President Obama has delivered his final State of the Union address, praising America as the mightiest of the mighty. Yet the country is riddled with unsolved problems: racial tensions, growing financial inequality amid increasing military budgets, and many Americans feeling they have no say in national matters anymore. Ahead lies a presidential election with candidates generous on promises and claims they'll “make America great again.” But is that going to happen? Who has the most rational course? Who's no more than a puppet of big money - and who is fighting for votes by scaring people into submission? Today on Sophie&Co we ask these questions to the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine - Katrina vanden Heuvel.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: I think it’s a very interesting moment, Sophie. If you look at the Russian-U.S. backchannel discussions and negotiations, it’s been very underreported in this country, Sophie, that Putin and Obama spoke a few days ago - but I think the possibilities of resolving Ukrainian crisis are closer than we’ve seen in many-many months, partly because Francois Hollande of France and Angela Merkel of Germany face such intense problems in their own countries, I think they’re pushing on Poroshenko and Ukraine and they’re pushing to resolve it, so I think that would be a major step forward, because even if Ukraine is off the front pages of the U.S. media, the Russian involvement in Syria, fighting ISIS is more on the front page, I think that too has opened space for U.S.-Russian cooperation with John Kerry leading the way, to say: the U.S. and Russia need to be in coalition, not Cold War, when it comes to defeating ISIS.
SS: What would Washington be willing to give Russia?
KH: I think one should reframe it, I think, it’s important to make the case that it would be of great national security benefit for the U.S. to understand that a new Cold War with Russia is not in its national security interest. What would the U.S. give? I think, you’ve already seen in terms of the Iranian nuclear deal and prisoner exchange swap of this last week, the understanding that Iran, a long-time ally of Russia must be a player in international negotiations - for example, regarding the outcome of Syria. I think that the U.S. position on ensuring that Assad leaves office for negotiations to begin over the future of Syria - that has been dropped. That has been dropped. And, the U.S., Obama and Kerry are under pressure, even from inside the Obama administration to change that policy. But it has become, essentially official, policy to soften the opposition that Assad must leave before negotiations begin.
SS:Let’s talk a bit about the elections and the candidates. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main democratic challenger, brought up U.S. military spending, saying that most of the budget is spent on fighting the Cold War with the non-existent Soviet Union, instead of fighting real threats like the Islamic State and terrorism. Is it just easier for Pentagon to get funding from Congress by presenting Russia as an enemy?
KH: Let me step back, if I might, Sophie, for a moment. The Nation endorsed Bernie Sanders last week and we did so largely because he has been the Truth-teller and exposing the rigged system which hurts ordinary people in this country, but also speaking out against metastasizing inequality, both political and economic. But, in our endorsement, we also looked at his foreign policy and while we hope he will speak more and even more strongly about some of the issues that have animated the nation over these decades, there’s no question Hillary Clinton is more hawkish when it comes to Russia, Syria - though she apologized for her war vote, authorizing war in Iraq, she hasn’t learned the lessons: witness Libya and the overreach of their regime change foreign policy. Bernie Sanders has spoken clearly in terms of the folly of the bloated defence budget, because he understands as a progressive, that you can not achieve many of the reforms so necessary to rebuild America, it’s middle class, unless you rethink, change and cut the defence budget which is, as you said, suited for different times. What is worrisome, Sophie, is that at the moment there's a move underway: bipartisan, Democratic-Republican, to modernize our nuclear arsenal instead of modernizing our ideas - and that is a very dangerous phenomenon, beginning to think that nuclear weapons can be usable, something which has been off the radar and forbidden for decades. We must fight that, and that is a very dangerous bipartisan phenomenon.
SS: Now, during his State of the Union address, President Obama tauted the U.S. as the most powerful nation on Earth, spending more on military than the next 8 nations combined together. What are the threats that justify all that spending? Is this massive military budget really something to boast about?
KH: You know, I’m glad that President used that figure. I've used it over the years, but the question is what is to be done. That is a figure that makes no sense, this is unsustainable in terms of America’s real national security interests. We would still be very powerful and I resist the idea that America's is the most powerful nation in the world, because I think we should lead by example. As we look at the world today, there’s no question that China’s world power, Russia is a world power, and we need to work with those countries, not be the "exceptional all-powerful one". That is not in our national security interest. The threats we face today, Sophie - combating terrorism, combating climate change, which is acknowledged by the Democratic candidates since one of the crises of our time - that’s not going to be fought with the weapons in a bloated Pentagon budget. I believe there are many factors, as to why we have this budget - one of them is post-9/11. Sophie, we have seen an out-of-control growth of what President Eisenhower, Republican president, spoke of as the “military-industrial complex” - it is now military-industrial, Congressional, contractor complex. It is looking to make money, not for national security.
SS: But, I mean, what I’m trying to ask, I guess, is does the U.S. feel the need to be on a permanent war footing?
KH: Sophie, I’d like to think of myself as a pragmatic idealist, but we need time to change the militarisation of thinking in all countries. Let’s be honest, in Russia, often, national might is thought to be a measure of military strength. That is an old-fashioned way of thinking, very retrograde, but it is still seared in our DNA, in all countries. Look at Iran - the diplomacy needed to limit its nuclear program, because in Iran, for many years, nuclear program, nuclear power was viewed as something of nationalist meaning. So we need a mindset shift, we need a Perestroyka, we need a new thinking about what is actually mighty and what constitutes strength. I always said that this idea of that if you're "hard headed", you are strong and tough - “hard headed” means no new ideas can get into your head! We need to get need them for this century, Sophie.
As I said - toughness, strength is too often equated with military might, with the willingness to rush off and intervene which often leads to backlash and damage to our national security. I do think we're in the moment in this country and President Obama has played a good role in this. Take Iran - diplomacy first foreign policy has worked! And though he is coming under attack by neocons and some liberal hawks, we need to say again and again: “look, it is working, it is far better than military action”. A lesson that isn’t learned in this country, is when United States and Russia collaborated in 2013 to have Syria dismantle its chemical weapons with monitoring and good oversight. That was far preferable than military action! So we need to lift up, if not peace, we need to lift up models of when diplomacy works, when negotiation works, not when military action fails, which often gets lifted up as: "here, look, we're going to do it again" - , that’s insanity! That’s the definition of insanity, doing it again and again when it’s failed.
SS: As you’ve said in the beginning, the Nation magazine has endorsed Bernie Sanders Presidential nomination. He’s strong among voters who say they want a candidate who will actually change current policies. You call him “a transformational candidate”. We heard the same about Obama when he ran, and once he got into the office, I mean, you could argue he failed to deliver on his promises. What makes you think Bernie wouldn’t be the same if he’s elected?
KH: So, Bernie Sanders has been on the political scene for close on to 30 years as a mayor of Burlington, Vermont, as a congressman, a senator. He has been a champion of ideas such as medicare for all, essentially universal healthcare, dismantling the big banks, fighting corporate trade deals, free public higher education. He has been consistent, he has been a champion. He’s also a believer in what he calls a “political revolution”, which is, essentially, mobilizing people to be a wind at his back, to take on entrenched interests, big money, big banks, big pharmaceutical companies, to make change. President Obama ran a campaign in 2008, Sophie, as you know, “Yes We Can” - he spoke about people participating, but sadly, after he got into the White House, he essentially demobilized organisational infrastructure called “organising for America” which was the link to millions of people, who were ready to be a wind at his back as he confronted Republican party, which said on day 1 that their first agenda was to take down President Obama. Bernie Sanders understands that you need to mobilize people, you need to keep them mobilized, and that has been, you know, mobilizing people across this country, in cities and states, bringing them to Washington. It’s one theory of change, and it’s one that he believes in and I think he would be far more connected to the movements of our times, because it is a movement moment in America - BLM, the fight for $15 minimum wage, climate justice, the fight for universal healthcare. These are movements that have more strength now, even with all the big money, corporate money sloshing around, polluting our system than they did ten years ago, 8 years ago when President Obama was elected.
SS: Bernie is also proving that you can run for President without Wall St. and corporate cash. But how can you run the country without finding some sort of consensus with big businesses? I mean, is it even possible?
SS: So, the Nation endorsement of Bernie Sanders made it very clear that Hillary Clinton is a candidate of great experience, intelligence, greed, and she's responded to the populous temper of our time. She’s a politician who understands what you need at this moment, not as 20 years ago when the corporate wing of the Democratic party was stronger, as I said earlier, you have a wing of a party which has ascended in many ways. She knows she needs to put out a real plan. However, her plan is not about dismantling the big banks, it’s still a belief that Congress can regulate the big banks. Bernie Sanders wants to totally change the system - it’s the big banks that are regulating the Congress. So, I would suggest that his vision for regulating Wall St. is more structural, more deep and it’s probably more realistic in light of what we’ve seen out of Wall St., trying to evade regulation, trying to water down regulation, trying to buy and rig the system.
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