The Dangerous Denigration of Diplomacy

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) attacked Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) during last Wednesday night’s primary debate. Harris’ allies responded with a theory about a nefarious Russian plot. (screenshot: CNN)

After last Wednesday night’s debate, there was a lot of buzz about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard’s symbolic public spanking of Senator Kamala Harris for her disturbing record as former District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California.  Gabbard took the opportunity to challenge Harris on this topic by hijacking the moderator’s question, which was a request for Gabbard to expound on her pre-debate comment about Harris’s attack on Biden’s race record. 

Another pre-debate assertion that Gabbard made about Harris that I wish the moderators had asked her to expound on was that Harris doesn’t have the temperament to be commander in chief. 

As shown in the debates, Harris has trouble keeping her emotions in check, easily becoming hostile and angry (if we want an improvement on Trump, this ain’t it). Moreover, she had no substantive rebuttals when challenged on both her anemic health care plan and her problematic political record.  This shows that she doesn’t think well on her feet and doesn’t respond well when challenged by a smart and assertive foe.    

This combined with the fact that Harris is taking Wall Street and corporate PAC money, makes it obvious that Harris will have neither the inclination nor the backbone to stand up to the foreign policy “blob” if she were to become president.    

When Harris did comment on foreign policy it was during the first debate in which she attacked Trump’s actions from the right, mindlessly repeating establishment talking points that reflected no depth of thought.  This included the criticisms that Trump wasn’t sufficiently insulting and patronizing enough during past meetings with Putin and that meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was nothing more than a “photo op” that granted legitimacy to a dictator. 

In keeping with this mindset, and to compensate for her lack of a counter-argument during the debate, Harris went on the attack against Gabbard in the media afterward.  She brought up Gabbard’s meeting with Assad in 2017 and used it in an attempt to smear Gabbard as being unworthy of serious consideration. 

What’s most problematic is the reason why Gabbard’s actions with respect to Syria in 2017 are supposed to be automatically viewed as so beyond the pale that even mentioning them is intended to delegitimize Gabbard and shut down conversation.

Indeed within 24 hours Gabbard had to take several others to the proverbial woodshed, particularly an MSNBC anchor who also attempted to beat Gabbard over the head about her Assad meeting. 

Gabbard’s response to the anchor is clearly a frustrated attempt to explain the basic principles of diplomacy.  It’s profoundly disturbing when many candidates running for the highest office in the land – and the “journalists” covering them – don’t understand what diplomacy even is. 

When the very concept of diplomacy has become an anachronism with its definition having to be explained and its benefits not self-evidently understood, we’re in serious trouble.

If previous administrations hadn’t believed in diplomacy, we would not have negotiated arms control treaties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  In fact, we wouldn’t even have negotiated an end to the Cold War at all if diplomacy was considered verboten.   Would Americans have been better off if our politicians had been too sanctimonious to conduct that diplomacy?

Ronald Reagan believed that refusing to talk to your adversaries – as the Neocons believed – was a sign of weakness, not of strength.  This prompted Reagan to negotiate with Gorbachev against the advice of Neocons in his administration.  Do the Democrats really want to position themselves to the right of Reagan?

To Harris – and any other candidate running for the presidency – the question needs to be asked:  if you don’t believe in talking to adversaries, then how do you propose to avoid or deescalate tensions that could lead to war?

If one believes in diplomacy and the constitution, then Gabbard had every right to go on a fact-finding mission to Syria in 2017 and should not only not apologize for it, she should more fully explain why it was a patriotic thing to do. 

First, her trip has been mis-characterized as some kind of lone rendezvous with Assad.  The fact is that Gabbard met with a range of Syrians, including segments of the opposition, and did not seek a meeting with Assad but accepted one when it was offered in order to get the perspective of as many Syrians as possible.  Second, she showed willingness to talk to an adversary, which demonstrated that she has the skills and mindset necessary to conduct diplomacy.  Though it should be noted, she was not attempting to officially negotiate on behalf of the U.S. government during this meeting, so it would not be a violation of the Logan Act, a constitutionally dubious law under which only two people have ever been charged and no one has ever been convicted. Third, as other analysts have pointed out, Congress is a separate and co-equal branch of government that has a duty to perform a check on the executive branch, especially about an issue of such gravity as war and peace – an issue that the executive branch has a long and documented history of lying about (e.g. Gulf of Tonkin, Iraqi WMD, Qaddafi’s Viagra-fueled imminent genocide, etc.).  Those lies have resulted in the deaths of millions of people, including tens of thousands of Americans, and the destabilization of entire regions.  None of this has been in the interest of the majority of Americans. 

As a member of Congress, Gabbard had a responsibility to find out what was really going on in Syria – a country that the U.S. was intervening in. 

Although most people will vote primarily based on more immediate domestic issues, a government cannot continuously deal with the outside world with hyper-militarized violence and not expect that to bleed back into the home front.   Many issues of major concern are directly connected to our martial foreign policy:  lack of financial resources for domestic investment to improve American lives, the militarization of our police force, the fetishizing of guns, the debasing of our culture with desensitization to and glorification of violence, as well as destruction of the environment*.  

Since presidents have wide latitude in the conduct of foreign policy and their actions will potentially affect the lives of thousands or even millions (in the case of nuclear weapons, billions), a presidential candidate must demonstrate some understanding of foreign policy and how best to protect the interests of Americans.  That means understanding diplomacy and how it works.

*The Pentagon is the biggest institutional guzzler of fossil fuels on the planet and a major emitter of GHG’s. 

3 thoughts on “The Dangerous Denigration of Diplomacy”

  1. I do believe diplomacy has died and it’s been so long since Amerika had any diplomats that weren’t bullies. The one in Russia at this time and even Germany. Sad

  2. During WWII, president Roosevelt was discussing the strategy to win the war and the plan for peace after the war with our key allies, — a dictator, a monarchist and a generalissimo all the time.
    I don’t know since when our elected politicians are banned from conducting diplomacy with the leader of a sovereign country, who is one of the least dictatorial leaders in that region, fighting terrorists. At the same time, some of our politicians are funneling US taxpayers’ money to the terrorists without any consequences.

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