June 10, 2006

Fair Shot at a Dream – Progressive at home, neocon abroad?

Mark Warner gave a beautiful speech at YearlyKos today about getting a fair shot at the American dream that could have been lifted right of the frontpages of dKos. But what about his foreign policy? He spoke of wanting to unite America’s friends and divide its enemies, in contrast to what the current administration has done for the last few years. But can he really do this if he’s bought into the conventional, neocon wisdom about who America’s enemies are?

When Warner spoke on stage about the current policy of borrowing from China to buy oil from countries that don’t like us, who did he give as an example? Venezuela, Condoleezza's favorite Latin American whipping boy and one of Rummy's new Hitlers.

When he spoke about the biggest threats we face in the WMD proliferation arena, he named Iran, a country with whom America has a troubled recent history. As someone recently said, in the current political atmosphere, where the drumbeat to war seems only barely to have been averted, criticism of Iran isn't just criticism of Iran.

In response to a follow-up I asked just outside the hall, he said that Hugo Chavez had gone against Venezuela’s constitution and tried to break up union organizing. Gov. Warner, Hugo Chavez arranged a new constitutional convention for Venezuela that represented every segment of society, including women’s groups and the often ignored indigenous population, and put both himself and that new constitution up for a vote when the final document was created. When the corporate strikes crippled Caracas demanding he resign, when his opponents had gathered enough signatures to demand a recall of his presidency according to the new constitutional provisions, he ran for his office a third time and was re-elected by a margin worthy of Barbara Boxer.

And that union busting? The state oil company’s management and their corrupt ‘union’ partners were all in on the coup against Chavez’ government. The coup that lasted a mere day, yet was still long enough a time for the Bush administration to recognize it as Venezuela’s official government. Chavez did fire the employees of that union, who openly participated in strikes whose stated goal was the ouster, one way or another, of Venezuela’s elected government. You could accurately describe his actions as political retribution, but anti-union? Heck, the Reagan administration fired all the air traffic controllers just for demanding better working conditions and the Bush administration just busts unions out of spite. Mike Noonan of the AFL-CIO said yesterday at a panel that as of 2005, the Bush administration’s actions had expressly forbidden over 20 million American workers from organizing unions. But Venezuela, they’re the big threat.

Warner describes Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as a jihadist. He clarified that later at the blogger press event as a reference to his involvement in the children’s brigades deployed in the Iran-Iraq war. Thing is, Iran was invaded by a country with financial support from several western nations, several of their Arab neighbors and the United States. Their behavior in that war was of desperate self-defense against the superior tanks and artillery of the Iraqi invaders, and they’ve not invaded another country in living memory, so I don’t see how this supports his jihadist theory. Further, even if Ahmedinejad is a jihadist, he has no power over the military, couldn’t order a parade without say-so, because the president of Iran is not the commander of their military forces. The military decisions still rest with the clerical establishment, whose positions and motivations can be more directly affected by the prevailing winds of world politics than the office of the president.

The Iranian government can legitimately be questioned on their human rights record, it has not been sterling. And as he noted, they have supported the Palestinian jihad groups. But. The Iranian government has supported about the same set of mideast terror groups supported by all their neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. From Saudi Arabia, Warner said that he would like to see “some public movement.”

He was delayed getting to the blog presser, so I thought I’d have to head off before he got there for follow ups. I talked to Marcy Wheeler (emptywheel), who also planned to ask him about Iran, to make sure someone asked the follow up. She had a very interesting point she wanted to ask him, which was why he considered Iran such a big threat when Pakistan had the bomb and was considered as politically unstable as Iran was in 1978, particularly when experts had suggested that a coup in Pakistan could deliver a bomb to Al Qaida within six months. I asked her to make sure and mention the IAEA’s recent declaration through Mohammad El-Baradei that they posed no nuclear weapons threat at this time. And just as I was about to leave, in he comes.

Marcy ended up getting the first question, and she laid it all out, so I figured I’d stay just a tad longer to hear the answer. My mind was blown. He told us, sitting there with a straight face, that Iran over the last few decades had been less stable than Pakistan. Pakistan! They’ve been in a constant, simmering border dispute with nuclear-capable India for years. They recognized the Taliban, something Iran did not. They’ve had a coup not too long ago and are now ruled by a military dictator who’s one misstep away from pissing off the Islamists in control of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services and handing that country to bin Laden’s ideological kin. They have no serious voting there anymore, whereas Iran has legitimate local elections and a national balloting process that, though it’s restricted in candidates has been generally deemed free and fair. Iran has a stable enough economy that their neighbors invest in their stock market, which has been on the up. Iran sends many of its students to college for business and engineering studies, Pakistan’s children are lucky to learn to read at the local madrassah.

On the scale of comparison with their neighbors, Iran is far from unstable, while Pakistan is a basket case of a country one bullet away from being the next Taliban stronghold.

Warner also said that Iran’s neighbors are concerned about them, though the only specific case he mentioned was Jordan. Jordan is a tiny, little country that supplies helpful support to any great world or regional power that can keep them from becoming road kill. Iraqis may have a more legitimate concern than Jordan, but Iran’s Iraqi Shia allies were elected to the current government in a process sanctioned by the United States. Still, they have stable relations with India, China and Syria, who don’t appear to share Warner’s concern that they’re angling to be a regional hegemon. Many countries want influence among their neighbors and Iran is no different, but it’s a big leap from pushing for additional agency in local affairs and expecting to start from scratch to become the dominant power in a part of the world bristling with nuclear nations.

After, I was walking around with a friend and he looked towards the wall and went to say hi to ‘Adam,’ who like many around here was sitting on the floor near an outlet, tapping away at a laptop. I ended up recounting the story of this back and forth with Warner and my frustration with it and then he said something to the effect of, well, he was the governor of Virginia and just getting started at this, so what did I expect. So, as it happened, it was Adam Nagourney of the NY Times. During a conversation that began a bit like, ‘you didn’t tell me that was Adam ****ing Nagourney,’ we came around to the apologia for Warner and this is the question at large: Why wasn’t Warner, new at the national candidacy game though he may be, not ready for the foreign policy questions of a former web developer currently majoring in environmental science?

Update: I was told this evening that someone who stayed around long after I left heard some of the press folks talking about the blogger questions, and mine in particular, and wondering why us bloggers have to attack people for agreeing with Bush about anything. Considering that I didn't say Bush's name even once, nor did I mention anything about political parties in my questions, I can only guess that some in the press corps no longer have the ability to hear policy debates.

My disagreements with Warner were on policy. He sounded like he had a good record in Virginia and those domestic policy points he discussed seemed good at first brush, but the way this country conducts itself in the international arena is of vital importance. Too often, there's little difference among the parties in foreign policy, even if the Democrats tend to be nicer about these things. Are pointless antagonisms so much better than pointless, petty antagonisms?

Posted by natasha at June 10, 2006 06:45 PM | International | Technorati links |

Excellent post natasha. I'm glad you stuck around and got some answers, even if they did fall flat. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: aProgressive at June 10, 2006 11:12 PM

Most excellent post, Natasha. I'll be bookmarking your article. Very, very well done. So why aren't you writing for the MSM? Do they know they need people who think and write like you?

Posted by: PerryA at June 11, 2006 12:36 AM

Write for MSM?
They're looking for stenographers, not reporters who ask thinking questions.
Don't apply there kiddo. If they test you your scores will be too high.

Posted by: Arthur at June 11, 2006 06:44 AM

I think you've pretty much nailed Warner's foreign policy by calling him a neocon. He is ideologically committed to the kind of U.S. dominance-centered foreign policy that animates the Republican neocons. I hope liberal democrats catch on to him early and often.

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Posted by: Gareth Porter at June 12, 2006 12:23 PM

Any idea on who he's got consulting him on foreign policy issues?

Posted by: snark at June 12, 2006 12:58 PM

Simply brilliant, Natasha!

Posted by: Helga Fremlin at June 12, 2006 02:47 PM

Did Warner seem to understand that there was some consternation concerning his views?

I am so impressed by your question--thanks for representing all of us who couldn't be there with such excellent probing of Warner's foreign policy ideas.

Which are pretty scary.

Posted by: jawbone at June 12, 2006 07:43 PM

I really think Warner's getting misread here. I've heard him say, on a couple occasions, that he believes the US must engage with democracies, even when they disagree with us, to maintain solidarity among free nations. He's also said, quite clearly, that he thinks we should be engaging with all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, and he's endorsed the idea of letting Iran resume its pursuit of civilian nuclear power, as long as we have some way of assuring they're not after weapons (which would, after all, be a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

I think he's right -- we should be doing with Iran what we did in North Korea. (And, had the Bushies not been idiots, we could've de-escalated the current situation with North Korea, years ago, when they first admitted that they'd been cheating and said they wanted to pull out of the Agreed Framework.)

As for this administration's shameful support of the coup against Chavez... I've seen "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", and wish more Americans would get ahold of the DVD.

Nonethless, I think it's fair to say that, currently, Venezuela doesn't like us very much. And we should be worried about whether, in fact, Chavez has any intention of ever leaving office. As much as I despise the Bushies, and as much as I thought Ari Fleischer chiding Chavez about "respecting democracy" was a bad joke, bordering on Brechtian farce, I do also think Chavez's revolutionary fervor may be leading him to elevate ends above means. We've recently seen Peru rejecting the Chavista attempt to consolidate the greater Andean region. Peru and Venezuela have made war on each other before, and I'm afraid they may again, soon.

Probably the two best leaders in South America currently are Lula in Brazil, and Bachelet in Chile -- both leftists -- and both of them are clearly worried about Chavez as well. I wouldn't even consider voting for a candidate who did not share these concerns.

I think we should work this out by integrating Venezuela into the community of nations, not by isolating it. Same goes for Iran. And that's my read on Warner's position, too; he's explicitly said so, in the case of Iran.

In any case, it was great to meet you at YKos, even if we may disagree on Warner. I thought Reid was fantastic, and Clark. And Keeler's speech was, I think, the best from any politico present.

Posted by: Auros at June 13, 2006 11:58 AM