Hawkish talk from a liberal Democrat

April 12, 2018

When it comes to North Korea, liberal Democrat Elizabeth Warren doesn't sound so liberal (though she sure sounds like a Democrat). Khury Petersen-Smith explains.

THE RECENT appointment of John Bolton as National Security Advisor is another alarming step by the Trump administration toward a U.S. attack on North Korea after over a year of threats.

Bolton's return to the imperialist bureaucracy in Washington is part of the Trump administration's shift toward an even more belligerent posture on the world stage. Bolton is a lifelong ideologue of U.S. empire, and he has very recently called for U.S. military attacks on North Korea.

But previously marginal right-wing figures like Bolton and Trump's new choice for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aren't the only ones talking tough about North Korea.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, often associated with Bernie Sanders as one of the more progressive figures in the national Democratic Party, has made comments recently about North Korea and other foreign policy questions that can only be described as rivaling the Trump administration in hawkishness.


WARREN COMPLETED a trip to Asia at the beginning of April, with stops in South Korea, China and Japan. In Beijing, Warren gave a press conference where she sounded some of the same "America First" themes as Donald Trump.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a session of the Senate Armed Services Committee
Sen. Elizabeth Warren at a session of the Senate Armed Services Committee (U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann | flickr)

Her rhetoric is more coherent than Trump's, and different in certain ways--but the similarities are striking for someone who is supposed to be the polar opposite of Trump.

"We told ourselves a happy-faced story that never fit with the facts, and now...the United States cannot avoid facing a very different reality with China," Warren said. Noting that the U.S. and China share certain goals, she argued that "there are also areas where we are vigorous competitors and do not have shared interests."

Warren added that any notion that China could integrate into world markets peacefully as it ascends in power "has been proven wrong."

While it isn't unusual for U.S. political leaders of either party to decry the Chinese "threat," there's something striking about a Democrat taking a hard line on China while in China.

But Warren's most disturbing behavior came during her visit to South Korea. Traveling to the ironically named Demilitarized Zone--the heavily armed border between the North and South is one of the most militarized places on earth--Warren crossed into North Korean territory while in a building that straddles the border.

In an initial statement regarding the visit, Warren described a hostile North, with menacing soldiers armed with automatic weapons. Warren's office then backtracked, claiming that the senator "misspoke" and the North Korean soldiers were actually unarmed.

Warren said that upon crossing the line into North Korea, "[a] North Korean soldier immediately appeared at the window and started snapping pictures of me while I was standing in the North Korean part of the room."

Warren described this as an "extraordinary experience," which raises the question of whether she has ever been to a border before. While borders are oppressive and should be opposed by anyone concerned with human freedom, it is the height of arrogance for a U.S. senator to think that she can walk over the border into another country without any response whatsoever.

This is especially true when she represents a state that has stationed tens of thousands of troops just across the border--and whose president has repeatedly called for the annihilation of that country.

In a March 11 appearance on Fox News, before her trip, Warren spelled out her thoughts on dealing with the North Korean regime in a way that helped explain her provocation a couple weeks later.

Acknowledging that "there is no military-only solution to North Korea," Warren nonetheless opposed the plans for a summit meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

"We have to say 'You all have to be willing to open up so that we can verify,'" Warren argued, asserting that until the North Korean government allows the United States full access to its military facilities, negotiations are useless. "If they're not willing to do that," she said, "then they're not willing to take steps."

When asked about her critical stance toward the Trump administration, Warren said, "I want to see the president succeed. It is important for the defense of the United States."

This is perhaps Warren's most clarifying admission: Her problems with Trump's posture abroad lie not with his casual threats of "totally destroying" whole nations of people in the interest of maintaining U.S. supremacy. They are strategic differences about how best to secure that supremacy.


WARREN'S TRIP to Asia was not only a means for her to critique Trump's ability to advance U.S. empire. It was a thinly veiled effort to put herself forward as a better candidate for the job.

Speaking in Beijing, Warren called attention to Trump's failure to staff the State Department--including the fact that he, amazingly, has not yet appointed an ambassador to South Korea--and the administration's erratic words and actions. "This has been a chaotic foreign policy in the region, and that makes it hard to keep the allies that we need to accomplish our objectives closely stitched-in," Warren said.

The alliances that Warren refers to were "stitched-in" through incredible U.S. violence in the region.

The South Korean state was constructed under U.S. tutelage following the Second World War, and the U.S. has maintained an enormous military presence ever since--which involved, among other things, the Korean War, in which millions of Koreans died.

The U.S. government's most important Asian alliance, with Japan, was cultivated during its occupation of that country--after the U.S. devastated the Japanese population with saturation bombing to exact a surrender at the end of the Second World War.

The Philippines, whose role as the host of U.S. military bases has been a pillar to American power in the region, was formally colonized by the U.S. from 1898 until 1946, and the U.S. backed a ruthless dictatorship there for decades.

More recent inspiration for Warren's vision of a less "chaotic" approach to U.S. empire in the Pacific comes from the Obama administration. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton played a particularly important role in Obama's strategic focus on Asia and the Pacific--known as "the pivot to Asia."

Far from an alternative to the kind of open violence that Trump carelessly advocates regarding the Korean Peninsula, the Obama administration actually set the stage for Trump's threats today. As part of the pivot to Asia, Obama positioned more weapons and stationed more military personnel in the region.

Clinton traveled extensively in the Pacific, conducting what she called "forward-deployed diplomacy." The phrase combines a military term (forward deployment, which signals a readiness to wage war) with the phrase for international relations.

This makes it clear that "diplomacy"--for Clinton and any other Secretary of State--isn't an alternative to war. It is a different tactical approach from the use of military force to reach the same goal: maintaining U.S. primacy on the world stage.

This should be kept in mind when you hear Elizabeth Warren speak. She acknowledged during her visit to Asia, upon consultation with Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, that "extraordinary losses that would occur if war broke out in this region."

But she didn't conclude then that this fact should rule out military action.


TO PROGRESSIVE Democratic voters, Warren is known as one of the most liberal figures in the party. She claims to have inspired and provided the analytical foundation for Occupy Wall Street. She was among the Democratic politicians of national stature to proclaim that "Black Lives Matter."

Standing clearly to the left of Hillary Clinton, Warren gives progressives a reason to feel like they can vote Democrat.

But while the news media cover the stump speeches, efforts to "get out the vote" and other public aspects of elections, there is always another "election," taking place more behind the scenes, that is politicians proving that they will be adept and trustworthy administrators of the system and defenders of the status quo.

In this contest, the "votes" that candidates seek are those of the U.S. ruling class: owners of capital, those who sit in the boardrooms, the bankers, media executives, the political elite, and also the generals and admirals.

As a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Warren wields significant power when it comes to U.S. military activity--and she has used her place on the committee to position herself as someone able to act as a Commander-in-Chief.

However attractive or not her message is on domestic issues, Elizabeth Warren's behavior in terms of U.S. power abroad should call into question any idea that she is a left-wing alternative to the horrors of U.S. empire, past and present.

The lives of ordinary people in Korea--and the world over--are far from Warren's mind when she makes her calculations. The left, by contrast, must have the interests of the masses of ordinary people at the front of our minds when we build a resistance to the U.S. empire.

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