As Joe Biden names his cabinet and appoints figures to his most senior administration posts, he has assumed the reins of power as president-elect. At the beginning of this process, Democratic progressives held out hope that Biden would act inclusively to appoint allies of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and The Squad to some of thse positions. After all, despite their opposition to Biden’s centrist policy agenda, they campaign heartily for him and mobilized young people and minorities like never before. The proof of the pudding is that this election saw the highest participation rate since 1902. Biden won more votes than any previous Democratic presidential candidate.
Despite all this, it’s become clear that Biden has no interest in placing his trust in progressives by appointing them to these posts. Biden is a centrist. He is straight out of Democratic corporatist central casting. He is appointing the same people he’s known over the decades in the Senate and when he was Obama’s vice-president. As a recent headline read: this is not a Team of Rivals, but a Team of Buddies.
Not only is Biden ignoring progressives, he’s broadcast his disdain for them. At a recent meeting with seven African-American civil rights groups, when questioned about his commitment to their agenda, he protested (audio available above) vociferously, falsely claiming that he was the only Democrat who spoke out against the Charlottesville riot. He even doubled down saying that “no progressive” did so:
Let’s get something straight. You shouldn’t be disappointed. What I’ve done so far is more than anybody else has done this far. OK? Number 1. Number 2: I mean what I say when I say it! I mean what I say when I say it! I’m the only person who’s ever run on three platforms I was told could not possibly win the election. And I never ceased from it. One was on restoring the soul of this country because of what I saw happen in Charlottesville. That was it. No one else was talking about it. The words of presdients matter. Nobody else. No progressive was talking about it. I did!
It’s hard to know whether Biden spoke intemperately and in haste, and that was an unintentional error; or whether it was a deliberate lie. The president-elect has a habit of making spontaneous, off-the-cuff claims that come back to bite him. This could be one of those.
Of course Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren spoke out forcefully about Charlottesville. Biden has no monopoly on virtue in this regard. So the attempt to aggrandize himself at the expense of progressives not only falls flat. It’s insulting. Nor has Biden apologized for this major gaffe. And I have no heard an outcry from the groups he insulted. So perhaps he will get away with this insult.
During the same talk, he echoed the anger of Democratic moderates like Rep. James Clyburn who claimed that slogans like “socialism” turned off swing state voters and cost Democrats those eleven lost House seats:
“I also don’t think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they’ve already labeled us as being ‘defund the police’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing — which I promise you, will occur. Promise you,” Biden said.
“That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable. We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things. We’re talking about putting more psychologists and psychiatrists on the telephones when the 911 calls through. We’re talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better, not with more force, with less force and more understanding.”
This of course falls far short of the demands of Black Lives Matter. It is a terrible deflation of expectation by members of the Black community who deal every day with mass violence by police in most of major cities. It simply will not do. It falls far sort of the mark.
Returning to Clyburn: when he denounced Black Lives Matter’s slogan, he even invoked John Lewis, who wasn’t alive to dispute him, to bolster his claim. Lewis, ironically, was beaten to within an inch of his life by racist Alabama state troopers. It seems doubtful that he would harbor any sympathy for colleagues defending police.
Biden owes Clyburn, who threw his support to Joe Biden after early primary victories by Bernie Sanders offered him a possible path to win the nomination. Clyburn’s endorsement brought the South Carolina African-American vote to Biden, who won that state’s primary and then went on to victory. Coincidentally, Clyburn is the largest Congressional recipient of campaign cash from Big Pharma, which opposes Medicare for All, one of Sanders’ main planks.
Other moderates like ex-CIA officer, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, excoriated left-wing Democrats for espousing using slogans like “defund the police.” In fact, no Democratic candidates endorsed such an approach, though many did advocate transferring responsibility certain police functions to social services and mental health agencies.
The carping by losing Democrats also obscured the fact that most of the planks of the progressive agenda like a Green New Deal, free college tuition, Medicare for All, and reforming the criminal justice system are endorsed by a majority of Americans. A comfortable majority of Americans even approve of the Black Lives Matter itself, which first espoused the “defund the police” slogan. All of the progressive candidates running for Congress won. When Alexandria Ocasio Cortez even offered election campaign consulting to her moderate colleagues for their own elections, only five took up her offer. All five won their elections.
Who lost? Candidates who were either running in marginal districts which they’d won against prior Republican incumbents or candidates like Max Rose, who ran like a Republican dressed as a Democrat. The lesson should be: if you’re a Democrat run like one. Don’t run away from issues for which there is majority support in America. Run proudly on those issues. Even if there is strong opposition. Look at Bernie Sanders campaigns. When he first ran for president most pundits thought of him as the longest of long shots. They saw no room in presidential primaries for a democratic socialist. Guess what? There was. Because Sanders made room. He forced himself into the national conversation by proving the public would respond to an honest politician whose ideas were spoken rationally and sensibly.
Foreign Policy Can Make or Break a President
The struggle for the hearts and minds of the Party is playing out largely in terms of domestic policy, the pocket-book issues on which many voters make their decisions. But it’s critical not to lose sight of the fact that presidencies are often made or broken in the field of foreign policy.
One of Obama’s greatest achievements was the Iran nuclear deal, which restrained that country’s nuclear program and assured it would not manufacture nuclear weapons. Contrarily, the humiliation Jimmy Carter suffered during the Iran hostage crisis, and collusion between Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini to delay their release until after the election, destroyed his re-election bid.
But foreign policy doesn’t just define a presidency or ensure its political survival, it is a moral imperative which defines our values for the world. Recall that Bill Clinton’s refusal to intervene in the Rwandan genocide permitted the murder of 800,000 Tutsi, and led to the rise of yet another genocidal leader, Paul Kagame. What our presidents do or refuse to do on the international stage defines us as a nation.
Progressive Democrats need to propose the same type of coherent, comprehensive foreign policy vision which they offer in the domestic arena. Except in fits and starts, they have not done so. I produced a webinar for KBOO community radio a few weeks ago with panelists Omar Rahman and Muhammad Sahimi proposing what a progressive U. S. Middle East policy would look like.
One of the main criticisms of Bernie Sanders on the left during the 2016 presidential primary was that while he was laser-focused on domestic issues, he hadn’t given nearly as much attention to foreign policy. When he did address it, his views seemed far less visionary and compelling than those on domestic programs. His liberal Zionist approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which included an allergic reaction to a one-state solution and a cut-off of U.S. military aid, offer just a few examples.
Progressive Foreign Policy Agenda
Progressives must demand a Biden foreign policy team that is independent of ties to defense contractors, multi-national companies, and corporate lobbyists. These are the figures in both Republican and Democratic administrations who have led us to wars which have benefited their former clients and employers.
As the American Prospect wrote:
The defense industry’s influence on national-security policy has led to a…reckless prioritization of military action over diplomacy, including the United States’ military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and its continued support of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemeni civilians. Bloated defense spending sails through Congress while investments in health care, infrastructure, medical research, education, and housing struggle to get traction.
[The] Biden administration has the ability to pursue a progressive national-security agenda: prioritizing diplomacy over military action, reducing the Pentagon’s budget, opposing regime-change interventions, supporting refugees, and condemning governments that violate human rights. But the Biden camp must first end the military-industrial complex’s influence in the executive branch.
Rep. Ilhan Omar recently penned her own vision of a progressive U.S. policy she hoped Biden would adopt.
The first task would be to undo the extensive damage Trump did to our international commitments. Trade is a key component of U.S. foreign policy as it benefits our economy, our workers and our consumers. But trade deals must incorporate protection for the environment and ensure that foreign workers not be exploited in wages or working conditions; and that they not be pitted against American workers in a win-lose scenario.
The Big Tech corporate juggernaut has caused immense harm domestically, as we’ve seen in our recent national elections, but its impact extends far beyond our shores. We have an obligation to regulate its activities, break up anti-competitive monopolies, and restrain its worst impulses in order to prevent harm outside our borders.
Biden has promised to returning to the Paris Climate agreement. In concert with the domestic Green New Deal, progressives should champion commitments not only to carbon neutrality and sustainability, we should export the technology and expertise on a global scale. We should collaborate with foreign countries in developing these solutions in the same way we’re developing a COVID19 vaccine through international cooperation. We must be open to learning lessons from nations which are ahead of us in their campaigns to achieve these goals.
Another critical foreign policy objective must be to revive arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. Trump failed miserably in permitting major arms control treaties with Russia to lapse, thus renewing a bilateral nuclear arms race. During the last four years, both countries have begun research on even more deadly weapons like hypersonic missiles. We must renew these treaties and restrain the deployment of these new dangers to world peace.
Trump totally mismanaged our relations with China. They are in a worse state than they have been since the Korean War. A progressive approach would dis-entangle the political, military, and trade conflicts which emerged over the past four years. While we should fully embrace Hong Kong’s democratic movement, there is no need for trade wars which punish both manufacturers and consumers in both countries. China clearly is a rival, but it should not become an enemy.
The outgoing U.S. president also approved selling nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, which could easily lead to a new arms race between the Saudis and Iran. We have no way of guaranteeing the security of technology we offer them. We cannot ensure they don’t offer it to other states with whom they are allied. And if the House of Saud is overthrown, we have no idea who will take its place and what they might do with our nuclear technology. Our policy should refuse to encourage such proliferation. If instead, we encourage regional stability, lessen hostility, and offer security to rival states, they may not be as tempted to pursue a nuclear path.
A progressive U.S. foreign policy would not only return to the JCPOA agreement with Iran as Biden has promised to do, it would seek full normalization of ties. Mutual recognition, ending sanctions, and mutual de-escalation of various interventions of both the U.S. and Iran in regional conflicts. Our military presence in the region often does not stabilize societies, but rather incites much greater bloodshed. If we seek to stop Iranian intervention in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, then we and our closest regional ally, Israel, must stop our own adventurism.
America must embrace a policy of non-intervention both in our own hemisphere (i.e. Venezuela, Cuba) and the Middle East as well. We should restore human rights as an element of our foreign policy. Countries like the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which permit monarchs and dictators to run roughshod over human lives, must pay a price in their relations with the U.S. A temporary pause in arms shipments as we did with the Egyptian junta is a slap on the wrist with no meaningful impact.
Here are a few examples of what a progressive Middle East policy agenda could look like. A comprehensive proposal to revamp U.S. relations in the Middle East could include:
End counter-terror drone attacks and targeted assassinations, which killed thousands in the region.
Recognize a Palestinian state and offer full UN status.
Oppose anti-BDS legislation in Congress and state legislatures as violations of free speech
Resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict by compelling Israel to fully withdraw from pre-1967 borders and recognize a Palestinian state; if it refuses, the U.S. should end all military aid to Israel and propose a UN sanctions regime until it acquiesces. Alternatively we could turn to a one-state solution as the sole remaining viable solution.
Demand that Israel negotiate resolutions of its conflicts with Syria and Lebanon which would necessitate an end to military attacks and interventions outside its borders.
Reset relations with Iran through a return to JCPOA, ending sanctions, promoting trade and investment, and negotiating an end to its intervention in states like Syria and Lebanon
Re-evaluate relations with Saudi Arabia: demand that it withdraw from Yemen, end its brutal war there; promote human rights and women’s rights in the kingdom; and discourage it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Spearhead a regional nuclear-free zone in which Israel would sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, join the IAEA, and pledge not to use its nuclear weapons; and all other states (Saudi Arabia, etc.) considering nuclear research would join IAEA and follow the same inspection protocols as Iran.
Clearly, these are far-reaching proposals some of whom do not yet enjoy consensus support which the progressive domestic agenda policies do. But the Left must not only advocate what is possible; it must advocate what is right and just and offers the greatest good for the greatest number.