Sunday, February 15, 2015


Harry Targ

Both unity and contradiction are reflected in the history of United States foreign policy from the industrial revolution to the present. The unity of policy in time and space is reflected in the drive to maximize the opportunities for U.S. capital to expand; to acquire more and more wealth, and to seize land, extract resources, and accumulate profits derived from cheaper and cheaper labor.

An example of a significant historical moment reflecting this unity can be seen in the 1890s as the United States seized former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands. Over the next 30 years the U.S. military invaded and occupied Caribbean, Central American and Latin American countries at least 30 times.

After World War II the United States penetrated Western European economies using economic assistance as a tool, launched a military alliance (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO), created the largest most expensive military in the world, participated in wars costing millions of lives, and was instrumental in establishing an international financial and trading regime that maximized the opportunities for capitalist countries in the global economy.

From time to time, the drive for U.S. global hegemony was challenged by opposing forces (revolutions, international communist alliances, anti-colonial movements, resistance and revolutionary movements opposing external control, and competition initiated by other states competing for power and profit).

Given the historical United States drive for hegemony, which has its roots in the post-Civil War period in an increasingly resistant global society, U. S. policymakers have debated the relative necessity of adopting different tactics to maintain or enhance the U.S. global role. Since World War II, the globalists as I call them, or the neoconservatives as they are commonly identified, have urged presidents and key foreign and military policy elites to exercise maximum military, political, and economic power to advance U.S. interests.

From President Truman’s call for a struggle against international communism, to the recommendation in National Security Council Document 68 that military buildup be the nation’s number one priority, to John Kennedy’s idealistic call for the U.S. to lead in world transformation, the call for global hegemony was presented to the citizenry. More recently, Ronald Reagan’s doctrine promising the liberation of the world from communism to George Walker Bush’s proclamation that nations are either with us or with the enemy, a global policy of conquest was implemented.

Alternatively, some foreign policy decision makers and pundits from time to time recommend more modest articulation of goals and the use of a broad array of tactics to achieve hegemonic goals that do not rely primarily on military superiority. President Eisenhower in eight years overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, began planning the seeds of destruction in Vietnam, proclaimed a special U.S role in the Middle East but at the same time called for deescalation of the arms race with the Soviet Union, participated in dialogue with its leader, and resisted pressures from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to spend more on the military.

Jimmy Carter came into office with an articulated human rights agenda and for a time acted critically against military dictatorships in Latin America, advocated democratization in then apartheid-South Africa, and began modest relations with Cuba.

A significant feature of the Clinton-era foreign policy agenda was about economics. The United States engaged in bombing campaigns against presumed enemies in the former Yugoslavia, but the major part of his administration’s foreign policy was about economics and not military interventionism.

By the time Obama was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, competing positions on United States foreign policy had begun to be broadly debated. These debates, in the past as well as the present, have never been about whether the United States should be “the indispensable nation,” but rather about whether in achieving its goals, the nation should prioritize the use of military tools or should use diplomacy and economics (what some pundits have called “soft power”). 

While many Obama supporters opposed the traditional U.S. pursuit of an imperial agenda generally embraced by political elites in both parties, they saw in the Obama candidacy a leader who would resist the use of the military to achieve national goals. The pragmatists in the Obama administration would advocate the use of diplomacy more and force less and consequently the frequency and escalation of war and violence would decline.

Obama’s record has been mixed at best as the candidate of the pragmatists as opposed to the globalists. He escalated U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, intervened in an escalating civil war in Libya, supplied various alleged “moderate” groups fighting regimes it opposed such as in Syria, and expanded the brutal drone attacks on civilians in several countries. In addition he has supported the same covert operators who have spent years undermining populist regimes in Latin America and the U.S. looked the other way when reactionary forces overthrew a democratically-elected government in Honduras.

On the other hand, Obama argued for negotiations with Middle East/Gulf enemy number one, Iran. He has partnered with Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia, to make some kind of agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons developments a possibility. And Obama has begun the process of normalizing relations with Cuba.

Now President Obama is confronted by two crises: Islamic fundamentalist attacks against various regimes in the Gulf and Middle East and the other, the civil war in Ukraine. In both cases Obama is, on the one hand, opting for a globalist response and, on the other hand, is arguing for the more pragmatic approach. Prior presidents shifted from one kind of policy implementation to another as external circumstances and domestic politics required. Beginning in 2015, President Obama has been advocating for both foreign policy positions at the same time in each issue area.

While Obama promises no boots on the ground he declares that the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) will be destroyed. Over 2,000 bombing raids on targets in Iraq and Syria have been carried out since last summer by American and allied bombers. There is no hint at negotiations here. The declared purpose is to physically destroy the enemy. Phyllis Bennis has powerfully argued that neither policymakers nor pundits have tried to understand why ISIS and its supporters engage in violence and terrorist acts. But, Obama has asked Congress to vote formal authority for him to continue the war on ISIS but only for three more years. We will continue the slaughter but only for so long. The President had hoped that this proposal would satisfy both the neoconservatives and the pragmatists among foreign policy activists. 

As to Ukraine, Obama, like European allies, wish to avoid a widening war in Central Europe that could lead to a new Cold War or Hot War between the West and Russia. So the President is willing to support negotiations between Europe, Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine, and Russia but he also urges Congress to allocate military resources to further arm the Kiev government. When analysts, such as scholar Stephen Cohen, suggest that the Russian support of eastern Ukrainian separatists has something to do with their concerns about an eastward expansion of NATO, the claim is ignored or not reported at all. Media pundits see no reason why Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians would fear NATO or the descendants of Ukrainian fascists from the World War II era who have influence over the Kiev government.

So Obama administration foreign policy today reflects a unity of  contradictory United States foreign policies that have been key features of the U.S. role in the world ever since its emergence as a superpower. All the contradictions borne of a drive to dominate and the resistance it causes are coming to a head today.

This is a critical juncture for the peace movement. The calls for economic conversion from militarism to domestic spending, a new foreign policy that respects human rights and peoples’ sovereignty, and a militant demand to end war and violence as a tool of United States foreign policy need to be heard loud and clear.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Harry Targ

The Lafayette Journal and Courier published a guest editorial on February 3, 2015 headlined “Faculty, Stop Stalling on Purdue Testing” co-authored by Andrew Kelly and Frederick Hess.” The two authors work for the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Kelly is the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform established in 2013 by AEI. The article asserts that the faculty have let a proposed test of “critical thinking” prepared by the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus “….languish in the faculty’s university senate.”

The opinion piece follows on a flurry of articles in the Lafayette, Indiana  newspaper where Purdue University is located. A lengthy article started on page one about testing for “critical thinking” at Purdue University on Sunday, January 25, 2015 headlined, “Test of Wills, Who Will Give In?” Two days later, after discussion of the issue at the scheduled meeting of the University Senate the paper published another story, also on page one, with the headline “Daniels, Faculty Civil in Meeting.” Daniels refers to former governor Mitch Daniels who is the sitting president of the university.

The articles and the solicited opinion piece from AEI refer to a disagreement some Purdue University faculty were having with a decision reached by President Mitch Daniels, and the Board of Trustees about tests to be given incoming and graduating students measuring critical thinking, reasoning, and the ability to communicate. Presumably these skills could be defined and measured to determine whether a four-year college experience was effective.

At the University Senate meeting the President of the Senate Professor Patty Hart presented a useful summary of what some Purdue faculty and educators elsewhere viewed as problematic about the project and the particular test (the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus) the Board of Trustees was imposing on the university. She identified areas of concern some faculty had about the planned measurement of the impacts of four years of study. These included the lack of clarity about the objectives motivating the exercise, the validity of measurement tools, who among entering students would be the sample and why, and what groups the students would be compared with-students from other universities, young people not attending university, or some other population, and most importantly, how was critical thinking being defined.

Purdue President Daniels, defending the tests, pointed out that an often quoted research project found that 36 percent of students examined demonstrated no change in critical thinking after four years of college study. Other studies, he said, indicated that high percentages of employers were dissatisfied with newly hired students’ skills in reasoning and communication. Despite questions raised by these studies in higher education publications, Daniels said that he and the Board of Trustees were ready to proceed to discover what impacts the four-year Purdue college experience had on young people, or to put it another way, whether college mattered. 

The debate at Purdue University and at many other universities is real, even if not reaching the hyperbolic level of conflict suggested by the local paper. Faculty have concerns about lack of clarity on what is being evaluated, testing costs (ultimately paid by taxpayers, tuition, and faculty and staff salaries), time consumed in taking tests, and profits accrued to corporations in the education business. Three critical additional issues stand out.

First, the debate at Purdue University is about measuring “critical thinking.” There is little discussion of what critical thinking means. Some would suggest appropriately that critical thinking involves developing the capacity to reflect upon the knowledge that is being received. Students should be encouraged to carefully evaluate what they are being taught, even materials found in lectures and textbooks. 

For some educators the ability to decide whether to accept or to challenge received wisdom, using intellectual rigor and evidence, is the essence of critical thinking. And challenge requires a rich and diversified knowledge base. Such a conception of critical thinking might not be reducible to metrics. Testing responses in writing and especially with multiple choice tests may be too narrow to address the fundamental intellectual tools that make up critical thinking.

Second, critical thinking requires historical knowledge, philosophical insights, an aesthetic sensibility, the ability to relate knowledge to human behavior, and a sense of the interconnections between scientific and humanistic world views. The development of a rich tapestry of knowledge and sensitivity to the natural world, society, and culture is very difficult to achieve but it should be the goal of higher education. This high standard may not be easily reducible to measurement of progress.

Finally, and connected to the first and second criteria, the critical thinking that animates the testing programs being imposed on students and faculty at Purdue University is based upon a market model of education. Defenders of the new evaluations refer often to the displeasure of employers with their new college graduate employees. The references to these primary “stakeholders,” driving the demand for tests one assumes, are employers who want the university to produce graduates who can perform particular scientific and technical cognitive and communication tasks. These tasks are important but do not necessarily rise to the level of critical thinking. 

In sum, the establishment of metrics to measure critical thinking may not capture the essence of higher education and this is what has raised concerns of many educators at Purdue University and elsewhere. But the disagreements should not be reduced, as they were in the local newspaper to trivialities about the “test of wills” between the faculty and the President of the university. Nor should the reasoned debates by educators on campus be trumped by conservative Washington think tank advocates claiming that the faculty are “dragging their heels.”

As President Daniels wrote to the faculty in his 2015 New Year message “… our land-grant assignment, and frankly that of any institution claiming to deliver ‘higher education,’ is not limited to the teaching that produces scientific or technical expertise. Our task calls us to produce citizens, men and women who are able to think reflectively and creatively not only at the workplace but also to thrive in those other domains of well-being measured so interestingly by the Gallup-Purdue Index.”

In the long run, the stakes are about what the academic community and society see as the goals of higher education. And that is a discussion that is worth having, allowing for full participation by those most immediately involved in the educational process: faculty and students.