The Quiet Imperialist: Bernie Has A Foreign Policy Problem, And It’s Not Inexperience

As Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders continues to narrow the approval gap between his campaign and that of the establishment choice Hillary Clinton, his critics have increasingly cited his inexperience in foreign policy as a reason to support the Clinton campaign.  The corporate media (especially the New York Times, which has officially endorsed Clinton) has given this concern an echo chamber, finding, unsurprisingly, that a former Secretary of State and First Lady who controls a multi-billion dollar international NGO has access to a greater network of foreign policy advisors than a Senator, former Congressman, and former Mayor from Vermont.  Due both to this increased (some might go so far as to say biased) media scrutiny and several near-gaffes in recent debates, Democratic voters are voicing increasing dissatisfaction with Sanders’s foreign policy background.

It is worth noting that pro-Clinton Democrats, many of whom, like virtually all American voters, demand an anti-establishment candidate, are somewhat hypocritical in calling for a candidate with experience only possible from a position of structural power.  Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record, while certainly the longest of any candidate in either party, proves that she may not reflect the interests of most Democrats, who are now more comfortable identifying as liberal than at any previous time in history.  As Secretary of State, she expanded the American presence in Afghanistan which has failed to bring peace in the 14 years since our original invasion, she endorsed large-scale bombings in Libya and Syria, she supported President Obama’s massive expansion of a drone program to carry out bombings and assassinations without Congressional approval in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and many Central African countries, she participated in at least one coup d’état to install a pro-US (and pro-cartel) government in Honduras, she frequently used (and promises to keep using) economic sanctions as a weapon of coercion despite their well-studied murderous impact on the weak and poor, and she laid the groundwork for the Trans-Pacific Partnership that cements American economic authority in Asia at the expense of the environment and workers rights on both sides of the Pacific.  As a Senator, she voted for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, for the fraudulent invasion of Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky called the worst crime of this century, and against legislation to acknowledge and enforce international law, and consistently supported any bill to expand military spending and promote the war effort.  Hillary Clinton’s “unprecedented experience” only means that she is directly personally responsible for more violence than any other candidate in either party.  While this essay will criticize Bernie Sanders (spoiler alert), I want to be extremely clear that Hillary is guilty of massive Crimes Against Peace and Humanity as stipulated by the United Nations Charter and deserves to be tried and imprisoned for these crimes.  I also feel obligated to say what should be obvious: the leading Republican candidates represent an insurgency of people disenfranchised by the establishment converted by reactionary propaganda into religious fundamentalists and xenophobic racists, and their overtly bloodthirsty and supernationalist take on foreign policy is not subject to rational debate and therefore is meaningless to discuss here.

So why hasn’t Bernie jumped on this more aggressively?  Yes, the Sanders campaign has been bold enough to point out that Clinton’s support for the War in Iraq (a war built on the blatant lies of George W. Bush’s administration, a war solely for the purpose of controlling oil, a war that even industrial media admits killed 500,000 innocent people, and that a UN-commissioned study claims killed twice that) was wrong.  But why, when asked about his experience relative to his opponent, will Sanders not say “Secretary Clinton is a war criminal, and her foreign policy experience amounts to nothing but violent imperialism that destroyed lives around the world?”  Why instead would he run so far away from criticizing his opponent’s (and his country’s) tendency towards illegal war that he publicly declares himself “not a pacifist?”  The answer is unfortunate for those of us (myself included) who feel inspired by Bernie’s image as a “political revolutionary.”  Bernie is a politician who is beholden, like all participants in the American political facade, to the laws of imperialism, and his foreign policy record illustrates that he is comfortable supporting massive state violence when it is politically expedient.

Bernie Sanders became an independent Congressman for Vermont in 1991 after having served as the Mayor of Burlington for eight years.  As a mayor he had been a courageous opponent of capitalist imperialism, vocally supporting the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the face of Ronald Reagan’s war against it.  And at first he seemed to carry that vision into the federal government; in his second week as a Congressman, he voted (along with the majority of the Democratic Party) against President George H. W. Bush’s original war against Iraq, a brutal intervention in which the President used Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a pretense to destroy their infrastructure and reassert American dominance in the post-Soviet Middle East.  But when Democrat Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Sanders found himself more and more aligned with the Democratic bloc in foreign policy debates.  While the Soviet Union and its satellite states collapsed, the Democrats became the establishment during the largest expansion of imperial power since World War II, and though not yet a Democrat, Sanders joined them in their militant imperialism.

In 1993 Sanders voted for military intervention for the first time, authorizing President Clinton’s use of military force in a “peacekeeping” mission in Somalia that was searching for Islamist militants.  The Somali people objected strongly to the US-headed coalition’s presence, especially their often-violent raids on villages to arrest those connected to militant groups, and after 17 Americans (and 200 Somali civilian protestors) were killed in the now-infamous Battle of Mogadishu, Clinton withdrew his troops (although he left behind the anti-Western sentiment that inspired the recent rise of the Al Qaida affiliate, Al Shabaab).  In 1998, Sanders voted to expand the less militant but far more devastating sanctions against Iraq, Bill Clinton’s punishment to Saddam Hussein for refusing to sell oil to American companies.  By blocking Iraq’s access even to food aid, the sanctions killed nearly 2 million people, a staggering 500,000 of them children, and when the UN Security Council (dominated by the US, as always) refused to acknowledge the sanctions as a Crime Against Humanity, the Assistant Secretary General in charge of enforcing the sanctions resigned, calling them “genocide.”  29 Democrats and 7 Republicans voted against the empire and against Bernie on the sanctions, all other members of Congress endorsed this atrocity.

1999 saw Sanders’s first significant clash with the left.  Allegedly to prevent an ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by the fascist dictator of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, President Clinton requested congressional approval to bomb the former Soviet puppet state.  Sanders vocally supported the President’s proposal, even when 26 Democrats and 187 Republicans in the House of Representatives did not (it’s worth noting that President Clinton ignored the House’s decision and the Constitution and went ahead with the bombing).  The bombing of Kosovo took place without UN approval, making it a war crime according to international law.  Human Rights Watch claimed that the bombings killed over 500 people, although they also stated that an actual death toll would be difficult to calculate since hospitals and news outlets that released casualty statistics were targeted by the bombers.  Critics of the intervention point out that the bombing took place after Milosevic agreed to negotiate with the UN, or that the atrocities of the Yugoslav government had peaked years earlier, or that the attack against a fascist dictator distracted the public from the President’s sexual harassment scandal, or that the bombings targeted sites (such as a Chinese Embassy, theoretically protected by international law) that represented Soviet influence because their primary goal was to cement NATO’s control of post-Cold War Eastern Europe, or that the pro-Western government installed in Kosovo allowed American investors (including one of the war’s architects, Clinton’s Secretary of State, the once-again-famous-anti-feminist Madeline Albright) to profit hugely from privatization, and that it was never about protecting people from genocide, contrary to the Clinton and Sanders’s neoliberal claims.  Sanders’s support for the criminal bombing campaign was met with opposition from his former supporters at home in Burlington, Vermont, who labeled him Bernie the Bomber and occupied his office (read this essay from 1999 by one of these protestors to understand the depth of their concern).

Smoke rises from American bombs at a heating plant in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 1999

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush and the propagandized media took advantage of the American people’s animalistic instinct for revenge to bring about an unprecedented expansion of the military industrial complex.  The first step of this was the President’s call for authorization of military force against any country harboring terrorists.  If Bernie actually considered war a last resort, he could have examined the overwhelming scholarship from the left that correctly predicted the failure of any military option against the underground movement of Islamist anti-imperialism.  He could have considered the alternative of treating Al Qaida as a criminal rather than military threat, and acknowledged the Afghan government’s public offer to hand over Osama bin Laden and other masterminds of the attack to the United States as an alternative to invasion.  But rather than stand up to the overflow of militant nationalism after the attacks, Sanders, like every person in Congress except for California’s former Black Panther Barbara Lee, voted to give President Bush unlimited authority in launching a land invasion of Afghanistan.  The ensuing “War on Terror” spilled into Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, caused (according to a UN study the US moved to block from publication) 300,000 deaths, and has dragged on longer than any official war in American history with no signs of stopping.  Sanders stands by his vote for the War in Afghanistan, using it in debates to win over more hawkish voters.

And then came the War in Iraq.  President Bush’s paper-thin claims (all of which would later prove false) that Saddam Hussein’s government was aiding terrorists and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction were met with skepticism by the left in the US (and “nearly universal opposition” in the rest of the world according to Pew Research).  Like the majority of Congressional Democrats (Hillary was in the minority from the beginning), Bernie voted against the original Iraq War resolution; to do otherwise would have been political suicide considering the overwhelming opposition to the war in his Vermont electorate.  Despite his opposition to the blatantly criminal war, Sanders voted yes for the allocation of $25 billion to immediate Iraq War spending in 2004, $50 billion in 2005, $70 billion in 2006, and $187 billion in 2007; the money he has approved for the brutal occupation of Iraq could have paid for the first four years of his free college proposal, or 118 years of his federal pension insurance plan.

And in looking forward, Bernie doesn’t suggest that he would break this pattern of violent imperialism.  He has vocally supported President Obama’s drone assassination campaign and says he would maintain it in his own presidency.  While he emphasizes the need for other countries to take the lead in the war against ISIS, he certainly expects them to carry out American interests in the Middle East, expecting American client states such as Saudi Arabia to make all of the sacrifices but treating the intervention as just and inevitable.  He enthusiastically endorses President Obama’s hit-or-miss aerial bombardment of Iraq and Syria that uses ISIS as an excuse to target pro-Russian forces in a new Cold War.  By supporting corporate media’s bizarre claim that violent American intervention is the solution to the crisis in the oil rich Middle East (but not in, say, the resource-depleted Democratic Republic of the Congo), Bernie proves that he not only considers America the world’s policeman, but the world’s for-profit policeman.

Bernie Sanders should be ashamed for claiming the political legacy of Eugene Debs, who told America “I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and this is the world-wide war of the social revolution.”  Debs would never have endorsed mass murder for political ends; he was jailed for three years after protesting American involvement in World War I.  On the other hand, Bernie’s decades-long endorsement of and complicity in imperialist attacks on human rights and international law around the world shows that he has little more ideological regard for the sanctity of justice and human life than a mainstream politician.  But with this revelation comes deeper and more disturbing truths about the American political system.  If Sanders is as far to the left as the constraints of post-industrial neoliberalism will allow, if he represents the minimum possible investment in imperialism for a successful American politician, then there will never be an anti-imperialist President of the United States.  The very office, the very institution of federal government as it was established by slave holders and ethnic cleansing frontiersmen, is inextricable from imperial nationalism.  Bernie, like Franklin Roosevelt before him, proves that no matter how progressive an emperor claims to be, he is ultimately a despot who requires the subjugation of the outside world to cement his and his nation’s status.  Until it is completely redefined through radical structural change, the United States will be a force for the oppression of the people of the world.  This radical change, we can now state with absolute certainty, will never come from a “political revolution.”


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