During the Democratic presidential debate on April 14, the issue of Iraq rose to the fore, as it always does. When asked if Clinton had what it takes in terms of intelligence to be president, Sanders responded in the affirmative (to much applause).
Sanders then added that he does, however, “question her judgement. I question a judgement which voted for the war in Iraq…” This statement culminated in yet more thunderous applause from the audience, especially after the senator described it as “the worst foreign policy blunder” in America’s history.
After some more time spent discussing domestic issues, the argument once again returned to foreign policy and the Middle East. When Wolf Blitzer asked Clinton if she regretted the intervention in Libya (Obama had described failing to deal with the aftermath as his worst mistake in office) Clinton defended the decision, stating that Gaddafi was removed, chemical weapons destroyed, and Libya has prospects for political freedom.
Sanders’ response was shrewd; he described the decision to enact the no-fly zone against Gaddafi in 2011 as a “pretty tough call, like a 51-49 call, do you overthrow Gaddafi, who, of course, was a horrific dictator?” Sanders then claimed that in intervening in Libya, Clinton had displayed the “same type of mentality” that had culminated in the disastrous Iraq war.
In other words, Sanders was comparing the decision to intervene in Libya against Gaddafi (which cost some tens of civilian deaths) to the decision to invade Iraq – which cost nearly 800,000 civilian deaths. This is disingenuous in the extreme, and is a tactic that Sanders has frequently used to justify his glib anti-interventionist stance; that all interventions are inherently bad.
To cover for this statement, Sanders made sure to finish it by claiming that Gaddafi “was a horrific dictator” to cover for his opposition to an intervention which stopped Benghazi being turned into Aleppo. “Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein are brutal, brutal murdering thugs. No debate about that”, stated the senator, apparently believing that recognising the genocidal nature of tyrants makes you beyond criticism when you oppose doing anything to stop them.
His reservations, he claims, are due to the fact that “we didn’t think thoroughly about what happens the day after you get rid of these dictators.” In other words, intervention is an inherently negative thing because there is some chaos when the tyrant is removed from power; Sanders specifically cited the rise of Da’esh in Iraq and Libya to make his case.
The discussion then turned to Syria; Sanders claimed that he, like Obama, was firmly opposed to intervening against Bashar al-Assad and enacting a no-fly zone. He claims the no-fly zone would be a bad thing because it will “cost an enormous sum of money” and risks drawing the US into “endless” conflict in the Middle East.
It’s difficult to see how these stances are significantly different from the stances of hard line conservatives across the world. Many of them are either passively supportive of Bashar al-Assad, or support his regime in the mistaken belief that he protects Syria’s minorities. Or just because they hate Muslims and see Assad’s enemies as radicals that would destroy his “secular” Syria.
They also blanket the armed opposition in Syria and Iraq as being part of Da’esh, claiming him to be the better alternative. Virginia Senator Dick Black (who happens to be Ted Cruz’s former co-chairman in Virginia) is currently in Syria and meeting Assad. He claims that Assad is the best alternative to the “armies of terrorists rampaging across the country”, and Da’esh would take over if he was removed. Cruz himself claimed Obama’s (ostensible) goal of removing Assad risked “Putting ISIS or al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood in charge”. How are these lies any different to the scaremongering espoused by Sanders?
But probably the most appalling statement from Sanders is his claim that a no-fly zone would cost “an enormous sum of money”. This is another despicable right-wing talking point; that the lives of Middle Easterners are irrelevant when compared to domestic interests. Money that could be spent protecting children from having barrels full of shrapnel dropped on them as they sleep should be spent on helping “our own”. More often than not this is just an excuse for not giving a damn about the lives of the Muslim other; those espousing this position never get around to explaining how they should “help” their own people with the huge amounts of money that could supposedly be saved.
This is the fanatical politics of right-wing isolationism and cynicism. No matter how many human beings die, America should make no effort to help them whatsoever; saving their lives wouldn’t be in the interests of “national security”. In the eyes of Sanders, the lives of 500,000 or so Syrians that have been horrifically destroyed (and the lives of those continuing to die as we speak) are nothing; nothing but an inconvenience that would cost “a huge sum of money” if he could be bothered to save them. They’re simply not worth the dollars.
Sanders went on to say once again that “Assad is another brutal murdering dictator” (a sure-fire sign that he was about to justify something awful) but that the fight of the United States is “to destroy ISIS first, and to get rid of Assad second”. I couldn’t think of a more ignorant statement to make when discussing the Syrian conflict. It’s made all the wore by the fact that a serious presidential hopeful, who holds sway over the opinions of millions, is making such damaging statements.
The reason Da’esh exists as such a potent force in Syria is because of Assad. At the start of the 2011 uprising Assad sought to paint the movement as terrorist-led. Difficult, considering the fact that it was a disorganised movement of peaceful protesters. So prisoners linked to ISI (the Iraq-based Islamic State of Iraq) were released from Syrian jails in order to radicalise the uprising with a virulent strain of Zarqawism.
Within two years the group easily took advantage of the ongoing chaos in Syria by moving the group across Syria’s eastern borders and establishing a strong foothold in Deir Ezzor, changing the name of the group to “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. The brutality and efficiency of the group saw it put down roots in Aleppo, Idlib and other provinces.
All of this was aided by Assad, who sought to turn the uprising into a radical nightmare. He engaged in an active oil trade with the group to boost its coffers. He refrained from bombing their forces and strong points so they could turn their guns on the popular Syrian opposition with impunity. When the opposition had finally had enough and expelled Da’esh from Idlib, Aleppo and much of Deir Ezzor, Assad made deals with them in an attempt to destroy the Free Syrian Army, aiding their counter attacks against rebel forces in Aleppo with airstrikes that targeted opposition positions.
But probably the most important factor here is the fact that Da’esh has no air force. Assad is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths in Syria; barrel bombs are dropped daily onto civilians, killing thousands. Jets indiscriminately fire rockets into civilian areas, and sectarian militiamen kill Sunni civilians at will. As long as Assad exists, there will be radicalism and extremism in Syria; the mass slaughter of Syria’s children is pushing many into the arms of extremists.
Yet Sanders wants to take out Da’esh (a symptom) and ignore Assad, the cause. Sanders is perfectly fine with Obama’s intervention against Da’esh however; somehow this form of intervention is perfectly acceptable. Currently US jets are doing nothing to stop Assad raining death from the skies, are providing air cover. Despite knowing this, Sanders made sure to emphasise that he opposes a “unilateral” no fly-zone over Syria. In other words, targeting Da’esh is ok. But stopping civilians from being blown up isn’t. At least he’s incredibly consistent.
The words of writer Sam Charles Hamad spring to mind here: “Sanders: one step forward on Palestine, two step backwards on Syria. Many of the Western Palestine Solidarity types who have tacitly and explicitly supported Assad want to dive the oppressed and dived one set of brutalised Arabs from another set of brutalised Arabs. This is the mentality of imperialism and the height of racism.”
Sanders’ actions bring a term to mind that has been increasingly used to describe the rhetoric used by hypocrites professing to be moralisers or ideologues – Red-Brownism. In other words, no matter what their ideological affinity is (be it to the left or to the right) these people are united by two common factors: thinly-veiled fascism under the guise of idealism, and nauseating hypocrisy.
Both are fine with genocidal dictators slaughtering civilians (especially Muslim/Arab ones), both use Da’esh as a bogeyman to justify blanketing all those resisting said dictators as either untrustworthy Islamic fanatics or suspicious militants that should either be left to be be defeated or actively fought against, both claim to support “humanity” and yet selectively support certain groups of oppressed people depending on their world view, you name it. Bernie may have said some lovely things about Palestine, may have criticised Israel, whatever you like… But his hypocrisy is clear.
His cynical support of certain kinds of oppressed people and conveniently chic causes (and neglect of others) makes his nice little statements ring rather hollow. Especially when his historical positions are taken into account; his voting record is just as pro-Israel as Hilary Clinton’s, and he once supported Israel’s bombing of Gaza on the basis that rockets fired from the Gaza strip (which have killed a grand total of 33 people in a decade-and-a-half) are some sort of mortal danger. Over 1200 Palestinians were killed in that single offensive, Sanders claimed Israel merely “over-reacted”.
Indeed, the most nauseating group of Red-Brownists are many (but not all) of the “pro-Palestine” types, the ones who claim to stand with the Palestinian people by opposing Israel. Not because they give a damn about Palestinians, but because they want to fetishise their hatred of Jews and peddle conspiracy theories, from Hitler being a Zionist (Jeremy Corbyn’s faux-leftist crowd are most vocal on this point) to some sort of unholy alliance between Israel and the omnipresent “Wahhabis” as being the root of all evil, in order to divert the discourse from (rightfully) laying the blame at the feet of their beloved Arab dictators (whom they claim are “anti-imperialist” on the basis that they blame America for the consequences of their repressive policies).
Claiming to support freedom for Palestine is chic; they’ll change cover photos, share and post statuses about Israeli violations all day. But when it comes to Assad carrying out similar acts of repression, silence falls. Or active support begins. The Islamophobia and racism (indistinguishable from right-wing bigotry) then emerges; Syrians don’t deserve freedom because Muslims need a “strong” tyrant, we should “avoid intervening” (yet they back the anti-Da’esh air campaign), Assad’s enemies “hide in civilian areas”… Funnily enough ,the IDF make the same arguments as they flatten packed Gazan neighbourhoods.
Right-wing 2012 Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul criticised Israel, yet claimed that Syrians gassed themselves and their families in the 2013 Ghouta “false flag” attack, in some kind of odd conspiracy in order to induce foreign intervention. One of Sanders’ closest advisers recently claimed an “Israeli false flag op” was responsible. Is there really any tangible difference between this verbal garbage? Listening to these supposedly intelligent people rant is like listening to a lunatic shouting the craziest bits of the internet on television. It’s made all the worse by the fact that some take said lunacy very seriously.
Sanders is no candidate for peace and justice; not only because of his selective opposition to certain conflicts and interventions (depending on what’s popular with his youthful supporters) but because of his active endorsements of others. From describing blowing up children in drone strikes as “not a terribly humane thing to do” in the same tone as one might talk of a euthenised dog, to endorsing the abandonment of Syrian civilians to slaughter in the anti-Da’esh air campaign, and the provision of air cover to Shi’a militias that ethnically cleanse whole Iraqi Sunni communities. Sanders’ foreign policy reasoning is no different from the reasoning of hard line conservatism. There’s a reason Trump supported Sanders’ reasoning on Syria.
Hilary Clinton may not be a paragon of virtue in any way, but at least she has the good sense to realise that you’re going to get nowhere if you don’t deal with Assad. Focusing on nonchalantly bombing Da’esh is like targeting Ion Antonescu’s regime while refusing to fight Hitler. Sanders’ emphasis on forcing Assad to step down as part of a “political solution” (and thus preserving the regime itself) is no different from the catastrophic approach of Obama. Sanders is radically isolationist to the extent that he even opposed training 5000 fighters that would target Da’esh alone.
Some of the hundreds of Syrian children killed in the Ghouta chemical massacre of August 2013.
He talks often of eventually getting rid of Assad, then does everything in his power to ensure that he stays. Including opposing intervention in Syria in 2013, after the regime gassed some 1729 civilians in the Ghouta chemical massacre. Sanders claimed that protecting “American working families” was more important than protecting children from chemical weapons.
Sanders’ supporters have a duty to look long and hard at what this man really stands for. His historic support of civil rights is indeed praiseworthy. But his foreign policy decisions are more of the same. There is nothing revolutionary or hopeful to be found. Just more selective posturing about human rights while the opposite is practised, more picking-and-choosing of imperialism and mass murder to be for or against, and more disregard for non-American civilian life under the guise of non-interventionism.