Did dodging foreign policy doom Bernie Sanders?

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For a few magic weeks, Bernie Sanders was taken seriously as a presidential candidate with a chance to win – a huge watershed for a self-avowed socialist. But after falling short (even if slightly) in Iowa and Nevada, and with no friendly states on the horizon, Sanders is back in protest candidacy territory.

Could taking on Hillary Clinton’s warlike foreign policy, which Sanders stubbornly refused to do, have changed the game?

Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Sanders’s avoidance of racial justice issues says a lot about “how the left prioritizes its various radicalisms.” (It astounded me that a progressive would launch a presidential campaign in April 2015 without one reference to Black Lives Matter, the year’s most animating issue on the left.) The same can be said of Sanders’s refusal to seriously critique Hillary’s hawkishness, or her support for Israel.

Though Sanders opposed both Iraq invasions and has a clearly dovish record (except, of course, on Israel), his campaign is a potential setback to the movement to stop America’s repeated drift toward war in the Middle East. His success suggests that war and Palestine aren’t vital issues to the left, and that a progressive challenge can thrive while avoiding them entirely.

Sanders’s campaign removed antiwar expression from the 2016 election (aside from Donald Trump) and is letting neocons maintain the fiction that opposing militarism is politically costly. Which is how they stay in power under both parties.

It’s true domestic issues were central to the Sanders campaign, and are the main concern for voters in general. But was it really so politically smart to reject the energy that Sanders could have harnessed from antiwar activists? Iowa Democrats are very dovish (they were big Nuclear Freeze supporters back in the day, and opposed the contras and war with Iraq). Bernie lost by a hair there (which has made all the difference); almost anything would have put him over the top.

When Hillary harshly and unfairly attacked Bernie for wanting normalization with Iran (doesn’t Obama want this too?) I optimistically thought it would force the issue. Her charge that Sanders would bring Iranian troops to “Israel’s doorstep” was an ugly pander, if consistent. Now it’s on, I thought, he’ll have to reply. But Bernie ducked. He just ignored it. He’ll mention his Iraq opposition when asked in a debate or on the shows, but this discussion was obviously the last thing he wanted.

That’s too bad: Bernie could have used Hillary’s Israel-and-Iran-baiting to illustrate his core message about how money corrupts politics – for example, the $25 million Hillary’s Clinton Foundation has taken from the Saudi butchers, or her campaign money from megadonor Haim Saban.

It’s a more-than-curious blind spot (oh, who am I kidding? It’s depressingly predictable) that Mr. Money Corrupts has nothing to say about AIPAC’s donor-funded chokehold on the entire U.S. Congress.

And it’s predictable that so many people who reject Hillary’s “pragmatism” in favor of Bernie’s “why not?” will say he has no choice but to support Israel. (Coates observes the same phenomenon in Sanders supporters who are unconcerned about barriers to passing single-payer healthcare or a $1 trillion jobs program, but who become sudden realists about African-American reparations.)

Yes, it was inspiring when Sanders called out Hillary’s friendship with Henry Kissinger and referenced the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. And it’s great he can point to his 2002 vote against the Iraq war. But none of that can substitute for a forward-looking vision arguing against the bipartisan war machine. Just as it shows when it replies to racial justice critics with ‘60s photos, the Sanders campaign hasn’t processed that elections are always about the future.

Sanders said nothing when Clinton promised to “take the US-Israel relationship to the next level.” (Meaning what, blasting kids off the beach for them? What more could we do?) With no pressure from anyone, Clinton is completely free to propound a pro-war message that makes her donors happy and that neocon pundits pretend is a general election asset. (Trump may prove them wrong – and how amazing is it that in 2016 the Republicans are going to nominate a candidate who opposed the Iraq war while the Democrats will pick one who voted for it?)

It may have made Bernie supporters angry when Hillary’s Nevada victory speech copied their candidate’s message points, but it shows their victory. Like Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Sanders will go on until the convention: he’s got plenty of money, passionate supporters, a good chance for victories in places like Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon, and he can pick up delegates everywhere. Hillary will still have to debate him, he can influence the party platform, and he’ll give a big convention speech passionately endorsing Hillary. (Then he’ll become a fundraising powerhouse for progressive candidates and causes.)

But Sanders won’t be president, so his potential evolution in office can’t help stop the next Middle East war. To do that, it’ll be necessary to challenge and defeat pro-war candidates at the House and Senate level.

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How much in percentages of the voters view foreign policy as equal or more important than domestic policies of the country? Even then, how many from this minute group of individuals would seriously view Clinton’s or anyone else’s interventionist and pro-war FP as potentially better than Bernie’s pro-diplomacy and anti-aggression stance? A few hundred, even using the most conservative estimate? I honestly cannot see how these folks can in any meaningful measure contributed to Bernie’s… Read more »

Maybe it’s not so smart to avoid the central issue of our time: Boycotting Israel, stopping the trillion-dollar genocide against Arabs, and investing that trillion into rebuilding the inner cities instead. Here’s some evidence for that: divestment resolutions are winning and “Israel” is losing, at the University of Minnesota, and at the University of South Florida: “Students call for U to divest” Feb. 16, 2016 At: http://www.mndaily.com/news/campus/2016/02/16/students-call-u-divest “U should listen to divestment calls” by the… Read more »

I think the anti War Left is full of it. As soon as W left the scene and their crown prince Obama came to power, they lost concern for war and our neocon driven foreign policy. How else can you explain the silence from the Left in regards to our meddling in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc.? The true anti War mantle was carried not by a Leftist but by a libertarian named Ron Paul.… Read more »

I agree. Sanders is not going to be President. So these discussions are somewhat moot. But just for the record: people like to refer to Sanders vote against the Iraq war as some kind of testament to his anti-war credentials. Jeffrey St. Clair points out Sanders hypocrisy on Iraq in the attached article. http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/02/16/blood-traces-bernies-iraq-war-hypocrisy/ In fact, Sanders is a strong supporter of U.S. Imperialism and his record is anything but anti-war overall. He recently endorsed… Read more »

I’m concerned about the direction this piece took on Sanders. More than that, it’s been concerning that Sanders continues to be criticized more than Hillary. In his long career, Sanders has done more to highlight issues of systemic racism. Hillary and her husband were responsible for expanding and sustaining the prison industrial complex. Though Hillary says that she is dedicated to dismantling the prison system, Sanders really means it. Coates might have mentioned that.