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Bernie Sanders, the Media and 2020

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Assuming Bernie Sanders decides to announce another presidential run, he’ll be helped by the fact that he’ll now be the front-runner in the Democratic primaries: Joe Biden is the only potential foe with similar name recognition.  No other Democrat has the grassroots activist base that Bernie does through his organization, Our Revolution, plus numerous Bernie-related organizations like Organizing for Bernie, which has already started campaign organizing.  Nonetheless, he will need to make some campaign adjustments this time around.  Vermont’s prodigal son lost the Democratic nomination to a historically weak candidate (who subsequently was defeated by a senile game-show host).

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party ruthlessly undermined Sanders’ chances, going so far as to consider smearing the Jewish Sanders as an atheist in religious states’ primaries, receiving leaked debate questions ahead of time, and smearing his supporters as sexist “Bernie Bros” (which Hillary recycled from her 2008 campaign against Obama and his “Obama Boys”).  There’s no evidence that the Democratic Party will be any more welcoming of Sanders this time around, what with the myopic centrism that party stalwarts Pelosi and Schumer continue to trot out in the face of an undeniable progressive swing within the party.

Bernie Sanders likewise faces a strong obstacle in the mainstream media (MSM).  At first, they largely ignored his 2016 campaign.  When he was propelled to the public consciousness thanks to online media and word-of-mouth, the MSM switched gears to smearing Bernie non-stop.  This was most infamously evidenced on March 6-7, when the Washington Post ran 16 consecutive hit pieces against Bernie in 16 hours. Reasonable policy proposals like universal healthcare -which is a reality in every other industrialized nation- were dismissed as being “unrealistic”.  Pundits inevitably conflated Bernie’s policy platform with Venezuela and failed Communist (i.e. not democratic-socialist) regimes.  Bernie will doubtlessly face similar dishonest framing in the 2020 Democratic primaries.  The talking heads will proclaim that only a “realistic” candidate like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris can appeal to centrists and independents.  If Bernie wins the Democratic nomination, then the MSM will ratchet up the Nordic socialism=gulags framing, arguing that Trump, for all his flaws, helped to “revitalize the economy” via stock market growth and lowered unemployment.

Thus, Bernie Sanders needs to be much more aggressive for 2020.  Hillary had many glaring vulnerabilities that he courteously chose to ignore, like her “damn emails”.  Civility didn’t win him the nomination and, as Hillary learned in Nov 2016, it won’t win you an election against Trump.  Republicans win the White House by embracing a schoolyard bully mentality.  Reagan beat Carter and Mondale by framing them as liberal pansies; George H.W. Bush had the dog-whistle Willie Horton ad; his son used a similarly racist claim to defeat John McCain in the 2000 primaries, then twisted John Kerry’s decorated war service into a story of treason in 2004; Trump was the meanest meanie of them all.

Bernie doesn’t need to be a bully so much as a street fighter.  He will have to run an endless gauntlet: mischaracterization by the MSM, attacks from more centrist candidates, libelous attack ads from billionaires terrified of his reformist vision, and then the final boss, Trump.  The key will be to hit back every time- but through constructive criticism.  Any time someone tries to use Venezuela as a scarecrow against his platform, he needs to point out facts, like how every other industrialized country has universal healthcare.  If a candidate bankrolled by abusive-towards-employees companies like Wal-Mart and Amazon tries to label a $15 minimum wage as economic suicide, the Bernie campaign needs to point out that the minimum wage is $13.61 in Luxembourg and $18.93 in Australia.  If a columnist writes that Bernie “has a problem” with people of color, Bernie needs to point out that he has the highest approval rating among people of color… a margin that’s at least double that of any candidate besides Biden.

Luckily, Bernie has a circle of highly media-savvy friends who can help represent him on TV, social media and through op-eds, such as Nina Turner and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  The Vermonter has had three years to analyze the arguments and smears used against each of his policy proposals and perceived electoral weaknesses.  The aforementioned Ocasio-Cortez has shown what kinds of arguments to expect against marginal tax rates, which are a necessity for any of Bernie’s major proposals.  In this particular case, you just have to do the hard work of explaining how marginal taxation works; since most Americans don’t understand such vagaries, they are susceptible to the pundits on Fox who imply that a billionaire’s entire income is taxed at the top marginal rate.

Such blatant dishonesty demonstrates the need to hit back at the media, in particular.  Trump beat the MSM smear machine through radical lies.  Sanders can do likewise, but through radical honesty.  The Sanders team not only needs to correct the record whenever someone in the media lies about or mischaracterizes one of Bernie’s positions, but explicitly point out the bad intentions of the pundit.  Trust in the US media has been declining for decades and spikes especially hard during election years.  In 2016, a record low 1 in 3 Americans expressed trust in the media.  Trump understood this reality and used it to frame himself as a hero fighting the corruption of the corporate media.

Bernie has the credibility, through his remarkable ideological consistency and refusal to accept corporate donations, to point out that six corporations control 90% of the US media and that they are incentivized to attack his reforms.  These six companies depend on ad money from Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, the oil companies and the health insurance companies to survive, and must therefore attack anyone who threatens these financial interests.  Bernie can point out that these six new corporations uncritically published the bogus intel that got us into the Iraq War, called torture “enhanced interrogation”, proclaimed that the economy was doing fine right before the recession hit, dropped the ball on covering the Standing Rock protests, etc.  Americans want to vote for someone who embodies the word “leader”: someone willing to stand up to the corrupt establishment that wrecked the economy and created endless wars in the Middle East, and someone willing to speak hard truths.  Trump did the former and convincingly pretended to do the latter and thus won the necessary credibility among voters.

The Bernie campaign must be similarly strict in regards to rival candidates.  As the frontrunner, everyone will be aiming at the target on his back.  Letting a dozen-plus make uncontested shots against you can easily lead to death-by-a-thousand-cuts.  In the poll position, one shouldn’t strike preemptively.  When attacked however, a counter-punch must be considered on the bases of the strength of the attacker and the attack.  For example, if Kamala Harris starts intimating that Bernie is disconnected from voters of color, he would be justified in responding, based on the potential harm of the smear and the prominence of the opponent.  Bernie could respond by pointing out that Harris (while CA Attorney General) fought against repealing the death penalty, marijuana legalization, police brutality accountability and overturning the convictions of 600 wrongfully accused.  If Biden tries to lecture Bernie about “electability”, he can respond by pointing out the former VP’s tone-deaf defense of oligarchs, school segregation and bashing of young people.  By establishing a good clap-back game early on, Bernie can scare candidates (especially weaker ones) into avoiding him.  Trump was able to develop this helpful aura during the GOP primaries; his rivals tended to focus either on attacking weaker candidates or toadying up to Trump in an attempt to win over his supporters.

Fortune favors the bold.  You don’t win the US Presidency by letting your opponents drag your name through the dirt.  Bernie is exceptional at explaining- and selling- his policy goals to sold-out arenas.  He’s still vulnerable with centrists and the politically disengaged.  Thus, he must be willing to not only articulate, but defend, his vision.  Bernie and his base have been smeared as racist, sexist, out of touch, delusional, weak on foreign policy, Communist and a thousand other things.  The anti-Bernie hit pieces are already appearing on TV and in the newspapers and he hasn’t even declared his campaign yet. Bernie must respond to criticism with constructive counter-criticism by pointing out the hypocrisy and laissez-faire fallacious arguments of his opponents.  Americans want to vote for a fighter… someone who will fight for them.

Russell Whitehouse is Executive Editor at IntPolicyDigest. He’s also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a policy essayist.

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Transition 2021: How Biden is likely to approach the Middle East

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In terms of foreign policy, the new President of the United States, Joe Biden,is likely to face numerous challenges, especially when it comes to the Middle East because of the disastrous policies of the former President, Donald Trump, in the region. Even in his inauguration speech, Biden made it clear that it was going to be testing time. Some of the challenges that the new administration would be facing includethe nuclear deal with Iran, the ongoing war in Yemen, issues of human rights issues and the current deadlock between Israel and Palestine. There is some possibility that Biden’s foreign policy towards the Middle East would either be a revival of Barack Obama’s former policies or new strategies would be formulated based on the nature of the challenges faced. However, it is certain that Biden will address or undo Trump’s terrible policies in the region. 

The Biden administration’s top foreign policy agenda is the policy towards Iran. The Iran nuclear deal (2015) or JCOPA was considered to be a milestone in multilateral diplomacy that was irresponsibly abandoned by Trump in 2018. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” of sanctions against Iran aimed to please the traditional allies as they faced a common enemy in Iran. Biden has promised to return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement, and he would also discuss Iran’s nuclear program and exchange for sanctions relief. In this process, it is expected that Washington might pressure Iran to withdraw its support for regional proxies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Moreover, the US would also seek to curb Iran’s export of precision guided missiles to her regional allies. Iran though, has already made it clear that these issues would not be discussed in the event of a renegotiated JCPOA. Furthermore, this plan may be complicated by the recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, which was not condemned by the White House that Iran blames on Israel. Public outrage had not even subdued at the point due to the assassination of Qasim Sulemani. Currently, the architecture of the Middle Eastern region is even more complex and challenging than it was four years ago butthe fact is that Iran cannot afford military conflict at this point when its economy is already crippling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic along with the sanctions imposed by the US.

Trump administration’s “Israel-first” approach in the region brought severe criticism at the global level. The Abraham Accord, signed in September of last year,which normalized Israel’s relations with UAE & Bahrain, is widely seen as Donald Trump’s most significant foreign policy achievement. This Accord altered the decades long regional perception that Arab-Israel peace could not be achieved without first addressing the issue of statehood for Palestinians. Biden has said that he supports more countries recognizing Israel but at the same time Israel needs to work towards genuine solutions between the two states. Moreover, the new administration at the White House will not show the same tolerance for Israel’s settler expansionism as its predecessor. However, there are certain foreign policies by the Trump administration that the new US leadership does not want to renew. The normalization of Arab-Israel relations is something that enjoys bipartisan support. And also, the shift of the US embassy to Jerusalem seems unlikely to be undone.

The US policy inthe Middle East under the new leadership will be less ideological and would be more based on fundamental principles.  These principles will greatly focus on human rights as some analysts view human rights as the core foreign policy agenda of the Biden administration. Thus, it does not seem not to be good news for the traditional allies of the US including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel. There are a variety of issues in addition to the human rights issues: the KSA intervention in Yemen, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the lingering mistrust, the jailing of activists and Jamall Khashoggi’s murder case, which are creating uncertainties between the Washington and Riyadh. Hence, KSA is going to have a very difficult time with the Biden administration. Similarly, the new administration can also be expected to take a less tolerant view towards Moscow and Ankara because of the extraterritorial activities in the Middle Eastern region.

Certainly, returning to the Iran nuclear dealofficially, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-will take a longer time to review because of the complexity of the issue and the domestic problems that the US is currently facing. There is also a possibility of a dangerous escalation without a nuclear deal due to Iran’s aims of buildingmilitary scenarios. Therefore, multilateral diplomacy is the best option for regional peace and security, which has been tried in the previous years.Even the JCPOA was a result of such diplomacy. The US ending its support to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen might turn away the traditional allies for some time but not permanently due to the common interests in the region. Biden is also likely to alter Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region as it would decrease US influence in the region. The top priority of the US administration in the Middle East would be to try and manage Iran’s problems and to maintain reasonable relations with Israel. Traditional allies of the US in the Middle East were content and supportive of Trump’s policies in the region but they view Biden, not as a President, but Vice President of the Obama Administration. Trump’s bilateral relations were often based on personal ties with the foreign leaders while Biden is expected to adopt a more multilateral approach in engaging with the allies. Still, scholars believe that there would be no fundamental change in the US foreign policy towards the Middle East, especially when it comes to protecting its vested interests in the region.

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Rejoining the UNHRC will be the State Department’s first diplomatic mistake

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As over the last days US Vice President Harris swore in Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the new US Ambassador to the UN, US Secretary of State Blinken announced in parallel that the US is now seeking election to the UN Human Rights Council, in an attempt to rejoin the UN system. But that’s not the right first move back at the UN that the US should be making. And that’s not what the progressive left had in mind when the real left groups put in office the new Biden Administration.

My perspective comes from having worked in the UN human rights system and as a finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech last year – but also as a progressive left voice.

The days when UN engagement defined Democrats vis-a-vis Republicans are over.

Shunning the UN has always been a Republican hallmark but backing and pouring so much funding into an old style, corrupt bureaucracy that has little to do with “diplomacy” is not what the new, awaken progressive left wants either.

Several weeks ago, I made the estimate that the 10bln dollars which the US government pours into the black hole called the UN equals the Covid relief that 16mln struggling American people could be getting now. The Biden Administration’s State Department diplomats have to remember who put them in office.

Democrat centrist diplomats have more in common with the UN in terms of ways, goals, style and world view than they do with the progressive left. Backing the UN means backing the old, corrupt ways, which the real progressive left voted to break last year.

The decision to announce the US’s goal to rejoin the UN Human Rights Council comes in the same week when President Biden finally announced his real stance on the Black Lives Matter ‘defund the police’ goals. Biden, it turns out, unsurprisingly does not support that. That’s not what the progressive left signed up for, either.

The UN institutional funding inertia by the US government does not define the Democratic Party anymore. That’s not what the left voters want. 

The left’s reasons for not embracing the UN and the UN Human Rights Council have little to do with the usual Republican ‘go it alone’ at the international stage.

Yes to diplomacy and multilateralism. No to the corrupt, faceless UN. “International diplomacy” is no longer the same thing as the UN system.

The wave that rose across American political life last year, with so many young black activists and so many people voting for the first time, signaled a big resounding No to old ways and old institutions, which have little concern for the actual needs of the people.

The new US Ambassador to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield, will have the tough job of reforming the UN, and in my opinion, even defunding the UN.

The days when love for the UN defined Democrats are certainly over. It’s time for the Biden Administration to do what it was elected for, which is to not simply go back to the same old, same old corrupt, faceless bureaucratic institutions swimming in money. This is not what we want. The progressive left voted for change and now that also includes the UN.

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U.S. Climate Policy Could Break the Ice with Russia

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Photo: Fiona Paton/ flickr

“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity” — Albert Einstein

Within the climate crisis lies strategic opportunity for the United States. Climate change offers the chance to earn back the good will of allies, to prepare American cities for an urgently needed increase in immigration, and to reinvent U.S.-led institutions that have gone stale. Perhaps most of all, foreign policymakers should remain cognizant of how climate action can help the U.S. navigate relations with the other great powers.

As a recent report from the Center for a New American Security details, synergy between China and Russia is more problematic for U.S. interests than the sum of the challenges that each nation poses individually. Similarly, a recent Atlantic Council publication observed that “allowing Russia to drift fully into China’s strategic embrace over the last decade will go down as the single greatest geostrategic error.” Chinese and Russian interests do currently align on defense, economics, and the degradation of the U.S.-designed world order, but the nature of their alignment does not constitute an alliance.

In characterizing the relationship, this distinction is paramount. For as long as China and Russia remain merely convenient partners, rather than ideologically kindred allies, it is possible to keep these neighbors at arm’s length. To this end, the U.S. must reorient its approach to Russia. It is the Russian perception that world politics are rigged to benefit the U.S. at Russia’s expense that has prompted its support for China.

Russia’s national interests are rooted in the desire for respect. With this in mind, Russia could pull back from synergy with China if a better opportunity to advance these interests presented itself. Ultimately, the ability of the U.S. to offer a mutually acceptable alternative will hinge on two related factors: the Arctic and NATO. Critically, the issue of climate change is central to both of these factors.

In the Arctic, rapid warming removes barriers to resource exploitation, shipping activity, and great power competition. This has drawn many non-Arctic states to the region. Yet, even with China inserting itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” Russia has expressed the need for a hierarchy of regional influence in which the interests of Arctic states are prioritized over non-Arctic states. On this, American and Russian interests align.

Russian distrust of the U.S. complicates matters, however. Arctic military assertiveness from Russia is evidence of its sensitivity to the NATO alliance. In response, U.S. military branches have been releasing strategies for Arctic-specific forward defense. Such militarism is not conducive to improving relations, securing sovereign influence, or addressing climate change. 

In order to limit undue Chinese influence in the region and stabilize its relations with Russia by securing a multilateral agreement that formalizes an Arctic hierarchy, the U.S. will need to alter its foreign policy so that Russia perceives it to be a viable partner. The alteration should be sufficient for reducing friction with Russia’s core interests, but not so extreme that liberal values or American security are put in jeopardy. Such transactional considerations should include fashioning a new climate-positive role for the U.S. in NATO. After all, the permanent physical presence of roughly 76,000 U.S. troops on the European continent not only irks Russia, but this posture is also expensive, carbon-intensive, and perhaps not even the most effective approach to conflict deterrence. 

Indeed, research has shown that rapid deployment of new forces is significantly more likely to stymie aggression. This suggests that the U.S. should reduce its troop levels in Europe by at least 75 percent while bolstering rapid deployment readiness. This would allow the U.S. to simultaneously reduce its military’s fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions, earn the good will necessary for stronger diplomacy with Russia, and still honor its security commitment to NATO in the event of a crisis. Moreover, the U.S. could then reinvest the potential savings into both Arctic sustainability and NATO’s capacity to manage climate insecurity.

Through the establishment of a bounded Arctic order and the greening of American leadership in NATO, the U.S. can dispel Sino-Russian synergy in the region and help maintain balance between the great powers. Specifically, these actions would both politically distance China from Russia and give the Kremlin substantial reason to begin feeling more optimistic about its relations with the West. To be sure, similar measures will be necessary in other regions to fully assure balance. However, the Arctic is a natural place for the U.S. to begin this endeavor. Usefully, the themes of climate mitigation and adaptation provide a blueprint for what countering Sino-Russian synergy elsewhere ought to generally entail.

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