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Peter Van Buren: What They Won't Talk About (Dept. of Foreign Policy)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

As expected, the deficit and debt were both discussed in the first presidential debate on domestic policy. However, despite this year's endless American summer and a devastating drought that won't leave town, climate change wasn't. What would you bet that it won't be a significant topic in the final debate on foreign policy either? Only one conclusion seems reasonable: climate change has no place on this American planet.

So far, both presidential campaigns indicate as much.  To a wave of laughter in the final moments of his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney mocked the subject, linking it negatively to the president.  ("President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise... is to help you and your family.")  Obama simply avoided the subject in his.  And that pretty much sums up the situation to date.

Though opinion polls indicate that undecided voters want to hear the candidates' thoughts on climate change, I'm hardly the first person to note that the subject has gone MIA in the campaign season.  Noam Chomsky, the Nation magazine, Salon's Andrew Leonard, and Joe Romm of Climate Progress, among others, have all commented strikingly on its disappearance.  But here's the curious thing: if American debt and deficit happen to be your worry, then climate change should be your subject. 

In response to a question about the deficit in the first debate, Romney typically said, "I think it's, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation and they're going to be paying the interest and the principal all their lives." Not a bad point really.  Who wants to pile an unbearable burden of debt on future generations who won't be able to work their way out from under it?  Here would be my follow-up question, however: In that case, what's "moral" about doing exactly that in terms of the planet -- ensuring the release of such quantities of greenhouse gasses that the global "debt" will increase staggeringly?  And here's the kicker: unlike a financial debt, the planet, the atmosphere, nature, physics will not, as Bill McKibben often points out, be prepared to negotiate a deal.  If Argentina or even the U.S. goes bankrupt, there is always an imaginable path back.  If humanity goes bankrupt on this planet, it's another story entirely.

Maybe, in fact, the debates have it right: climate change isn't either a domestic or a foreign policy issue. It's the whole ball of wax. The total thing.

In her piece "Tough Talk for America" at TomDispatch before the first debate, Mattea Kramer focused on five domestic issues crucial to our lives that she felt certain would not be taken up seriously by either of the candidates.  She was right.  Now, TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren, retired State Department officer, whistleblower, and author of the superb We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (just out in paperback), does the same for foreign policy.  Sadly, he's likely to be right, too. Tom

Don't Ask and Don't Tell
Six Critical Foreign Policy Questions That Won't Be Raised in the Presidential Debates
By Peter Van Buren

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We had a debate club back in high school. Two teams would meet in the auditorium, and Mr. Garrity would tell us the topic, something 1970s-ish like "Resolved: Women Should Get Equal Pay for Equal Work" or "World Communism Will Be Defeated in Vietnam." Each side would then try, through persuasion and the marshalling of facts, to clinch the argument. There'd be judges and a winner.

Today's presidential debates are a long way from Mr. Garrity's club. It seems that the first rule of the debate club now is: no disagreeing on what matters most. In fact, the two candidates rarely interact with each other at all, typically ditching whatever the question might be for some rehashed set of campaign talking points, all with the complicity of the celebrity media moderators preening about democracy in action. Waiting for another quip about Big Bird is about all the content we can expect.

But the joke is on us. Sadly, the two candidates are stand-ins for Washington in general, a "war" capital whose denizens work and argue, sometimes fiercely, from within a remarkably limited range of options.  It was D.C. on autopilot last week for domestic issues; the next two presidential debates are to be in part or fully on foreign policy challenges (of which there are so many). When it comes to foreign -- that is, military -- policy, the gap between Barack and Mitt is slim to the point of nonexistent on many issues, however much they may badger each other on the subject.  That old saw about those who fail to understand history repeating its mistakes applies a little too easily here: the last 11 years have added up to one disaster after another abroad, and without a smidgen of new thinking (guaranteed not to put in an appearance at any of the debates to come), we doom ourselves to more of the same.

So in honor of old Mr. Garrity, here are five critical questions that should be explored (even if all of us know that they won't be) in the foreign policy-inclusive presidential debates scheduled for October 16th, and 22nd -- with a sixth bonus question thrown in for good measure.

1. Is there an end game for the global war on terror?

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The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush's Global War on Terror (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantanamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial or hope or a plan for what to do with them. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq -- mostly because our Iraqi "allies" flexed their muscles a bit and threw us out -- the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan (and it's clear that northern Mali is heading our way).

A huge national security state has been codified in a host of new or expanded intelligence agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella, and Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of "al-Qaeda Number 3" guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama's drone-meister, has put it this way: "We're not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa, and other areas."

So, candidates, the question is: What's the end game for all this? Even in the worst days of the Cold War, when it seemed impossible to imagine, there was still a goal: the "end" of the Soviet Union. Are we really consigned to the Global War on Terror, under whatever name or no name at all, as an infinite state of existence?  Is it now as American as apple pie?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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