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“Knuckle-Dragging Hawkishness”: Matt Duss on GOP Presidential Primary Debate, Israel, Gaza & More

StoryNovember 09, 2023
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We speak with analyst Matt Duss, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, about the U.S. political response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. The third Republican presidential debate on Wednesday saw candidates pledge unwavering support for Israel with “rhetoric that was frankly barbaric,” according to Duss. “This is just knuckle-dragging hawkishness to feed their base,” says Duss, who comments on Congress censuring Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib, Bernie Sanders’s stance on a ceasefire, and the parallels between Ukraine and Palestine. “As a Ukrainian American, I also stand in solidarity with people under occupation.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday night, the Republican Party held its third presidential debate in Miami. Former President Donald Trump refused to take part and opted to hold a nearby rally. Five Republicans were on stage: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and Biotech investor Vivek Ramaswamy. The debate began with a question about Israel. This is NBC’s Lester Holt.

LESTER HOLT: As president of the United States, what would you be urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do at this moment? Governor DeSantis?

GOV. RON DESANTIS: I would be telling Bibi, “Finish the job, once and for all, with these butchers, Hamas.” They’re terrorists. They’re massacring innocent people. They would wipe every Jew off the globe if they could. He cannot live with that threat right by his country. The Hamas should release every hostage, and they should unconditionally surrender. I’m sick of hearing the media, I’m sick of hearing other people blame Israel just for defending itself. We will stand with Israel in word and in deed, in public and in private.

LESTER HOLT: Ambassador Haley, what would you do? What would you be urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to do? Would you consider a humanitarian pause, for example?

NIKKI HALEY: The first thing I said to him when it happened was I said, “Finish them. Finish them.” And the reason is, I worked on this every day when I was at the United Nations. And we have to remember that they have to, one, eliminate Hamas; two, support Israel with whatever they need, whenever they need it; and, three, make sure we bring our hostages home.

We need to be very clear-eyed to know there would be no Hamas without Iran, there would be no Hezbollah without Iran, there would not be the Houthis without Iran, and there wouldn’t be the Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq that are trying to hit our military men and women, if it hadn’t been for Iran. And who is funding Iran right now? China is buying oil from Iran. Russia is getting drones and missiles from Iran. And there is an unholy alliance. We need to be clear-eyed.

The last thing we need to do is to tell Israel what to do. The only thing we should be doing is supporting them and eliminating Hamas. It is not that Israel needs America. America needs Israel. They are the tip of the spear when it comes to this Islamic terrorism, and we need to make sure that we have their backs in that process.

LESTER HOLT: Thank you. Mr. Ramaswamy, Mr. Ramaswamy, any daylight between you and the candidates we just heard on this issue on what you would tell the prime minister?

VIVEK RAMASWAMY: Not in terms of what I would tell the prime minister, no. In fact, I would go one step further. The founding vision of Israel was based on the idea that they don’t want to depend on anybody else’s sympathy or direction in defending themselves. So, what I would tell Bibi is that Israel has the right and the responsibility to defend itself. I would tell him to smoke those terrorists on his southern border. And then I’ll tell him as president of the United States, I’ll be smoking the terrorists on our southern border.

AMY GOODMAN: That was biotech investor Vivek Ramaswamy at last night’s Republican debate; before that, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis.

We’re joined now by Matt Duss. He is executive vice president at the Center for International Policy. He is the former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders.

Matt, why don’t you start off by your overall response to this debate, its emphasis on foreign policy, and particularly this beginning, on Israel and Gaza?

MATT DUSS: Well, how do I start? I mean, I have to confess I didn’t watch the entire debate, because I felt the intelligence being sucked from my body as I tried to listen to what these folks were saying. And even just hearing those clips you just played, I think my IQ dropped several points. I mean, these are not — these people don’t understand foreign policy. This is just kind of knuckle-dragging hawkishness to feed their base. I think it’s an embarrassment. It’s, frankly, inhumane to talk about foreign policy this way as thousands of Palestinians are being massacred in Gaza. It will not keep Israel safe. It will certainly not keep the United States safe. So, that’s what I have to say about that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Matt Duss, I mean, if you could elaborate on some of the things that they said, not just — the candidates said, not just about Gaza, but also about the rest of the world? I mean, there was some kind of consensus, at least on social media, that if any of these people are elected, the U.S. will effectively be at war with several countries, including China, Russia, Iran —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — and so on. So, if you could —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: If you could talk about that?

MATT DUSS: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, you heard Haley just now basically sketching out the new “Axis of Evil” — China, Russia, Iran — that she, as president — I mean, clearly, she won’t be the nominee, but she could potentially be a vice-presidential nominee under Trump, who will of course be the candidate. But she would lead us — she’s proposing to lead the United States into yet another global war on terror, after the previous 20-year war on terror that this administration has been trying to wind down, with some success but some failures. I mean, I think their approach to the Gaza war has, frankly, been atrocious. But, yeah, that’s what we saw. I mean, there was really no policy. I think you just saw signaling and rhetoric, just that was, frankly, barbaric. And I think it’s very concerning that this is the state of the debate in one of the country’s two major parties.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, I want to go to an excerpt of your former boss, Senator Bernie Sanders. He was on CNN Sunday when he was interviewed by Dana Bash.

DANA BASH: I want to just clarify one thing, Senator, if I might. You support a humanitarian pause in Gaza. Some of your fellow progressives say that there should be a full-on ceasefire, which would require an agreement on both sides to halt the fighting. Do you support a ceasefire? And if not, why not?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, I don’t know how you can have a ceasefire, permanent ceasefire, with an organization like Hamas, which is dedicated to turmoil and chaos and destroying the state of Israel. And I think, what the Arab countries in the region understand, that Hamas has got to go.

AMY GOODMAN: That clip was later shared by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Matt, you worked for Senator Sanders. She pushed him on a ceasefire. He said he was for a pause, but wouldn’t go so far as a ceasefire. Your thoughts?

MATT DUSS: No, I think the senator has been one of the strongest voices for a cessation of violence, for stopping the bombing. These are the words he used in his speech on the floor of the Senate a couple weeks ago. He has been one of the strongest voices in the country raising the issue of the Palestinians who are dying. And even before October 7, he was one of the strongest voices pressing the U.S. government to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. So, I understand there are some of my colleagues on the left who have been pushing for — you know, to use the word “ceasefire.” I get that. I think what the senator said there about the challenges of a ceasefire being negotiated with an organization like Hamas are valid.

Where my focus is, and I think I would encourage people to focus, is on stopping the bombing. A humanitarian pause is something the Biden administration has already called for, said they support. They need to get their diplomatic weight behind that. They have not done that yet. They are still not using the leverage our country has with Israel to stop the bombing. And that’s where I think the focus should be.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I also want to ask you about the House of Representatives vote Tuesday to censure Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress. Twenty-two Democrats joined Republicans in backing the resolution. Tlaib addressed her colleagues on the House floor Tuesday.

REP. RASHIDA TLAIB: Trying to bully or censor me won’t work, because this movement for a ceasefire is much bigger than one person. It’s growing every single day. There are millions of people across our country who oppose Netanyahu’s extremism and are done watching our government support collective punishment and the use of white phosphorus bombs that melt flesh to the bone. They are done watching our government, Mr. Chair, supporting cutting off food, water, electricity and medical care to millions of people with nowhere to go. Like me, Mr. Chair, they don’t believe the answer to war crimes is more war crimes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Rashida Tlaib speaking just before the House voted to censure her. Your response, Matt Duss, and, in general, how this fits into the kind of silencing of pro-Palestinian voices —


NERMEEN SHAIKH: — in the U.S.?

MATT DUSS: I mean, I thought the censure was absolutely shameful. When one considers the crazy things that members of Congress say all the time, just wild, wild stuff — I used to work in Congress. I know. I would hear it all the time. The idea that this comment from this member of Congress is worthy of censure, that 22 Democrats would join in censuring their colleague, the one Palestinian in Congress, at a time when thousands of Palestinians are being killed, I think, is shameful.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you this, Matt Duss. More than 300 Ukrainian scholars, artists and activists have signed a letter expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. They write, “Palestinians have the right to self-determination and resistance against Israel’s occupation, just like Ukrainians have the right to resist Russian invasion,” the letter standing in stark contrast to the president, Zelensky, who was going to Israel, apparently, but when those plans leaked, he canceled those plans. Your response?

MATT DUSS: I think that’s right. And as a Ukrainian American, I also stand in solidarity with people under occupation. The Palestinians are facing a much more powerful neighbor, the Israelis, who are in many ways trying to do to the Palestinians what Russia is trying to do Ukraine, which is snuff out them as an existing nation. Putin does not recognize Ukrainian nationhood. He does not see Ukraine as a legitimate state. Netanyahu feels the same way about Palestinians. His governing partners feel the same way about Palestinians.

Now, certainly, in resisting occupation, you know, the Palestinians, as Ukrainians, need to follow international law. There should not be attacks on civilians. The attacks of October 7th were atrocious. They were terrorism. They were heinous. Israel has the right and responsibility to respond and to defend its people. But, you know, again, the parallel here is between two peoples facing occupation, two peoples trying to secure their own rights and self-determination. That’s not to say the two situations are identical in all senses, but I do appreciate the sentiments expressed in that letter.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Duss, I want to thank you so much for being with us, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders.

As we wrap up, we want to wish a very happy birthday to Diana Parra! And congratulations to our crew member Matt Ealy and his partner Zarah! Welcome to the world, Zyrine Carlize Vinola Ealy!

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Sonyi Lopez. Our executive director, Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan. I’m Amy Goodman.

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