Of all the corruptions of empire, few are darker than the claim that diplomacy must be kept secret from the citizenry.
This hide-it-from-the people faith that only a cloistered group of unelected and often unaccountable elites – embodied by the nefarious and eminently indictable Henry Kissinger – is capable of steering the affairs of state pushes Americans out of the processes that determine whether their sons and daughters will die in distant wars, whether the factories where they worked will be shuttered, whether their country will respond to or neglect genocide, whether their tax dollars will go to pay for the unspeakable.
It allows for the dirty game where foreign countries are included or excluded from contact with the U.S. based on unspoken whims and self-serving schemes, where trade deals are negotiated without congressional oversight and then presented in take-it-or-leave-it form and where war is made easy by secretive cliques that are as willing to lie to presidents as they do to the people.
Unlike the excluded and neglected people, however, presidents have the authority to break this vicious cycle by making personal contact with foreign leaders, by publicly meeting with and debating allies and rivals, by taking global policymaking out of the shadows and into the light of day. When the president is personally and publicly in contact with the world, diplomacy is democratized.
As the most scrutinized figure on the planet, an American president who meets and maintains contact with leaders who may or may not follow the U.S. line on any particular issue involves not just him- or herself in the discussion but also the American people. The president lifts the veil of secrecy behind which horrible things can be done in our name but without our informed consent.
So it matters, it matters a great deal, whether those who seek the presidency promote transparent and democratic foreign policies or a continuation of a corrupt status quo that has rendered the United States dysfunctional, misguided and hated by most of the world – and that has caused more than 80 percent of Americans to say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
In the race for the Democratic nomination for president, the two frontrunners are lining up on opposite sides of the question of whether foreign policy should be conducted in public or behind the tattered curtain of corruption that has given us unnecessary wars in Vietnam and Iraq, U.S.-sponsored coups from Iran to Chile, trade policies designed to serve multinational corporations and a seeming inability to respond to the crisis that is Darfur.
Hillary Clinton, the candidate of all that is and will be, wants there to be no doubt that she is in the Kissinger camp.
The New York senator’s campaign is attacking her chief rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, for daring to suggest that, he would personally meet with foreign leaders who do not always march in lockstep with the U.S. government.
In Monday’s night’s YouTube debate, candidates were asked it they would be willing to meet “with leaders of Syria, Iran, Venezuela during their first term,” Obama immediately responded that, yes, he would be willing to do so. He explained that “the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them — which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration — is ridiculous.”
Clinton disagreed in the debate and now her camp is declaring that, “There is a clear difference between the two approaches these candidates are taking: Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office.”
Leaving aside the fact that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, a popularly elected leader, is not one of the “world’s worst dictators,” it is particularly galling that Clinton — in her rush to trash Obama — is contradicting her own declaration in an April debate that, “I think it is a terrible mistake for our president to say he will not talk with bad people.”
Unfortunately, Clinton’s vote to give Bush a blank check for war in Iraq and her defense of that war, her support for neo-liberal economics and a Wall Street-defined free trade agenda and her general disregard for popular involvement in foreign-policy debates suggests that the senator is showing true self when she dismisses the value of presidential engagement with the leaders of foreign lands.
Clinton is playing politics this week. But in a broader sense she is aligning herself with a secretive and anti-democratic approach to global affairs that steers the United States out of the global community while telling the American people that foreign policy is the domain only of shadowy Kissingers.
She is not just wrong in this, she is Bush/Cheney wrong.
John Nichols’ new book is