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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, Candidates, Is America Exceptional, or Only Great?

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Give a group of 21 Republican and Democratic Florida mayors credit. When it comes to sea level rise, they live at what might be considered Ground Zero for climate change in the U.S. As Philip Levine, the mayor of Miami Beach, put it, "Some people get swept into office. I floated into office." The group wrote to the moderators of the recent Republican and Democratic debates in Miami asking that the candidates be questioned on the subject. Amazingly enough, though previous debates often didn't even hint that the warming of the planet might be an issue of importance, the questions were indeed asked. It was a rare moment in which the media people leading the debates in this endless primary season bothered to address what could be history's deal-breaker. In the Republican debate, only Marco Rubio and John Kasich got to respond and Rubio offered a classic version of what is now the Republican establishment position on the subject. (On Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, of course, we know from statements elsewhere that they are deniers of the first order -- wildly so.) As it happened, Rubio did forthrightly accept the reality of a changing climate since, as he put it, "the climate has always changed." Doh! And his answer only went downhill from there.

Of course, in the race to do us all in, it's no news that, Kasich aside, the Republicans are so out of step with what the burning of fossil fuels is doing to this planet that it should make your head spin. In recent weeks, for instance, here are a few of the transformations reported or predicted: in February, we learned that January had been the ninth-straight "hottest" month ever experienced and that it was a particular record-setter, being "above normal by the highest margin of any month on record." Then, when the February numbers came in, they, too, were jaw-dropping. And if that wasn't cheery enough news, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "exploded" to levels not seen in at least 11,000 years and possibly not in millions of years, while across the northern hemisphere the temperature briefly hit 2 degrees Celsius more than the pre-industrial revolution norm for the first time in history, even if only for a few hours. Meanwhile, the vast Greenland ice sheet is melting ever faster in a self-feeding loop of destruction, and that is anything but good news, since a recent study revealed that, even if temperature rises were capped at that two-degree mark, "20% of the world's population will eventually have to migrate away from coasts swamped by rising oceans." And given how long carbon remains in the atmosphere, any such sea level rise will hang in there for at least another 10,000 years.

So it went in the early months of 2016 and that -- though given the pace of melting on this planet, it's a metaphor we might have to abandon one of these days -- is just the tip of the iceberg.

There may only be one area where the present crew of media interrogators and presidential candidates are more out of touch when it comes to asking or answering crucial questions, and that's foreign policy and the national security state. In a piece posted four years ago, during the last set of presidential debates, State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren laid out a series of such questions on foreign and military policy that no one then showed the slightest interest in asking or answering. Like so many things one says (and writes), that was then and this is now and who even remembers? Recently, however, he and I went back and reread that piece, and I must admit that the experience was a heart-sinking one. But let him explain. Tom

Back to the Future
Five Questions That Weren't Asked During the 2012 Presidential Debates and Are Unlikely to Be Asked in 2016
By Peter Van Buren

The nuances of foreign policy do not feature heavily in the ongoing presidential campaign. Every candidate intends to "destroy" the Islamic State; each has concerns about Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korea, and China; every one of them will defend Israel; and no one wants to talk much about anything else -- except, in the case of the Republicans, who rattle their sabers against Iran.

In that light, here's a little trip down memory lane: in October 2012, I considered five critical foreign policy questions -- they form the section headings below -- that were not being discussed by then-candidates Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Romney today is a sideshow act for the current Republican circus, and Obama has started packing up his tent at the White House and producing his own foreign policy obituary.

And sadly, those five questions of 2012 remain as pertinent and unraised today as they were four years ago. Unlike then, however, answers may be at hand, and believe me, that's not good news. Now, let's consider them four years later, one by one.

Is there an endgame for the global war on terror?

That was the first question I asked back in 2012. In the ensuing years, no such endgame has either been proposed or found, and these days no one's even talking about looking for one. Instead, a state of perpetual conflict in the Greater Middle East and Africa has become so much the norm that most of us don't even notice.

In 2012, I wrote, "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. While the U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq... 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)."

Well, candidates of 2016? Guantanamo remains open for business, with 91 men still left. Five others were expeditiously traded away by executive decision to retrieve runaway American soldier Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, but somehow President Obama feels he can't release most of the others without lots of approvals by... well, someone. The Republicans running for president are howling to expand Gitmo, and the two Democratic candidates are in favor of whatever sort of not-a-plan plan Obama has been pushing around his plate for eight years.

Iraq took a bad bounce when the same president who withdrew U.S. troops in 2011 let loose the planes and drones and started putting those boots back on that same old ground in 2014. It didn't take long for the U.S. to morph that conflict from a rescue mission to a training mission to bombing to Special Operations forces in ongoing contact with the enemy, and not just in Iraq, but Syria, too. No candidate has said that s/he will pull out.

As for the war in Afghanistan, it now features an indefinite, "generational" American troop commitment. Think of that country as the third rail of campaign 2016 -- no candidate dares touch it for fear of instant electrocution, though (since the American public seems to have forgotten the place) by whom exactly is unclear. There's still plenty of fighting going on in Yemen -- albeit now mostly via America's well-armed proxies the Saudis -- and Africa is more militarized than ever.

As for the most common "American" someone in what used to be called the third world is likely to encounter, it's no longer a diplomat, a missionary, a tourist, or even a soldier -- it's a drone. The United States claims the right to fly into any nation's airspace and kill anyone it wishes. Add it all together and when it comes to that war on terror across significant parts of the globe, the once-reluctant heir to the Bush legacy leaves behind a twenty-first century mechanism for perpetual war and eternal assassination missions. And no candidate in either party is willing to even suggest that such a situation needs to end.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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 (more...)

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