I know many of the Bernie Sanders supporters who follow me will probably object to this outright criticism of their favored politician. So here’s a bullet list that shows why my characterization of him as a supporter of U.S. imperialism is based off of facts and not mere rhetoric:
-Despite his having opposed the Iraq War and other conflicts, Sanders has a history of helping facilitate wars. He supported Clinton’s 1999 bombing of Yugolsavia, an action which Sanders’ own staffer Jeremy Brecher has described as morally indefensible; in his resignation letter, Brecher wrote: “While it has refused to send ground forces into Kosovo, the U.S. has also opposed and continues to oppose all alternatives that would provide immediate protection for the people of Kosovo by putting non- or partially NATO forces into Kosovo…The refusal of the U.S. to endorse such proposals strongly supports the hypothesis that the goal of U.S. policy is not to save the Kosovars from ongoing destruction.”
-This was no isolated incident. Sanders also supported the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, then backed Obama’s decision to prolong the Afghanistan war by keeping troops in the country in 2015. He’s voted for the 2001 Authorization Unilateral Military Force Against Terrorists act, which allowed Bush to wage war wherever he wanted. Sanders has also voted for a $1 billion 2014 aid package to the illegitimate and fascistic government that the U.S. installed in Ukraine in 2011, an action which reflects upon Sanders’ record of supporting other imperialist regime change efforts; in 1998, Sanders voted for the Iraq Liberation Act, which called for the U.S. to “support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” Later that year, Sanders supported a resolution which enabled the tightening of a sanctions program against Iraq which had killed as many as 500,000 Iraqi children.
-In many cases, Sanders has assisted in imperialism simply by enforcing the narratives used to carry it out. In 2016, Sanders called for ousting Assad based on the fraudulent narrative about Assad committing chemical attacks. This year, Sanders repeated the bogus narrative about how Maduro has rigged Venezuela’s elections, as well as endorsed the Trump administration’s underhanded effort to spark political violence in Venezuela by sending “humanitarian aid” to Venezuela’s border. On China, Sanders has attacked Joe Biden from the right by endorsing the nationalistic narrative that China is a threat to American workers. He’s repeated Trump’s line about Iran being a sponsor of terror. He’s also failed to challenge any of the “election hacking” propaganda that the U.S. has used to advance its cold war escalations against Russia.
But my concern is not centered around Bernie Sanders. He’s only one individual who’s part of a political faction which has a problem with supporting imperialism, and his largely pro-war record demonstrates this issue with the strain he represents.
This strain is collectively characterized as the social democrats, which Sanders is ideologically one of despite his label as a “democratic socialist.” The glaring historical problem with social democracy, aside from its consistent failure to actually put political power into the hands of the people, is its enablement of imperialism. American social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often point to the Scandanavian countries as examples of what we should emulate, but they never talk about how the wealth of these countries is largely generated through the historical and current exploitation of people in the global south.
The modern Scandanavian countries are built on the spoils of colonialism, and they continue to maintain their wealth through violent imperialist practices; countries like Norway and Sweden have companies which exploit workers in the developing world, protect Western imperialist interests like the territory around the Dakota Access pipeline, and supply security services to Israeli prisons and checkpoints. As the anti-imperialist columnist Carlos Cruz has written, “The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical.”
It matters that American social democrats don’t talk about Scandinavia’s imperialism, because this failure to articulate the reality of global imperialism makes it acceptable to ignore our country’s exploitative relationship with the world. The conversation takes on a limited nature, one which lets us only view history in a way that centers around the Anglo-European experience. Indeed, when mainstream progressive politicians like Sanders talk about foreign policy, they’re rarely if ever willing to use the term “imperialism,” much less to challenge the idea that America should try to dominate the world.
This is a remarkably widespread problem among the politicians who share Sanders’ brand; in last year’s elections, two thirds of the “progressive” Democratic congressional candidates were completely silent on foreign policy. As the Black Agenda Report’s Bruce Dixon has written about this fact: “Sometimes what you leave unsaid is more eloquent and damning than what you say. For 21 out of 31 so-called progressive Democratic candidates, the world outside the US, the American global empire, and the globally integrated capitalist economy either do not exist at all, or just don’t make their top ten or top twelve list of priority issues. How do we explain that?”
As a consequence of this silence on imperialism, these politicians only go so far as to sometimes oppose war while refusing to address the fundamental reasons why the U.S. constantly pursues war.
Sanders demonstrated this lack of opposition to empire among social democrats in a foreign policy speech from 2017, wherein he didn’t advocate for America to give up its role as the dominant imperialist power. Instead he essentially said that America should rule the world for good, calling for the U.S. to “champion the values of freedom, democracy and justice, values which have been a beacon of hope throughout the world.” It’s language like this that’s always used to make imperialist war sound good. And given Sanders’ repeated support for imperialist interventions like the one in Yugoslavia, as well as his reinforcement of the narratives which are being used to carry out violence against innocent people in Venezuela and Syria, it seems that this language is mainly a way to rebrand the existing paradigm of “humanitarian” regime change wars.
The words and actions of other major progressive politicians warrant similar concerns. This year, just days before the Trump administration set its attempted Venezuela coup in motion, Ocasio-Cortez and most other Democrats voted for the Support NATO Act, which declares that the president cannot use federal funds to withdraw from NATO; Warren has voted for Trump’s massive increases in the war budget, among other instances of her supporting imperialism; even the supposedly anti-imperialist Tulsi Gabbard doesn’t oppose the War on Terror, and her language about regime change wars fails to challenge the concepts which produce them. As the anti-war commentator Stephen Gowans has written about the troubling nature of Gabbard’s message:
Gabbard believes US interventions are motivated by humanitarian goals, but are misguided because they fail to achieve their humanitarian objectives. Presumably, she would favor any US intervention that lived up to the humanitarian ideals she believes undergird US foreign policy. It’s not imperialism or the international dictatorship of the United States she opposes — just US imperialism that produces outcomes that make the United States look bad.
You cannot turn US citizens away from policies that facilitate their country’s imperialism by reinforcing the myths that are used to justify them. Rather than challenging these myths, Gabbard accepts them, and offers, instead, an appeal to US citizens’ self-interest. The interventions are costly, she says, and cause harm to US military personnel.
These issues with the social democrats aren’t inconsequential nitpicks. They’re not things we should ignore for the sake of political convenience or politeness. They’re realities that must be addressed, because once one addresses them, one gains an expanded political perspective that lets us truly challenge America’s institutions of oppression and violence.
When it becomes apparent that the mainstream progressives who claim to oppose corporate power and imperialist war are really just seeking a reformed version of the system which enables these things, it also becomes clear that there’s no way we can vote our way out of this system. Defeating the system requires us to gain a sense of solidarity with the people who are suffering under the boot of imperialism, which requires the awareness that our job isn’t to reform capitalism by electing “progressive” politicians into a government that’s tied in with the military-industrial complex. Our job is to carry out strikes, blockades, and other civil disobedience which forces the state to give into our demand for the wars to end.
Article written by Rainer Shea. Follow him on Twitter: @rainer_shea