Bernie Sanders opposed the criminal invasion of Iraq, to his eternal credit, and Hillary Clinton not only supported but propagandized on behalf of that 2003 violation of the Nuremberg principles, to her eternal shame. Yet at the first debate of the Democratic primary season in Las Vegas, the democratic socialist from Vermont failed to seriously distinguish him from the former secretary of state when it came to matters of war and peace.
There was peace-friendly rhetoric. "I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort," said Sanders, the senator from Vermont who applied to be a conscientious objector during the war on Vietnam. But then, no politician who hopes to someday be commander-in-chief ever says force is anything but a final option. And Bernie was clear: "I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary."
That too is unremarkable; it's what anyone running for president in the country that has started the most wars is required by custom to say. The troubling part for those who assume "socialist" means "peacenik" is that Sanders backed up the traditional rhetoric by pointing to all the wars, some ongoing, that he has offered support.
"I am not a pacifist," he told the moderator. "I supported the war in Afghanistan," the U.S's longest, and "I supported President Clinton's effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," said Sanders. And he wasn't done. "I support airstrikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do."
There is no question that when it comes to deploying lethal force, the senator's chief rival for the Democratic nomination, whose husband's wars he supported, is much more the hawk. Asked what enemies she was most proud of making, Clinton listed "the Iranians" alongside "health insurance companies" – like the "crippling" sanctions she supported, not even bothering to differentiate between the people and a regime.
Still, Sanders' attempts to cast the former first lady as a warmonger only revealed that they both support the same wars. "I do not support American ground troops in Syria," said the senator, to which Clinton quickly responded: "Well, nobody does."
Sanders also reiterated his opposition to a "no-fly zone in Syria," which he said "could lead to real problems." To that, Clinton conceded that she has advocated such a policy – rightly dismissed as campaign rhetoric by an uninterested President Barack Obama, and effectively vetoed by Vladimir Putin's decision to commit fighter jets to Syria – but smartly noted: "We are already flying in Syria just as we are flying in Iraq."
In effect, Sanders was opposing a straw-war to bolster his pro-peace credentials while endorsing the actual war that's been waged since at least September 2014 at a cost of more than US$4 billion and at least 243 civilian lives in Syria alone.
When it came to the U.S. government's latest war crime in Afghanistan, meanwhile – the war Sanders reminded viewers he supported when it began, becoming a critic over the next 13 years – it was not the self-avowed leftist who brought it up, but Lincoln Chafee, the former Republican.
"We just bombed a hospital," Chafee noted, referring to the U.S. airstrikes that killed 22 at a Doctors Without Borders’ clinic. "We have drone strikes that hit civilian weddings," he continued. "We need a new paradigm in the Middle East."
Chafee is polling at or possibly even below 0 percent, so no one took much notice of what he had to say, but it is noteworthy that he was the only one to say it.
In the aftermath of the debate, Sanders' supporters were preoccupied with declaring him the winner and decrying those in the corporate media who failed to declare the same. Few seemed to care that in terms of the wars being waged in the world today, including in a country called Iraq, the socialist was largely on the same page as his more hawkish opponent, on board with the Obama-backed status quo, and arguably to the right of the man who used to be Republican.
I'm with those who think it's cool there's a candidate challenging Clinton from the left and bringing a conversation about socialism into , but supporters would do well to remember that flaws ignored on the campaign trail tend to fester into serious problems once the candidate gains power. There is no question Sanders is the lesser evil, at least in terms of the Democratic Party, but those who support him should do so without illusions lest, as with Obama before him, their hearts be broken by a drone strike – or an eventual endorsement of a neoliberal hawk.