Finding the Lesser Evil

Taking stock of the Democratic field on US empire.

The United States has the largest military empire in history, with eight hundred military bases across the globe, and active-duty and reserve troops stationed in 172 countries and territories. And it’s on questions of war that presidents have the greatest ability to act unilaterally.

Out of solidarity with the 96 percent of the world’s population that don’t get to vote in US elections but are impacted by US bombings, ground invasions, proxy wars, and base expansions, let’s take a close look at the records of some key 2020 candidates.

Kamala Harris

To the extent that California senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has distinguished her “foreign policy,” it has been through hawkish rhetoric against Russia, fearmongering over the Korean peace process, vocal support of Israel, and vague promises to defend “American security.” Although Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremism, as well as rising opposition to the occupation, have made Democratic ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) more controversial, Harris has remained cozy with the organization.

At AIPAC’s 2017 conference, she gushed, “I will do everything in my power to ensure broad and bipartisan support for Israel’s security and right to self-defense,” and then delivered an off-the-record speech at their 2018 event. In 2019, Harris hosted AIPAC leaders in her office in order to discuss, in her words, “the right of Israel to defend itself.”

She’s matched that sentiment with action. In 2017, Harris cosponsored a bill criticizing a resolution passed by the UN Security Council in 2016 that deemed Israeli settlements illegal. And in November 2017, Harris declined to sign a letter asking Netanyahu not to destroy the Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar and the Palestinian village of Susiya (Sanders and Warren both signed the letter).

Harris’s hawkish policy record has, at times, even placed her to Obama’s right. In July 2017, she voted in favor of a bill that bundles together sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia — even as former secretary of state John Kerry warned that the new sanctions threatened to upend the Iran nuclear deal. (Warren also voted in favor of the sanctions; Sanders was the only person who caucuses with the Democrats to vote “no.”) Meanwhile, Harris has so far declined to cosponsor two antiwar bills: one prohibiting “unauthorized military action” in Venezuela (Sanders became a cosponsor on March 25, 2019, and Warren cosponsored much later — June 3, 2019), and one aimed at preventing an “unconstitutional strike“ against North Korea (Warren and Sanders signed on at the same time).

While Harris has voted against the US–Saudi war on Yemen, cosponsoring the War Powers resolution that was introduced by Sanders, she has not broken from the center of the Democratic pack by being an early or loud opponent of the war. But perhaps most telling is Harris’s skittishness over troop withdrawals. When Trump claimed he would withdraw troops from Syria, Harris raised process concerns that it was irresponsible to do so without consulting military leaders or allies.

When it comes to Afghanistan, Harris supports an ongoing US military presence, recently telling the New York Times, “We need to have a presence there in terms of supporting what the leaders of Afghanistan want to do, in terms of having peace in that region, and suppressing any possibility of ISIS or any other terrorist organization from gaining any steam.”

Pete Buttigieg

South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg cut his chops as a naval intelligence officer and working for the global “management consultant” firm McKinsey & Company. He has demonstrated an impressive ability to speak in empty philosophical bromides while glossing over the harm the United States perpetrates around the world. To the extent he has positions on militarism, Buttigieg has thrown in his lot with the center of the Democratic Party.

In his big foreign policy speech in June, Buttigieg employed vague, Obama-esque language (“values shared by humanity, touching aspirations felt far beyond our borders”) while calling for military “deterrence” against China, continuing “counterterrorism missions” in Afghanistan, “reinvigoration” of nato, “isolating dictatorship” in Latin America, and a tough stance toward Russia. One of his more specific proposals — a call to repeal and replace the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force — is remarkably amoral: he doesn’t condemn the injustices of the War on Terror, but rather urges “robust debate.” To the extent that he has a problem with war, it tends to be about the process for authorizing it — not the war itself.

Buttigieg is a vocal supporter of Israel, earning him the April Vox headline, “Democrats are increasingly critical of Israel. Not Pete Buttigieg.” As the piece notes, soon after returning from a May 2018 trip to Israel organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Buttigieg told AJC’s podcast that Israel offers a national security model the United States should try to emulate.

Joe Biden

The most defining feature of Joe Biden’s track record is his lead role in supporting the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. As chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden raised the occasional procedural criticism of Bush’s war campaign but ultimately emerged as a strong backer of the war itself, declaring in February 2002, “If Saddam Hussein is still there five years from now, we are in big trouble.”

Biden is also defined by his career-long support for Israel. In 1995, he cosponsored an act to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and set aside funds to move the US embassy there. Biden backed Israel’s “targeted killings” in the early 2000s, as well as its 2006 assault on Lebanon. As vice president, he defended Israel’s ruthless 2014 war on Gaza, declaring in December of that year, “As those rockets rained down and terrorists tunnels in from Gaza appeared, President Obama steadfastly stood before the world and defended Israel’s right to defend itself.” Biden’s record did not stop Netanyahu from snubbing the Obama administration and openly supporting Trump’s 2016 campaign. And none of this stopped Biden from joining Hillary Clinton in speaking at a 2016 AIPAC conference that Sanders declined to attend.

Biden did vote against the 1991 Gulf War (as did Sanders), and he opposed US funding of the Nicaraguan contras (as did Sanders). In the late 1990s, however, he pushed for NATO expansion — a policy that would ultimately play a part in present-day tensions with Russia. Any hope that he would chart a less militaristic course than his Democratic peers was dashed by his role as vice president: Biden never broke from the Obama administration’s support for the ruthless US–Saudi war in Yemen, waiting until after he was out of power — and after the war had fallen out of favor in the Democratic mainstream — to condemn it.

In October 2011, Biden publicly praised the NATO bombing of Libya (although in 2016 he claimed he had been against it). He defended Obama’s Afghanistan “strategy” of open-ended occupation, and he played a central role in expanding the militarized drug war in Central America. He served in an administration that backed the 2009 coup in Honduras, expanded drone wars in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, and initiated a bombing campaign against ISIS that continues to this day — “experience” he touts on the campaign trail.

In his July 11 foreign policy speech, Biden claimed — like most other Democratic candidates — to be against “forever wars.” But he played a pivotal role in starting these wars.

Elizabeth Warren

The Democratic Party is skewed so far to the right that it takes little to distinguish oneself as progressive on militarism — yet Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has failed to clear this low bar. As the Trump administration backed the coup in Venezuela, Warren moved rightward, declaring on Pod Save America on February 21 that she supports sanctions on Venezuela, reversing her January claim that she opposes them. Warren did eventually cosponsor the aforementioned bill to prevent unauthorized use of force in Venezuela, but she was two-and-a-half months behind Sanders.

Like Harris, Warren has repeatedly engaged in fearmongering over the Korean peace process, insinuating in March 2018 that Trump, who had in the past threatened to strike North Korea with nuclear weapons, should be tougher: “I’m very worried that Donald Trump will go into these negotiations and Kim Jong-un will simply take advantage of him.” (In contrast, Sanders has released statements praising the peace talks.) While she did (like Sanders) cosponsor the “No Unconstitutional Strike Against North Korea Act of 2017,” Warren also voted for the July 2017 bill that imposed sanctions on North Korea, Iran, and Russia.

Like Biden, Warren vocally supported Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, and she has historically been close to AIPAC, attending annual dinners hosted by the group’s Boston chapter. To her credit, she was one of the first Democrats to come out in support of the Iran nuclear deal, despite AIPAC’s opposition. In 2016, however, Warren signed an AIPAC-sponsored letter urging Obama to veto a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements (Sanders did not sign).

Warren is strongest on Yemen, where she has voted to end the war, and she did sign up (belatedly) on May 14 as a cosponsor of a bill to prevent war with Iran.

Bernie Sanders

While Bernie Sanders is cut from a different cloth than Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and Biden, it would be a mistake to not interrogate his record. Sanders protested the war in Vietnam, and in 1974 he called for the abolition of the CIA, a position that was within the mainstream of liberal foreign policy at the time. Sanders was also a major advocate of diplomacy and peace with the Soviet Union during a time when this was controversial. As Burlington mayor, he was fiercely critical of the US dirty wars in Latin America. In his 1991 biography of Sanders, Dr Steven Soifer notes, “Sanders probably has done more than any other elected politician in the country to actively support the Sandinistas and their revolution.”

Yet Sanders’s record is inconsistent. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991, but he called for economic sanctions on Iraq as an alternative to military intervention. And then in 1998, after years of devastating sanctions, he backed two pieces of legislation — the “Iraq Liberation Act” and the “Supporting United States Troops in the Persian Gulf” bill — that said it should be US policy to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Sanders voted to authorize Bill Clinton’s 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo (Biden introduced the Senate authorization), prompting one of his staffers to resign in protest. While Sanders voted against — and vocally denounced — the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he did vote for the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was used to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and a host of wars since (Rep. Barbara Lee cast the lone vote against that authorization).

While Sanders is the strongest of these five candidates when it comes to Palestine, his record is also mixed there. As recently as 2017, he signed a letter (along with Warren and Harris) claiming the UN has a bias against Israel, and he has said he does not support BDS (while opposing legislation aimed at criminalizing it). Yet he has also repeatedly broken with political orthodoxy by condemning Israel’s brutality in a tone that is more morally outraged than customary for major US politicians. Still, as early as 1988, when almost no one was denouncing Israeli atrocities, then-mayor Sanders condemned as an “absolute disgrace” Israel’s First-Intifada practice of breaking the bones of Palestinian youth. In 2016, Sanders spoke out against Israel’s “disproportionate” force in the 2014 war on Gaza and, more recently, its mass slaughter of Gaza’s “Great March of Return” demonstrators. While it is a low bar, in 2016, Sanders defied the political establishment — and set the new standard — by being the only major 2016 candidate to skip the AIPAC conference, instead giving his own speech, in which he denounced the “suffering among Palestinians.”

In the past several years, Sanders has staked out stronger antiwar positions. He has loudly denounced military intervention in Venezuela and Iran, distinguished himself by repeatedly supporting the Korean peace process, and was an early backer of legislation on all three fronts. He was the only congressperson who caucuses with the Democrats to issue a “no” vote to a July 2017 bill to impose sanctions on Russia, Iran, and North Korea. However, he did release a statement clarifying that he supports sanctions on Russia and North Korea, but not Iran (Warren and Harris voted for the bill). He has been a leader in opposing the US–Saudi war on Yemen and, for the most part, has avoided the Democratic Party’s call for a more confrontational stance toward Russia.

Because Sanders and Warren are so often compared, it is worth looking at who would serve in their potential administrations. Sanders recently hired longtime peace activist Keane Bhatt as a communications director and policy adviser for his Senate office. And Sanders’s foreign policy chief Matt Duss is generally on the left of the foreign policy debate in Washington: He left the Center for American Progress (CAP) after clashing with the leadership over his more radical views, and he has since publicly criticized the organization. In contrast, Warren’s national security advisor, Sasha Baker, comes from the Defense Department, where she served as deputy chief of staff to the defense secretary, Ashton Carter. Another key adviser, Ganesh Sitaraman, is currently a senior fellow for CAP, which has argued in favor of escalation of the war in Syria and confrontation with Iran.

Perhaps most telling are recent remarks by Haim Saban, a billionaire Democratic Party mega-donor and Israel supporter who has collaborated with Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson to fund efforts to crack down on Palestinian rights organizers on US campuses. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Saban weighed in on the Democratic primaries: “We love all 23 candidates. No, minus one. I profoundly dislike Bernie Sanders, and you can write it.”

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Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including the Intercept, the Nation, and Tom Dispatch.

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