In January 2012, Donald Trump tweeted, “@BarackObama will attack Iran in order to get re-elected.” He kept that clever idea in his back pocket for eight years. In January 2020, on the eve of his own reelection campaign, he ordered the assassination by drone strike of Iranian top commander Qassem Soleimani.
With this blatant act of aggression Trump has not only lurched toward war with Iran, but also shown his political hand. After running disingenuously as an anti-war candidate in 2016, it’s now evident that his 2020 campaign will be set to war drums.
It’s a shrewd political strategy. Impending or ongoing war could be a political game-changer. Our nation is presently of two minds: even as millions of Americans grow disillusioned with wars in the Middle East, we are still vulnerable to star-spangled sentimentality and fearmongering about conniving foreign adversaries, still persuadable that the urgent need to reform economic and political life at home is subordinate to the duty to respond aggressively to perceived threats abroad.
These rival tendencies are both powerful. In 2016, Trump tapped into the antiwar instinct and was successful. Now he’s pivoting to the pro-war instinct, and that could work, too. Whether the American populace will finally, after nearly two decades of perpetual chaos and pointless slaughter in the Middle East, reject the imperialist foreign policy consensus remains to be seen.
In the United States, presidential contests are lengthy mass spectacles, which means that if Trump decides to run on war with Iran or in any way refresh the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” he’ll be blaring militarist propaganda to hundreds of millions of Americans for months on end. Though Americans are increasingly tiring of war, this could reverse the trend.
The stakes are too high for us to meet Trump’s potential pro-war reelection campaign with lukewarm opposition. If agitation for war is going to be a pillar of Trump’s reelection strategy, then we have to ask: which candidate is capable of making the strongest case against war?
No, Not Biden
Is it Joe Biden? Biden was a strong early supporter of the Iraq War, despite his claims to the contrary. He played a key role in selling George W. Bush’s war to the Democratic Party in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.
“I think if we do this well — and we’re capable of doing it — we can essentially tighten the noose around Saddam Hussein’s neck,” said Biden in 2001. “I do not believe this is a rush to war. I believe this is a march to peace and security,” he said in 2002. “I voted to go into Iraq, and I’d vote to do it again,” he said in 2003.
As Branko Marcetic has observed, Biden’s hawkish foreign policy positions are not limited to Iraq, either. They extend across the globe, from Russia to Serbia to Sudan.
Marcetic writes that Biden “was a champion of what he called ‘counterterrorism plus’: a combination of drone strikes and special forces, which essentially became Obama’s approach to fighting terrorism. In other words, if you like Obama’s approach to fighting terrorism, with Biden, you can keep it.”
In keeping with this record, Biden’s statement on the assassination of Soleimani is not particularly vehement or persuasive. It opens with a condemnation of Soleimani as a mass murderer, which is the primary talking point that the Trump administration is relying on to rationalize its actions.
Biden’s statement then chides the White House for lacking “discipline or long-term vision,” implying that war with Iran might be justified if pursued more intelligently — exactly the kind of centrist sophistry, appearing to condemn war while simultaneously providing cover for it, that centrist Democrats have perfected over the last few decades.
Biden would like you to believe that he has seen the light when it comes to the folly of imperialist adventures abroad, that he has found redemption post-Iraq. But his response to the assassination of Soleimani suggests that the old Biden is alive and well.
No, Joe Biden cannot be relied upon to make the case against Trump’s war.
No, Not Buttigieg
Perhaps, then, the best person to make the case against war is Navy veteran Pete Buttigieg. While he was working as a corporate consultant at McKinsey & Company, Buttigieg commissioned into a special program that fast-tracks college-educated military volunteers to officer positions, allowing them to bypass normal training. After several years in the reserves, he left the South Bend mayor’s office to serve in uniform for six months in Afghanistan.
But Pete Buttigieg is no veteran for peace. On the campaign trail, he frequently equivocates on or outright promotes US military intervention abroad.
He’s staunchly pro-Israel, has called for continued “counterterrorism missions” in Afghanistan, and supports what he terms “isolating dictatorship” in Latin America. As Sarah Lazare observes, Buttigieg “has demonstrated an impressive ability to speak in empty philosophical bromides while glossing over the harm the United States perpetrates around the world. To the extent he has positions on militarism, Buttigieg has thrown in his lot with the center of the Democratic Party.”
Like Biden’s, Buttigieg’s statement on the assassination of Soleimani opens by emphasizing that Soleimani was a bad guy and a “threat to [US] safety and security.” It then proceeds to scold Trump for not having a plan, and for his norm-breaking use of social media. Elsewhere, Buttigieg has made it clear that he has no problem with war per se. His primary concerns are “a lack of strategic clarity and poor execution, which is damaging America’s credibility in the region and around the world.”
No, it can’t be Pete Buttigieg we entrust to make the rock-solid antiwar case against Trump.
No, Not Warren
Perhaps Elizabeth Warren is our best bet. She seems dovish, right? Not so fast.
Warren’s history of foreign policy positions is much more conservative than many understand. As Lazare points out, on foreign policy Warren is neither a progressive nor a leader, having “gone along with some of the most belligerent acts that have occurred under her watch, cheerleading Israel’s devastating 2014 war on Gaza and vocalizing her support for sanctions against Venezuela.”
Even Warren’s plan to green the military-industrial complex is a national security tautology, uncritically accepting the existence of the US’s unprecedented network of military bases and arguing that they must be made more eco-friendly for their own sake, so that they can continue carrying out their mission. What exactly that mission is — continued military dominance of the entire planet — remains unarticulated and unquestioned.
In that plan, Warren name checks Iran as a US adversary, something that shouldn’t be considered a foregone conclusion if peace is the objective. Warren also voted for sanctions on Iran in 2017, escalating the conflict and increasing the likelihood of war. She hasn’t exactly been the vanguard of diplomatic peacekeeping with Iran.
Like Biden’s and Buttigieg’s, Warren’s first statement on the assassination of Soleimani echoed Trump’s talking points, calling Soleimani “a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans” before proceeding to condemn Trump’s “reckless move.” Facing criticism from the Left, Warren gave it another try, saying the following day that Trump had “assassinated a senior foreign military official” and “has been marching toward war with Iran since his first days in office — but the American people won’t stand for it.”
It’s troubling that this wasn’t Warren’s first instinct. But that’s consistent with her foreign policy in general, which is muddled and seems to naturally hew to the establishment line until she experiences pushback.
If Trump is going to argue for war, Warren can’t be relied on to consistently and unambiguously make the opposing argument.
The Only Antiwar Candidate
Among the Democratic Party presidential contenders, only Bernie Sanders can be counted on to bring moral and logical clarity to the question of war.
For one thing, Sanders has the credentials. In the sixties and seventies he opposed the war in Vietnam, in the eighties he opposed US intervention in Central America, in the nineties he voted against the Gulf War, in the aughts he opposed the war in Iraq, and he has recently opposed US intervention in Venezuela, voiced support for Palestinian rights, led an initiative to stop the US-backed Saudi war in Yemen, and is now introducing legislation to stop war in Iran. Even when he’s made mistakes — for example, he voted to authorize the invasion of Afghanistan (the sole dissenter being California representative Barbara Lee) — he has been able to admit he was wrong and reassert his commitment to an antiwar foreign policy.
Unsurprisingly, Sanders denounced the assassination of Soleimani right off the bat, in no uncertain terms. He did so without overstating the threat Iran posed to the United States, and without remarking on Soleimani’s moral integrity — an irrelevant point, since it would not justify his assassination or the deaths of the countless innocents who would become casualties in a needless war between the US and Iran.
Since then, Sanders has proceeded to make a more general case against war on the grounds that, as he put it, “it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy. It is the children of working families.” His words echo those of socialist leader Eugene Debs, whose famous 1918 antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio landed him in the jailhouse from which he ran for president a final time.
“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles,” Debs said. “The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.”
If Trump is going to use his election platform to convince hundreds of millions of Americans that we must enter yet another pointless war, then the case laid out by Sanders above is precisely what the nation needs to hear argued back at him, day in and day out.
Americans are plenty exhausted by wars abroad and austerity at home, but we’re not in the clear yet. The period we’re about to enter is a dangerous one. If we want to avoid lapsing into another red, white, and blue fever dream, we need a high-profile leader on the national stage speaking truths that went unsaid by mainstream politicians in the early 2000s.
We need someone who will say: these wars are not about safety, and they’re not about freedom, and they’re not about a better life for you. You’re being played. Don’t fall for it. That person is Bernie Sanders.