Normally, I don’t run things from the mainstream American media… but this is important. Firstly, a voice at one of the major media outlets tells the truth… a vote for Chilly Hilly is a vote for war. It tells you much about the well-paid sorts who condescendingly lecture us about her… do note that they’re all above-average in income, most went to so-called “élite” colleges (especially nasty are those who went to the so-called “Ivy League”… their obvious patronising is clear to all), and none of them have children in the forces (their kids are special… let poor kids die in foreign parts for the benefit of the Affluent Effluent). Also note that the author comes out of one of the Ivies… this means that Hilly’s grip on the media and academe is slipping. Don’t let the caterwauling of the HillyBillys disconcert you. Hilly doesn’t have a solid lead… she has less than she did in ’08… but don’t argue with her besotted votaries. All that’ll happen is that they’d lecture you on how stupid you are (by extension, how much brighter they are than you are), if you’re lucky. Leave them be. We don’t need them. If you say nothing, you’ll have nothing to repent of… unlike them. They defend evil and an evil person… reflect on that.
I’ll leave you with one observation… the HillyBillys adulate a person who applauded the Easter Bombing of Belgrade… need I say more?
Intervention is the central question of American foreign policy. When, where, and how should the USA project power abroad? Our answers help shape the world. Naturally, debate over intervention become part of this season’s presidential campaign. Most candidates sing from the same foreign policy hymnal. They share deeply ingrained assumptions… the USA is the indispensable nation that must lead the world; this leadership requires toughness; and toughness is best demonstrated by the threat or use of force. It is the Cold War consensus, untouched by the 21st century.
Only one of the remaining candidates broke with this orthodoxy. Often, people say that Bernie Sanders lacks experience in world affairs. Certainly, he spent far fewer hours thinking about global issues than his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Yet, recently, he found a theme… the long-term effects of intervention. Rather than cheer every show of American force, Sanders reminds us of the parlous consequences of past assaults on other countries. This is a sharp break from our foreign policy catechism. Yet, it’s hardly new. Ever since the USA began intervening abroad more than a century ago, loud voices raised up dissent. Today’s protesters against foreign intervention aren’t a marginal fringe… “wacko birds,” as John McCain famously called them. They’re deeply rooted in American politics. Unfortunately for Sanders, history shows that voters usually reject them in the end.
Sanders doesn’t simply censure American intervention as a vague or abstract concept. He singled out several of the most misbegotten CIA operations, including the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, the next year’s overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and the Contra war in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Moving to more recent history, he criticised Clinton for promoting intervention against Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011… a project that now seems disastrously misconceived. Clinton proudly claims her place in the interventionist mainstream, as do all the Republican presidential candidates… including Donald Trump, who remains an unapologetic champion of raw power despite some unorthodox views . Only Sanders is truly sceptical of what American intervention can accomplish. He shows himself to be just as far outside the Washington consensus on foreign policy as he is on domestic policy.
By rejecting the interventionist model, Sanders places himself in a rich American tradition. It dates back to the movement against American annexation of the Philippines in 1898-99. Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts thundered, “You have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good!” Mark Twain lamented that American leaders “invited our clean young men to shoulder a discredited musket and do bandit’s work”. These anti-imperialists, as they were then called, lost their battle by excruciatingly narrow margins. The Senate ratified the treaty by which the USA annexed the Philippines and other island territories with only one vote more than the required two-thirds margin. The US Supreme Court upheld it in a 5-to-4 decision. Yet, close as it was, victory for the interventionists was clear.
The tide of American intervention reached a peak with Woodrow Wilson, who promised to stop invading Latin America when its people learned “to elect good men”. It receded under the conservative Republicans who followed him. President Herbert Hoover, who’d lived and worked in a dozen countries, gave Americans unwelcome news… “In a large part of the world” people see the USA as “a new imperial power intent upon dominating the destinies and freedoms of other people”. After World War II, most Americans embraced the Cold War narrative, but rebels arose from both ends of the political spectrum. Henry Wallace, a liberal Democrat, and Robert Taft, a conservative Republican, ran for president on platforms urging a more modest foreign policy… what some called “isolationism.” Candidates from the interventionist mainstream trounced both of them.
That same mainstream punished Senator George McGovern for his audacious break from political orthodoxy during the 1972 presidential campaign. McGovern lost 49 states after pledging, “Never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad”. Other heretics, notably Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, also failed to persuade voters that American interventions often do more harm than good. Sanders is this generation’s embodiment of rebellion against foreign policy dogma. He sees much of America’s trouble in the world as the result of our own shortsighted interventions. It’s a trenchant insight. History suggests, however, that it makes bad politics. Americans prefer action, not reflection. We favour leaders who promise total victory, not those who urge restraint and warn of long-term dangers. We cling to the belief that the USA should, can, and must guide the world. Candidates who tell us otherwise rarely thrive.
19 March 2016
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International Studies
Brown University (Providence RI USA)