As candidates prepare for Saturday’s Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, it will be interesting to see how Bernie Sanders continues the ruse of promoting himself as a peace candidate.
It will be even more interesting to see if Sanders supporters continue to give him a free pass on foreign policy issues simply because they align with his social and economic agenda.
Yeah, Bernie is pro-war
Based on his responses during the first debate and statements posted on his website, Sanders is clearly not the antiwar candidate he claims to be.
"I supported the war in Afghanistan. I supported President Clinton’s effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I support air strikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do," stated Sanders during the first debate.
"Yes, I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort, that we have got to exercise diplomacy. But yes, I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary," said Sanders, jumping at the chance to make sure everyone knows that he is not opposed to war.
Fortunately for Sanders – who is hoping to court antiwar Democrats and Independents – he wasn’t asked if he supports the Saudi Arabian dictatorship’s invasion of Yemen (he does).
Nor was he asked if he supports the coup government in Ukraine (he does).
Maybe in Saturday’s second debate Sanders will be asked about his belligerent and misguided position on Russia. Just like other presidential candidates, Sanders demonizes Russia and says that although he’d prefer to deal with them diplomatically, "force should be the last option we use." In other words, war with Russia is on the table for Bernie.
Champion of working class Americans (not working class Russians or Iranians)
Sanders supports economic sanctions on Russia as a means of dealing with Russian "aggression." The irony of Sanders supporting economic sanctions that harm the working class of Russia is obviously lost on Sanders-backers in the U.S. who put him on a pedestal for being a champion of the American working class.
Sanders also believes that economic sanctions should be levied again on Iran if it doesn’t follow the rules of the recently agreed upon nuclear pact. Sanders must not care about the working class in Iran, given that poverty there rose from 22% to more than 40% during the first year and half of US sanctions.
And although he doesn’t appear to be quite as hawkish on Iran as other candidates, Sanders still repeats the party line that “it is imperative that Iran not get a nuclear weapon,” without saying that the US will first give up all of its nuclear weapons before telling another country what it can or can’t do.
‘Give me a piece of the Empire’s pie’
From an antiwar perspective, Sanders is bad on Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Palestine, Russia and Iran. But since he’s not quite as bad as the other presidential candidates, many liberals are lining up to support him because of his positions on social and economic issues, and because he is one of the few people speaking out against Citizens United.
And, of course, people are really excited about Sanders because he has a track record of trying to redistribute wealth in America.
And that’s the bottom line for many liberals. As long as Bernie gives them a bigger piece of the American Empire’s pie they are fine with him being pro-war.
It would be easier to swallow the fact that so many liberals are cheering for a pro-war candidate if they would just be honest and say, "I know Sanders is a pro-war candidate, but he said he’s going to give me a piece of the Empire’s pie, so I’m going to vote for him."
It would be even better if those same people stated that they would accept responsibility for supporting a pro-war candidate, namely that they would do everything in their power to stop a Sanders presidency from engaging in any war.
But those people won’t be honest – many of them won’t even admit that Sanders is a supporter of so many US military ventures, even when faced with the facts – nor will they accept responsibility, simply because they are not truly opposed to war. If they were, there would be absolutely no circumstance in which they would support a presidential candidate who believes in dropping bombs on another country.
Imagine if Sanders said he believes that every now and then it was necessary to molest a child, or there were certain instances in which it was acceptable to racially discriminate.
Would the people who support Sanders today still support him? Of course not, and they shouldn’t. So does that mean child molestation and racial discrimination are worse than war to Sanders supporters?
(In fairness, there are liberals who support Sanders simply because he aligns with their social values, not because of what he could do for their pocketbook, which is relatively refreshing. But those people are giving domestic social issues more weight than Sanders’ pro-war positions. The rationalization being that all candidates are pro-war, and at least Sanders is better than the others on social issues.)
Use a different gold standard
It’s true that Bernie is probably better than George W. Bush, Barack Obama or any current presidential candidate on issues of foreign policy, but that’s not saying much. Will liberals ever demand a new gold standard from their candidates?
Many Sanders supporters point out that Hillary Clinton is more rah-rah military than Sanders, primarily because Sanders didn’t support the Iraq war. But Donald Trump didn’t support the Iraq war either, and Trump’s position on US military action in Syria is better than Sanders’ position.
And it should be noted that even though Sanders opposed the Iraq war, he repeatedly voted to fund it. And even though he voted against the Gulf War, he instead called for sanctions on Iraq – the death toll attributed to those sanctions has been estimated at about 500,000 children under the age of five between 1990-2000. (Sanders’ website labels such sanctions as "diplomatic means".)
Does Sanders have supporters in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan?
Do you think people in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan are comfortable with Sanders’ positions? Could a Sanders supporter look a 14 year-old from Afghanistan (who has lived under US bombs every day of his or her life) in the eye and explain why they support Sanders – a man who voted to use force in Afghanistan?
Isn’t it time to look beyond our personal needs and wants and focus on others who are suffering and dying in the name of the American Empire?
‘We have to choose one, and Bernie is the best choice’
This way of thinking is one reason we have such narrow choices in each election. If voters in 2004 would have demanded more from John Kerry (who was, and still is, pro-war) when he was running against George W. Bush, the Democratic Party might have realized that unless they put an antiwar candidate on the ballot, their party couldn’t win an election. But the party doesn’t need to do that because so-called antiwar voters continue to vote for the "lesser of two evils." And where has that gotten us?
Numerous people did the same thing in 2008 for the first Barack Obama election. Even though it was clear Obama was not an antiwar candidate ("I’m not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars," Obama said in 2002), people believed he was better than John McCain. And even though Obama was a warmonger during his first term, many liberals voted for him again in 2012 because they were so afraid of what a Mitt Romney presidency would look live.
As it turns out, Obama has bombed more countries (7) than Bush bombed (4), so from a purely antiwar perspective, it might be better if a Republican becomes president again. And maybe with a Republican president many liberals would become "antiwar" again.
(It should be noted that there are some people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 who are still active in the antiwar community. These people understand the importance of everyday actions relative to voting, and have accepted responsibility for their vote.)
What am I supposed to do?
Instead of unconditionally giving Sanders their support, people who claim to be opposed to US foreign interventions should make it clear that they will not support Sanders unless he changes his foreign policy positions.
It may not work this election cycle, but liberals should have thought about that in 2004, 2008 and 2012 when they voted for a pro-war candidate.
And what are Sanders supporters going to do if he doesn’t win the nomination? Would they vote for Clinton in the general election simply because, in their mind, she is better than the Republican nominee on social and economic issues?
That’s fine if the answer is yes, but will those people then take responsibility for voting for a warmonger for president? Will those people be the ones leading antiwar demonstrations?
Maybe people should support and vote for someone that they believe in, regardless of whether or not they think that candidate has a chance to win. Writing in the name of Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill or Edward Snowden would send a message to the Democratic Party that acting like the Republican Party on foreign policy matters will no longer work.
A former Sanders staffer, Jeremy Brecher, resigned in 1999 due to Sanders supporting the US war in Kosovo. In his resignation letter, Brecher wrote, "Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take?"
That’s a good question for today’s Sanders supporters. How much military violence are you willing to vote for? What is your limit? And once that limit is reached, what will you do about it?
Chris Ernesto is cofounder of St. Pete for Peace, an antiwar organization in St. Petersburg, FL that has been active since 2003. Mr. Ernesto also created and manages OccupyArrests.com and USinAfrica.com.