Americans vote their pocketbooks. It’s the economy, stupid. Absent a war or recent terrorist attack, conventional wisdom believes that voters prioritize domestic issues. Right now, conventional wisdom is correct. According to the latest Pew Research poll, the five most important issues for Democrats are health care, education, Medicare, poverty and the environment.
So it’s not surprising that the major Democratic presidential contenders’ campaigns are focusing on economic and other America-centric issues. Nor is it shocking that the news media, never more anemic or less willing to question the candidates, is ignoring their stances on foreign policy. You could watch five hours and read 50 pages of news every day and never learn where a top Dem stands on issues of war and peace, defense spending, assassination drones, Guantanamo, NSA surveillance of Americans, foreign adventurism or human rights. Trust me, I know.
Still, voters deserve to know the would-be presidents’ positions on issues that extend beyond U.S. borders. Here’s what I found:
The Democrats on Our Crazy Defense Spending
The military sucks up 54% of discretionary federal spending. Pentagon bloat has a huge effect on domestic priorities; the nearly $1 trillion a year that goes to exploiting, oppressing, torturing, maiming and murdering foreigners could go to building schools, curing diseases, funding college scholarships, poetry slams, whatever. Anything, even tax cuts for the rich, would be better than bombs. But as then-presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said in 2015: "The military is not a social experiment. The purpose of the military is to kill people and break things." If you’re like me, you want as little killing and breaking as possible.
Unfortunately, no major Democratic presidential candidate favors substantial cuts to Pentagon appropriations.
Current front-runner Joe Biden (39% in the polls) doesn’t talk much about defense spending. He reminds us that his son served in Iraq (so, he cares about the military) and that we shouldn’t prioritize defense over domestic programs. Vague. Though specific programs might get trimmed, Lockheed Martin could rest easy under a President Biden.
"Since he arrived in Congress, (runner-up) Bernie Sanders (15%) has been a fierce crusader against Pentagon spending, calling for defense cuts that few Democrats have been willing to support," Politico reported in 2016. "As late as 2002, he supported a 50 percent cut for the Pentagon." Bernie is still a Pentagon critic, but he won’t commit to a specific amount to cut. He wouldn’t slash and Bern; he’d trim.
Elizabeth Warren (8%) wants "to identify which programs actually benefit American security in the 21st century, and which programs merely line the pockets of defense contractors – then pull out a sharp knife and make some cuts."
Neither Pete Buttigieg (7%) nor Beto O’Rourke (6%) has articulated any firm foreign policy positions whatsoever. Buttigieg brags about having served in the Navy Reserve. Unlikely that either man would change much.
Kamala Harris (5%) has not weighed in on military spending. She has received substantial campaign contributions from the defense industry, though.
The Democrats on Wars for Fun
As senator, Biden voted for the optional wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. He lied about his votes, so maybe he felt bad about them. He similarly seems to regret his role in destroying Libya.
Sanders voted to invade Afghanistan. His comment at the time reads hopelessly naive about the bloodthirsty Bush-Cheney regime: "The use of force is one tool that we have at our disposal to fight against the horror of terrorism and mass murder … it is something that must be used wisely … and with great discretion." Sanders voted against invading Iraq, favored regime change in Libya (albeit nonviolently) and voted to bomb Syria.
There have been no major new wars since 2013, when Warren joined the Senate, so her antiwar bona fides have not been tested. Like many of her colleagues, she wants an end to the "forever war" against Afghanistan. She also wants us out of Syria.
Harris, too, is new to the Senate (2017). Statements on various conflicts indicate that she is a foreign policy hawk in the Hillary Clinton mold. Harris favors the U.S. bombing campaign against Syria, blank-check approval for Israel and saber-rattling against North Korea. She buys into the discredited Russiagate narrative.
Warren is the only high-level antiwar candidate, but she could be BSing.
Democrats on Drones
The assassination drone program begun by Bush and expanded upon by presidents Obama and Trump has killed thousands of innocent people in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, almost all innocent. Drone strikes have demolished America’s moral standing. "Just about everywhere else in the world, opposition to drone strikes is sweeping," The Washington Post reported in 2014. Anti-American terrorists often cite drone strikes as justification for attacking the U.S. It’s only a matter of time before other countries – and nonstate actors like Hezbollah and ISIS – use them against us.
Though generally skeptical of large ground invasions like Iraq, Biden is a fan of drone assassinations. Sanders acknowledged in a 2015 interview with me that drones make killing "too easy" but nevertheless said he would continue terror-by-air as president. Warren doesn’t talk about drones. Neither does Harris.
None of the major Democratic candidates would cancel the drone program.
Democrats on Gitmo
Opened shortly after 9/11, the US concentration camp at Guantanamo is a nasty blotch on America’s human rights record that terrorists use to justify killing Americans and put the lie to every pronouncement the government issues about human rights abuses in other countries. Torture, rape and even murder are routine at this notorious facility.
In 2005, Biden said the US"needs to move toward shutting down" Gitmo. In 2016, he said he "hoped" it would close down. He has not called for an immediate shutdown.
Harris always refuses to comment – a stance that speaks volumes.
Sanders and Warren are the only two who have consistently argued that Gitmo should be closed. "We look like hypocrites and fools to the entire world," Sanders said in 2016.
Democrats on NSA Spying Against Americans
The mass surveillance programs revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continue to scoop up every email, text message, phone call and other form of communication you can think of within and into the United States. Whether the NSA and other agencies will be allowed to continue will determine whether we can avoid an Orwellian dystopia.
Biden, though to the right on other foreign policy issues, was a critic of NSA spying for years, going back at least to 2006. Under Obama, however, he backtracked. Even worse, Biden called the president of Ecuador in 2013 to request that he deny asylum to Snowden.
Sanders alone would end warrantless mass surveillance and said Snowden "did this country a great service." Warren doesn’t discuss it much except to say it would be nice to have "an informed discussion." Harris favors some limits but generally keeps quiet.
Except for Biden, the Democratic presidential field is dominated by progressives and progressives-come-lately – on domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy, there isn’t as much difference as progressive voters would like between the Democratic and Republican parties.
Ted Rall, the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of Francis: The People’s Pope. He is on Twitter @TedRall.