Where Is the Democratic Alternative to Forever War?
There sure are lots to choose from. By now, more than 20 candidates have announced a run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. And with national security adviser John “Regime Change” Bolton, along with the others in the four Bs cabal—Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates—seem poised to pull President Trump into war with Iran, now would seem the time for Democratic leaders to unveil their alternative, antiwar, foreign policy plans. It’s more likely you’ll hear crickets … or a sound bite or two.
The truth is the Democratic Party, especially of late, has abandoned serious foreign policy analysis and ceded national security—and supposedly macho “toughness”—to hawkish Republicans. See, at least since Harry Truman “lost” China in 1949, one Democratic president after another has bent over backward to either prove his masculine mettle, or, better yet, to ignore global affairs altogether.
Admittedly, the Democratic base is, for the most part, unconcerned with minor matters like forever war. Part of this can be explained by America’s lack of a military draft, and thus the citizenry’s lack of “skin in the game.” But it’s also the case that “kitchen table” and cultural issues—think health care, taxes, immigration, abortion, minority rights, etc.—are far more concerning for all Americans, Democrat or Republican. While this is understandable, it’s also part of the reason the U.S. has now been at war for 18 years, with no end in sight.
So what are the 2020 Dems offering in the way of fresh foreign policy? I got to thinking about that this week while penning a frantic piece about America’s impending war with Iran. Sure, Trump’s instincts favoring withdrawal from the Middle East are often accidentally correct, but have ensured the U.S. stay put in its minimum of seven ongoing wars and threatened future aggressive conflicts with Venezuela and Iran. It’s madness, absurd even, and hardly anyone is talking about it—including, it turns out, the vast majority of Democratic hopefuls.
Let me demonstrate this foreign affairs vacuousness with a brief survey of the political pasts and campaign websites of the 10 main frontrunners. First, the good news: all the serving candidates in the Senate and House voted against continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s terror war in Yemen. Furthermore, most at least pay lip service to winding down American wars in the Middle East. Then there’s the bad news: with precious few exceptions, most 2020 Democratic candidates have scarcely anything to say about foreign policy or disturbing past records on matters of war and peace.
Warren of Massachusetts cut her teeth and made her name fighting banks and corporations during the last financial crisis. That’s her wheelhouse; foreign affairs, not so much. Her campaign website at least lists foreign policy, but only just. The issue is listed last among her core ideas, and takes up a whopping 230 words. She does mention the inflated defense budgets and uses the phrase “endless wars,” but absent are the very terms Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, war powers or militarism. Furthermore, while to her credit, Warren published a foreign policy “vision” in the journal Foreign Affairs, the essay was far more focused on (admittedly important) climate change and trade policy. As a former history professor, I’d give her a C+.
The California senator is also more interested in domestic policy and progressive social issues. On foreign policy, there’s reason for concern. Her campaign site lacks an “issues” section altogether and devotes not a single word to foreign affairs. Additionally, while Harris—along with most other Dem candidates—was conspicuously absent from the last AIPAC Policy Conference, she did quietly meet with constituents representing the Israeli lobbying group just before the conference. For her utter lack of a global vision, she earns a solid D+.
The senator from New York does have a policy priorities section on her website, but “keeping America safe”—her vacuous subheading—is last on the list. While she dedicates over 500 words to these issues and admirably discusses out-of-control war powers, military sexual assault and veterans’ benefits, she spends most of the section conflating immigration and gun violence with standard foreign affairs. She also met with AIPAC representatives this past year. On the other hand, the senator did run her initial 2006 campaign in opposition to the ongoing Iraq war and has vocally called for the end of the Afghan war. Taken as a whole, I’d assign her a B-.
The New Jersey senator and former Newark mayor is yet another domestic policy specialist with little foreign policy experience. Like Harris, he has not a single word dedicated to global affairs on his campaign site. Booker is also inconsistent on these issues, speaking critically of intervention in Syria while simultaneously labeling Trump’s proposed withdrawal from that country “reckless and dangerous.” As for the Palestinians, they’re essentially on their own, with Booker repeating the worn-out trope that “where Israel’s security is at stake, America’s security is at stake.” Oh, spare me. Booker rates a C, at best.
The former vice president and long-time senator has the longest record on foreign affairs, serving on key related committees and having been present for nearly every important vote on the topic. Still, there’s reason to worry. Biden’s website must still be in the works, because a simple search unearths only a parody website with embarrassing photos of Biden groping women, and highlighting his less-than-progressive past positions. Remember, importantly, that then-Sen. Biden voted for the 2002 Iraq War Resolution authorizing that immoral, unwinnable war. What’s more, in general, Biden espouses a standard center-left world view infused with worn-out American exceptionalism rhetoric.
Then again, Biden appears to have evolved on foreign policy. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—a hawk’s hawk—recently claimed that Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Coming from Gates, a reflexive mainstreamer, that might be read as a compliment. The vice president was one of the first Democrats to turn against the Iraq war, and while in the Obama administration, he opposed a new “surge” in Afghanistan and also argued against catastrophic regime change in Libya. Biden is the most experienced statesman in the group—a potential strength and also a liability. I’d give him a B.
Though he’s just a mayor of a small Midwestern city, Buttigieg is one of only two veterans among the 10 candidates surveyed here. He knows the sacrifice and dangers of war—always a plus. Still, his site completely lacks a foreign policy section and he dedicates a mere eight words to ending the ongoing wars. And, in his precious few statements on global affairs—after all, he’s mayor of South Bend, Ind.—Buttigieg has opposed the intervention in Yemen but been wishy-washy on ending the Afghan war (which he served in) and rebuked Rep. Ilhan Omar over her statements critical of Israel. The mayor gets a C+.
The Minnesota senator is far from a foreign policy expert; her campaign website has no section on the forever wars and zero words dedicated to global affairs. That’s a poor start. Furthermore, while Klobuchar has made limited calls to de-escalate wars in the Mideast, this has been far from her main campaign thrust. Then there’s the ugly stuff: she wants “more consequences” for North Korea’s “bad behavior,” sponsored “funding and supplying” the Syrian rebels and demonstrated “vigorous support” for Israel against Hamas in Gaza. She too met with AIPAC representatives before the conference and has “pressured” Arab states to end their boycott of Israel. Inconsistent Klobuchar deserves the C- I’d assign her.
The former Texas representative came to prominence thanks to an inspiring (to some) losing performance in the Lone Star State’s U.S. Senate race. Nonetheless, he lacks foreign policy experience. That said, his website has sections on foreign policy, national security and veterans. Still, that’s deceptive. He dedicates seven lines to national security, all of which is actually about opposing Trump on immigration; furthermore, his foreign policy section—though he briefly mentions ending wars—seems focused mainly on “strengthening” the NATO alliance. Yawn! In recent interviews, he has shown surprising confidence in global affairs and opposes forever war in the Mideast. However, in the standard, reflexively anti-Trump spirit, he’d like to get “tougher” on Russia. This mixed bag earns a C+.
The Hawaii representative and U.S. Army veteran has the most vocal record (along with Bernie Sanders) of opposing America’s forever wars. Furthermore, she’s the only Dem in the race who has placed foreign policy centerstage in her campaign. Gabbard doesn’t have much in the way of an issues section on her campaign page, but she leads off with the phrase, “It’s time for an end to America’s disastrous policy of regime-change wars.” Amen! On the surface, she seems a dream candidate. Until one digs deeper. Gabbard’s past demonstrates an affinity for Hindu chauvinists in India, her initial opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, and a penchant for palling around with Islamophobes. Gabbard—thanks to her early and vocal antiwar focus—still gets a B.
Call me biased—I voted for him in the 2016 primary—but there’s ample evidence that the senator has the most comprehensive, consistent and anti-war foreign policy platform. No doubt, Sanders made a name for himself, and birthed a movement, based on progressive social and economically populist issues. And on his website, foreign policy and vets’ issues constitute just two of 24 subtopics. Nevertheless, he uses the term “militarism” to describe U.S. policy and specifically mentions opposition to wars in Syria and Iraq, while demanding that the U.S. not fight Iran or support Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
This doesn’t mean Bernie has a perfect track record in global affairs. At one time he did call for the U.S. to “beef up” NATO and increase American troops levels to combat Russian “aggression.” Without a doubt, that’s troubling. Still, he has—and this is important—voted on an antiwar slant at nearly every opportunity in a long career of public service. All told, Sanders earns the only A, albeit an A-, among this pack.
Taken as a whole, what passes as foreign policy ideas among the 2020 Dems is paltry at best. This is disconcerting and genuinely dangerous for what’s left of the American Republic. Folks, the empire threatens to swallow democracy whole, and few Dems even mention it! Make no mistake, commanders-in-chief at war tend to be reelected—which Trump undoubtedly knows—and if the president’s 2020 opponent offers either a standard Clintonian hawkish neoliberal alternative, or, more probably, no alternative at all, well, it might mean four more years for the Donald. Americans respond only to fear in foreign policy, it seems, and Trump is not above stoking these flames and running as a “war” president.
So, unless our future 2020 Democratic nominee can effectively articulate an alternative to war and Trump’s bellicosity, while tying the treasure saved from de-escalation to desired spending on such policies as the Green New Deal or just basic social spending, then Trump will win. If he does, I fear the wars may never end. Odds are that forever war is America’s destiny either way, but an inspiring 2020 Democratic foreign policy vision is our only hope.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army Major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The L.A. Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
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