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Bernie Sanders Sold Out to the War Party
Framing himself as anti-war, the record proves he is another lackey for the status quo.
“Et tu, Bernie?” - Justin Raimondo
Introduction: Not the Man They Think I Am At Home:
Every few years, this article on Bernie has to be rewritten. Rewritten, not only because U.S. involvement in foreign wars of the recent past has aged like milk — but also because there is every so often a new war that our favorite gray-haired socialist supports. Further, it is a lesson that every young, newly interested leftist who wants to tango with progressive politics must reconcile: the leader of the modern progressive movement, Bernie Sanders, sold out to the “war party” long ago. His willingness to side with hawks and support the military industrial complex completely contradicts his image as an anti-war voice. He has betrayed the anti-imperialist, non-interventionalist faction of socialists in the early 20th century that he has modeled his career over. But most importantly, he has tricked his base into believing that he is against the war machine, when he has a long and undeniable career of supporting it.
This stain on his legacy and credibility continues to this day — once vocal about doing “everything possible” to “find a diplomatic solution to Ukraine”, he has since come out in support of the Biden Administration’s Ukraine policy, which has pushed away from peace talks:
For many young Americans, when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced his campaign to run for President in 2015 and quickly rose up as a leading candidate, it was the first time they could feel excited about politics. I remember the feeling as a young progressive: here we have a lifelong independent who built his campaign around standing up to the establishment, a politician who was consistent on his pro-labor, pro-union, anti-corporate rhetoric for decades. His rallies would gather thousands across every city. During speeches, birds flocked to him. Fearless, he was ready to stand up to all of the institutions that went unquestioned: the big banks, superPACs, the billionaire class, and the military industrial complex. If you don’t squint, that was how it looked.
New Hampshire Libertarian Reed Coverdale said of Trump: “the wolf in sheep’s clothing is more dangerous than the fox in the hen house”, speaking to the former President’s perception as anti-establishment, a guy who campaigned on “draining the swamp” when 9 times out of 10 he would fall in line with the status-quo, filling in the seats of government with his own swamp. This is just as applicable to Sanders — Bernie is another wolf in sheep’s clothing. Trump and Bernie have much in common on their respective ends of the political duopoly. Both populists who promised profound transformation in their political campaigns, both ended up letting down their loyal supporters when it mattered the most. Readers can decide for themselves where Trump failed, but the purpose of this piece is to highlight where Sanders did with his war record.
Mayor of Burlington — Radical Beginnings:
Before Sanders held any political office, he worked in Vermont as a laborer and filmmaker, creating and selling film strips to local schools. In 1977, he was hired at the American People’s Historical Society where he made a film about socialist icon Eugene Debs, who had become a hero for Sanders. Debs ran for President under the Socialist Party 5 times, receiving the most votes of any candidate in the party’s history. He was jailed in 1918 after making a speech protesting America’s involvement in World War I. Sanders admired Debs enough to hang a portrait of him in the city hall in Burlington Vermont when he was mayor. The larger lesson from Debs is that any good socialist should be opposed to imperialism and war — a lesson that Bernie would later abandon.
So when he won the seat of mayor of Burlington VA in 1981, it may have been a surprise to his cohorts when he did not stand with the peace protestors at the General Electric plant protest in town, that was making gatling guns for death squads in Central America. The guns were being used to fight socialists in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was a shock to the protestors when their self proclaimed socialist mayor refused to support them as cops showed up to make arrests. Vermont has long been one of the largest recipients for Defense Department contracts, and General Electric brought jobs to Burlington through their weapons manufacturing. Bernie wanted to protect the workers over siding with the peace protestors. This would be the trade off that he maintained throughout his career — he was okay with weapons manufacturing for the war machine as long as it added to jobs in his home state.1
The Terror Wars — Support, Resistance, Compliancy:
He wouldn’t have to make any strong policy decisions until he won a seat on the Vermont House of Representatives in 1991, where his first foray into congress was to vote against a joint resolution to use force in Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait the previous year. He was instead in favor of sanctions to pressure Saddam to step down. In 1990 U.N. resolution 661 was passed, which started 13 years of harsh economic sanctions that suffocated Iraq. The goal was to weaken Saddam and bolster the opposition against him. The sanctions themselves were worsened with bombing of Iraqi infrastructure during the Gulf War, when food, medical supplies, and electricity became scarce. Although estimates vary, half a million people excess deaths were commonly reported as a result U.S.-led sanctions. Bernie had no opposition to the sanctions during his tenure as a member of the house. Instead, he supported the Iraqi Liberation Act, a bill that makes regime change the official policy goal of Washington, reinforcing the sanctions after a steep humanitarian toll. But the sanctions hadn’t worked, and regime change wasn’t going to take place unless there was a direct intervention.
When the Neocons were beating their war drums in late 2002, Bernie spoke out against the prospect of an invasion. He raised questions of the costs, the American lives lost, and of unintended consequences of using military force. This is the anti-war side of Bernie his campaigns would want you to see. What they don’t is him only a few days into the invasion expressing his support for President Bush’s war. On March 21st, 2003, he voted on a congressional resolution that said:
“Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the nation to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq as part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.”
He gave more than vocal support: voting to fund the Iraq war in four different spending bills. When the Bush administration had a Republican-controlled Congress, they would routinely vote to fund the war on an emergency basis to minimize scrutiny. They would throw in money for hurricane relief or humanitarian aid alongside the war spending to garner votes — and Bernie would go along. One example is in 2007, the Department of Defense Appropriations Act because it provided a $1 million grant to the Vermont Department of Veterans Affairs for healthcare for veterans. This bill amounted to total federal spending of $447.6 billion — and all it took was a measly million to buy Bernie Sander’s support for this massive defense spending bill. Or perhaps he was going to vote to fund the war anyway, and just wanted a little extra something for his home state.
The war in Iraq and the destruction of the Sunni Muslim leadership led to the rise of Iran friendly Shiite factions in Iraq, which America would spend the second phase of their mission in Iraq fighting. The goals had shifted into an operation to undermine the regional advantage that Iran had gained from taking out Saddam. Sanders would vote for the Iran Freedom Support Act, which much like the 1998 Iraqi Liberation Act, make regime change an official policy goal with Iran, handing out millions to “pro-freedom” groups that wanted to overthrow the Shah. “Let there be no doubt, though the words ‘regime change’ are not found in the bill – that’s precisely what they are talking about,” congressmen Ron Paul said of the bill in 2006. The funding involved several terrorist organizations, some of which murdered Iranian civilians. The act also codified sanctions against Iran. This would be a largely unchanging policy Sanders had for the next decade, until he was a supporter of the Iran deal to lift sanctions, and was the only democratic senator to vote on lifting sanctions for Iran in 2020. Which would be a great look on his record if he didn’t already support Iran sanctions for over a decade.
Bernie did vote on a resolution to use military force in Afghanistan in 2001, where all but one congressmen voted for it. It should be noted that voting against the Afghan war was tantamount to political suicide following the 9/11 attacks. He shouldn’t be shamed for believing the ubiquitous propaganda that Bin Laden was hiding out in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, but like the Iraq war he also voted to fund it several times. He also deserves no leeway for supporting the presence of troops in Afghanistan as recent as 2015, when our campaign against Al Qaeda was long over, and we were deep into the fools errand of bolstering up a faux government to resist the Taliban. He also refused to rule out circumstances of unilateral use of military force, including the disastrous drone war. Years later, during his second presidential run in 2020, he would admit he was wrong about voting for military force in Afghanistan, and had learned his lesson. When Biden withdrew from Afghanistan, he praised the decision, saying:
“We must also make sure that in the future the United States uses military force only when necessary to protect our national security and when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people and the authorization of Congress.”
Kosovo - Bombing to Stop Ethnic Cleansing or Committing War Crimes?
If only he used his over 40+ years in political power to take his own advice. In 1999, when the Yugoslav wars were still raging, now in Kosovo, he voted for house resolution H.Res.151, which "authorizes the president of the United States to conduct military air operations and missile strikes in cooperation with the United States' NATO allies against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia" (with possible escalations of ground support). Bernie was a strong supporter of military action against Serbia in support of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). He was outspoken in his support for President Clinton’s bombing campaign, saying it was the only way possible to prevent an ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians. He would say in support of the war on floor of the house, over a month after Clinton launched his missile strikes: “I have heard today that some people think that the U.S. participation in Kosovo now is unconstitutional. They’re right.” His justification for an unconstitutional war was the other wars we’ve waged were also unconstitutional, but this was a good war:
At this point, it was already reported that the bombs were deliberately hitting civilian targets, including residential neighborhoods, auto factories, radio stations, and hydro-electric power plants. To the shock of his anti-war supporters, some of which resigned from his campaign after this, he doubled down on the missile strikes as a way to protect the Kosovo Albanians and as an effective way to pressure the Serbs into a ceasefire. When anti-war activists gathered outside his office in Burlington to protest the decision, he called the cops on them.
Clintons bombing campaign would last for months and go on to kill somewhere between 500-1200 civilians, and NATO would be accused of directly targeting civilian infrastructure. The KLA would be accused of numerous human rights violations, many later joining ISIS. Environmental impacts from the bombing included, but were not limited to attacks on industrial facilities, such as chemical plants and oil installations that were reported to have caused the release of pollutants. Bernie, structuring his campaign as the ultimate climate change candidate, would never take into account the environmental impacts of the war he’s supported. Environmentalist Ajamu Baraka, former vice presidential candidate for the Green Party said of Sanders support for the war:
“Saying one thing publicly but then appearing to have a different position that is reflected sometimes in his legislative decisions, and I think the Kosovo situation was a very important example of that.”
With folks like Clinton and Obama leading the way for the disastrous overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, intervention first got approval in congress. In 2011, Sanders was one of the co-sponsors of a resolution that called for military action from the United Nations Security Council in Libya, including a no-fly zone over the region. At this time, Bernie was a bit more weary about engaging in unconstitutional wars. At the time, he said:
“I think one of the things many people are upset about is this war took place without consultation of the Congress, without debate within the Congress. Look, everybody understands Gaddafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but I think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war.”
There was no speaking out against the war once it began, only Bernie was ready to use Clinton’s decision to go to war as fodder for his 2016 Presidential campaign:
“The truth is it is relatively easy for a powerful nation like America to overthrow a dictator. But it is very hard to predict the unintended consequences and the turmoil and the instability that follows after you overthrow that dictator… I’m not quite the fan of regime change that she is.”
Even though as indicated here in this article he has supported regime change in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Kosovo and Syria.
Yemen - A Supporter of the War, to Milquetoast Resistance:
In 2015 Saudi Arabia intervened in a civil war to oust the Iranian-backed Houthi Rebels that took control of northern Yemen. From the start, the war was a humanitarian disaster, with U.S. support for the Saudi air strikes bombed hospitals, food centers and schools — something I’ve already written about extensively. Also at that time, ISIS was at its peak in Syria and Iraq, and the presidential candidates were putting out their best ideas on how to defeat the threat that American foreign policy created. Sanders was correctly saying at that time that our involvement in Iraq and Syria destabilized the region and led to the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS — but was also arguing for more intervention. Instead this time he said that Saudi Arabia, backed by the U.S., should lead an international coalition to defeat ISIS, and that the House of Saud is where we ought to throw our support.
It was also around this time that Bernie voted to give 1.5 trillion dollars to Lockheed Martin for an F-35 fighter jet program, the largest expense of any military program in history. The reason he cited was that it would bring jobs to his home state. Lockheed has had a long history of manufacturing and selling weapons for the Saudis, sometimes leading to disastrous human consequences. In 2018, a bomb dropped on a school bus on Yemen killed 40 children and wounded 79 others. The weapon used was a 227kg laser-guided bomb made by Lockheed Martin — one of thousands that were sent in support of the Yemen war.
It was only sometime around then that Sanders started speaking out against U.S. Support for the war. In 2018 he led efforts with republican senator Mike Lee to pass a War Powers Resolution, which stops U.S. support for a war that congress did not approve. The bill passed through congress but was vetoed by President Trump. When Biden got into office in 2021, it was expected that a War Powers Resolution would pass and Sanders was slated to introduce the bill on the senate floor. Last minute, he received a call from the Biden Administration telling him to stand down. Rather than put the resolution that limits the presidents war powers up for a vote, he folded to executive pressure and killed any momentum for a War Powers Resolution. If any one person is to blame that the 1973 War Powers Resolution never gets enacted, it may be Bernie for being a weak proponent.
Syria - Siding with the Moderate Dems
Bernie has long been critical of both U.S. involvement in Syria to oust Assad, and Assad’s position of power. He opposed troops on the ground and a no fly zone during his presidential campaign in 2016, which was the policy of his running-mate Hillary Clinton. He did however, support Obama’s policy of arming the “moderate” rebels to oust the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from power:
“I think the president is trying very hard to thread a tough needle here, and that is to support those people who are against Assad, against ISIS, without getting us on the ground there, and that's the direction I believe we should have”
As anyone who knows how this turned out will tell you — many of the groups America was supplying weapons and money to, like the Free Syrian Army or Al-Nusra, ended up being really bad guys. Some of those resources ended up in the hands of ISIS. The justification for this was that Assad was an anti-democratic tyrant that had used chemical gas attacks against his own people. The legitimacy of these gas attacks have been deeply called into question, some have been outright debunked — but Sanders never rescinded his condemnation of Assad for the attacks.
Despite Sanders being against troops on the ground in Syria, he opposed Trump’s 2019 decision to withdraw, stating that a hasty removal of U.S. ground forces would endanger the Kurdish population in Syria in their longstanding conflict with Turkey. This was in tandem with the war hawks and Trump critics who said we need to maintain our presence their indefinitely. Suddenly, the war in Syria wasn’t about stopping Assad or fighting ISIS, but mitigating a conflict between two ethnic groups that were fighting long before they got there. The war hawks got their way, with U.S. troops still occupying a third of Syria to maintain control over the oil fields in the region.
Israel/Palestine - Mixed Bag
Sanders position on the Israel/Palestine issue is complex and evolving. At times, he is a leader in opposition the occupation of Palestinian territory and expansion of settlements, while others he has tacitly supported and funded the Israeli cause. One example I can recall during the fall of 2020 when conflicts between Gaza and Israel were heating up, Bernie came out in strong opposition to Israeli air strikes, saying that we should revaluate the 3.8 billion dollars in aid we give them each year. He would repeatedly say this, while at the same time, he voted for a COVID spending bill that gave a half of billion dollars to Israel, without incident or comment.
Bernie has long been a critic of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Started in 2005, the movement calls for — hence the name — boycotts, divestments, and sanctions on the Israeli regime to pressure an end to it’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Although he has denounced laws the criticize the movement, it should be noted that it is a peaceful, non-legislative way to combat illegal settler occupation.
When it was announced that NY Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer wanted to give Israel an additional 1 billion dollars in aid for their Iron Dome defense system, Bernie saw this as unfair, and wrote an impassioned letter saying that he would vote for this only if the senate would work with the Appropriations Committee to ensure that $1 billion dollars also goes to Palestinian people in Gaza for the fiscal year of 2022. When the bill passed, it had 1.5 billion in total economic aid to Israel, in addition to the 3.8 billion that the U.S. gives them every year, and only $219 million in aid to those Palestine. It included the usual caveats and restrictions of no money given to groups linked to Hamas, which limits how far the aid can go in certain areas. Not quite the spending ratio that Sanders wanted, but with less than 24 hours from the bill’s release to its vote in the Senate, that was enough to get his vote.
Ukraine - Siding with the Neocons
If it was “unconscionable and irresponsible” to give one billion dollars in aid to Israel, he would have nothing to say of the $115 billion dollars of emergency funding that the U.S. have provided to Ukraine in little over a year. On Stephen Colbert a week into the Russian invasion he said “we have to think things through, we cannot fall for simplistic solutions”, but it is exactly the vagueness in his foreign policy positions that lead to his support for the military industrial complex. In a recent interview on The View, we got some of the only brief comments that Sanders has made on the biggest war of this decade as of late. In the interview he said that
“In a time of pandemic, in a time of global warming, we need to come together. China, The United States, Russia, and Europe…and what Putin has done is split us apart, and that is a real horror.”
Of course, blaming one man for dividing the world is exactly the kind of nuance and complexity of positions we need (sarcasm). When asked if he felt like Biden was giving too much to Ukraine when we should be spending it on this country? “We should do both,” Sanders proclaimed, as if trying to find the fastest way to drain the treasury possible.
Before the invasion he said we “must work hard to achieve a realistic and mutually agreeable resolution – one that is acceptable to Ukraine, Russia, the United States and our European allies” but has since mostly tuned out of the issue, giving his complicit support to the American Empire in their proxy war to weaken Russia. He has with his tacit support for the current administrations policy, supported the new ongoing war narrative in the new decade, again letting peace activists down.
The record for supporting military intervention does not stop there. He supported action in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and other lesser conflicts. That is not to understate the sometimes he is good on certain war issues, — especially compared to his moderate democrat political contemporaries — but to highlight when it matters the most, he caves into pressure from the war machine, and becomes a fait accompli. When his resume stands up to the real anti-war leaders of American politics, like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, he falls drastically short. It is also a far cry from his socialist hero Eugene Debs, who faced years of imprisonment for his anti-war stance.
Despite this, part of me still likes Bernie. I still feel that he is sincere in his desire to do good, but somewhere along the way, got lost. There is a chasm in the image of Bernie and the reality, and what still draws me to Bernie is what he represents more than what he actually is. Like most other politicians, I want him to be the guy he says he is when he campaigns:
My purpose is not to trash the character of Bernie Sanders, or convince you not to support him by highlighting the grievances in his pro-war record — it is to convince the progressive movement in the United States to do better. The U.S. military industrial complex is the worlds number one purveyor of terrorism, one of the worlds biggest polluters, the biggest excuse to take away our constitutional rights, and the biggest part of our congressional budget, that diverts money from funding the social programs that Bernie Sanders is always raging about needing more funding.
American politics have fallen victim to largely bickering about domestic issues while covering the shortcomings and war crimes of its world empire often goes to the back burner. In the last set of presidential debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, there was not one question on foreign policy. The lack of interest could indicate how lightly the war weighs on the American voter, or possibly suggest that when it comes to foreign policy, one candidate hardly differs from the next. The progressive movement is guilty of evading accountability for these important issues. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The progressive movement could be more anti-war if they made that a bigger issue to their representatives in congress, and it is up to them if they are going to stay true to their anti-imperialist roots — or continue selling out to the war party.
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Which is why in 2016 he voted for the 1.5 trillion dollar F-35 fight jet program from Lockheed Martin, the largest expense in military weapons history. For a guy who wanted to fight against the war machine and big corporations, he did them both a huge favor by bringing no opposition to the matter.