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Brian Schweitzer, Montana’s foremost foreign policy expert


In the United States, it’s never too soon to start thinking about the next presidential race, even though the 2016 primary season won’t kick off for another 24 months, and voters have to get through the 2014 midterm elections in November before fully turning to 2016.USflagmontana

But this fairly engaging snippet comes from David Weigel’s Slate interview with former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer:

The Iranian deal makes sense. We linked up with the Saudis before and after World War II. Look, unlike virtually every member of Congress, I have a pretty good firsthand knowledge of the Middle East. The day after I got out of graduate school, after I defended my thesis, I went straight to Libya. I was there for a year; I was in Saudi Arabia for seven. I learned to speak Arabic. I can explain to you, in a way that almost no one else in the country can, the difference between a Sunni and a Shia. I can explain to you who and what the Wahhabis are in Saudi Arabia. I can talk to you about why we, the United States, initially got involved with the Saudi royal family, what we got out of the deal. I can explain to you why we knew Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We knew, because we supplied chemical weapons to him so he could poison the Iranians. The Iranians are Persian, not Arab; they haven’t got along for several thousand years.So we’ve had a bad history with Iran because of what we did in 1953, replacing an elected official with a dictator. If we can build a relationship that’s a little more even-handed, if we can get them to back away from their nuclear ambition—let’s face it, their neighbors don’t even like that—if we were to step up and said we’re no longer just going to take the Saudis’ position all the time, you don’t have to worry about us attacking you from Afghanistan or Iraq, if you agree to back away from your nuclear ambitions, we’ll be neutral.

When was the last time that you heard a candidate for US president — on either the Republican or Democratic side — who has such an immediately strong command of foreign policy, especially the historical cause-and-effect that so few US policymakers seem to understand?  When was the last time that a governor with such a command of foreign policy? And it’s not California or New York or Texas, but Montana, a landlocked Western state with a population of just over one million people.

Here’s a checklist:

  • Schweitzer speaks Arabic. (who knew?)
  • Schweitzer opposed the war on Iraq, which now seems like a no-brainer. (But in any event…)
  • He opposes the continued US occupation in Afghanistan, given that US forces essentially the nullified the Taliban’s reach in 2001-02.
  • He thinks Edward Snowden, the consultant that leaked the extent of the National Security Agency’s global and internet surveillance efforts, should be pardoned.
  • France and the United Kingdom have more capitalist health care systems because their governments negotiate hard over prices (that’s an argument that takes some brass, I’ll note).
  • The drug war ‘appears’ to have been lost, though Schweitzer didn’t mention the ongoing (and ridiculous) paramilitary US anti-drug efforts in Latin America today.
  • In mentioning the 1953 coup against Iranian president Mohammad Mossadegh, he demonstrates that he knows Iran’s history — and US-Iranian relations — predates 1979.
  • He knows that the United States supplied chemical weapons to Iraq in the 1980s, which Saddam Hussein used against Iranians.  (If you’re keeping score, that was the last time chemical weapons had been used in the Middle East prior to the Syrian attack outside Damascus in August 2013).

I wish Weigel had asked Schweitzer more about the US drone program, the difference between covert and clandestine operations, the use of both special forces and the Central Intelligence Agency, targeted killings of both foreign nationals and US citizens, the destabilization of Yemen and Somalia by US forces in the 2000s and 2010s, and the controversial US killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, whose death virtually meant the end of any peace talks with the Pakistani government and its new prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Oh, and don’t forget this gem: ‘If you ask generals whether we should stay in a war a little longer, that’s like asking a barber whether you need a haircut.’

Keep your eyes on this one — I knew Schweitzer was an impressive two-term governor who won election as a Democrat in a very Republican state (Mitt Romney won Montana in the 2012 presidential election by a margin of 55.3% to just 41.8% for US president Barack Obama).  But I had no idea the depth of his foreign policy knowledge.  Impressive, even though the Democratic presidential nomination seems today like it’s almost certain to be Hillary Clinton’s for the taking.