Speaking at Columbia University’s Hillel on Thursday night, Jake Sullivan, the Clinton campaign’s senior policy adviser last year, captivated the audience at the Kraft Center for Jewish Life, sharing his career perspectives on foreign policy, Israel, the Middle East and Hillary Clinton.
Although he was still noticeably stung from the loss to Donald Trump (Sullivan was Clinton’s first choice as national security adviser had she won the presidency), the conversation entitled “America’s Role in Israel and the Middle East: A View from the West Wing” was conducted in a warm and patently non-adversarial tone by Jordan Hirsch, visiting fellow at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.
The conversation signaled an unmistakable return to the hawkish doctrine of Clinton’s Democratic Party, with President Trump’s pseudo-isolationist “America First” policy serving as a perfect counterweight for Sullivan to soberly rehash the Democratic establishment’s penchant for interventionism.
“In quite explicit ways, this administration is stripping values out of American foreign policy,” began Sullivan, citing President Trump’s proclivity toward strongmen such as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Since taking office, Trump has indeed expressed an admiration for these despotic leaders, each of them accused of widespread human rights abuses. Notably absent from Sullivan’s analysis however was Trump’s closeness to Egyptian military dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and more tellingly, his cozy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rightwing government hurtles daily toward an outright fascistic regime. (Just one year ago, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak notoriously claimed that Israel has been “infected by the seeds of fascism.”)
While the Obama administration on occasion offered tepid rebukes to Netanyahu over Israel’s flagrant violations of international law, Secretary of State Clinton routinely reaffirmed not only her support but consistency of values with Netanyahu’s rightwing militarism.
Clinton’s political career has consistently been marked by a hair trigger to involve the US military in overseas conflict, especially in the Middle East. While the Democrats are no peaceniks, one of Clinton’s most enduring legacies is her relentless push of the party to the right on foreign policy.
She has been heaped with praise by military generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, though her most distinguished honor came in an endorsement from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the architect of the US’s deadly war of attrition in Laos who is considered by many a war criminal.
And Mr. Sullivan, a longtime adviser to both Obama and Clinton, no doubt influenced both leaders’ foreign policy.
“More representative, more just and more capable market economies in the world” claimed Sullivan, “[are] better for the United States.”
The moral argument for increased US force across the world comes right out of the liberal interventionist playbook, a logic that in order to be consistent assumes that US self-interest almost always justifies intervention in other states; it is the “kill for peace” paradox that US empire in the 20th century was built upon.
Making this case, Sullivan characterized Trump as “a person who does not look at America’s role in the world as having a special positive-sum nature.” Based on the president’s blatant self-interest and willingness to use the role of president to nurture his own personal investments, for example, this is not a false characterization.
But President Trump’s unscrupulousness in using American empire to advance the interests of the 1% is not objectively worse than the Clinton doctrine, which serves essentially the same interests only under a guise of morality and humanitarianism.
Contrasting his foreign policy objectives to those of Trump, Sullivan insisted, “we’re not just in it for ourselves and our people, but we believe that we can advance our interests while also advancing the interests of people everywhere.”
While this is a standard line of liberal interventionists, in Hillary Clinton’s case it screams of parody, considering the sheer multitude of deadly, foreign entanglements she has championed throughout her career, especially in the Middle East.
These include her vote for the Iraq War; the troop surge in Afghanistan; the funneling of arms to Syrian rebels, many of whom became affiliates of terror organizations, fueling the brutal Syrian civil war; the no-fly zone over Libya that ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, forcing a chaotic power vacuum and civil war; and unwavering diplomatic and military support for the Saudi regime’s onslaught of Yemen that has brought that country to the brink of famine.
Europe’s refugee crisis and to a much lesser extent America’s—the most widespread mass exodus since World War II—can be seen as the result of decades of reckless western intervention in the region.
Humble American Exceptionalism
The Clinton campaign’s loss it seems, if anything, has emboldened policy advisers like Sullivan, who posited that maintaining an unapologetically hawkish foreign policy will continue to serve America’s global interests, but such policy must be rebranded to reach a broader base.
“Trump says America first,” Sullivan quipped. “That’s hard to argue with because who really wants America second or fifth or ninth? Certainly not me.”
Admittedly, Sullivan is a pragmatic and convincing orator, even in his contradictions.
Conceding that the Clinton campaign failed to adequately sell its principles to voters, Sullivan said that in order to move forward “we need a new account of American exceptionalism—one that isn’t about chest beating or saying we’re better than anyone else…
“None of the significant challenges that we face in the world—not the economic challenges, not the challenges from climate change, not the challenges of nuclear proliferation of rogue states or terrorists can be solved by one country alone” Sullivan stated, “but none of them can be solved without the United States leading the way.”
Perhaps the penultimate legacy of the American exceptionalism myth is that the hawkish establishment—whether Democrat or Republican—can simultaneously possess the largest military apparatus in human history, yet still consider America’s military influence around the world inadequate.
And like a comedian working on his tight five, Mr. Sullivan repeated anecdotes of statecraft for the Columbia audience, often verbatim, from previous podcast and public appearances.
He recalled one such story from the early stages of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations: “One of the Iranians pulled me aside and said I’ve never been to America, but I understand that when you land at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, there’s a giant sign that says ‘Welcome to America. Think the big.’”
The story got a laugh, as it does each time Mr. Sullivan tells it—and then an even bigger laugh when he pauses, adding that his wife made t-shirts with “Think the Big” printed across them.
A Partisan Football
As Israel’s occupation reaches half a century next month, the movement of ardently anti-occupation young Americans and young Jewish Americans continues to grow. Bernie Sanders’ run for the Democratic party nomination revealed for the first time ever in American politics a crack in the bi-partisan consensus on Israel.
When asked about these trends, Sullivan conceded that a small wing of the Democratic party had abandoned its pro-Israel roots, but maintained that “there is still a strong majority in the Democratic party on the friendship and historical alliance with Israel.”
(But according to an oft-cited Pew Poll, 33% of Democrats sympathize with Israel versus 31% who sympathize with Palestine, indicating this majority no longer exists among Democrats. And according to a recent Brookings poll, 60% of Democrats “now support imposing economic sanctions or more serious action” against Israel in reaction to Israeli settlement expansion.)
Sullivan attributed the changing public opinion not to Israel’s ongoing and systematic human rights abuses, but rather to “a lack of context on the conflict.”
Mending this gap, Sullivan contended, will be based not on stemming Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, but rather on “explaining to a new generation of people coming up in the party who don’t understand the history of this relationship, the history of the state of Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the wider Israeli-Arab conflict.”
Talya Wintman, a Columbia student affiliated with the campus J Street chapter, disagreed with this characterization of her liberal peers, telling me: “I do not believe this comes from a place of ignorance, but rather a frustration with Israel at all cost politics and the unwillingness of American legislators to talk about Israel’s military occupation.”
While she did find Sullivan’s talk to be altogether informative, on this issue of dwindling support for Israel among American Jews, Wintman said it was “dismissive” to characterize the shifting public opinion “as a question of informedness and understanding…”
“For a party that campaigns on values of social and economic justice and public discourse, it should not be surprising that young people, particularly American Jews, want to talk about the occupation and are feeling disenfranchised from American politics because of it.”