Monday, October 12, 2015

Sanders' Campaign Shouldn't Stop at the Water's Edge

When Black Lives Matter activists took to the stage to disrupt a speech by U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, they came in for a great deal of criticism.  Some people were disconcerted by their aggressive tactics, or by the fact that they targeted a candidate already substantially-sympathetic to their goals.  But there is no doubt that their militancy called attention to the systematic discrimination and violence directed in a disproportionate and punishing fashion at African Americans in the United States.

Bernie Sanders, to his credit, began to make racial inequality a specific part of his stump speeches and policymaking, recognizing the importance of race to his already-resonating message about economic inequality and the alternatives to our unequal society.

I wish that people would take the stage at Sander’s rallies to remind the Senator that any social democratic platform, and the promise of equality and justice that it holds out, cannot end at the water’s edge.  In the area of foreign policy, Sander’s campaign is incoherent where not immoral, dismally failing to articulate a sharp and productive critique of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.  Such a critique is not only urgent to check the atrocities routinely committed by the U.S. abroad and to remove one of the factors destabilizing our world, but essential if our country is to regain the capacity to invest in our public sphere rather than in private profit, often connected to the sale of weapons, ammunition, and technology, and to the disbursal of aid to dictatorial regimes that do business with immoral industries.

On Saturday, the U.S. launched aerial attacks on a Doctor’s Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 people and injuring 37 more.  This illegal attack—the hospital would have been off limits by law even had Taliban fighters been sheltering there—on a place dedicated to healing the ravages of war should be followed by prosecutions.  Those should be directed at the individuals and institutions who perpetrate such crimes and who create the conditions that make their perpetration a matter of routine.

Under Bush and Obama, the U.S. has increasingly waged war from the air, particularly by weaponized drone.  These drones attack their targets based on disposition matrices, probability estimates that make calculations about when to launch a strike based not on guilt or innocence, but on patterns of behavior and appearance. 

The killings perpetrated by this kind of attack, which substitute state-sanctioned murders for legal processes, and are ‘supervised’ by secret courts that eschew transparency, are nothing more than an internationalized form of the profiling-based police killings that Sanders has rightly criticized in the United States.

Here, at home, members of police departments, acculturated to the systematic and casual use of violence, attack community members with often little regard for the proportionality of their responses or the guilt of their victims.  This violence is visited disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos, and has the effect of diminishing trust in institutions and further dividing a country where race and wealth already correlate strongly.

Abroad, our security state embarks on wars, launches drone strikes, and commits acts of barbarism like torture and kidnapping in violation of international law.  Violence is the default response of our security state to international problems, and the reputation of the United States is rightly in tatters, particularly in those parts of the world that have borne the brunt of our murderous interventions.

At home, those state agents who commit murder on our streets often face little or no accountability, this sense of impunity fostered by the deeply-compromised institutions that trained and inculcated a recourse to violence in them.  This impunity will eventually delegitimize those institutions, and has the potential to lead to widespread social breakdown and disorder.

Abroad, those who murder, torture, kidnap, and bomb on behalf of our country have been shielded by a culture of impunity out of a fear that prosecutions could go to the very top, reaching those who have launched illegal wars of aggression.  Our country’s disdain for international law and protection of state terrorists has undermined international fora, courts, and other institutions, leading to an unstable world order, easily exploited by regimes like those in Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, that can point to U.S. terrorism to excuse their own.  Their own behavior further destabilizes the world and pushes us towards a more explosive international break-down.

We back a colonial regime in Israel that is engaged in an immoral and ultimately self-destructive occupation.  We obstruct efforts to regulate the arms trade that fuels and worsens conflicts around the world.  We stand shoulder to shoulder with dictators as they suppress democratic uprisings. 

These transparently immoral activities cause untold hardship around the world.  They also generate security threats against the United States.  And they empower a national security state that spies on its public, shields itself from accountability, erodes civil rights, lies to its elected supervisors, and generates security threats.

Bernie Sanders is casting himself as a transformational candidate, able and willing to overturn conventional wisdom.  He describes himself as a social democrat, invoking an ideology that is based on justice and equality, and which has historically contained a strong internationalist bent, critiquing colonialism and prioritizing solidarity and human welfare against narrow and competitive national interests.

But while his critiques of economic inequality and injustice in the United States have been penetrating, his foreign policy ideas, where they have appeared at all, have seemed calculated to maintain the indefensible status quo, based on a violent and self-destructive American imperialism.  Sanders might eschew large-scale interventions overseas, but he has shown no willingness to take on the security state, to scale back U.S. support for morally-repellent regimes, or to put a halt to our imperial behavior.

Sanders has pledged to make use of drones in his foreign policy, remarking, “Look, drone is a weapon.  When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive.  When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what?  It’s terrible”.  But not terrible enough to discontinue the use of the technology or to recognize that we need more than isolationism coupled with drone strikes.  Systematic, moral, legal, thought-through global engagement is required.

Sanders is na├»ve if he believes that he can simply reform procedure and put a halt to drone strikes that go terribly wrong or to bombings like that on the hospital in Afghanistan.  Those drones and their deployment are embedded in the behavior of a security state that is primed to commit violence.  Imperial-style wars—whether ground wars like that waged by Bush in Iraq, massive air-based wars like those launched by Obama, or more limited attacks of the variety Sanders might be imagining—are inescapably violent and indiscriminate because of the premises on which they are waged and the dehumanization of people in other parts of the world on which they are based.

U.S. foreign policy is a behemoth, comprising a bevy of heavily-entrenched interests in government, the private sector, and in regimes around the world.  Slowing and halting, no less turning such a constellation of powerful, violent interests would be a massive undertaking.  It would not occur quickly, and might not happen at all.  But doing so is critical to preventing the world from becoming engulfed in violence, to enabling our government to reorient itself towards the public interest, and to promoting democracy, human rights, and equality around the world.  And Sanders has a populist wind at his back which should not be underestimated.

Social democracy should not end at the water’s edge.  And nor should Sanders’ much-needed critique of what happens when wealth and power—and with them, the ability to coerce and behave violently—accrue in the hands of the unaccountable few.  I hope that in Tuesday’s debate the senator eschews his lazy, uninspired comments about foreign policy, and infuses his international policy with the same moral impetus that has informed his attempts to re-make our politics and economy within the U.S. to serve the welfare of the many.


  1. You seem surprised that your man Bernie doesn't out of hand reject the use of drones. They are as he puts it: weapons, and he seems to like continue your tortured foreign policy domestic issue conflation...why out of hand dismiss the use of drones, when you won't call for gun control back at home? Or to paraphrase the title of this post: "Sander's respect for human life should continue on this shore"

    1. I'm in complete agreement that his position on gun control is tortured and immoral. But how is it tortured to ask that the values that inform social democracy--respect for human life and welfare, the promotion of equality, etc--be extended to how we treat and interact with people in other parts of the world?
      It's not really about the drones. It's about the security state in which they are embedded. He doesn't have much to say about that, and it was amateur hour last night on foreign policy from Sanders.