, and especially now: “Don’t try to bother us with these international human rights standards. We’re making our own decisions in our majoritarian democracy. It’s our culture, you don’t understand it so don’t preach to us.” It’s a move away from the idea of universality. I think reviving a commitment to universality is really important.
The Right has done a good job scaring Americans about intrusions on their sovereignty, as if UN bureaucrats are going to swoop in with black helicopters and take their hamburgers. So we have to work to promote a more open and vigorous debate to make the case that it is a positive-sum enterprise to engage in global organizations. When we give up some small amount of our sovereignty to work within them, we will benefit.
Collective security is not a hard concept to grasp. But we need to think through how we make that case and show the benefits of international cooperation to Americans, making sure we’re also listening to our fellow Americans and connecting these discussions to their lived experiences and the very valid concerns they have about their own futures and their children’s futures. That latter part is something we all need to get much better at.
You just mentioned authoritarianism, and China is undoubtedly an authoritarian country that is oppressing its Uyghur population and has little respect for civil liberties. At the same time, it’s a major global power that has an understandable interest in asserting regional hegemony. And the United States is going to have to deal with China to address transnational challenges like climate change, global inequality, and pandemic response. What should the US approach to China be?
One important thing is to avoid a characterization of this relationship as merely a conflict. Yes, there are areas in which we should push back on China — particularly with regards their human rights abuses and their repression of internal populations such as the Uyghurs.
What is happening in Xinjiang is genocide. I want a president who speaks up for basic human rights and dignity. There are venues where we need to do that, such as the UN, so we can help build and mobilize international pressure against governments that violate human rights.
One area where we enjoy an enormous advantage over China is in our network of alliances and relationships. China has nothing close to that. We can use our influence to build consensus. Some of this will be rhetorical, but there are also other important tools, like sanctions on individual human rights abusers, which we can consider using as well. But underlying all of this, we are going to be more effective in making the case for human rights if we are protecting them at home.
That is a key point, and it’s key to what Bernie has talked about as well. Whether it’s immigration policy, the demonization of Muslims, or voter suppression, we have to be doing the work here in our own democracy if we want to make a convincing, credible case for human rights and democracy on the world stage.
You just mentioned alliances. Perhaps the longest-lasting alliances the United States has are with the countries of Western and Central Europe. But those alliances have come under increasing pressure, especially as people across the political spectrum question whether European countries have paid their fair share for their defense. What should the future of these alliances, and especially NATO, be?
Let’s recognize that NATO was created for a specific purpose: preventing a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. While that’s not a threat anymore, security alliances are important. The idea of shared, collective security is a core component of a progressive foreign policy.
Now, I think it’s also pretty clear that steps were taken to expand NATO after the Cold War in a way that was needlessly provocative to Russia. That’s not to say that Putin isn’t cynical in the way he uses this legitimate grievance, but his criticisms are effective because they have validity, and many, many Russians certainly agree with him.
Other countries have their own genuine security concerns, have their own politics. It’s weird how hard it is for our own foreign policy debates to take that into account. We don’t have to buy every single argument that adversaries make, but we should recognize that we’re just going to enable the worst elements of foreign societies to make the case against us if we don’t act a bit more wisely. And I think some of the steps that were taken to expand NATO in Russia’s face were not wise.
Are you saying we should reach a concordat with Russia and leave it up to the Europeans to decide what to do in their region?
No. I think we have an interest in what happens there. We want to uphold international norms and standards saying, for instance, that the occupation or annexation of Eastern Ukraine is not something we accept. It’s something Ukrainians don’t accept, and that matters a lot. So I wouldn’t just say: “Leave it up to the Europeans.” We obviously play a role in Europe. The trans-Atlantic relationship is foundational to America’s concept of security.
The idea of a Europe at peace is something that people, maybe of our generation and younger, don’t really appreciate as much as they should. When you look back at the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, you see that the continent’s history was defined by violence and murder.
We need to remember how desperately important it is to ensure the continent never again descends into a widespread war. This is also why it’s one of my pet peeves to hear two-beer historians talk about the Middle East as if “they’ve been killing each other for centuries over there”; I mean, sure buddy, have you read about Europe’s twentieth century?
One of the most exciting things about the Sanders campaign was that Bernie regularly discussed the terrible US behavior in Latin America, a region that understandably is very wary of the United States. Given the long history of distrust between the United States and its southern neighbors, what would a progressive approach to Latin America look like?
It should be consistent with our approach to countries around the world. If we want to support the right of people to live in dignity, and make a better life for themselves and their families, we want governments that are responsive to the needs of their people — a baseline set of principles and goals. The countries that do that are ultimately going to be better partners: they’re going to be better for regional stability and better for humanity in general.
Again, we should be humble about our ability to produce these outcomes, but that’s what should guide our approach. I think this is why Bernie’s understanding of history is important, because he knows that rhetoric about freedom and democracy was used to justify some really bad policies in Latin America.
It’s important to ask: Why were we supporting death squads? Why were we supporting right-wing coups? Were we trying to protect the American people from communism, or were we trying to protect American corporations from making less profit? Questioning some of those claims and excavating some of that history is really one of the most important contributions he’s made, because those same arguments will be made again to justify other stupid, destructive misadventures.
And when you speak to Latin Americans themselves, the thing they often say about US foreign policy is that they want US decision-makers to respect their sovereignty.
But again, going back to what I said before, that’s an argument that right-wing authoritarians make as well, when they say: “Don’t bug us about repressing our people. You don’t understand our culture. You don’t understand our history.” Let’s respect other countries’ right to determine their own future but let’s also try to come to some understanding about universal rights and norms for people, and determine ways to uphold those norms.
If we’re approaching this issue from a left perspective, this raises questions about who you’re talking to in foreign countries. Are you talking to left-wing groups? Or are you just talking with government representatives or businesspeople? And this is why I think it’s essential that left-wing foreign policy doesn’t just focus on government-to-government interactions, but also focuses on connecting with substate, grassroots organizations that share left principles.
Absolutely. This is something Bernie thinks is really important. He wrote about it in a September 2018 piece in the Guardian, and then expanded on it in a subsequent speech at Johns Hopkins a month later. Specifically, he discussed international progressive solidarity and building a progressive internationalism to confront the authoritarianism we see rising in a number of democracies, including ours.
I agree that that is an important part of a progressive foreign policy vision. We have neither the right nor the ability to transform other countries, but we should do what we can to protect and expand the political space in these countries for local people to do that work. We can also provide funding or resources for American civil society actors to work in solidarity with their international counterparts.
In my opinion, one of the most important projects for the Left is to start thinking through ways to connect with groups abroad.
Right, I think part of the Left unfortunately has responded to the Iraq debacle with a kind of reflexive revulsion towards any kind of support for democracy or human rights as “interventionism.” It’s certainly true that arguments about encouraging democratization are made cynically to justify all kinds of bad stuff, as they were for Iraq, and you hear the same bad faith claims in defense of Trump’s Iran and Venezuela policies.
We need to call that hypocrisy out, because ultimately it undermines the cause of democracy. But I have to say: as a progressive, I am not neutral on people’s basic human rights. I want to be in solidarity with my colleagues in other countries and do what I can to help them achieve their rights, so they and their families can live with dignity and security and prosperity.
A big focus on the Left, of course, is the African continent, which has long been a victim of colonialism and exploitation. What would the progressive approach to Africa be?
One part of it is acknowledging the brutal realities of colonial history, how countries in Africa have been exploited and mistreated for so long, and creating room for the countries and populations of Africa to play a much bigger role in setting the global agenda. This is also broadly true for much of the Global South, but especially when it comes to Africa, given the history.
How would one create that space? What are some things the United States could support or promote to empower the countries of Africa?
We can cancel debt and issue emergency financial support to low-income countries, which is something Bernie, with over three hundred other international lawmakers, called for in May, and which is an effort he is now co-leading in the Senate.
Supporting sustainable development goals through the UN can also make a difference: for the US president to say “the growth and development of Africa is something we as an international community are committed to.” And if there’s any country in the world that should lead on that, it’s the United States of America, considering who built this country.
Matt, you’re a specialist on the Middle East and have devoted years to thinking about US foreign policy in the region. What would a progressive approach to the Middle East look like?
One of the key projects has to be de-escalating regional conflicts in a way that allows us to right-size our commitment to the region, instead of fueling those conflicts, as we’ve been doing. Another is to condition military aid. We need to be clear and consistent across the board, with all of America’s clients and security partners: You may not use American taxpayer aid to abuse human rights.
We have laws on the books. We have reporting requirements. We need to enforce those laws and requirements, and sharpen them where necessary, to make sure that military aid that’s provided by the people of the United States is not being used for abusive purposes. Breaking through on that was really important.
You’ve written and spoken quite a bit about the US-Saudi relationship. What do you think the future of that relationship should be?
There was a basic bargain struck between FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] and the Saudis back in 1945, oil for security: they keep pumping oil and we keep their regime secure. The logic of that agreement no longer applies for a whole bunch of reasons, so it’s time to reassess it.
The people in the United States also have zero interest in simply aligning ourselves with one side of the Saudi-Iranian regional conflict. Yemen is an aspect of that. One of the stated reasons for the Saudi intervention is that the Iranians are partnering with the Houthis to create problems. That’s not in doubt, but let’s also recognize that the Iranian partnership with the Houthis has only deepened in the years since the Saudi invasion.
The Iranians are very good at exploiting the mistakes and overreaching of their adversaries, whether it’s the Saudis in Yemen or the United States in Iraq or the Israelis in Lebanon. They’ve exploited all of these mistakes quite adeptly to increase their influence and strategic depth. We need to break out of this cycle. We should use our still very considerable influence and leverage to move our partners, along with Iran, toward some kind of regional modus vivendi that regional actors can build on, and which ultimately doesn’t require the United States to keep tens of thousands of troops in the region.
What should US policy toward Iran be?
De-escalation, first of all. We need to break out of this bizarre Washington discourse that sees Iran as a uniquely malevolent actor immune to the normal rules of politics and statecraft. I was in a meeting once with a number of European colleagues and one of them said to me as an aside, “I have to tell you, we find the way that you all discuss Iran in Washington to be completely detached from reality. It’s totally crazy.” I thanked him for his kind understatement, because it’s right.
The amount of resources and attention Washington focuses on Iran relative to the actual threat it poses to us is totally crazy. That said, we have legitimate concerns about the Iranian government’s policies, its support for regional extremist groups and its treatment of its people, among other things. But the threat inflation makes it hard to have a reasoned, rational debate, which in turn makes it hard to promote a reasonable, rational policy alternative.
We should be pressing these issues in concert with our allies, not just standing alone delivering laundry lists of demands, as the Trump administration has been doing since pulling out of the nuclear agreement. It’s also hard to press this case while we’re aligned so closely with the Saudis, who are worse in terms of human rights and support for extremism.
You’ve spent much of your career navigating the foreign policy world of Washington, DC. What’s your opinion on the state of mainstream foreign policy journalism? There’s a lot of heterodox discussions about the future of US foreign policy going on, but these are rarely reflected on CNN or MSNBC or in the pages of The New York Times or the Washington Post. What does this suggest to you?
Do either of those major papers actually have a progressive foreign policy columnist?
No, they have Tom Friedman and Max Boot.
Exactly. It’s like these papers responded to Trump, not by bringing in new columnists or contributors who could credibly speak to or about this political phenomenon that caught the elite establishment by surprise, but by bringing in “Never Trump” neocons who speak for a few dozen people.
Why do you think that is?
It’s just how people who live in DC think. They interact with these folks. It’s their social set. They actually believe these people speak for a real, meaningful voting constituency, which they don’t.
So it reflects the social world of the DC elite.
It’s not that there aren’t people who write good things about foreign policy. There are. But there are very few, if any, columnists who write from a starting point of restraint, in the way a lot of columnists write from a presumption of US primacy and hegemony. But I would hope and expect that will change as we on the Left continue to press the argument. And that’s what’s encouraging about this moment: we are pressing the argument.
There’s been a proliferation of progressive and restraint-oriented organizations, activists, analysts, and advocacy groups that have risen to prominence over the past few years, and which are thinking and organizing together in a much more purposeful and effective way. For the first time in my lifetime, the most vibrant debates about foreign policy are happening on the Left. We’ve only begun to see the impact.