In years past, it has often been difficult to find anti-militarist beacons in Congress – Democrats included. Particularly since Dennis Kucinich’s 2013 departure from the House, it’s sometimes seemed that the only prominent national political figure willing to oppose the latest White House military venture was the somewhat-libertarian Senator Rand Paul. And today, with a Democratic Party left struggling to emerge and define itself in the midst of the Trump opposition, the imperative to create a sane foreign policy – distinct from that of politicians whose domestic policies often verge on the insane – has never been greater. A Democratic left cannot claim to offer a thorough-going alternative to business-as-usual Washington politics until and unless we break with the conventional bipartisan wisdom on foreign policy. All of which lends particular significance to Bernie Sanders’s prominent opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing.
Much of the mainstream response to the Syria raid was, of course, familiarly tragicomic – sometimes almost to the point of laughable – with one network newscaster sufficiently moved by the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” so as to quote “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’” Another opined that by launching the attack, “Donald Trump became president of the United States.” More significantly, Congressional leaders previously vowing to fight the man’s administration tooth and nail hastened to back him as he violated American law by usurping their exclusive right to declare war and violated international law by attacking a country that has not attacked us.
The really tragic aspect of the overall reaction, however, lies in the presumption that with this latest act of war, we have actually “done something” in response to the horrific circumstances of the Syrian war – “done something,” that is, in the sense of doing something positive. And it is precisely on this point, that the Sanders response is most important, as he called on the Trump administration to “explain to the American people exactly what this military escalation in Syria is intended to achieve, and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution, which is the only way Syria’s devastating civil war ends.” Now this in itself hardly qualifies as a radical statement. And the fact that it stands out as in any way unusual is itself an indictment of the current environment in which “doing something” meaningful for the Syrian people is presumed to require dropping bombs and/or sending troops somewhere – and little else. But given our country’s history of liberal leaders who talk tough about taking on the powers that be, only to rush to join the parade to salute to the commander-in-chief when he plays the war card, the Sanders statement stands out as an all too rare example of a leader on domestic issues proving equal to a foreign policy challenge.
To be fair – and frank – about the current situation, lets not ignore the fact that when Sanders says, “we should’ve learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … that it’s easier to get into a war than get out of one,” and that if “the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, for the American economy and for the American people,” it was Barack Obama who was in the White House for most of those years. To put it bluntly, the Obama presidency largely anesthetized the American antiwar movement. Again, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones lulled into complacency – let’s not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave him the world’s most prestigious prize early on in an administration that went on to bomb seven countries. But if it takes a figure like Donald Trump to restore the American left’s mojo, well so be it.
A couple of short years ago, it was a fair question whether there really was such a thing as an American left – outside of college lecture halls and counter cultural institutions. No more. Post-Sanders campaign, we now find millions seeking a government not dominated by Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street peers. Millions viewing the richest nation on earth being unwilling to guarantee health care to all of its people as an absurd situation. Millions considering the pursuit of corporate profit an inadequate governing principle for meeting twenty-first century global environmental challenges. Millions looking for leaders who will reverse the growing divide of wealth and power – across the nation and world wide. And, likewise, there are millions who recognize that the nation – and the planet itself – cannot indefinitely sustain our current delusionary policy of achieving world peace through ever-increasing armament and intervention.
No one in recent politics has been more insistent on the point that “It’s not me, it’s us,” than Bernie Sanders. But at the same time, there is no getting around the fact that individual politicians are sometimes required to rise to the occasion. And Sanders has done so at a particularly important juncture. Frankness does also require that we recognize that he has not always shone in this area throughout his entire political career: After starting out as a mayor with a foreign policy – meeting with Ronald Reagan-nemesis Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, when he held the top job in Burlington, Vermont – his focus shifted to domestic economic issues when he went to Congress and on occasion he seemingly fell into orthodox foreign policy voting.
He did, however, unquestionably break new ground in the history of presidential debates when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, excoriated the policy of overthrowing legitimately elected governments dating back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and took Hillary Clinton to task for her association with Henry Kissinger. And now, in standing up against the tradition of critical American political thinking ceasing once the president gets violent, he nurtures our chances to really develop an alternative to the bipartisan endless war consensus. And yes, in the long run that is a job for us, not just him.