Foreign policy expert Phyllis Bennis

Originally aired on October 11, 2012

The director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ New Internationalism Project assesses the impact of foreign policy on the presidential campaign.

Phyllis Bennis has been a writer, analyst and activist on Middle East and U.N. issues for many years. She's a fellow of both Washington, DC's Institute for Policy Studies, where she's director of its New Internationalism Program, and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She also helped found and remains on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to End Israeli Occupation and serves as an adviser to several top U.N. officials on Middle East and U.N. democratization issues. Bennis is the author of eight books, including Ending the US War in Afghanistan, and plays an active role in the global peace movement.


Tavis: Phyllis Bennis is the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the text “Ending the War in Afghanistan: A Primer.” She joins us tonight from New York. Phyllis, good to have you back on this program.

Phyllis Bennis: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: So Biden and Ryan went at it tonight. There will, of course, in the coming days be all kinds of deconstruction about what happened tonight, what did not happen, who won, who lost. Once we get past this debate tonight that was interesting and fun for a lot of people to watch, we get back to what really matters – the two guys at the top of the ticket, President Obama and Governor Romney.

Given that Mitt Romney came out earlier this week with his own foreign policy speech, I suspect, as you do, that this issue of foreign policy is going to get on the agenda in both of the next two debates. As I said already, the last debate with Bob Schieffer is exclusively about foreign policy, so we know that we’re headed in that direction.

But the speech that Mr. Romney gave earlier this week essentially suggested, in his own words, that President Obama had been weak on foreign policy. He went on to deconstruct that and explain that in a variety of ways. But your thoughts for starters about Mr. Romney’s approach now to put foreign policy on the agenda.

Bennis: Well, I think he’s looking for a way to distinguish himself from President Obama’s foreign policy, and since he doesn’t have a significant difference in the actual policy prescriptions that he’s calling for, what he’s resorting to is simply saying President Obama isn’t tough enough. His rhetoric isn’t firm enough. He’s leading from behind instead of in front.

But when pressed on what would you actually do, he’s giving out policies that are really not that different from those of President Obama. The language is a little bit different. The only significant difference, and this is an important one, on Iran, I think we can anticipate that in the foreign policy debate both President Obama and Candidate Romney will be focusing a great deal on Iran as a threat. Their language will be very similar.

But the red lines they are imposing are very different. For President Obama, the red line all along has been the question of preventing Iran from obtaining, from getting, a nuclear weapon, which everybody agrees. The U.S., all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, most of the Israeli intelligence and military officials, et cetera, everybody agrees that’s way down the road, bad as it is to have red lines at all.

But for Governor Romney, the red line he has claimed, and he claimed it again in his speech, his own foreign policy speech, is that he is going to rely on the Israeli red line, although he didn’t identify it as that, which is preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capacity, nuclear weapon capability.

Now, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. That’s much closer. That’s almost now, Tavis. If you look at the ability to produce enriched uranium, which any country with a nuclear power program has, including Iran, and scientific know-how, which Iran has, except for the five scientists that have been assassinated, presumably widely believed to be by Israel.

So that’s a big difference – is the red line getting a nuclear weapon, or is the red line getting nuclear capability?

Tavis: Why should that, why does that distinction matter to the American people?

Bennis: I think that it’s a very dangerous development to set red lines in diplomacy. It means that your diplomacy is almost bound to fail. If you’re diplomacy is based only on sticks – here’s our red line. More sanctions, more sanctions, more sanctions. We’re going to get Congress to pass a law that will make it illegal for us to have any carrots. It means diplomacy’s not going to work.

So I think it’s dangerous across the board.

The reason why it’s more dangerous to say a red line will be crossed so early is number one; it brings it much closer, ratcheting up the political pressure. It doesn’t change anything on the ground, but once a candidate boxes himself in, and we’re talking men here, so I’m not going to say himself or herself.

Once a candidate boxes himself in and says “I will set as a red line Iran obtaining nuclear capability,” if, just for example, Governor Romney’s good friend Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, announces next week that Israel believes Iran has obtained nuclear capability, a Candidate Romney would say one thing and a President Romney might feel obligated to make good on that commitment. So that’s very dangerous.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Bibi Netanyahu, and I’m glad you did, because I was going to go there, you mentioned Bibi, you mentioned the state of Israel, the nation of Israel; let’s talk about that for just a second.

Mr. Netanyahu has been unsuccessful over the past few weeks, the past few months, no matter how he’s tried – he’s been dogged about this, to be sure, but has not been successful, even inside of Israel, making the case that he’s tried to make about the red line and backing the Obama administration and the U.S. government into a corner to make a particular statement about these red lines.

So he’s not been successful at that, even with his speech at the UN. Now, I raise that because the Jewish vote does matter, and let’s be frank about it – more important or as important in this election, Jewish money matters. That is to say money from Jewish contributors.

The biggest giver campaign on either side is a Jew named Sheldon Adelson on the conservative side. He and the Koch brothers may be arguing, they may be neck-in-neck on who’s given the most, but certainly Sheldon Adelson’s given a lot of money.

So the issue of Israel is important now, as it always is in U.S. foreign policy. How do you think that plays out in the election, particularly given, again, that Mr. Netanyahu has not been successful, but there are a significant number of Jews who feel that Mr. Obama has been disrespectful to Mr. Netanyahu.

Bennis: Well, let me back up for one second, Tavis, on two quick points. One is that I think it’s important to distinguish Jewish money from pro-Israel money. There are huge numbers of Jews like me in the Jewish community who have very diverse views on Israel, who don’t support U.S. military aid to Israel, who don’t support giving Israel the kind of diplomatic support at the United Nations that the U.S. has provided, the kind of impunity for Israeli war crimes.

So it’s not just about Jewish money, it’s about pro-Israel money that I think we have to identify.

Tavis: Okay.

Bennis: The other point I would just say as a point of background is that I think Netanyahu has succeeded in one very important point. By simply making the claim, much as we may dispute it, that Israel somehow faces this so-called existential threat from Iran, no one in Washington, not President Obama, not Candidate Romney, not Congress, not the secretary of State, nobody is pressing Israel on the critical question of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory, on the siege of Gaza, on the continuing assassinations of Palestinians.

None of these issues are on the table, and they’ve been taken off the table for more than a year while Israel puts itself forward as being victimized and facing this so-called existential threat. So Israel has really gained from this debate.

Now, on the question of how that plays out right now in the campaign, what we’re seeing is a scenario, as you say, where Netanyahu has not succeeded in convincing people that they should vote for Romney because he says so –

Tavis: Right.

Bennis: – largely because people in this country recognize that President Obama is recognized by Israelis, among others, including the president of Israel, President Peres, who has said that President Obama has been more supportive of Israel in all the ways that matter – money, protection at the UN, diplomatic protection, et cetera, especially money; military aid, $4.1 billion of military aid this year, of our tax money, going to the 23rd wealthiest country in the world – that President Obama has done that more than any other president in history.

So Candidate Romney’s claims that Obama is somehow throwing Israel under a bus just doesn’t fly.

Tavis: All right. Let me move away from that issue, because there are so many foreign policy issues, I suspect, that we’ll be debating or certainly could be and should be.

On the issue of Afghanistan, Mr. Romney, Governor Romney, did not get around, didn’t get around to even talking about it in his Republican nomination acceptance speech. He of course did get around to talking about it this week. But what kinds of debate will we have, or put another way, what kind of debate should we have about Afghanistan?

Bennis: I’m glad you distinguished it that way, Tavis, because I think one of the big problems is we’re not going to hear a debate about Afghanistan. We’re not going to hear about more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan, and we’re certainly not going to hear about the scores of thousands – we’re talking tens, twenties of thousands of Afghan civilians who have been killed in Afghanistan because of this war.

What we’re going to hear from President Obama is “I’m winding down.” But that’s not good enough. This is a war that we never had the possibility of, quote, “winning,” whatever we think winning means this week. We’re going to hear a lot about Osama bin Laden is dead.

We know that the CIA has said that not only is Osama bin Laden dead but that the number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan today is somewhere between 50 and 100 people.

So we still have almost 70,000 U.S. troops, almost 100,000 U.S.-paid contractors, 40,000 NATO troops to go after a hundred guys. Really? This is crazy. This is one of those wars that never should have been waged. The majority of Americans now on all sides agree it never should have been waged and it should be brought to an end.

Saying that by the end of 2014, which both parties are basically saying, and that’s why we’re not likely to hear very much of a debate about it, that we’re going to “wind down,” meaning we’ll have fewer troops but we’re still going to have troops, we’re still going to have trainers, we’re still going to have Special Forces, we’re still going to have bases, this means a continuation of this horrifying war.

The expansion of the war into Pakistan, the drone war expanding not even only in Pakistan but also in Yemen, in Somalia and elsewhere. This is what’s looking more and more like a permanent war, and both parties are supporting it.

This is not something we’re going to hear about as a debate. This is just going to be both parties talk about the ongoing war that they’re both proud to be part of.

Tavis: Since you mentioned bin Laden, Phyllis, in the first debate everybody, of course, was tweeting in that debate where Mr. Obama, shall we say, did not do his best. We will see what happens in these next couple of debates, but didn’t do his best by any standard or definition in that first debate.

I was trying to follow what people were saying about it in Twitterverse, and Chris Rock – and this is always dangerous, trying to quote a comedian, because I don’t have the text in front of me – but the point that Chris Rock, the joke he told was that he was waiting.

Obama was doing so badly, but he was waiting before the debate was over, for Obama to bend down and pull up bin Laden’s skull, and that was going to be the moment (laughter) where he turned the corner in this debate. That he had a, that was his trump card, if you will.

So we all get the joke. I raise that because you mentioned bin Laden and there was a time, there was a time in this country’s past where if the sitting president had held up bin Laden’s skull, he probably could have gotten away with anything.

Does Mr. Obama, does President Obama at this point get any credit for killing enemy number one?

Bennis: Well, I would say he gets blame, he gets responsibility, he gets accountability. Chris Rock’s joke was funny, but the reality is that what amounted to, what was a cold-blooded assassination when there was no resistance from the principal target, when there was no effort to fight back, according to the soldiers carrying out the mission, to assassinate him on the spot, dispose of the body at sea, is not something our country should be proud of.

The notion that we are going to bring justice for the crimes of 9/11 does not equate, in my view, with assassination.

Tavis: Let me jump in –

Bennis: Bringing to justice –

Tavis: Let me jump in right quick. I’ll let you finish. Let me jump in right quick, because I can hear many Americans responding right now to what you’ve just said. First of all, President Obama is awfully proud of it. Number two, all of his surrogates at the Democratic Convention kept reminding us how proud of it they were.

All the chants of “USA, USA, USA,” every time bin Laden was referenced. To those Americans who say you sound awfully anti-American, you don’t sound very patriotic, you’re not – by the way, I don’t see you wearing a flag pin on the lapel of your jacket there tonight, how do you respond to those Americans who say how dare you suggest something like that, Phyllis?

Bennis: I dare it because our country claims to be a nation of laws. The day that Osama bin Laden was killed, I happened to be in Amman, Jordan, and I was watching the coverage on television of the kids in my hometown in Washington, D.C., mostly students, out there chanting “USA, USA.”

These were young people who were children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, most of whom were probably too young to even remember those attacks directly as conscious beings. They know it as a point of history. I don’t think that if we want to be a nation founded on justice, a nation founded on laws, that assassination is the way to do that.

This was a huge crime against humanity, what happened on September 11th. Bringing the perpetrators to justice is a noble goal. Assassinating the lead perpetrator, who wasn’t even physically there but who was inspiring the action is not such a noble thing in my mind.

Jordanians and Palestinians in Jordan, many of whom have suffered far more at the hands of al Qaeda type militants even than we have, were not thrilled at the idea that there was an assassination of this kind, because they’ve seen the consequences of assassination.

It’s not a question of should somebody be arrested, brought to trial, maybe imprisoned for life. Absolutely. But assassination, to me, is not something to be proud of. I agree with you, Tavis – President Obama has made it a point of pride. The Democratic Party leadership has made it a point of pride. But I as an American citizen, I don’t make it a point of pride.

Tavis: Let me ask you a question that I could spend hours in conversation with you about because it think it’s just that important, and it is a philosophical question, I admit, but I’m curious as to your take on this. What does it say that President Obama and Governor Romney don’t really have – his speech this week notwithstanding; that’s politics.

When you get down to the brass tacks, they really do not, as you’ve said three times tonight, have a huge distinction in foreign policy, in terms of how they see the world and the things that Mr. Obama has done. What does that say to the voter, what ought that say to the voter, that we’re about to have a couple more debates and we’re going to have an election in a matter of weeks, where the two guys running for president aren’t really that different on foreign policy?

Mr. Obama has used more drones than George Bush used. Mr. Obama, in many ways, has continued the foreign policy of George W. Bush; hence, Mr. Romney hasn’t had that much difference with Mr. Obama about it. But what does that say to the American voter? How do we take that?

Bennis: I think it says two things, Tavis. Number one is that there are far greater differences on many domestic issues than there are on foreign policy. And on both of those issues I think even small differences matter.

There’s a saying that when you’re almost drowning and the water is over your mouth, that last half inch where it covers your nose is very, very important. So small differences matter. That’s one thing.

I think the other thing that’s important is that while their policy statements are not qualitatively different, I think there is a difference in rhetoric which becomes important when they are held accountable by their own parties and hopefully sometime some president will feel him or herself accountable to the voters who put them in office.

What that means is if your claim, as is, for example, President Obama’s, based on his speech in Cairo in 2009, that he wants to rework the U.S. relationship with the Arab world, with the Muslim world, with the rest of the world, that he wants to privilege international law in the United Nations, that he wants to end nuclear weapons, if all of those things are what he claims to believe, maybe we can heal our democracy enough to force a president who makes that claim to make good on those promises.

If, on the other hand, you have a president whose candidacy, whose campaign promises were based on the idea that I will be tougher, that, as Governor Romney said, the Palestinians have “no interest in peace,” then you have someone who is coming into office accountable to a foreign policy that has no interest in international law, no interest in the United Nations, no interest in ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories or the siege of Gaza, no interest in maintaining the end of the war in Iraq.

There are hints from Romney that he would actually like U.S. troops back in Iraq. So it’s not only that President Obama’s current policies don’t seem so different from the actual polices that Romney calls for, but it matters, the vehemence with which one or the other calls for war and makes that a standard of what they stand for.

Tavis: You mentioned the Muslim world and the Arab world. We recall the speech in Cairo that you referenced earlier, and President Obama basically said he wanted to be a friend to the Middle East and wanted to have a different kind of relationship. That he would put forth a different kind of foreign policy.

This is on top of him continuing, even to this day, to be referred to by some as a Muslim and not a Christian. Juxtapose what he said he wanted to do, the kind of good will he wanted to foster and create, with what he has on his hands now in the Middle East and Republicans who are making a mockery of him because of that juxtaposition.

Bennis: It’s a huge challenge for President Obama, and I think the reality is that while he began his presidency with a real intention of trying to do things differently, he didn’t push hard enough in Washington. He had the view, apparently, that he could bring all sides together, and that became the priority.

That became primary, working across the aisle, working with Republicans, working with a bipartisan basis, et cetera, et cetera. What that resulted in, for example, Tavis, on the question of Iran, where he said he wanted to reach out a hand to Iran and some supporters of President Obama will say well, he did, and Iran rejected it.

The reality is that until – in those first three years the entire amount of diplomatic, face-to-face time by Obama emissaries with Iran was less than one hour. Diplomacy doesn’t happen that fast. It doesn’t work that way. He set up a situation where Congress was able to get away with passing resolutions and sense of the Congress motions, et cetera, that made it almost illegal for the Obama administration to actually engage in diplomacy with Iran.

So instead of standing up and saying the American people didn’t vote for a candidate who wanted to end diplomacy, they voted for a candidate who was sworn to put diplomacy first, and I’m going to do that and not allow that congressional hijacking to go on, that’s what we didn’t see.

That’s what we didn’t see. I think it’s by taking that argument to the American people that President Obama could have fought back in a different way against those pressures from Congress, from the Republican Party, et cetera.

Tavis: With regard to Mitt Romney, Governor Romney specifically, if this comes up in the debate, and I suspect if Mr. Schieffer doesn’t ask about it or one of the other moderators don’t ask about it in the coming days, Mr. Obama might be wise to raise this.

I can think of 25 one-liners that would work rather well. But the gaffes, this penchant he has for sticking his foot in his mouth where foreign policy is concerned – we all recall the trip he took overseas, and one ally after another, he kept insulting.

Again, you can see the one-liners; they write themselves for a presidential debate, if the president knows how to deliver it. But how might Mr. Romney respond to the perception, at least, that he just isn’t ready for prime time when it comes to being the leader of the free world?

Bennis: You know, Tavis, I’m very worried about not only the debate but the way the coverage, the press coverage in general, of the debate – sorry, of the campaign, is going forward. We’re simply not hearing anymore about Governor Romney’s inability to have an ordinary diplomatic conversation with our closest allies.

I mean, really, going to London? How hard could that be? You and I could be better diplomats than what he pulled off there. Going to Israel, a little bit tricky. Then on to Poland and he couldn’t pull off Poland? Really?

This is sort of crazy. We simply have wiped the slate clean, and particularly because he was widely viewed, appropriately, as the winner of the first debate, I’m afraid he’s absolutely getting a pass on his diplomatic inability to do anything right.

Tavis: I’ve got 30 seconds here. I suspect there might be a debate about defense spending. Are there differences there on defense spending and the budget and sequestration? What’s going to happen there?

Bennis: I’m very worried about this as well, Tavis. I’m afraid there’s not a big enough difference between the two parties. One of the things we’re not going to hear about, I’m afraid, at the debate is on the need to dramatically cut the military budget. There’s a need and an ability to cut several hundred million dollars – sorry, several hundred billion dollars from the military budget over the next 10 years without in any way jeopardizing the safety and security of the people of this country.

We’re also not going to hear about the global impact of global warming, the environment. We’re not going to hear about climate, we’re not going to hear about global inequality. There’s a whole range of issues that I’m afraid are simply not going to make it onto that debate agenda, and the military budget is probably right at the top of the list.

Tavis: We shall see. Two debates down as of tonight, two more debates to go, the final one specifically exclusively about foreign policy. Phyllis Bennis, we thank you for your time to have you on this program.

Bennis: Always a pleasure, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 22, 2012 at 2:07 pm