Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign may be the most consequential failed bid for the presidency in American history. Sanders didn’t just show that unapologetic leftism could be popular with the voting public, particularly at a time when inequality is worse than during the Gilded Age. He also transgressed numerous political orthodoxies, from consistently laying America’s problems at the feet of “millionaires and billionaires” to unapologetically calling for government programs to support ordinary Americans, expanding the public’s view of not just what was politically possible, but what was desirable.
But Sanders fell short on one key element of his platform: foreign policy.
Bernie did make a few breaks with establishment thinking on foreign policy, of course. He pilloried Hillary Clinton over her friendship with America’s foremost ghoul Henry Kissinger, who is usually a prized get for any candidate wanting to beef up their credentials. He repeatedly criticized US military adventures, such as in Iraq and Libya. He defended Palestinians’ rights, criticized Israel’s treatment of Gaza, and suggested the United States take a more balanced approach to the region instead of reflexively defending Israel.
But for the most part, Sanders’s foreign policy was a world away from his more challenging domestic policies, fitting relatively snugly in the narrow boundaries of political debate in Washington. Sanders affirmed he would continue the use of drones, special forces, “and more” in counter-terrorism operations, though claiming he would use drones more “selectively.” He said that Barack Obama’s “kill list” — a list of suspected terrorists from which the president unilaterally chose the next target of a drone strike, in one case targeting and killing a US citizen without trial — was constitutional and legal. He affirmed that the United States should have “the strongest military in the world.”
He supported air strikes in Syria, and his plan for fighting ISIS eschewed diplomatic solutions in favor of funding and supplying an unworkable “Muslim coalition,” a strategy that was in substance little different from Clinton’s. He drew the line at putting boots on the ground in Syria, but backed Obama sending special forces to train Syrian rebels, though the number of Syrian forces trained by the US could be counted on one hand, and these supposedly non-combat forces ended up in combat roles, as they always do. Sanders was silent on nuclear weapons and on the stretching of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which has provided a flimsy legal basis for US military intervention in a wide range of countries.
In fact, during the first Democratic debate, it was the now-forgotten Lincoln Chafee who was the contest’s antiwar voice, declaring that “ending the wars” would be his chief break from Obama’s eight years, complaining about spending “a half-billion dollars arming and training soldiers” in Syria, and criticizing the Obama administration’s drone bombings of civilian weddings and its then-recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
The word “drone” would be spoken only two more times in the Democratic debates after this, both in the second debate: once by Martin O’Malley, who said there were “other ways to be a moral leader in this world, rather than at the opposite end of a drone strike”; and once by Clinton, who complained that Russian television cameras had filmed plans for a nuclear drone submarine.
Sanders’s relative silence on Obama’s foreign policy has mirrored his fairly conventional foreign policy thinking throughout his Washington career. His controversial stance towards Israel only came in April, relatively late in the campaign, and half a year after pro-Palestinian activists had been kicked out of one of his campaign rallies and threatened with arrest. (The Sanders campaign later apologized and attributed it to an overzealous staffer).
Prior to this, his position on Israel was a mixed bag: he was more progressive than most congress members, yet also appeared to at times excuse Israel’s destructive 2014 assault on Gaza because it came after weeks of ineffective Hamas rocket attacks. He also allowed a raft of controversial Senate resolutions backing Israel’s various bombings of Gaza to go through without objection, and even supported Israel’s 2006 attack on Gaza and Lebanon.
Sanders also voted to reauthorize funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supported the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which led one of his staffers to resign in protest. Throughout his career, he’s eagerly pursued arms manufacturers to set up base in his state, despite railing against the practice in speeches. This record sometimes extended to his pre-Washington days. In 1985, while he was mayor of Vermont, protesters locked themselves to the gates of the GE plant located in the city, due to it being the site of the manufacture of Gatling guns being used to fight Central American socialists. Rather than supporting the activists, and despite his deep commitment to Central American solidarity against US intervention in the region as mayor, Sanders stood by as police arrested the protesters.
None of this necessarily cancels out Sanders’s support for a wide variety of more humane domestic policies, nor his recent opposition to the Saudi arms deal. But it’s a poor record for someone who has a picture of Eugene V. Debs hanging on his office wall.
No Jeremy Corbyn
One can make the case that Sanders’s toeing of the Washington consensus on foreign policy was a tactical choice. His unabashed championing of social-democratic policies already made him a marginalized and often-dismissed figure in Washington prior to and when the campaign began — something that would have been doubly true had he also bucked the establishment on the issue of national security.
While left-wing policies of any kind are enough to have a political figure attacked and dismissed as “crazy” or “loony,” there is a special kind of hostility reserved in establishment circles for those who take an alternative approach to national security.
Jeremy Corbyn’s experience as UK Labour leader is instructive. Unlike Sanders, Corbyn put a left-wing foreign policy front and center alongside his calls for economic justice. A longtime anti-nuclear activist, he refused to say he would use nuclear weapons as prime minister and pushed to put the scrapping of the UK’s Trident nuclear submarine program on the Labour agenda.
He vigorously opposed British intervention in Syria, defying many in his own party, including his own front bench, and criticized other nations’ airstrikes in the country right up until the UK’s most recent election. When a US drone strike killed Mohammed Emwazi — better known as “Jihadi John” — his response was that “it would have been far better for us all if he had been held to account in a court of law.” He expressed concern with the UK government’s shoot-to-kill policy, which had previously resulted in the death of a completely innocent man. And all this was just during his time as leader.
In response, Corbyn bore the brunt of a vicious campaign of attacks on his character and suitability as a leader. Then-Tory prime minister David Cameron accused him of having a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathizing, and Britain-hating ideology,” variations of which Cameron and others would repeat over and again. Based on Corbyn’s years of attempts at outreach to groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Irish Republican Army, the Telegraph charged him with having “among the most extensive links in Parliament to terrorists, extremists and hardline regimes,” (something no paper would say about politicians who fund, supply, and prop up various repressive states and extremists as a matter of official policy).
Media outlets in concert with Corbyn’s political opponents regularly and willfully misconstrued his statements in the most damaging way possible, such as infamously claiming he called Osama Bin Laden’s death a “tragedy,” when he was actually referring to the decline of the rule of law his killing portended. He was repeatedly called an antisemite, largely based of his opposition to Israeli policies. When Corbyn apologized for Labour’s role in starting the Iraq War, one of his own backbench MPs shouted at him that he was a “disgrace” and to “sit down and shut up.”
This opposition came not just from his political foes and the press, but the chambers of power. One anonymous senior general threatened that the army would “mutiny” if he became prime minister. Another general, the chief of the defense staff, told journalist Andrew Marr that it would “worry” him if Corbyn’s reluctance to use nuclear weapons “was translated into power” (an intervention into politics that even some senior Tory MPs said was over the line).
One former chief of the defense staff said Corbyn “should not be trusted with the ultimate responsibility of government — that of the nation’s defense and security.” His own party fought him tooth and nail over the Trident issue, which was frequently cited as disqualifying Corbyn from becoming prime minister.
Yet Corbyn’s opposition to Trident, painted as irresponsible and extreme, was hardly outside of the mainstream. In 2009, three former high-ranking British military officials wrote to the Times calling for the Trident program to be scrapped because it was “useless” and “irrelevant.” Two former defense secretaries echoed this, calling it increasingly ineffective and a waste of money. As the 2015 debate over Trident unfolded, a major study found that a significant share of the British armed forces were ambivalent toward the program, viewing its exorbitant cost as unjustified for the good it did. Even Tony Blair called the program’s military utility “non-existent,” while Denis Healy, Harold Wilson’s defense minister during the 1960s, told the BBC in 2008 that, similar to Corbyn, he would be unwilling to launch nukes even if weapons rained down on Britain.
Any presidential aspirant in the United States who dared to seriously defy the national security consensus in a similar way would likely face even more vicious opposition than this. Yet Corbyn’s experience also shows that sticking to one’s foreign policy principles doesn’t need to be a political death sentence.
For decades, particularly since 2001, the conventional wisdom has been that expressing anything in response to a terrorist attack other than the determination to hunt, maim, shoot, incinerate, or crush a vaguely defined enemy was electoral poison. Such a response would get a politician labeled weak, naive, dangerous, or even accused of secretly colluding with the terrorists themselves, effectively disqualifying them from higher office.
The Left, which tends to view military action as a blunt instrument that is as destructive as it is ineffective in solving the root causes of terrorism and conflict, is often susceptible to such characterizations. This is part of the reason why, from the Cold War to the “war on terror,” the Democrats’ go-to strategy on national security has often been to embrace the assumptions and policies of the Right, lest they be labeled suspect.
Yet when the terrorist attack in Manchester took place in the closing weeks of the UK election, Corbyn — rather than hastily and dishonestly reneging on his long-held beliefs and principles as a conventional, centrist Labour (or Democratic) leader might have done — stressed what much of the Left has been saying for sixteen years but has seldom seen a political figure articulate: that preventing terrorism requires a retooling of Western governments’ foreign policies.
After acknowledging the grief and suffering of victims and their loved ones and the vileness of the terrorists’ actions, Corbyn told the public that part of the solution would be to “change what we do abroad.” While pointing out that the guilt for such attacks always ultimately lay with the perpetrators themselves, he underscored the connections (backed up by British intelligence) between foreign wars launched by the British government and terrorism, stressed that Britons “must be honest about what threatens our security,” charged that “the war on terror is simply not working,” and called for a “smarter way” to reduce the threat of terrorism.
Predictably, the Tories and the right-wing press jumped on the speech, labeling Corbyn a terrorist sympathizer and accusing him of saying the attacks were “our own fault.” But as we know now, against all conventional thinking, Corbyn’s speech didn’t sink his surging campaign. In fact, a YouGov poll in the wake of Corbyn’s speech found that 53 percent of the public agreed that foreign wars fought or supported by the British government were partly responsible for terrorist attacks against the UK. Only 24 percent disagreed.
To be sure, this wasn’t the be-all and end-all of Corbyn’s response to the attack. He pivoted on the shoot-to-kill policy, offering what was basically an endorsement of it, and also attacked Theresa May and the Tories for cuts to police and emergency services. But his alternative vision must have resonated for a British public that has continued to see more than fifteen years of terrorist attacks despite successive governments’ military interventions carried out supposedly in the name of stopping them. This is also a public that is increasingly war-weary: the same YouGov poll found respondents opposed four of the last five major British wars since World War II (the war over the Falklands was the only exception).
It’s hard to see why a message like this wouldn’t similarly resonate in the United States. US polls frustratingly tend to avoid asking respondents about the role of government foreign policy in breeding terror, focusing instead on the effectiveness of national security measures and perceptions of safety. But a University of Michigan study conducted less than three years after the September 11 attacks found that 53 percent of Americans — the same proportion as the May 30 YouGov poll — believed the US had at least some responsibility for the hatred that led to the attacks, including 42 percent of conservatives. 85 percent believed US support of Israel was an important root cause of the September 11 attacks, and 79 percent identified “feelings of revenge” as another.
Moreover, the US public is similarly war-weary. And ideas about national security that were once unspeakable have percolated to the wider public — just recall how Trump was able to demolish Jeb Bush in the GOP debates by (correctly) saying Bush failed to keep America safe on September 11, an act that many believed was going to be what did his presidential hopes in at last.
Yet Bernie Sanders, the man best positioned to make a Corbyn-like case for the moral and strategic necessity of making a radical break with the preceding decades of foreign policy, has largely accepted the status quo.
The Democratic Drought
Of course, it’s unfair to place this all at Bernie Sanders’ feet. The absence of any meaningful, non-partisan critiques of foreign policy and militarism is a problem of the entire Democratic Party. While leftists and some liberals have consistently criticized the direction of US policy on this front, there has been a dearth of figures to give voice to these arguments in the halls of power.
During the Bush years, there were several prominent critics of the president’s foreign policy in Congress. Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, a civil liberties advocate perhaps best known for being the lone vote against the PATRIOT Act in 2001, was also in 2005 the first senator to break with Democratic leadership and call for a specific deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. Feingold was a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s war efforts, and he alone pushed to formally censure Bush over his prosecution of the Iraq War, as well as his warrantless wiretapping program — something his Democratic colleagues (as well as Sanders) didn’t back him on. (Feingold also called for a less belligerent approach to Iran, and was one of the most consistent, outspoken progressive voices on the domestic front).
Then there was Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, whom John Nichols called “the most consistent critic of war and militarism in the US House of Representatives.” Kucinich, who lost his seat in Congress thanks to a redistricting effort by onetime presidential aspirant and part-time Jimmy Stewart impersonator John Kasich, was the only one of the eight Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 to vote against the Iraq war, frequently pushed for withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan (including pressuring his reluctant Democratic colleagues), and was a consistent and implacable critic of Israel, from its violent raid on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 to its one-sided assault on Gaza in 2009.
He was also an opponent of the 2011 war in Libya — pointing out that it was illegal and filing a lawsuit against the Obama administration over it — and was a rare critic of Obama’s drone program. He called the extrajudicial drone killing of US citizen and suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki “wrong legally, constitutionally, and morally,” and introduced a bill to prohibit such killings in the future. Naturally, Kucinich was widely mocked, dismissed, and even called dangerous.
And back in 2007-08, Obama (while hardly a dove) ran and won while promising to pull all troops out of Iraq within sixteen months of taking office, stating that the president needed congressional authorization to launch a war, defending the primacy of habeas corpus, and insisting that there is “no contradiction between keeping America safe and secure and respecting our Constitution.”
Obama reversed himself on all of these positions, embracing and escalating most of the Bush administration’s policies. This was apparently political calculus: as the New York Times wrote in 2012, there was a general understanding in the Obama White House that “a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”
Unwilling to oppose or even criticize their leader with the same intensity as they had a Republican president, the Democratic Party moved sharply rightward, while many liberal critics of Bush’s foreign policy likewise closed ranks. This shift was best symbolized by the jingoistic and militaristic 2012 Democratic National Convention, which saw speaker after speaker brag about Obama’s assassination of bin Laden, with John Kerry uttering the immortal words, “Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago.”
Gawker’s John Cook toured the floor of the DNC asking prominent Democrats if Mitt Romney could be trusted with Obama’s kill list; they simply avoided answering the question. When then-DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was asked about the kill list — revealed in a major and widely discussed New York Times piece earlier that year — she didn’t even know what it was.
All of this has left a void where the few Democratic foreign policy critics once stood. While there are some Democrats today espousing a non-interventionist foreign policy — Tulsi Gabbard and Kirsten Gillibrand, for example — they only go so far. Gabbard is by her own description a “hawk” who simply wants to trade wars of regime change for more drone strikes and special forces raids — just one of her many unsavory stances. Gillibrand, besides being a friend of Wall Street on the domestic front, is an unyielding ally of Israel and has been completely silent on drone warfare.
Connecticut senator Chris Murphy has been touted as a progressive foreign policy voice based on his cautious view of military involvement, his criticism of US support for Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s dictator, and his desire to seek more diplomatic solutions to conflicts and increase the United States’ “soft power.” And these are good stances, as is his call for a “twenty-first century Marshall Plan” to economically empower countries as a “prophylactic against extremism, despotism, and armed conflict.”
Yet even Murphy accepts a number of the core precepts of Washington war-making. In the same interview used to tout his new foreign policy vision, he insisted that “Democrats would be swimming pretty hard upstream” if they called for funding to be transferred from the Pentagon to other places and effectively endorsed the Obama administration’s $1 trillion nuclear warhead upgrade. His only suggestion regarding the drone program was to “make sure that the intelligence is pretty rock solid before we start firing,” and impose “quasi-judicial oversight of it.” (Murphy has stated in the past he wants to take away the CIA’s use of drones and impose congressional oversight over their use, though his most recent words suggest he’s changed his mind on the latter.)
In fact, to the Democrats’ eternal shame, the most high-profile and consistent congressional critic (at least with Kucinich gone) of militarism and wartime executive overreach hasn’t been a Democrat, but rather a libertarian-leaning Republican: Rand Paul. Paul joined Kucinich in calling Obama’s war in Libya unconstitutional in 2011, and put forward a proposal to reaffirm Congress’s constitutional authority to declare war, which was blocked by Democrats (he would do something similar again in 2016).
It was Paul who, in 2013, launched a thirteen-hour filibuster of Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, over his objections to Obama’s drone policy, and it was Paul who drew out the stunning admission from Obama’s attorney general that a drone strike could be deployed against an American on US soil.
Paul has continued this stance under Trump, forcing a vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, criticizing the US’ involvement in the horrific war in Yemen, and opposing Trump’s airstrikes in Syria, which had been supported and goaded on by prominent Democrats. Imagine if this concerted, non-partisan critique of US foreign policy was coming from a congressperson who wasn’t also trying to take away people’s health care, pushing to slash the safety net, and who believes the Civil Rights Act is an abrogation of property rights
In theory, this role should be a natural one for Democrats. It was they, after all, who spent the Bush years complaining about a “reckless and arrogant presidency,” that Bush had “declared himself above the law,” and about the “unchecked power” of Bush’s “imperial presidency.”
But Obama’s embrace of Bush-era national security policies ensures no such politician exists in the US political scene — one who, like Corbyn, can reject and lead an opposition to political orthodoxy on both domestic and foreign policy.
Which is too bad. Numerous studies show a significant electoral benefit to taking antiwar stances, including a recent one by researchers who found that a lower casualty rate among soldiers in three key states that went for Trump in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — would have been enough to deny him the slim margins of victory he achieved in those states. And yet, ask yourself: when was the last time you even heard any politician, let alone a Democrat, talk about Afghanistan, the longest war in American history?
While Bernie Sanders may not be the politician to do this, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible for someone else. The task of critiquing foreign policy and providing an alternative vision is too important to be left to the Rand Pauls of the world. And facilitating an intellectual and political climate friendly to the ideas that allow such a figure to emerge will be key for the Left.
Jeremy Corbyn showed that an alternative foreign policy vision didn’t have to be an electoral hindrance in the United Kingdom. Rather, it could be something that increases public support. There’s no reason why the same couldn’t hold true in the United States. All it takes is someone to articulate it.