The war in Afghanistan is 16 years old, yet America does not have an anti-war party. Foreign policy is in fact one of the few areas of common ground between Democrats and Republicans: Just last week, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a $700 billion defense policy bill, far more than what President Donald Trump had requested. The foreign policy establishment is remarkably monolithic, which helps explain why the anti-war candidate Barack Obama ended up on the side of that establishment so often during his presidency. The results have not been encouraging.
This is the backdrop for Senator Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy speech to students at Westminster College last week. In keeping with his progressive campaign for president, Sanders attacked the shibboleths of the foreign policy elite, while formulating an alternative way to look at national security that incorporated his egalitarian economic views. “Inequality, corruption, oligarchy, and authoritarianism are inseparable,” Sanders said. “They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way.” He added, “Foreign policy must take into account the outrageous income and wealth inequality that exists globally and in our own country.”
He proceeded to criticize historical hallmarks of American foreign policy, like the CIA-backed campaigns against foreign rulers like Salvador Allende in Chile and Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. He defended diplomacy as a superior alternative to military intervention. And, in passages that bore some resemblance to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s speech after the Manchester bombing in May, he condemned the war on terror as a self-defeating exercise. This was a detailed, coherent foreign policy speech from Sanders, and it was overdue: He largely failed to articulate a foreign policy vision during the 2016 Democratic primary, an omission that always felt like an unnecessary capitulation to Hillary Clinton’s touted expertise.
Sanders’s speech, therefore, is best seen as an attempt to break through the calcified ideologies of an elite that has discredited itself time and again in the post-9/11 era, but continues to wield inordinate influence and has barely changed its ways. He argued for a general reorientation of American foreign policy—a reconsideration of old alliances, with higher priority given to diplomatic solutions. And by doing so from the left, he challenged libertarian domination of the anti-interventionist label.
Nevertheless, Sanders didn’t convince everyone. At Vox, Jennifer Williams, a former researcher at Brookings, criticized the speech for failing to offer “concrete ideas” for how to achieve his vision for a more peaceful world. Sanders’s criticisms of military intervention are “all well and good,” she says, but adds: “How does he plan to address the threat—both to the U.S. directly and to the security, stability, and prosperity of people around the world—from groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, if not by some combination of military intervention or drone and airstrikes?”
It would be hard to find a more perfect example of the circular thinking that is prevalent among foreign policy mandarins. One wonders how Williams thinks ISIS came to be, if not for the kind of military intervention she says is necessary to fight groups like ISIS. For that matter, what are drones and airstrikes if not forms of military intervention?
America’s record on this particular subject supports Sanders, not the hawks to his right. The invasion of Iraq was a bloody disaster that destabilized the country and facilitated the emergence of ISIS. The invasion of Afghanistan is now our longest-running ground war and has achieved neither the destruction of the Taliban nor the security of the Afghan people. Drone strikes may have killed Al Qaeda militants in Yemen, but they’ve also killed obscene numbers of civilians while our supposed ally, Saudi Arabia, destroys the country.
Williams admits this latter point, but adds that Sanders “fails to acknowledge that the Obama administration gave that support in the first place in order to convince Saudi Arabia to support the Iran nuclear deal and to do more to help fight ISIS in Syria.” For Saudi Arabia, “doing more” in Syria has meant funding and arming rebels, partly in conjunction with the U.S. Bashar al-Assad is a murderous tyrant, and some of the rebel factions opposed to his government are extremists who aren’t much better. Considering Saudi Arabia’s history of funding Islamic extremists, its “assistance” in Syria doesn’t much support Williams’s general argument that such machinations are necessary to preserve stability in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The point of arguments like Williams’ is to demonstrate the sophistication necessary to conduct America’s foreign policy and to paint its critics as naive. But it’s precisely that kind of thinking that leads to a decades-long partnership with a problematic ally like Saudi Arabia. The point of Sanders’s speech was to chip away at tired certainties, to question fundamental beliefs, to break out of old ways of thinking. That is not naive. It is a rare example of a prominent American politician rejecting a dangerous calculus.
Obama’s record makes Sanders’ alternative approach particularly necessary. In a January post for the Council on Foreign Relations, Micah Zenko argued that Obama bequeathed Donald Trump a robust “targeted killing program.” Though Obama had placed some limitations on the drone program—limitations Trump is set to roll back—they are insufficient. “Many needed reforms were left undone—in large part because there was zero pressure from congressional members, who, with few exceptions, were the biggest cheerleaders of drone strikes,” Zenko wrote.
Meanwhile, Obama’s signature diplomatic achievement—the Iran nuclear deal—still has Democratic detractors. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans speak with one voice when it comes to supporting Israel and its treatment of Palestinians; the idea of reducing aid to Israel, something Sanders expressed some support for in a lengthy interview with The Intercept’s Mehdi Hasan, is near-heresy by the standards of both parties. They differ little on defense spending as well. Only four Democrats—in addition to Sanders—voted against the $700 billion defense policy bill.
Coming in a week in which Republicans were trying to repeal Obamacare, that vote demands a debate about national priorities, and Sanders is one of the few politicians willing to start one. “How tragic it is that today, while hundreds of millions of people live in abysmal poverty, the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons of destruction,” he said at Westminster. What is remarkable about this statement is not the profundity of the insight, but that it is so uncommon in Washington.
As Democrats plot the party’s path in the Trump era, they will need to reconsider their priorities. In a depressing sign of where things are heading, the U.S. military is undertaking a massive expansion of the Green Zone in Kabul, an acknowledgment that the city has only grown more dangerous over the past 16 years. It also underscores that the U.S. is committed to remaining in Afghanistan through the 2020s at least—and this is a commitment Democrats must question. Policing the world takes money that could be used to expand access to health care and education. Valorizing military aggression only cedes ground to Trumpism, with its fetishization of generals and its warmongering bluster. Sanders is right. The status quo isn’t working.