I’m a proud Bernie Sanders supporter and was thrilled with the way the Senator used last night’s debate to urge voters to back his quest to make our country a more equal, just, and secure place by building a robust welfare state, rolling back state intervention on behalf of the plutocrats, and re-democratizing our political system.
But I would say to Senator Sanders and to his supporters in the Democratic Party and beyond: amateur hour is over when it comes to thinking about the role of the U.S. in the world. In last night’s debate, the Senator was incoherent, inconsistent, and at times ill-informed when it came to laying out foreign policy views.
His criticism of the war in Iraq was correct, his caution about waging endless wars was well-justified, and his criticism of the security state was well taken. But those views are irreconcilable with his defense of weaponized drones and aerial bombings (such as those that murdered over 20 people in a Doctors Without Borders hospital), with his attacks on Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on the criminals in the Pentagon and the NSA, and with the general sense he gives that he hasn’t thought for more than five minutes about how to make the world’s citizens safer, the world order fairer, and the world’s working people more prosperous.
Some of the Senator’s defenders will say that foreign policy issues aren’t traditionally important to voters, and that people want to hear about economics, jobs, and social welfare. But here are a few reasons that defense isn’t good enough, and in fact insults voters and damages Sanders’ credibility.
Firstly, people like consistency in policy. That’s one of Sanders’ big appeals for many. That consistency—in his concern for human rights and welfare, and for equality and justice—should extend to the way he would like the U.S. to treat people in other parts of the world and to the way that he would like the U.S. to interact with countries in other parts of the world.
There is injustice and inequality in the world, and some of this is the fault of the U.S. Our blank checks to the Israeli government fuel conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians they rule over in an undemocratic fashion. Our backing for dictators and autocrats generates inequality in the countries those people rule over with U.S. support. And our use of terror—bombing hospitals and weddings in Afghanistan, scattering weaponry around the world in pursuit of goals that contravene public and humanitarian interest, and our protection of state terrorists who tortured, abducted and murdered—is illegal, immoral, and offensive.
Secondly, Sanders’ ambitious domestic program requires a significant output of resources. Foreign conflicts, fueled by our disastrous and never-ending War of Terror are damaging our ability to focus on domestic matters.
Our budget is wildly skewed towards the desires of the Pentagon and the security state, away from the needs of our citizens. To be able to re-orient our priorities, it is necessary to change the character of our engagement with the international community.
Thirdly, just because voters don’t care about foreign policy doesn’t mean it isn’t important. We are but one country in a global community comprised largely of nations. Just as individual states within our country, and individual members of our national community have a responsibility to each other, we have an obligation to interact in a reasonable, legal, and just fashion with other nations around the world. Moreover, our actions abroad can bring faraway threats home with great alacrity. Many of these threats would have been easily preventable if the U.S. had a history of behaving like a good, law-abiding neighbor in a community of nations instead of an arrogant, imperial power in a world of global subjects.
Isolationism is not the answer, but rather the fashioning of a more democratic world order that isn’t captured by the interests of the wealthy, that isn’t dominated by the voices of fundamentalists whether they are in the Middle East or the United States, and isn’t governed according to rules that benefit the few at the expense of the many.
Finally, Sanders’ efforts to transform the U.S. into a social democracy, its energies directed to bettering the welfare of its citizens, requires significant faith in government. That faith has been relentlessly eroded by the corruption of the Bush/Cheney administration and their illegal conspiracy to wage aggressive war; by Bush and Obama’s misdirection of power to a security state that has little regard for civil rights or the public interest; and by the impunity that successive administrations have promoted when it comes to addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When people think of “Government”, they think not only of Republicans’ mis-use of government to benefit the super-wealthy and of the deliberate inefficiency the GOP has introduced to our national politics. They also think of an unaccountable, violent security state that seems preoccupied with interests and wars far removed from the daily lives of our citizens.
For Sanders to restore faith in the capacity of government to do good for people, he must also re-capture it in the sphere of foreign relations from the neo-conservative ideologues, the murderous warmongers, and the corrupt arms industry that have used their power to do much ill in the world.
For Sanders to achieve his domestic goals, for him to stay true to his social democratic values, and for him to bridge the gap between the foreign and the domestic, it is critical that he and his campaign get their act together. Voters will not indulge repeated performances of last night’s muddled incoherence when it comes to foreign policy, and the Senator should hold himself to a higher standard, a standard it is necessary to reach for him to deliver on his goals for our country. Authenticity shouldn’t be an excused for ill-preparedness.