After three generations the anti-war tendency within America’s oldest political party has been thoroughly alienated from its leadership and rendered impotent. The absence of this political failsafe means that America’s destructive overseas interventionism is less accountable than ever.
As the 1968 presidential election cycle kicked off there was little reason to suspect that Lyndon Johnson would not continue to serve as president. He had succeeded to the office following the much loved and mourned John F. Kennedy after his assassination in 1963 and won in such a landslide in 1964 that he was immediately able to undertake a raft of ambitious new programs known as the Great Society.
Johnson also shepherded the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress. His legacy could have been, deservingly or not, that of a titan of the American liberal ideal as happened with his predecessors Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. But in the presidential primaries, Johnson was challenged by a critic of the Vietnam War, Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. McCarthy’s strong showing in the New Hampshire primary prompted Johnson to drop out of the race owing to the fatigue of running the nation, the war in Indochina, and what promised, potentially, to be a long and grueling primary campaign.
The Democratic Party of the day was simultaneously responsible for deploying troops in Vietnam as well as being the primary mainstream hotbed of anti-war political activity. Among Republicans the noninterventionist tendency had died out in the 1940s as it was identified with isolationists like Charles Lindbergh, meaning that the political establishment of both parties was committed to what Pentagon and intelligence community insiders were telling them to do.
This policy, known as “containment,” held that the western powers needed to fight Communism on the battlefields of Third World nations in order to prevent Soviet encirclement and domination. McCarthy and fellow anti-war candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy helped to mobilize what could have been a populist revolution that would have ended the conflict shortly afterward.
Unfortunately, RFK was assassinated at a critical moment. Eventually, through its internal processes, the Democrats nominated a consensus candidate, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey rather than any of the candidates who had campaigned in the primaries. But Humphrey failed to unite the party’s centrists with the right-wing southern Democrats who supported third-party candidate George Wallace, and Republican Richard Nixon was able to win a narrow victory. This election defeat would lead the Democratic Party leadership to realize that it had to make choices about civil rights policy or else it would forever be divided and confused. Within the next decade, the old Southern Democrats would gradually fade away, moving the party further leftward on all domestic matters.
What the Democrats never quite sorted out was a consistent approach to war and peace.
Traditionally, Democrats campaign at different levels of government on reining in defense spending and promoting diplomacy rather than military adventurism. This process has been, with variations, the template for how the activist base of the Left is ginned up and eventually betrayed as the party seeks to preserve its hold on power.
It was the 1970s that may have scared Democrat politicians away from taking an explicit and consistent stance against U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts. In 1972 their nominee was Senator George McGovern, a darling of the Left thanks to his promise to end the Vietnam War, legalize narcotics, and offer a $1,000 “demogrant” that was a precursor to universal basic income. But his campaign was ditched by the party establishment and unions who ran away from what they considered a fringe platform. Richard Nixon then won an historic Electoral College victory of 520-17.
In 1976, Democrats reclaimed the White House after Watergate by running a religious peanut farmer and governor from Georgia named Jimmy Carter. Carter’s inexperience on foreign policy made him less of a challenge to the two-party establishment than McGovern who did not even have an official advisor for foreign policy during his campaign. Meanwhile Carter had been “tutored” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish-American security strategist who had served under Johnson as a consultant. During Carter’s term in office, the United States engaged in the “Helsinki Process” of attempting to use human rights advocacy to push for change within the USSR and Eastern Europe. It was a middle ground strategy between the confrontational tactics of JFK and LBJ and the more pragmatic chess-game approach of detente favored by Nixon and Gerald Ford’s key strategist, Henry Kissinger.
As events would show, however, there is no sweet spot between being an interventionist and noninterventionist. Under Carter, several foreign policy defeats gave rise to the impression that the Soviets were gaining ground while the United States was losing: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Carter-Torrijos Treaty that guaranteed that the United States would cede the Panama Canal back to local control by 1999. It was the ensuing Iranian Hostage Crisis that led to Carter’s presidency falling apart and the Ronald Reagan victory in 1980.
Strangely, since then mainstream Democratic foreign policy within the White House has mostly conformed to the principles established during the failed Carter presidency. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have always included a faction that explicitly has called for dismantling the national security state and its abusive appendages. In 1975, Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) began select committee hearings into abuses carried out by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and IRS prompted by the reporting of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. The revelations of wiretapping, mail opening, attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, and other illegal or extra-legal activities tarnished the reputation of all of these agencies, particularly the CIA.
The revelations were often compiled in internal memos known as the “family jewels” that addressed CIA activities beyond its original charter. The Church Committee and parallel investigations by the House and the Ford Administration led to one limited reform: Executive Order 11905 that forbade any U.S. government employee to “engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” But other abuses covered by the committee such as illegal surveillance were only addressed through fig leaf measures such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 which created the now-infamous FISA courts.
The Reagan Drought
The public face of the Democratic Party typically has been one of opposing America’s tendencies towards military adventures abroad by championing multilateral diplomacy and the avoidance of direct deployments in warzones, and there was even bipartisan cooperation on such initiatives. In the 1970s the party’s future seemed to be moving further away from interventionism. Church introduced two amendments co-sponsored with GOP colleagues that led to the final disengagement of U.S. forces from Cambodia and Indochina as a whole. His colleague from Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska) in 1971 read the Pentagon Papers leaked by Daniel Ellsberg into the congressional record, which was crucial to showing to the general public that the Defense Department had been lying to Americans about the efficiency of the war effort in Vietnam.
But by the end of the decade, the state of American standing overseas had eroded under Carter, thereby sticking the party with a reputation for weakness and appeasement of Soviet aggression. Moreover, within the Democratic leadership, there was a counterweight to the antiwar faction centered around Senator Henry Jackson (D-Wash.). Many of the figures within this group became the “neo-conservatives,” liberals, and even some leftists who felt that the United States needed to be aggressive in halting the spread of Communism. Many of the central figures in this group began to desert the Democrats with the McGovern campaign.
Neoconservatives exhibited notable differences from the rest of the Democratic Party in their support for the following ideas:
- A more robust national security state including nuclear, conventional, and intelligence branches.
- Willingness to give aid either openly or covertly to authoritarian allies overseas like the Shah of Iran and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire in order to prevent the spread of Communism in the Third World.
- Subversion of Soviet-aligned regimes through material aid and training to insurgent groups like the Contras in Nicaragua and the Mujahideen of Afghanistan.
Neoconservatism is also, as the name suggests, less inclined to embrace liberal social and economic policies at home, but adherents are usually more receptive to elements of the welfare state than libertarians or paleoconservatives.
The Carter era led to the exodus of this group of centrist Democrats from the party and helped build the majority that swept Ronald Reagan into power. But it wasn’t only President Carter who lost his job in 1980. In the Senate, Democrats lost a staggering 12 seats, including the standard-bearers of the anti-war Left such as Gravel, Church, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and even George McGovern himself. The party’s center and right-wing candidates also were wiped out, as the GOP captured seats in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and North Carolina.
In the House a similar shift had the Democrats lose 34 seats although they retained a comfortable majority. Among those losing their seats was Democrat Lionel Van Deerlin of San Diego, who years later would bitterly remark on his GOP successor, Duncan Hunter: “I don’t say this in an unfriendly way. He is for anything that the Pentagon wants and lots more besides.”
Golden Globes for Warmongers
As Reagan took office many Democrats figured that rather than get run over by the neocon bus they ought just to ride it.
In one of the most egregious cases, a CIA officer lobbied Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) directly for funds to help sustain Afghan insurgents fighting their nation’s Soviet-backed regime. Wilson’s congressional career was colored by personal indulgences including drinking, drug use, and womanizing. U.S. involvement in this effort later generated more hostile offshoots of the Mujahideen such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and the methods used by Wilson to leverage votes for the military aid often pushed the boundaries of ethical and legal conduct. Nevertheless, Wilson was rewarded in 2003 with a fawning book documenting his activities, and a blockbuster docudrama in 2007 written by Aaron Sorkin with a Hollywood superstar ensemble cast fronted by Tom Hanks.
Wilson’s record and behavior was unusually obnoxious but not out of character for other Democrats who were not afraid to mix their legislative role with influence peddling for interests overseas. Congressional support for military aid to Israel has been a bipartisan endeavor since the late 1960s, and engenders much anger among noninterventionists and Israel opponents, as well as pro-Israel hardliners who see it as limiting the scope of action of Israel in conflicts with the Palestinians and other neighbors. But aside from that well-known and controversial example are others that have received less attention.
In 1974 the “Koreagate” scandal broke out, largely overshadowed by the much more well-known Watergate saga. Ten Democratic members of Congress were suspected of receiving gifts, including bribes of $273,000 for Rep. Otto Passman (D-La.) and $200,000 for Rep. Richard Hanna (D-Calif.), from businessman Tongsun Park who was acting as an intermediary for the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). The motive for this scheme was to coax these congressmen into opposing President Nixon’s plans to withdraw troops from the Korean Peninsula as well as other personal incentives for Park. Of those implicated in Koreagate only Hanna ever served time in prison.
Pigeons in Hawk’s Clothing
With Reagan in office, much of the Democratic Party focused on stifling his domestic agenda, while objecting to only some elements of his interventionist foreign policy such as aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. Ironically, Democratic leaders in Congress fumed and sputtered over Iran-Contra for illegally facilitating the same type of activity that they were directly authorizing through Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan.
The Democrats were careful during that era to criticize Reagan’s methods and at the same time not appear to be butterfaced pushovers, but it didn’t work. In 1984 the Democratic primaries included a wealth of choices. One of them, former Vice President Walter Mondale, was the standard northern establishment union Democrat. His main challenger was Colorado Senator Gary Hart, a former McGovern protégé. Hart had known that his lack of any military record would hurt his chances in an era when World War II and Korea veterans were still a major portion of the electorate, so in 1980 he enrolled in a U.S. Navy program specifically crafted for someone like him who had exceeded the age of enlistment.
Most of the other candidates had prior military records including Ohio’s Senator John Glenn, who had a stellar career as a military pilot and astronaut. Only Jesse Jackson, who was attempting to run a campaign geared to a much more progressive message including a nuclear freeze and recognition of a Palestinian state, had no military record and cultivated an antiwar image. Mondale, the standard-bearer of the establishment, was able to win following a long and bruising primary in which the party was shown to be clearly divided. He was then annihilated in the November general election in what was, at the time, the second greatest victory in terms of both popular and electoral vote for Reagan.
The 1988 contest was not much better with Jackson, Hart, and others eventually being bested in the primary by the uninspiring governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis. This choice, of a stoic and diminutive politician with no foreign policy experience and a military career limited to administrative duties, was seen as a vulnerability by his campaign. His running mate Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) was considered more similar in both temperament and policy to Bush than to him.
Dukakis was convinced to tour a defense contractor’s facility on the campaign trail and ride in a tank, but the image as captured in both news photos and video footage showed a man so out of place that it became instantly an exercise in self-parody. There was no way that Dukakis could compete in terms of defense knowledge with his opponent Vice President George Bush, who was a World War II naval aviator and former CIA director. The ensuing thrashing would be yet another humiliation for a Democratic Party that was losing relevance by alienating its more progressive base while poorly attempting to compete with the Republicans on security and defense.
But events would allow for these weaknesses to fade as different challenges arose.
Opportunity Springs from the “End of History”
Unbeknownst to both Bush and Dukakis, the 1988 election cycle would be the last one of the Cold War era. Whatever one’s opinion of Reagan and his neocon advisors like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Paul Wolfowitz, boosted defense spending and the resultant arms race had broken the backs of the Soviet bloc nations economically. In 1989 the different eastern European governments under Moscow’s thumb gradually fell apart, starting first in August with Poland and culminating in November when the Berlin Wall came down, beginning the process of German reunification. Throughout Bush’s term, the world seemed to change almost through inertia, and by 1991 the USSR had dissolved.
But these changes would render the GOP’s platform obsolete. Many conservatives felt betrayed by Bush’s reversal of the “Read my lips, no new taxes” vow, his statement about using the Persian Gulf crisis to usher in a “New World Order,” and other signs that the neocon Right was just as dangerous as the liberal and progressive Left. In 1992 he was challenged strongly as an incumbent by the paleoconservative wing of his party as represented by Patrick Buchanan, who claimed that now was the time to cut taxes, spending, and immigration. This new “America First” agenda created a major split among the Republicans.
As he ran for reelection, Bush was clearly showing himself to be out of touch as he struggled to ward off the challenge not only of Democrat Bill Clinton—then an almost-unknown governor from Arkansas—but also the populist independent, Ross Perot. Clinton’s eventual victory in large part was a result of Americans’ desire to move away from the 50 years of focus on foreign affairs and security in favor of devoting some attention to domestic issues. “It’s the economy, stupid,” coined by Clinton’s campaign spin doctor, James Carville, became the key phrase that signaled a shift in priorities. Other elements of the race had nothing to do with policy: Clinton was almost 30 years younger than Bush, and younger voters were ready for the jovial, fun-loving, McDonald’s eating and saxophone playing southerner as opposed to the patrician incumbent.
Clinton would take office with America embarking on a new postwar path, but his actions would prove that dismantling the national security state and its international partnerships was much harder than creating it.
The Decoy Party
The new Democratic Party had no cohesive war and peace agenda; it preferred to run on charisma, easily marketed slogans, and youthful vigor. In the primaries, the topic of national security and defense was much more muted. This meant that Clinton and top rivals like former California Governor Jerry Brown and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas were able to run without the stigma of being non-veterans. Clinton’s status as a draft dodger, Vietnam War opponent, and McGovern supporter were topics of discussion during the campaign, but the younger optimistic Generation X and Baby Boomer voters cared much less than their elders did about these issues.
Once in office, however, the mercurial Clinton confounded the antiwar Left by supporting such policies as NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, intervention in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, and regime change in Haiti. One area where Clinton departed from his predecessors was defense spending, which hovered around $300 billion during his tenure, whereas both Reagan and Bush had consciously doubled it over the 12 years they had been in office. He also successfully negotiated peace agreements for Northern Ireland and Bosnia, and created a framework—so far unsuccessful—for getting a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Clinton in 1996 and 1998 authorized limited strikes on Iraq in response to Saddam Hussein’s campaign against Kurdish rebels and his non-compliance with U.N. resolutions for disarming his weapons of mass destruction. But whereas during his youth protestors had burned draft notices, marched across the country, and rioted in Chicago in order to end the Vietnam War, Clinton’s interventions were confronted with puny isolated demonstrations in select locations. Operation Desert Strike, which occurred in September 1996 during the last two months of his reelection campaign, elicited no noticeable response. After years of hibernation, the anti-war Democrats were nowhere to be seen, while the grassroots antiwar movement was barely even registering a pulse.
The narcoleptic response of actual figures within the anti-war Left to Clinton’s overseas adventures extended even to Noam Chomsky, who for many years seemed to enjoy a kind of papal infallibility in such circles. In a 1998 interview with an Italian journalist, Chomsky equivocated on why Clinton was moving to bomb Iraq, and spoke in generalities about the injustice of the United States acting to enforce U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The reason that there was such a lackluster effort, in part, was due to the Democrats’ commitment to multilateralism. Rather than an American response to the Balkan wars, Clinton made it into a NATO cooperative peacekeeping mission. Other such efforts in the Congo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and elsewhere had the blessing of the United States, but were undertaken through the U.N. and staffed by other nations’ troops.
This strategy spread the burden across many nations and made it more palatable to those of a liberal mentality concerned that America was using its status as the last world power to bully the world into submission. But the approach also made it more convenient for the president to engage in war without Congress’s authorization.
Operation Deny Flight (1993) was authorized through a U.N. request for NATO to enforce a No-Fly Zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Operation Noble Anvil, the 1999 U.S. air campaign against Yugoslavia to force it to withdraw from Kosovo, was authorized by NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. The latter operation included strikes on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and Radio Television Serbia that had no military significance. Just two weeks prior to the RTS airstrike NATO’s spokesperson Air Comm. David Wilby denounced it for broadcasting Serb nationalist propaganda, but Amnesty International as well as journalistic advocacy unions and guilds cried foul over the marking of a civilian media outlet as a military target.
Using American power cloaked in the mandates of multinational military alliances was a creative reuse of Cold War institutions to justify policies that Clinton could not have sold to mainstream liberals as unilateral decisions by the United States. The deployments that occurred under him had no connection to protecting American national security. Moreover, the notion that a liberal multinational rules-based order would further world peace had been a Cold War strategy starting under Pres. Harry Truman and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. NATO and the successful defense of Europe from Soviet encroachment are generally held up as the success story to follow. Never mentioned are the failed Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), both formed in the 1950s, that were defunct by the 1970s when member states decided that they did not have enough of a common strategic interest to justify the existence of such an alliance.
Clinton ordered the Kosovo air campaign despite lukewarm support at home. There was a small group of lawmakers who argued steadfastly against the Kosovo campaign, including Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas). Ultimately the Senate passed the resolution agreeing to authorize the use of military force while the House notably deadlocked, thereby denying Clinton proper approval for the airstrikes. In response to Clinton’s decision to deploy anyway, the ACLU declared that he was in violation of the Constitution and War Powers Act. But as during the Bosnia engagement, there was almost no popular momentum behind this opposition.
Certainly part of the reason Kosovo was shrugged off had to do with the low American casualties, which were limited to two helicopter pilots killed in an accident and three soldiers captured on patrol. This would prove to be an anomaly as a much wider conflict broke out less than a year after Clinton left office.
Bush and the Resurrection
On September 11, 2001, America, for the first time since Pearl Harbor, was confronted with a major hostile act of violence from a foreign adversary on its territory. As Al-Qaeda claimed credit for the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it was decided within three days by Congress to authorize the use of military force (AUMF) against the perpetrators. This vote passed by a 421-1 margin in the House and 98-0 in the Senate, with only Rep. Barbara Lee voting “no.”
The events from earlier that week, fresh in the minds of every living American as perhaps the most traumatic since the JFK assassination, had given way to a vague and indirect AUMF that specified no country. By October 7, American forces had invaded Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda’s central leadership was garrisoned as guests and allies of the nation’s Islamist government known as the Taliban. In response to the USA Patriot Act, which empowered America’s intelligence agencies and new homeland security bodies beyond the levels imagined in the Vietnam era, 145 Democrats in the House voted “yes,” including future caucus leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.). In the Senate, only Russ Feingold of Minnesota voted against this egregious rollback of Fourth Amendment protections. No single piece of legislation better illustrated how far Congress and the political system had departed from the Church Committee resolutions concerning abuse of power by the intelligence community.
In response to the outbreak of war, a new organization was formed called ANSWER made up of activists from existing far-Left organizations. Mainstream liberals were reluctant initially to support anti-war protests due to the mood of the country following 9/11. Had President George W. Bush focused on the fight with al-Qaeda perhaps it would have remained that way. Instead, he and his cabinet of neoconservatives ginned up sketchy evidence of weapons of mass destruction being concealed by Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Taking a page out of Clinton’s book, Bush also roped in a “Coalition of the Willing” consisting of nations ranging from Great Britain to El Salvador and Honduras. Fully complicit in Bush’s bad faith case for a preemptive strike were not only political conservatives but ideological liberals and leftists, foremost among them UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party. Peter Mandelson, one of Blair’s top lieutenants even accused the anti-war element of the party of opposing the invasion because they wanted the party to fail. France’s Jacques Chirac, a nominal conservative, was accused of cowardice and corruption for opposing the invasion.
In the United States if the Democrats had held the line and voted no on the AUMF against Iraq on October 10, 2002, it would have failed in the House as not enough Republicans supported it. Yet 81 Democrats crossed the floor to vote “Yea.” Among those who continued in the party leadership were Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who is now a U.S, senator. In the Senate 29 Democrats voted for the resolution as opposed to 21 against.
While only 38 percent of Democrats supported the Iraq War immediately beforehand according to Gallup, party higher-ups like then Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Joe Biden (D-Del.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) gave it the green light.
Protests against the upcoming war reached a crescendo in February 2003. As a political gamble, it had mixed results as voters were to find out in 2004. Of the candidates standing, many of the favorites supported the war, including Gephardt, Kerry, John Edwards (D-N.C.), and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). Of those who did not, only Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and General Wesley Clark were able to mount serious challenges. Moreover, the inclusion of unbound “superdelegates” gave a clear edge to Kerry, who would coast to the nomination while losing only four states.
The candidacy of John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards would illustrate just how detached the Democratic Party was becoming from its voting base with regard to war and peace. While anti-war activists like Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon backed him and urged independent candidate Ralph Nader to drop out, Kerry and his minions were having to explain why he was now against a war that he had voted for. One of the arguments Kerry advanced was that Bush had failed to secure enough international support for invading Iraq resulting in only the UK and Australia joining in the invasion, to which the president responded that Kerry had forgotten Poland. Absent from the debate was a point where the Democrat demanded from Bush the hard evidence to show that Iraq had WMDs.
Kerry would continue to weave fables for many years over his supposed opposition to invasion, including in a 2013 interview with Chris Hayes. But the voters saw through it and in 2004 voted for the genuine war candidate, Bush, over the shy one, Kerry, by more than 3 million votes. Beyond that, Kerry’s stuffy demeanour, eastern liberal roots, and patrician similarities to Bush made it so only very partisan voters could look at him as a true alternative. Democrats would soon choose a candidate with the charisma to make his military interventions into a side issue.
Hope and Same
No presidential candidate has ever campaigned with as strong a momentum boost as Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but one of the least emphasized aspects of his success was the fact that he entered the national conversation at the best time possible. In 2004 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois by a landslide, thanks to his GOP opponent being forced to withdraw due to a messy divorce. Obama’s strength was his charm and relatability for Americans well beyond any racial or religious sector, even as supporters and the media-hyped his black identity as a sign of progress.
For many progressive Democrats, however, Obama’s statements on Iraq were a major selling point. By 2006 the Iraq War’s popularity had tanked and would remain at roughly a 36 percent for and 62 percent against for the remainder of Bush’s presidency. Most of Obama’s competition in the 2008 primary had supported the war through their public voting records including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and John Edwards. The other anti-war candidates such as Mike Gravel and Dennis Kucinich were older and lacked any momentum or establishment support.
But as often happens when the public is given a choice, they fall for the one that offers more style than substance. This was one factor among many that helped Obama beat the Clinton machine in early states like Iowa and South Carolina. But once he had it wrapped up, war opponents immediately should have smelled a rat. Obama selected Joe Biden, a member of the party’s center and supporter of both the Iraq AUMF and Patriot Act, as his vice presidential nominee. Once he was elected Obama immediately twisted the knife further by nominating Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates to continue in office and keep troops in Iraq throughout most of his first term. He also appointed Clinton as his secretary of state.
Obama’s interventionism had one major difference from Bush’s, which was the avoidance of committing troops to combat, or “boots on the ground” as it is euphemistically called. While this approach favoring drone strikes, clandestine activities, and proxy warfare minimizes exposure of U.S. military personnel, it is nevertheless the same level of intervention. The concept of “blowback,” referring to the unintended consequences of overseas intervention, referred not to any American military campaign but rather to clandestine regime change as had happened in 1953 in Iran through the CIA. While Obama was reluctant to actively involve the U.S. military apart from airstrikes and drone attacks in those interventions, he was simultaneously implementing the same policy as his predecessors in Syria and Libya, including directly arming or funding groups that supported jihadist ideology.
It is often mentioned that Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize barely nine months into his tenure, but over the course of two terms he would demonstrate that peacemaking was not his strong suit. He arrived at this undesirable juncture thanks to a toxic combination:
- The multilateralist interventionism of Clinton.
- Preserving the surveillance state and military-industrial complex expansion of Bush.
- A more forgiving approach from the media than either of his predecessors could ever hope for.
Ultimately the legacy of Obama would include the bloody Arab Spring and associated conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Libya. All had varying degrees of American meddling, and yet Obama was able to avoid much of the popular outrage that had devastated Bush’s popularity. Several factors were crucial to this, but none more so than the media’s early embrace of him. According to Pew Research Obama’s 2008 press coverage was significantly higher than either Bush’s in 2000 or Kerry’s in 2004. This was further validated in 2009 when a survey by Pew of Obama’s First 100 Days of Press showed that it was substantially more positive than either Bush or Clinton despite a sluggish response to such crises as the Great Recession and a major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The lack of real criticism allowed Obama to renege on many commitments that he had made by renewing the Patriot Act in 2010, prosecuting whistleblowers like Bradley/Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou, and support an Afghanistan troop surge that by 2012 the military admitted had failed to change the security situation for the better.
By 2013, well into Obama’s second term, one person within the intelligence community became so fed up with the double-speak concerning abuses of power by the government that he leaked a treasure trove of information that blew apart the president’s image as the anti-war candidate. Edward Snowden, contracting for the National Security Agency (NSA) through Booz Allen Hamilton, dumped the information to journalists from the Guardian and the Washington Post in response to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lying under oath about the collection of data by his agency during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
Adding to the disillusionment with Obama by Glenn Greenwald and other critics of his interventionism on the Left was the obvious reality that his policies had failed consistently. Russia had successfully seized Crimea and encroached on Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin successfully staring down Obama every step of the way. Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq had emboldened not only Iran but also led to the rise of ISIS augmenting a worldwide refugee crisis and waves of Islamist terror. Obama had succeeded in creating blowback within his own time in office.
By the end of 2016, Obama enjoyed his highest levels of public approval while paradoxically being tagged by the liberal press as a failure in Syria and in the war against ISIS. But thanks to the media’s role in culturally and socially canonizing Obama, his performance setbacks had no impact on his image. The use of the press to distort public perception, already in practice to help Obama, would be ramped into hyperdrive under his successor.
It would take the election of 2016 to break the war skeptic wing of the Democratic Party completely. In the party primaries the frontrunner Hillary Clinton was running without apology on a record of supporting the Iraq War and endorsing intervention in Libya as Secretary of State. Clinton’s main rival was Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), an independent noninterventionist who registered as a Democrat for the single purpose of running in the primary. Sanders had opposed most military interventions since the 1960s apart from Kosovo and the 2001 AUMF that followed 9-11. But besides just Sanders, Clinton was more of an interventionist than almost anyone else in the primary.
- Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had only ever served in state or local offices and thus had no foreign policy platform to evaluate.
- Governor Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island) had, as a Republican senator, been the only GOP member to vote against the Iraq AUMF.
- Former Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) was a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran who had opposed both the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War while still a self-professed Republican. He ran in 2006 as a clear opponent of the Iraq War.
As the primaries progressed it became clear that Clinton was the favorite of the mainstream Democrat voter from the professional class and black communities while Sanders was the preference of the union, antiwar, youth, and environmentalist activist voters.
But the voters’ choice was only a sideshow in that contest. As former DNC Chair Donna Brazile admitted in 2017, Clinton was not only favored by the Democratic power brokers and superdelegates but her campaign was being financially supported by the party’s own fundraising apparatus before the primary had even begun. Clinton’s official campaign received over $1 million from defense industry donors in 2016, more than any other candidate. And bizarrely both Clinton and Sanders far surpassed the GOP candidates in defense industry contributions during the primary season.
When Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination, the majority of Bush-era neoconservative officials like John Negroponte had endorsed Clinton. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, the man credited with coining the absurd expression “axis of evil,” wrote an op-ed the week before the election calling on “conservatives” to vote for Hillary Clinton. Her defeat rocked the political world like no other election in recent memory, but within neoconservative circles, it was even more of an earthquake.
The neoconservative faction had helped to build the Reagan coalition into a winner in 1980. But the revelation that they would back a pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-tax hike candidate exposed them as having almost nothing in common with other conservatives at all.
Meanwhile, Sanders supporters debated whether there was a reason to vote for Clinton when she had a pro-war record and had not committed to left-wing policies like a fracking ban or Medicare for All. Donald Trump’s presidency would only accelerate the mind-meld between the Democratic Party leadership and the openly pro-war neoconservatives even though, as explained above, they were never substantively different in practice. What changed the most was the reaction of the media to various events of the Trump presidency regarding foreign intervention.
In early 2017 Lt. General Michael Flynn, Trump’s designated national security advisor, was accused of contacts with Russian agents. This incident, along with those of other Trump campaign officials and administration officials like Roger Stone and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, created a hysterical media environment where erstwhile Iraq War opponents on the Left like Rachel Maddow shared unverified and often deliberately falsified reports attempting to bolster the resultant probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. As the accusations became ever more absurd, Trump compensated by approving new sanctions on Russia, supporting lethal military aid to its strategic enemy Ukraine, and engaging in a new nuclear arms race.
At every step, Trump’s Democratic opponents and the press deemed the president’s diplomacy insufficiently severe toward Vladimir Putin and Russia. The visceral opposition to Trump overrode every other priority the Democrats had during his presidency, apart from their consistent decisions to vote in favor of the defense appropriations bills that came before Congress and reapproving the Patriot Act. The contradiction of accusing the president of being an agent of a strategic enemy, while simultaneously empowering the intelligence agencies under his command to surveil Americans and collect their personal data without prior cause, was continually ignored by media outlets.
In addition, the following developments and the Democratic reaction to them showed that the party had strayed irreversibly away from non-interventionism:
- The initiatives to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, including two meetings with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reacted to the first meeting by calling it “one of the worst few days” in American foreign policy history.
- In 2019 Trump withdrew U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reacted by claiming it “betrays our Kurdish allies,” even though the nature of the mission had been strictly to combat the spread of ISIS.
- Trump announced beginning in August 2020 a series of normalization agreements between several Arab and Muslim states and Israel. While the Democratic leadership praised the agreements, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) notably asked Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to reverse the peace agreements following his announced victory in the 2020 election. Her colleague Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) remarked that “we won’t celebrate Israel for not stealing land.”
- Reactions to the September 2020 economic normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo were muted, conspicuous as the United States had been directly involved in the 1999 conflict between the two.
Who Holds the Knife?
The most egregious example of how extreme of a change the party had undergone came in July 2018 as the media and Democrats collectively erupted in outrage when Trump met with Putin in Helsinki during a summit between the two brokered by the Finnish government. When Trump cast doubt on intelligence community allegations of Russian hacking of U.S. electoral systems, the reaction was nothing short of pandemonium. “Remember Trump’s Helsinki betrayal” read the New York Daily News editorial headline. It is notable that at the time there was an ongoing investigation of the allegations being conducted by Robert Mueller that would ultimately fail to reconstruct a conspiracy that had a tangible effect on the 2016 election.
In a speech calling on the Senate floor for unanimous consent to a resolution condemning Trump’s remarks at the summit, Bernie Sanders showed that he was now marching lockstep with the Democrats toward a new confrontation with Russia, despite building his reputation on being a noninterventionist, independent, democratic socialist. His comments, lasting almost ten minutes, drove a stake through the heart of the antiwar Left that had placed its hopes in him as their standard-bearer. He seconded the comments of his colleague Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the most ardent of neoconservative interventionists, compared Russia’s interference to the 9/11 attacks, and proceeded to repeat a list of accusations against the Putin government. Sanders demanded “more from Republican senators now” in sanctions against Russia and condemning Trump. Bizarrely, the lone voice to object to the resolution and deny unanimous consent was a Republican, Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who represents a small contingent of libertarian noninterventionists on the Right.
Two years later Sanders ran for president, again as a Democrat, and largely steered clear of foreign policy issues. His former supporter Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) ran on her own and would go on to accuse the DNC of excluding her from debates by choosing to ignore polls where she passed the threshold of support. Gabbard had been one of the staunchest noninterventionists in Congress, and had even broken with the party by supporting troop withdrawals and negotiations with the Syrian government. In the primary the party leadership led by James Clyburn and others strongly favored establishment picks like Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris—candidates who toed the line on national security and defense policy—for their endorsements.
As America enters its next decade, it is important to note why the political system desperately needs participants in influential positions to advocate for limiting the power of the military and intelligence communities and curtailing involvement in conflicts that are not essential to national security. During World War I, it was a coalition of women’s suffragettes, socialists, and Christian humanists who urged Woodrow Wilson unsuccessfully to stay out of the war. Two decades later isolationists concerned that America had no just cause to fight Germany and Japan kept her out of World War II until the Pearl Harbor attack. Much of the American Left opposed the war as well until the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
But it was opposition to the Vietnam War that changed American society and its political system forever. Suddenly American citizens, in particular those eligible for the draft, were beginning to call foul on deploying troops to foreign war zones without accountability. And no longer was such opposition limited to groups with narrow religious or ideological agendas. But the people who came out of that movement reached power without preserving their beliefs. Tom Hayden, one of the most iconic protesters and a member of the Chicago Seven, eventually moved on and became a Democratic California state legislator. Hayden would go on to endorse both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions while overlooking their records of war and surveillance. He even wrote an essay for The Nation, America’s oldest socialist magazine, explaining why he was voting for Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primary. Hayden’s case is the textbook example of why the anti-war position is doomed to fail: there is no major institution that sees an interest in it prevailing.
Where does this leave America in 2021? In 1942, Italian Fascist politician Galeazzo Ciano wrote in his diary as he was observing his country’s war effort unraveling during World War II, that “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” Was it Bill Clinton’s Kosovo airstrikes, Charlie Wilson’s behind-the-scenes junkets supporting the Mujahideen, John Kerry’s AUMF vote, or Bernie Sanders’ Helsinki speech that ended the experiment of noninterventionism within one of America’s two main parties?
To be sure many hands rose to strike it down, but each has its excuse as to why they needed to do what they did and ignore the concerns of U.S. service personnel and their families—the people most directly placed in harm’s way and making the sacrifices. It is this lack of personal integrity, unfortunately, that will help our government collect more data and fill more coffins going forward.