RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Weissman writes: "My bias is to back Bernie Sanders, warts and all. But, at the same time, I think we need to face up openly and honestly to Bernie's mixed record, especially on foreign policy."

Bernie Sanders announces his presidential campaign on April 30. (photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Bernie Sanders announces his presidential campaign on April 30. (photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Is Bernie Sanders an American Empire Denier?

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

26 September 15


hould progressives back Bernie Sanders even though he backs Israel against the Palestinians, US meddling in Ukraine, the new Cold War with Russia, and at least some US bombing of the Islamic State in Syria? Or should we maintain our anti-imperialist purity and stand aside? My bias is to back Bernie, warts and all. But, at the same time, I think we need to face up openly and honestly to Bernie’s mixed record, especially on foreign policy.

Few on the left have savaged that record more harshly or unfairly than journalist Chris Hedges, an ordained Presbyterian minister, who damns Bernie as not a true socialist, democratic or otherwise.

“You cannot be a socialist and an imperialist. You cannot, as Bernie Sanders has done, support the Obama administration's wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and be a socialist. You cannot, as Sanders has done, vote for every military appropriations bill, including every bill and resolution that empowers and sanctions Israel to carry out its slow-motion genocide of the Palestinian people, and be a socialist. And you cannot laud, as Sanders has done, military contractors because they bring jobs to your state.” 

Setting himself up as a one-man vanguard to define socialism on behalf of the benighted and brainwashed masses, Hedges preaches with the certainty of those who have seen the light and know the way to secular salvation, whether in Athens, Barcelona, or Peoria. But he loses himself in a sectarian wilderness, offering no way to get from where we are to where we want to go.

Welcome to the old-time religion. In nearly every American election, purists like Hedges push the left into the same sterile debate. Should we fight within the Democratic Party, where we will likely be co-opted? Or should we create a third party, where we will likely be ineffective? Both are usually dead ends, convincing many of us to put the majority of our energy into organizing and direct action outside the electoral and Congressional arena, as we did in the civil rights, free speech, and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

But that was then, this is now. Thanks primarily to the energy and common-sense proposals of Bernie Sanders, millions of Americans have opened their minds to the possibility of a democratic and egalitarian control of the economy, which is not a bad working definition of socialism for the 21st century. We need to talk to, work with, and learn from these Americans, and most of them will vote in the Democratic primaries.

This could pose a huge problem, as Hedges argues. But it does not have to. US politics is not a closed system, not with party primaries that can become hard-to-control free-for-alls. Just watch how Donald Trump and Ann Coulter are changing the conservative movement and Republican Party to take as their defining issue a nativist opposition to migrants. This Republican rebranding will likely continue even if Trump fails to win the nomination, Inshallah. Far worse, the anti-migrant and anti-Muslim wave will become even more dangerous if, as seems likely, the migrant crisis on this side of the Atlantic further strengthens Europe’s far right and neo-fascists. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Democratic Party can similarly change in a positive direction, but not if we join Hedges in the wilderness and refuse to take advantage of the opening that Bernie is helping to expand. Change will not be easy. It will be step-by-step, not a revolutionary flash. And the odds are very much stacked against us. But change can happen even in a party of militarists and imperialists.

One small example. In 1966, Ramparts editor Robert Scheer ran for Congress against a New Dealish incumbent who supported America’s war in Vietnam. Horror of horrors, Bob ran as a Democrat, and those of us at Berkeley who helped organize his unconventional campaign took a lot of guff. Our revenge was that Bob nearly won, leaving his political soul largely intact and opening the way for the extremely progressive Ron Dellums to win the seat in 1970. Feel free to chuckle that Hedges wrote his anti-Sanders screed for Truthdig, a website run by Scheer, whose views remain quite different from those of his colleague.

Rather than damning Sanders for being “a full-fledged member of the Democratic Caucus,” we need to understand why he and so many other self-identified liberals and socialists came to support the permanent war economy, the military-industrial complex, and the unending intervention in the affairs of other countries. The causes are deeply rooted in earlier failures of our capitalist economy coming out of World War II and how the first Cold War served as a response to them.

We clearly have a lot of re-education to do. But it suffices for now to recognize a simple fact of economic reality. While a militaristic and imperialistic government could once promise both guns and butter, those days are long gone. Now we have to choose between a warfare state and a welfare state, which Bernie has largely done. He has chosen to favor his domestic policies, where he is unquestionably a democratic socialist, though much less so than the British Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

What, then, of Bernie’s foreign policy? To be fair, which Hedges is not, Bernie opposed both the First Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and is generally dovish, seeing war as a last resort and a fatal threat to the domestic programs he wants to expand. He has also backed the path of diplomacy, supporting the nuclear deal with Iran. But, in his speeches and voting record, he has tended to back Obama and the idea that the US has a positive and humanitarian role to play by intervening, especially in the Middle East.

“I believe that the United States should have the strongest military in the world,” he told ABC’s Martha Raddatz. “We should be working with other countries in coalition. And when people threaten the United States or threaten our allies, or commit genocide, the United States, with other countries, should be prepared to act militarily."

Sadly, no serious presidential candidate could say less. But he could say more. He could speak out against America’s imperial policies, which increasing numbers of Americans now oppose. He could, but I doubt he will. Bernie prefers to ignore the American Empire and, in effect, deny that it even exists.

Our job as progressives is to make that difficult for him. Just as he pushes Hillary Clinton on environmental issues, we should push Bernie to openly confront the evils of empire. This is why we need to use the Democratic primaries rather than avoid them, and how we can use them to build an ongoing socialist movement that will become increasingly anti-imperialist. That, Rev. Hedges, is part of how we get from where we are to where we want to go.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner
Email This Page


THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.