David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.

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Is Obama a Realist, Isolationist, Humanitarian Interventionist, or Drone-Dropping Hawk?

| Wed May 28, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy has become much more challenging. In a post-bipolar world where nonstate actors pose real threats and disrupters (good and bad) are everywhere, the issues are knottier and unforeseen developments often yield difficult options. In the aftermath of 9/11, George W. Bush chose not to come to terms with this fundamental change. Instead, he opted for a blunderbuss policy dominated by a misguided invasion of Iraq. President Barack Obama inherited a helluva cleanup job. And as he had handled the details—such as winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—he has had tried to articulate an overall strategy. His latest stab at this was the speech he delivered to West Point graduates this morning.

Early in the address, Obama noted, "you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan." The young men and women before him cheered. It was a poignant moment. Then Obama proceeded to outline a larger vision. He summed up his stance in these lines:

[S]ince George Washington served as commander in chief, there have been those who warned against foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being. Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America's willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America's failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

Each side can point to history to support its claims. But I believe neither view fully speaks to the demands of this moment. It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. If nuclear materials are not secure, that could pose a danger in American cities. As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened groups to come after us increases. Regional aggression that goes unchecked—in southern Ukraine, the South China Sea, or anywhere else in the world—will ultimately impact our allies, and could draw in our military.

Beyond these narrow rationales, I believe we have a real stake—an abiding self-interest—in making sure our children grow up in a world where schoolgirls are not kidnapped, where individuals aren't slaughtered because of tribe or faith or political beliefs. I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative—it also helps keep us safe.

But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: "War is mankind's most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men."

This is not new. Obama chooses no specific camp. He does not truck with so-called realists and isolationists who do not want the United States to be involved with overseas conflicts that do not directly and immediately threaten the United States. Nor does he side with interventionists who call for US military engagement in trouble spots around the world. Cognizant of the costs of war (money, lives, and more), he does not want to overcommit the United States. Citing the costs of nonaction and the interconnectedness of today's world, he does not want to remain on the global sidelines. He's certainly no neocon eager to deploy US military resources overseas to intervene in Syria or to up the ante with Russia regarding Ukraine. (Obama announced he would boost efforts to help Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, deal with refugees and cross-border terrorists from Syria, and "ramp up" support for elements of the Syrian opposition "who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator." He said he would keep working with the IMF and allies to bolster Ukraine and its economy and isolate Russia.) But Obama did defend his use of drone strikes. He noted, "In taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield." (Yet his administration has not always met this standard.)

For years, Obama has been trying to form and sell a balanced approach that justifies certain military interventions and limits others—while redefining national security interests to include climate change and other matters. That's a tough task. The world is not a balanced place. It's likely that Obama's handling of foreign policy will continue to be judged on a case-by-case basis and less on the establishment of an integrated doctrine. Given the global challenges of this era, a grand plan may not be realistic.

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The Dick Cheney/Rand Paul Feud Continues—And They're Both Wrong

| Mon May 19, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

This past weekend, former Vice President Dick Cheney made yet another media appearance to denounce President Barack Obama. But Cheney also used the opportunity to continue his feud with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.), who is mulling a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. On the friendly turf of Fox News Sunday, Cheney was asked about Paul's 2009 damning accusation—reported last month by Mother Jones—that Cheney used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse for the Iraq war so that Halliburton, the military contractor Cheney once led, would reap a large profit.

Cheney replied,

Well, before I ever took the job as vice president, I totally severed all my ties with Halliburton, at considerable financial cost. I had no relationship at all with the company throughout the time I was vice president. I didn't even talk to them. We kept a totally arm's length relationship. So he obviously is not familiar with the facts.

Paul's statement was harsh; he essentially had claimed that Cheney had betrayed the nation, exploiting a national horror and causing widespread death and destruction (including the deaths of thousands of Americans) to enrich his corporate cronies. When questioned by ABC News' Jon Karl about his Cheney comment, Paul insisted, "I'm not questioning Dick Cheney's motives." But that's precisely what Paul had done. And Paul had accomplished what not many could do: he evoked sympathy for the former vice president, who had led the Bush administration's campaign to rally public support for the Iraq war with false claims about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's ties to al Qaeda.

It's been easy for Cheney and his defenders to dismiss Paul's over-the-top, conspiracy-theory-like assertion. But on Fox News, the ex-veep, too, went too far. He maintained that he had no financial ties with Halliburton while he was George W. Bush's number-two and made a personal sacrifice by trading his CEO badge for a White House job. But that's not entirely accurate.

As Politifact.com noted a few years ago, when Cheney became vice president, he pocketed a $34 million payout from Halliburton. In fact, because he probably sold stock options at an opportune time, he profited enormously because the stock price was at a high:

It's not clear when Cheney sold his stock options, but it likely was within weeks of his being named to the ticket -- a period when Halliburton shares hit their 2000 peak, in the low-to-mid $50 range. By November 30, 2000, the stock had fallen to $33 a share. If he'd waited until then to sell, his payday would have been one-third lower, or roughly $14 million rather than $22 million.

Moreover, when Cheney was veep, he continued to receive deferred payments from Halliburton. In 2004, the New York Times reported, "Mr. Cheney’s financial disclosure statements from 2001, 2002 and 2003 show that since becoming vice president-elect, he has received $1,997,525 from the company: $1,451,398 in a bonus deferred from 1999, the rest in deferred salary." And at that time, Cheney still held some stock options in the company.

As vice president, Cheney repeatedly contended he had no continuing relationship with Halliburton. In 2003, he declared, "I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." But a report issued that year by the Congressional Research Service undermined Cheney's claim. It found that if a public official retained unexercised stock options and collected deferred salary—as Cheney did then—the official had "retained ties" to the company.

So when Cheney now says that he had nothing to do with Halliburton while he was vice-president, he is contradicted by the Congressional Research Service. Maybe he wasn't in contact with his old pals at the firm, but he continued to bank millions of dollars from the company as it obtained Iraq-related contracts from the US government.

In this ongoing scuffle pitting a GOP establishment heavy (who's a hawk) against a possible insurgent Republican presidential candidate (who's an intervention skeptic), both are wrong. When Paul assailed Cheney, he went too far and joined the ranks of the tin-foil-hats crowd—and then he tried to claim he had not said what he said. In defending himself, Cheney misrepresented his financial relationship with Halliburton. This mud-wrestling match has yet to produce a winner, but it is showing that each participant has a problem with accuracy.

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