For anyone with hopes of changing our foreign policy of relentless aggression, the presidential candidates now parading their wares before the public are truly a depressing sight.
The Republicans are vying with one another for the “honor” of being the most warlike, and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) – son of the resolutely anti-interventionist Ron Paul, surely one of the most effective and militant critics of American foreign policy – has joined in the contest. All the GOPers have taken aim at President Obama’s deal with Iran: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, two of the loudest, are organizing a September 9 rally on Capitol Hill opposing the agreement.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, the picture doesn’t look much better. Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued a rather tepid endorsement of the Iran deal, but has vowed to “police” it – a stance that argues in favor of some in the Israel lobby who say the deal could pave the way for conflict with Iran over enforcement of its terms. Said Clinton:
“This agreement will have to be enforced vigorously [and] relentlessly. We have to treat this as an ongoing enforcement effort that I certainly strongly support and as president will be absolutely devoted to ensuring that the agreement is followed.”
Translation: At the first opportunity – “intelligence” emanating from the Israelis or their front groups – I will ditch the deal and take us on the road to war.
As for the alleged left-wing challenger in the Democratic ring, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the fact that months after launching his presidential bid he still hasn’t put up a single foreign policy statement on his web site speaks volumes. Martha Raddatz, interviewing Sanders on ABC’s “This Week,” noted that odd omission:
“[T]here are two issues that are entirely missing from your campaign website, and those are issues of national security and foreign policy. Don’t you feel these are issues that a president should be very concerned about?”
“SANDERS: Absolutely, Martha. And we will – you know, in all fairness, we’ve only been in this race for three and a half months. And we’ve been focusing, quite correctly, as you’ve indicated, on the economy, on the collapse of the American middle class, on massive income and wealth inequality. But you’re absolutely right, foreign policy is a huge issue. Let me just say a word or two about that. And we are going to spend more time on that.”
A word, or two, is about all he has spent on the subject since announcing his candidacy, and so Raddatz spends most of the interview asking him about it. Specifically, she asks him to define the conditions under which he would authorize the use of military force. Bernie responds with a desultory “Yeah, there are times when you have to use force, no question about it.” He then goes on to describe his votes against both Gulf wars, and his vote to authorize the US invasion of Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks.
Raddatz comes back at him with:
“And is that only when we’re attacked? Is that only when we’re attacked? Because if you look at your record, you supported the invasion into Afghanistan after we were attacked. Is that the only time you would support it?”
“SANDERS: No, not at all.”
Here Sanders admits that he’s not necessarily opposed to launching a war of aggression, i.e., a conflict in which the United States and its allies attack a nation that has not attacked us and may not even represent a credible threat. Moreover, he fails to enunciate any principles that would govern his behavior on this vital question. So with Bernie in the White House we’re getting a surprise package when it comes to the question of war and peace.
Yet a war launched by this avowed socialist wouldn’t actually be much of a surprise at all. In her interview with Sanders, Raddatz wonders if Russia and China would take him seriously if they decided to ally and launch some unspecified aggression, and Sanders replies:
“Well, I think they would be making a very, very big mistake. I believe that the United States should have the strongest military in the world. We should be working with other countries in coalition. And when people threaten the United States or threaten our allies or commit genocide, the United States with other countries should be prepared to act militarily.”
So here we have at least some criteria that would provoke President Bernie into going to war – and they are not much different from those that previous US presidents have invoked to justify US military action. A “threat,” after all, can be interpreted in many ways: remember when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you!” That sure sounded like a threat at the time. Would Bernie have launched World War III on account of it? Well, probably not: but you see the trouble here – the sheer vagueness of the “threat” criterion makes it infinitely elastic. This “threat” business also includes our allies – but which allies? Israel? Ukraine? Egypt?
And then there’s the “genocide” provision of the Bernie Doctrine. Which means that any time our hopped-up pro-war media proclaim that a “genocide” is ‘imminent,” as it supposedly was (but really wasn’t) in Libya, then it’s time to send in the Marines.
Listening to Sanders makes one pine for the real socialists – like Eugene Victor Debs, who ran repeatedly for President on the Socialist Party ticket back in the day, and was prosecuted for his antiwar speeches by the evil Woodrow Wilson. On June 16, 1918, in Canton, Ohio, Debs declared”
“Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…. And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.”
When Debs spoke in Cleveland, again attacking the war as a scheme by the “master class” to turn public discontent outward against foreign “enemies,” he was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act, legislation especially cooked up by the War Party to frame up anyone who dared raise their voice against the war.
Debs disdained having lawyers represent him at his farcical “trial,” and chose to defend himself: he also refused to call any witnesses. “I have been accused of obstructing the war,” he thundered. “I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose it if I stood alone.”
Debs was convicted and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. The Socialist Party nominated him as their presidential candidate in 1920, and he campaigned from behind bars, receiving almost a million votes. The tyrant Wilson refused to pardon him, but President Warren G. Harding – who personally met with Debs – commuted his sentence. Upon returning to his home base in Terre Haute, Indiana, the jailbird was met by a crowd of 50,000 jubilant celebrants.
The only politician I can think of who would have the courage to take a similar stance these days is Ron Paul. Which says something not only about the contemporary “left,” but also about the times we are living in – and it ain’t good.
It looks like the libertarians have inherited the antiwar mantle of the old Socialists in the Debsian tradition – or have they?
Even if we discount the pathetic performance of Rand Paul – with his opposition to the Iran deal, his call for increased military spending, his ridiculous stance in favor of declaring war on ISIS – the libertarian caucus in Congress isn’t exactly front and center on the vital issue of war and peace. Ominously, the three most hardcore congressional libertarians – Justin Amash (R-Michigan), Tom Massie (R-Kentucky), and Walter B. Jones (R-North Carolina) – have yet to take a position on the Iran deal.
This is a make-or-break decision as far as their commitment to libertarianism is concerned for the simple reason that the alternative to the deal is war with Iran. It’s as simple as that. The issue is: will those who know better stay silent while the neocons manipulate the nation into yet another tragic war in the Middle East? As a local North Carolina newspaper article on Jones put it:
“Jones said part of his hesitation to condemn the deal is a mistrust he developed after believing the Bush administration’s reasoning – later proved inaccurate – that the country should enter a preemptive war with Iraq because former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He said he still regrets not fully reading then-classified material that may have swayed his thinking.
"’I’m responsible for over four thousand kids dying,’ he said. ‘It was all manipulated by the Cheney-Bush administration.’”
Will Jones make the same mistake again – and perhaps become responsible for far more than 4,000 kids dying in a future war with Iran? Will Reps. Amash and Massie follow him down that same path?
Or will they take the road of Eugene Debs and Ron Paul, to be condemned by a temporarily ascendant War Party, but vindicated – and honored – by the judgment of history?
It’s hard for people to stand up to popular sentiment, especially in wartime. The consequences – including, in the case of Debs, the legal consequences – can be harsh. It is especially hard for politicians, and others in the political realm – pundits, party officials, and activists. And yet some have been willing to pay the price and stand up for principle: cowardice isn’t a necessary requirement for a career in politics. Indeed, the opposite can often be the case. Today, for example, it is a black mark against any political candidate who supported the Iraq war – which, at the time it was launched, was wildly popular. Hillary Clinton discovered this to her sorrow when she lost the 2008 Democratic primary to Barack Obama.
Wartime tests the integrity of us all: many fail, but a few pass with flying colors. At a time when the “left” – at least in the person of Bernie Sanders – seems to have capitulated to the War God, will libertarians inherit the mantle of peace?
We shall see.