The entry of Bernie Sanders into the presidential sweepstakes is of interest to opponents of American militarism for two reasons: 1) He has a reputation as an “antiwar” figure, and 2) His primary opponent for the Democratic party nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is arguably the most hawkish Democratic White House aspirant since the days of Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. As an opponent of Gulf War I and Bush’s invasion of Iraq, many progressives – and his enemies on the right – assume Bernie’s anti-interventionist credentials are in such impeccable order that it’s fair to call him “the Ron Paul of the left.” Now that he’s officially announced his campaign, it’s time to disabuse everyone of this notion.
Sanders started out fairly radical: in 1980, after leaving the idiosyncratic Liberty Union Party of Vermont, he was supporting Andrew Pulley, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Workers Party, a hardcore Leninist-Trotskyist grouplet, even while he had the choice of Barry Commoner, the softcore socialist candidate of the middle-class liberal Citizens Party. And we aren’t just talking about verbal support: Sanders served as a presidential elector for the Socialist Workers ticket in Vermont that year.
One can still detect undertones of his affinity for the founder of the Red Army in his more recent ululations, such as his recent imprecations hurled at the multiplicity of consumer choices available in the capitalist economy: “You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country,” he snarled at his campaign debut.
While this ideological hybrid of New England Puritanism and war communism is unlikely to find much resonance anyplace outside of North Korea, progressives are so disheartened by the apparent inevitability of having to hold their noses and vote for a woman who embodies crony capitalism and voted for the Iraq war that they might be forgiven for overlooking Bernie’s crankier notions. Especially appealing, in a presidential election cycle where foreign policy is likely to be a major issue, is his purported opposition to our foreign policy of global intervention: his votes against both Gulf wars stand out in stark contrast to Hillary’s record.
Yet his real foreign policy record is closer to Hillary’s than he likes to admit. Yes, he opposed the Iraq war – and then proceeded to routinely vote to fund that war: ditto Afghanistan. In 2003, at the height of the Iraq war hysteria, then Congressman Sanders voted for a congressional resolution hailing Bush:
“Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the nation to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq as part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.”
As the drumbeat for war with Iran got louder, Rep. Sanders voted for the Iran Freedom Support Act, which codified sanctions imposed since the fall of the Shah and handed out millions to “pro-freedom” groups seeking the overthrow of the Tehran regime. The Bush administration, you’ll recall, was running a regime change operation at that point which gave covert support to Jundullah, a terrorist group responsible for murdering scores of Iranian civilians. Bush was also canoodling with the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a weirdo cult group once designated as a terrorist organization (a label lifted by Hillary Clinton’s State Department after a well-oiled public relations campaign).
Sanders fulsomely supported the Kosovo war: when shocked antiwar activists visited his Senate office in Burlington, Vermont, he called the cops on them. At a Montpelier public meeting featuring a debate on the war, Bernie argued passionately in favor of Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” intervention, and pointedly told hecklers to leave if they didn’t like what he had to say.
As a Senator, his votes on civil liberties issues show a distinct pattern. While he voted against the Patriot Act, in 2006 he voted in favor of making fourteen provisions of the Act permanent, including those that codified the FBI’s authority to seize business records and carry out roving wiretaps. Sanders voted no on the legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security, but by the time he was in the Senate he was regularly voting for that agency’s ever-expanding budget.
The evolution of Bernie Sanders – from his days as a Liberty Unionist radical and Trotskyist fellow-traveler, to his first political success as Mayor of Burlington, his election to Congress and then on to the Senate – limns the course of the post-Sixties American left. Although birthed in the turmoil of the Vietnam war, the vaunted anti-interventionism of this crowd soon fell by the wayside as domestic political tradeoffs trumped ideology. Nothing exemplifies this process of incremental betrayal better than Sanders’ support for the troubled F-35 fighter jet, the classic case of a military program that exists only to enrich the military-industrial complex. Although the plane has been plagued with technical difficulties, and has toted up hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns, Sanders has stubbornly defended and voted for it because Lockheed-Martin manufactures it in Vermont.
Never mind all that highfalutin’ anti-militarist rhetoric – a politician’s job is to bring home the bacon. And that is what Sanders, and his fellow progressives (for the most part), have done. In Bernie’s case, the F-35 issue dramatizes the political dynamics of how the “anti-imperialist” radicals of yesteryear became the Establishment’s house progressives in 2015.
While the Democrats – whom the “independent” Sanders caucuses with, and votes with 99% of the time – vote to expand the Welfare State, the Republicans vote to expand the Warfare State. Aside from a few symbolic skirmishes, done mainly for public consumption, neither really stands in the way of the other. In this manner, both sectors of the federal budget have expanded exponentially to the point where we face a real crisis of fiscal insolvency at home, as well as deadly “blowback” emanating from abroad. Sanders plays his part in this legislative tradeoff, just like all the rest of them.
The Ron Paul of the left? Listen, I know Ron Paul. Ron Paul is a friend of mine – and, Senator, you’re no Ron Paul!
No one currently running for the presidency is a consistent noninterventionist, although Sen. Rand Paul – who I’ve criticized pretty harshly, here and elsewhere – comes closest, albeit very far from close enough. The truth is that we still must depend on ourselves – not some politician in Washington – to ward off the War Party and prevent another major conflict from developing.
And that’s where Antiwar.com comes in.
The American people have been subjected to a long, slow, and very painful education over the past decade or so, and this web site has been an increasingly important part of that process. Our goal, since our founding in 1995, has been to inform the American people about what is being done in their name, to counter the endless war propaganda, and to provide a rallying point for the growing anti-interventionist movement in this country. And this last objective is vital.
Our audience has expanded exponentially over the years, and has now gotten to the point where we can mobilize not-insignificant numbers of people – as we did when President Obama decided it was time to start bombing Syria. Many thousands of people flooded congressional phone lines with their protests – and the President and his congressional enablers in both parties backed down.
This is our primary weapon in the battle against the War Party – popular outrage. But we can’t continue to be a catalyst of that outrage without support from people like you: ordinary Americans concerned about the future of this country. Sure, you don’t have a lot of cash to hand out, but when you realize what the stakes are – the peace of the world, and the lives of thousands of innocent victims – a realization sets in: even the smallest contribution is a moral statement, one that needs to be made in a world seemingly gone mad.
Our Spring fundraising drive is currently in full swing. We need your support in order to keep Antiwar.com going – we don’t have an antiwar Sheldon Adelson to pay our bills, although the War Party has plenty of sugar daddies to keep the war propaganda coming.
I can’t even begin to tell you how wearying this is – dunning my readers for money, that is. But it’s absolutely necessary that you give, as much as you can as soon as you can. Please go here now and make your tax-deductible donation. Because the War Party never rests – and we, for our part, can’t afford to, either.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.