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This story plays out consistently in American politics: a lawmaker or candidate comes along and advocates for one or a few positions activists of some sort have been waiting years for a public figure to get behind.
Encouraged, those activists whole-heartedly embrace the politician without first looking closely into the nuances of his or her record and positions.
That’s what’s going on right now with Chris Murphy, the Democratic U.S. senator from Connecticut. He took the lead on challenging the U.S. military’s role in the Saudi war on Yemen, something few other members of Congress were willing to do, and he’s backing that up with calls to rethink U.S. policy abroad.
He’s started a website titled “Chance for Peace” and positioned his political brand around “A Progressive Foreign Policy.” The reaction, from what I’ve seen, has mostly been applause.
But, if you talk to peace activists in Murphy’s home state—people much more familiar with his track record—they’ll tell you to be much more skeptical.
“Progressive doesn’t mean pacifist,” Joanne Sheehan, a Norwich, Conn., activist with the War Resisters League, told me recently. “It doesn’t even mean anti-militarist.”
“There’s this contradiction that this is the peace candidate, but he’s a salesman for the weapons industry,” said Henry Lowendorf, of the Greater New Haven Peace Council and the U.S. Peace Council. “The industrial policy of the Connecticut [Congressional] Delegation is war…The absurdity of it.”
‘We love defense spending in Connecticut’
To call Murphy a salesman for the weapons industry is hardly hyperbole. He is literally a pitchman for local military contractors—in Congress and abroad.
Just last year, around the time he was imploring other members of Congress to think of the suffering of Yemenis, Murphy joined Maine Sen. Susan Collins and other members of the Connecticut delegation in writing a flattering letter to Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, encouraging him to purchase the CH-53K “King Stallion” military transport helicopter produced by Connecticut defense manufacturer Sikorsky, a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin:
“The strong tack record of CH-53 predecessor aircraft for both our countries make us confident that the CH-53K will meet Israel’s rotary requirements for rescue operations, transport missions, and tactical troop lifts. As our strongest ally in an unpredictable region, Israel stands to strengthen our strategic partnership with the continued use of common airframes. We thank you for your consideration of this premier aircraft and look forward to continuing to ensure that Israel remains a secure and stable state with support of the finest defense systems available.”
This same Sikorsky also landed a $3.8-billion deal with the Saudi government last year and another $194-million agreement with the Kingdom in January. There’s no indication Murphy was involved in these deals, but it does seem inconsistent for him to let them slide without public scrutiny. When he moved to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia last year, he even exempted a portion that would benefit Sikorsky, according to the CT Mirror.
Maybe he thinks the helicopters won’t be deployed in offensive operations in Yemen. But, even so: If you’re against the war policy of the Saudi government, shouldn’t you want all military support cut off to it? I emailed his office to see if Murphy was concerned about how the Saudis might use Connecticut-made helicopters but received no response.
Murphy’s embrace of defense companies isn’t something you hear about when he weighs in on Yemen or Syria, but it’s hardly something he hides in other contexts. This is Murphy speaking in Congress just this past January during budget discussions:
“Okay, we love defense spending in Connecticut. Why? Because we make a lot of big-ticket items for the Department of Defense. We make the helicopters at Sikorsky. We make the submarines. We’re proud of all of that.”
It’s worth noting that those seemingly benign submarines Murphy mentions include a new class of nuclear-armed submarines the Congressional Budget Office expects will cost U.S. taxpayers up to $104-billion to build in 2016 dollars. All this championing of a “modernized” nuclear weapons system comes as Murphy simultaneously begs us to think about the dangers posed by the nuclear authority of the Trump presidency.
These are not just a few isolated incidents. Murphy has repeatedly supported outrageous Pentagon spending in direct support of the military industrial powerhouses that, mind you, also help fund his campaign.
The “National Security & Foreign Policy” page of his official website makes no bones about his strong advocacy for the supposed “machinery that keeps America safe”:
“As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have fought to secure tens of billions of dollars in new funding for the construction of Columbia Class [nuclear-armed] submarines, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and Black Hawk helicopters. All of these state-of-the-art, made-in Connecticut technologies are designed to achieve our military objectives.”
Beyond his clear enabling of the military-industrial-complex, including the hugely wasteful F-35, are the suspicious cornerstones of Murphy’s “Progressive Foreign Policy”—policies that, frankly, aren’t so progressive at all.
Smart Power Principles
Murphy advocates for what he calls the “Smart Power Principles.”
But think about that title for a minute. It includes the word “smart,” which subtly implies that unleashing the incredibly deadly capabilities of the U.S. military is not necessarily a bad thing—we just need to be “smart” about it. Then there’s the word “power,” a euphemistic endorsement of the toxic idea that the U.S. should still rely on militarized foreign policy.
This mindset helps explain why Murphy undermines his own credibility by decrying U.S. complicity in Yemen while also showing little compunction about involvement in Ukraine.
Keep reading and you see the “Smart Power Principles” are not at all radical departures from Bush/Obama/Trump military overreach. They’re just a clever repackaging more accurately termed “Empire Lite” than a “Chance For Peace.”
Power Principle five states: “Decisions about government surveillance, lethal drone strikes overseas, and interrogation techniques must be made in the light of day and subject to greater congressional oversight.”
Evaluate the nuances here. He’s not saying we should dismantle the surveillance state, end drone strikes, and ban morally bankrupt “interrogation techniques.” He’s saying we just need to talk about them a little more openly first.
Power Principle four says, “U.S. military interventions, when necessary, should focus on creating space for local political answers to the underlying reasons for unrest.”
This is simply a more palatable repackaging of Bush era “democracy building.” If Murphy were promoting “progressive” foreign policy, he’d start from the premise of “we need to end our interventionism.” The idea of the United States serving as a “shaping mechanism for local political solutions” following “military interventions” promotes the completely narcissistic idea that the U.S.—an aggressor with little credibility around the globe—is entitled to march in and “shape” other people’s governments.
Then there’s Smart Power Principle three: “When we send our servicemembers to fight, we must have clear goals and exit strategies, act only with congressional authorization, and uphold our commitment to care for them when they return.”
This is the same old cynical sentiment that coaxes citizens into embracing military adventurism by elevating armed service members and equating “support for war” with “support for troops.” And, obviously, Smart Power Principle three doesn’t say anything about ending new wars altogether, just fighting them with “clear goals and exit strategies” and getting congressional authorization first.
Plain and simple: Murphy is a politician, and I can’t help but think he’s trying to build a political brand around the idea that he’s a bold foreign policy reformer while advocating for familiar policies that don’t actually add up to very bold changes.
Connecticut peace activists will tell you the same, because they’ve seen this story before.
“They speak out of both sides of their mouths,” longtime activist Joanne Sheehan said of Murphy and other politicians in her state. “That’s been my experience around here forever.”
Alex Nunes is an independent journalist based in Rhode Island. He has contributed reporting to NPR, Rhode Island Public Radio, The Providence Journal, and The Day of New London, Conn., among other news organizations. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rhode Island College.
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