This commentary is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and TheNation.com.
These days, Bernie Sanders doesn’t say much about the Middle East. But if you’ve heard him say nothing else on the subject, he’s probably reminded you that he — unlike a certain former secretary of state — had the foresight to vote against the Iraq War when it came before Congress back in 2002.
In fact, sometimes it seems like the only talking point on the broader Middle East Sanders feels comfortable delivering. “Not only did I vote against that war, I helped lead the opposition,” Sanders said in response to a recent debate question about fighting the Islamic State, or ISIS. “It gives me no pleasure to tell you that much of what I feared would happen the day after Saddam Hussein was overthrown [did].” It was a reminder he reiterated, to loud applause, in his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary.
At one level, that’s perfectly understandable. It really can’t be repeated enough that the Iraq War was the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy decision of at least the last generation. The invasion and subsequent occupation cost thousands of U.S. lives and trillions of U.S. dollars, and it left anywhere from a few hundred thousand to over a million Iraqi civilians dead. It destabilized the region, exploded sectarian tensions, and led directly to the rise of ISIS.
Not to mention, of course, it was based entirely on lies.
When she was a senator from New York, Hillary Clinton didn’t just vote for that war. As Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Stephen Zunes noted recently, she proved an eager propagandist for the Bush administration’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in her own right. And, most perplexingly, she was still defending her vote for the war as late as 2007 — years after the claims were disproved for good.
So Clinton is vulnerable on the subject, and for good reason. But on another level, she wasn’t wrong when she retorted, “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.”
Maybe she just meant to burnish her own hawkish credentials. But the fact remains that whoever’s elected this year is nearly guaranteed to inherit the war on ISIS that President Obama launched back in 2014. He or she will be the fifth consecutive U.S. president to preside over some variety of military intervention in Iraq — a dour chapter that’s already continued for at least 25 years, dating back to the Gulf War. (And that’s not even counting the U.S. role in the bloody Iran-Iraq war before that.)
The good news is that Sanders sent some promising signals about his judgment on the last U.S. invasion before it was even launched — in fact, probably even more so than he’s usually credited for. But the bad news is that his statements on the latest iteration of the conflict have been all over the map. In his bumbling calls for a “Muslim coalition” to stop ISIS, he’s shown none of the acumen that so distinguished him over 13 years ago.
Without a plan to resolve the ISIS war responsibly, the U.S. war in Iraq could reverberate through yet another generation. If Sanders is elected, that’ll be a grim asterisk to his “political revolution” indeed.
Getting It Right…
First, it’s worth looking at what Sanders got right last time. For one thing, he didn’t just vote no: He also gave a fairly remarkable floor speech explaining why, which a group backing his presidential campaign now features prominently on its website.
Some of the speech will look familiar to anyone who remembers the back-and-forth over the claims about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal the Bush administration used to justify the war. Sanders made clear he didn’t really buy it. Even if Hussein did have the weapons, Sanders argued — a big if — there was no reason to presume a unilateral U.S. war was going to make anyone safer.
Other parts of the address will look familiar to anyone who’s followed Sanders himself — including a very Sanders-esque aside about how the push for war was distracting Congress from “some of the most pressing economic issues affecting the well-being of ordinary Americans.”
All that’s fine: It was certainly beyond the reasoning of Hillary Clinton and all the other Democrats and Republicans who fell in line behind the war. But Sanders didn’t stop there. He raised first and foremost the prospect that the war could exact a devastating human cost, particularly against civilians:
I have not heard any estimates of how many young American men and women might die in such a war or how many tens of thousands of women and children in Iraq might also be killed. As a caring nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause.
On this issue, Sanders was right beyond measure, and not only about the sectarian bloodletting that characterized the middle years of the war. Even today, ISIS is terrorizing huge swaths of Iraq’s western and northern reaches, uprooting Shiites and ancient communities of Christians, Yazidis, and Turkmen. The Shiite militias arrayed against it, meanwhile, have been accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing in the heavily Sunni areas where ISIS has taken hold.
Somewhat more exceptional, though — at least in Washington — was the Vermont representative’s explicit argument that the war was illegal, regardless of whatever Congress authorized that day. It’s almost quaint to remember now, but the Bush administration’s doctrine of “pre-emptive war” was really just a slightly different phrasing of the “wars of aggression” expressly banned by the UN Charter, which is supposed to be binding for member countries. Here’s how Sanders put it:
I am deeply concerned about the precedent that a unilateral invasion of Iraq could establish in terms of international law and the role of the United Nations. If President Bush believes that the U.S. can go to war at any time against any nation, what moral or legal objection could our government raise if another country chose to do the same thing?
Indeed, these norms exist for a reason. On what legal basis can Washington argue that Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, for example, is any more egregious than U.S. actions in Iraq, among other places?
Importantly, Sanders also showed that he understood — or at least that he was listening to people who understood — that the Bush administration’s rosy predictions about what would happen in postwar Iraq were nonsense. Here were his surprisingly prescient questions about what would follow an invasion of Iraq:
I am concerned about the problems of so-called unintended consequences. Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed, and what role will the U.S. play in an ensuing civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists?
Those are questions the war’s planners clearly didn’t bother to consider. Through boneheaded policies like purging Baath party members from government jobs, disbanding the Sunni-dominated Iraqi army, and providing unyielding support to Iraq’s increasingly sectarian Shiite-dominated postwar government, U.S. occupation authorities and their counterparts in Washington didn’t just fail to contain sectarian fallout — they helped to stoke it.
And now, thanks to a corresponding breakdown in neighboring Syria, the leading component of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq — the Islamic State — poses a mortal threat to several governments in the region.
… And Getting It Wrong
All that’s to say, Bernie’s position on Iraq was a great deal more prescient than a simple “vote in 2002.” It was canny and compassionate to boot. But what, then, should we make of his current proposal for how to fight ISIS?
Here’s how he summed it up in the same New Hampshire debate:
[Let me] mention what the king of Jordan said. What he said is essentially the war against ISIS is a war for the soul of Islam, and it must be Muslim troops on the ground that will destroy ISIS with the support of a coalition of major powers — [the] U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Russia.
So our job is to provide them the military equipment that they need; the air support they need; special forces when appropriate. But at the end of the day for a dozen different reasons, not the least of which is that ISIS would like American combat troops on the ground so they could reach out to the Muslim world and say, “Look, we’re taking on those terrible Americans.”
The combat on the ground must be done by Muslim troops with our support. We must not get involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and not all of it’s encouraging.
On the plus side, Sanders is absolutely right that ISIS would love nothing more than to draw the United States into a protracted war in the Middle East — the group has said as much in its own publications. That’s as fine a reason as any to decline the invitation to send ground troops — and that includes “special forces when appropriate.”
But if part of the goal is to avoid letting ISIS use combat with the United States as a recruiting tool — as al-Qaeda in Iraq did before it, and as the Taliban has done before and since — it’s not terribly clear how launching thousands upon thousands of airstrikes and pumping millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to various anti-ISIS factions wouldn’t have the same impact.
And what would the Sanders of 2002 say about the possibility of those airstrikes causing civilian casualties? USA Today reported recently that civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq may far outpace what the U.S. government has admitted. Indeed, civilian casualties aren’t just tragic in their own right — they’re part of what’s making the region ungovernable today, for the simple reason that millions of Syrians and Iraqis have decided they can no longer live there safely. Who can blame them?
Sanders also isn’t wrong that the “Muslim countries” of the Middle East — including the people of Iraq and Syria, whatever their faith — should bear ultimate responsibility for the outcome, because they’re the ones who have to live there. But this idea for a coalition of “Muslim troops” is dangerously wrongheaded.
After all, who would supply them? Turkey, perhaps, or Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states? To varying degrees each of those countries is already deeply enmeshed in the greater Syrian conflict. They’ve already funneled untold quantities of cash and materiel to a hodgepodge of Syrian rebel groups — many of whom may be opposed to ISIS but also happen to be Islamic extremists in their own right. Those governments are implacably opposed to the decidedly secular (if deeply compromised) Syrian regime, while the Turks are openly at war with the Kurds — perhaps the most reliable anti-ISIS fighters in the whole region. Escalating their involvement is hardly a recipe for stability.
What about Iran? The Shiite Iranians are surely enemies of ISIS, which considers Shiites apostates and has viciously purged them from its territory. But Iran has also been a key pillar of support for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Shiite-linked Alawite sect, as well as of various militias in Iraq that have been likened to anti-Sunni death squads. With ISIS thriving in the Sunni heartlands of both Iraq and Syria, increased Iranian military involvement — while potentially helpful against ISIS itself — is only going to deepen the political crisis that’s enabled the group to thrive on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
And those “great powers”?
Sanders of all people should know that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops succeeded only in breaking Iraq, perhaps irreparably — after all, he predicted it. There’s no reason to expect a more modest contingent of air strikes and special forces to exact a more favorable outcome. And there’s precious little to prevent the arms that Washington’s peddling to the Iraqi government and Syrian rebel groups from falling into the hands of extremists — indeed, that’s already happened, to the tune of millions of dollars’ worth of heavy weaponry.
Meanwhile, Russia’s backing Assad, and its own anti-ISIS air campaign has targeted plenty of Syrian opposition groups that aren’t actually ISIS — including many of the same ones propped up by those Muslim countries that Sanders believes belong in the coalition. And they’re racking up a disheartening toll of civilian lives while they’re at it.
And as far as Western European countries are concerned, the example from Afghanistan — a war Sanders did support, unfortunately — should be instructive: After more than a decade of grinding counterinsurgency operations failed to dislodge the Taliban or improve governance in war-torn Afghanistan, the U.S. and European-led NATO coalition quietly disbanded in 2014, leaving mostly Americans left to run out the clock. It was an abject failure, and there’s no reason to expect a laundry list of coalition partners against ISIS to be any more successful.
In short, Sanders learned the wrong lessons from Iraq. The unilateralism of the war may have been a problem in its own right, but there’s simply no reason to believe a multilateral coalition — one spearheaded by either Muslim countries or the West — will be any more successful if its fundamental strategy is flawed.
The simple fact is that there’s a huge population of Sunni Arabs in particular who’ve been totally abandoned by the political regimes of Mesopotamia. In Iraq, Shiites have consolidated power in Baghdad, while Alawites and other Syrian minorities have hunkered down in the regime-controlled portions of Syria. Meanwhile Kurds on both sides of the border have coalesced into their own quasi-autonomous regions.
Along with a smattering of Syrian rebel fighters, all of these groups are fighting ISIS where it’s encroaching on their respective enclaves. But they have neither the means nor the will to expunge ISIS from the Sunni Arab heartlands of Iraq and Syria. In the stark sectarian aftermath of the Iraq War that Sanders rightly anticipated, those Sunnis simply don’t factor into the political programs of their better-organized neighbors. So for now they’re left with ISIS.
Even in the extremely unlikely event that an international coalition overcomes its internal contradictions and eradicates the Islamic State by force, there will always be some new force to fill that gaping political wound — just as ISIS is doing now, and just as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the broader Iraqi Sunni insurgency did before it. Before we know it, we’ll be back to debating just what new combination of airstrikes, ground troops, and arms shipments will fit the bill this time.
If Sanders had simply inveighed against America playing “world policeman,” or even explicitly endorsed leaving the region to its own devices, that might have sounded callous. But one could’ve read between the lines and perhaps found a reasonably compelling call for the United States to stop salting the wounds it opened in Iraq and beyond.
Yet that’s not what he did. In conceding demands for yet more airstrikes and arms shipments, Sanders called for an end to America’s “perpetual warfare in the Middle East” while simultaneously endorsing our participation in it.
In the end, Sanders’ approach to the “ISIS crisis” isn’t so different from Hillary Clinton’s — he just happened to vote against the war that sparked it. But here’s a clue for Bernie: If Hillary got it wrong about Iraq last time — and she did, catastrophically — there’s a good chance she’s getting it wrong now. That’s not the company you want to keep.
Actually solving the ISIS problem could prove remarkably vexing, given the incredible complexity of the Syrian civil war, the sectarian balance in Iraq, and the broader regional politics at play. But the main ingredient is simple enough: Both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border need political systems that make space for everyone who lives there — especially the Sunnis whose heartland ISIS has been gobbling up.
So forget military intervention: These are fundamentally diplomatic challenges. They may be tricky to execute, but given the guaranteed failure of perpetual war, the diplomatic route is the only viable one available. Taking it would let Sanders get back to the business he started in 2002 — making space between himself and Hillary Clinton on the Middle East.
In Iraq, that means negotiating greater political space for Sunnis in a Shiite-dominated establishment — a process that could entail making concessions to Iran (which is influential in Baghdad), conditioning all forms of U.S. assistance on political reforms, or even providing payouts to the Sunni tribes of the west that were virtually abandoned by the central government. An impending referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan could help impel some urgency along these lines, since Baghdad will be hard pressed to retake large cities like Mosul from ISIS without Kurdish help.
In Syria, it means negotiating a ceasefire at least between Assad and the more mainline Syrian rebels. Neither side has shown much interest in making the necessary concessions, but that’s because they can both count on the support of regional allies and funders to keep them fighting. So the first order of business has to be an international arms embargo on the parties fueling the war.
The U.S. has some leverage here if it wishes to use it: Washington has longstanding arms-peddling relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states; Turkey is a NATO ally; Russia shares an interest in combating Islamic extremism; and diplomatic relations are improving with Iran. Finally, Bernie says he’s proud of fighting the military-industrial complex, at least when they’re not building stuff in his state. So turning off the arms spigot from Washington should be plenty appealing to him.
All these things will take time — but perpetual war takes forever.
In the absence of a political solution, meanwhile, the one thing we can accomplish right now is to make life a little less miserable for the millions of innocent people impacted by the war. That means ramping up U.S. assistance for badly underfunded UN appeals to feed and protect the war’s refugees, and accepting many thousands more refugees here in the United States.
A Real Political Revolution
I understand that none of these ideas is sexy on the level of single-payer healthcare, free higher education, or taking America back from the billionaires. Those are worthy causes in their own right, and the voters fueling Sanders’ “revolution” respond well to them. If that’s where Bernie sees his path to the White House, fine.
But the fact is, the lives of millions of people in the Middle East ride on this election just as much as ours do — and perhaps more immediately. If there’s anything left of the Sanders who voted against this war in 2002 — and who preaches against perpetual war now — he’ll recognize that their fate is tied up inextricably with our own.
“As a caring nation,” Sanders said back then, “we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause.” And here let’s add a recent statement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who just announced plans to end Canada’s involvement in the ISIS air war: “The people terrorized by ISIS every day don’t need our vengeance. They need our help.”
It would be nice to hear some similar words from Sanders today — followed by a real plan to end the war he so presciently opposed. Because a real political revolution doesn’t just mean taking our economic policy back from the billionaires. It means taking our foreign policy back from the carpet bombers.