Whether it’s on the left or the right, the 2016 presidential race hasn’t substantially changed our public discussions about U.S. foreign policy. No candidate has challenged the normalized, covert operations of American Empire. No candidate has rethought the basic assumptions underlying the supremacy of U.S. military power.
And no candidate has discussed the continuities between George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s war on terror — or proposed any meaningful alternative.
Given a political climate of increasing jingoism and hostility, it’s not surprising that no presidential candidate has felt comfortable advocating a cohesive anti-war position. Rightly or wrongly, the November attacks in Paris confirmed in the eyes of many Americans that President Obama’s airstrikes against the Islamic State — otherwise known as Daesh, ISIL, or ISIS (pick your acronym) — have been inadequate.
There’s a great case to be made that military intervention in Iraq and Syria is only fueling the ISIS crisis. But more fundamentally, there’s a huge opening to critique the economic foundations of America’s wars — one that fits perfectly with the populist anger fueling the rise of Bernie Sanders.
From Right to Left
First, a word on the right.
On the right, well, we’ve entered into what Rod Sterling called the Fifth Dimension, the Twilight Zone of 1950s America — where Donald Trump’s outrageous racism and xenophobia are only matched by Ben Carson’s absurd myopia (remember, this candidate claimed the Affordable Care Act was the worst thing since slavery). The deep-seated racial prejudice, sexism, and homophobia of the Republican Party are unraveling the conservative establishment from within.
So I wouldn’t expect anything substantive from the war party on Daesh besides calls for re-militarization, along with mocking provocations about Obama’s alleged weakness. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing with increasingly bad policy proposals. For example, Republican Iowa caucus winner Ted Cruz had the vacuous idea of “carpet bombing Daesh” — a plan, if we can call it that, which has been categorically dismissed by Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland as inconsistent with American values as well as strategically inept. Others have called it a war crime.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul, before recently dropping out, did speak about some of the pitfalls of the war machine with his isolationist strand of foreign policy. But like most libertarians, he completely avoided any discussion of the harder questions about American power — what ethical engagement looks like, how America’s global empire of military bases might be dismantled, and especially what the role of American capital in foreign policy should be. That’s the invariable weakness of any libertarian anti-war position.
On the left, Bernie Sanders has fumbled the Daesh question during the Democratic debates because he can’t fundamentally distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. His form of argumentation goes something like this: First carefully deflect Clinton’s criticism by discussing her 2002 endorsement of the Iraq War, and then refocus the debate on domestic military concerns. His work on veterans’ issues in Congress becomes a substitute for astute commentary on the Middle East.
It’s clear that Sanders is outmatched on foreign policy, even by his own admission. But he doesn’t need to be.
Capitalism and American Empire
Sanders could win foreign policy debates by challenging the foundation of American Empire.
Bill Williams had something to say about that in his seminal book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, where he traced the emergence of American Empire to Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Doors Notes” in 1899 and 1900. If Sanders read and followed Williams’s lead, he’d realize that at its core the American Empire runs on commercial expansion. This was the key assumption animating the Open Door Notes, which became the Open Door Policy.
Williams argued that the Open Door Policy relied on two fundamental beliefs: (1) that American businesses would out-compete foreign companies given the free flow of direct investment, which was and is a form of Americanization; and (2) that American corporate capitalism would continuously expand the world’s economic pie and thereby secure world peace.
The Open Door Policy, Williams argued, guided American foreign relations over the course of the 20th century, turning military power into an agent of economic expansion. The two world wars in this sense resulted from the Open Door Policy working too well — that is, Japan and Germany realizing that they were being out-competed and marginalized in world affairs. Elsewhere, James Livingston has usefully applied Williams’s understanding of the Open Door Policy to explain President Obama’s pivot to Iran.
Why does all this matter for Sanders?
Bernie recognizes that American capitalism is defunct: It stopped serving the American people in 1973, when wages flatlined even as productivity soared. Yet he doesn’t incorporate this rudimentary critique of capitalism to explicate American foreign policy. Why not?
Oil and the Middle East
Underlying all the problems the United States faces in the Middle East is the black tar of modernity: oil.
It’s the reason we’ve spent $7.3 trillion since 1976 patrolling the oceans, invading countries, and toppling leaders. That reliance on oil — along with complex Cold War politics and ideological support for Israel — put U.S. foreign policy on a collision course with the Muslim world. Since 1980, Andrew Bacevich calculates, the U.S. has invaded, bombed, and occupied 14 Islamic countries.
Seen this way, the contemporary problems of U.S. foreign policy are not political. They’re economic. The ideology of corporate capitalism is to blame.
In a sense, the Open Door Policy has worked too well again — American corporations have become too powerful and parasitic as multinational corporate oil interests guide, not follow, American foreign policy. In other words, Sanders loses these foreign policy debates because he doesn’t challenge the foundation of American Empire; he doesn’t represent a coherent anti-war position.
The Meaning of “Anti-War”
What does it mean to be anti-war, anyway? To be anti-war isn’t to be against engagement, and it’s certainly not uncritical pacifism. It’s a way of thinking that demands a paradigm shift away from airstrikes, military advisers, and covert operations and toward understanding the systemic issues underlying American foreign policy.
It’s what Bill Williams started half a century ago when he reinvented the field of American diplomatic history.
A comprehensive anti-war position looks at Daesh as the logical conclusion of the worst failures of global capitalism — namely the global lack of opportunity in the marketplace that imprisons and marginalizes people, especially young Muslim men. Enshrouded with gluttonous wealth — and often supporting friendly neoliberal dictatorships that quash domestic opposition — Western countries become the symbol to destroy in order to reclaim agency against American and Western modernity. When Thomas Piketty blamed Daesh on burgeoning inequality in the Arab world, he was right.
The problem comes into clearer focus when it’s wed to military power. Then the dominant world players start to look like their old colonial archetypes, with their military bases around the world (662 in 38 countries for the United States, and that’s just counting the big ones) and neoliberal trade policies that sap wealth, resources, and people from the so-called Third World.
Meanwhile at home, war culture becomes the source and product of a permanent war economy — or military capitalism — from the video games Americans play to the Jack Bauer TV shows they watch.
But defending an anti-war platform doesn’t mean saying the United States can’t lead the world. If anything, the United States is in the best position of any country to make lasting changes.
It could start by restructuring the United Nations so that the world body becomes more than simply a pawn of Washington’s interests or a resolution to be singlehandedly blocked. Furthermore, an anti-war America could use its dominant position to globally redistribute wealth through more equitable trade policies and a global minimum wage. It could finally curtail the bloated $46 billion it collects from foreign arms sales each year.
And Bernie Sanders can lead the way. His domestic critique of capitalism needs global awareness: He can and should explain America’s current military adventurism in the Middle East as an artifact of its oil addiction and a product of corporate capitalism. If he’s got the guts to say it out loud, Sanders could very well be the anti-war leader this country needs.