What I Learned From the Debate: Democrats Still Can’t Level With Voters About the American Empire

In the past few years, the Democratic Party has started dealing with reality on domestic policy. Largely thanks to leadership from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, actual solutions to actual problems are now on the agenda: Medicare for All, a big minimum wage hike, a Green New Deal, and the most radical, important idea — changes in who runs corporations.
Unfortunately, the presidential debate in Ohio on Tuesday night showed that Democrats are still a million miles away from reality on foreign policy.
Thanks to President Trump’s recent green light to Turkey to invade northern Syria and assault the Kurds there, the debate contained an unusual amount of discussion about foreign policy.
That was the upside. The downside was that almost all of the discussion was totally specious, because no one on stage wanted to tell Americans the awful truth. That truth is, first, that the grim reality in Syria available for viewing via Twitter videos is the climax of decades of bipartisan foreign policy. And second, by this point the only choices available are either wretched or horrible or both.
The worst offenders were South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, and former Vice President Joe Biden. But even Sanders and Warren came nowhere near the honesty of their domestic policies.
Buttigieg delivered an ode to an imaginary America, proclaiming that “when I was deployed, I knew one of the things keeping me safe was the fact that the flag on my shoulder represented a country known to keep its word. And our allies knew it and our enemies knew it.” In reality, of course, the U.S. has — like all powerful countries throughout history — continually betrayed allies whenever necessary. We’ve previously betrayed the Kurds alone seven times. This particular betrayal was inevitable, although a more competent president could have kept it smaller and quieter.
Meanwhile, Booker declared that Trump is “turning the moral leadership of this country into a dumpster fire.” As the Kurds or the Cherokee, Filipinos, Vietnamese, or many others would be happy to tell you, this glorious moral leadership is something that exists mostly on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post.
For his part, Biden said that Trump throwing the Kurds to the wolves is “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history.” Of course, as bad as it is, it’s far less shameful than many other U.S. actions — including the Iraq War, for which Biden voted. In terms of the Kurds specifically, it is at least to date less shameful than the Clinton administration’s fervent support in the 1990s for Turkey’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurds. One of the key defenders of that policy was then-State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns, who is now a top adviser to Biden’s campaign.
Sanders said little about Syria, mostly just echoing Buttigieg’s concern about the rest of the world losing trust in America. By contrast, Warren and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii dipped their toes into the complicated truth before scurrying away.
Warren said, “I don’t think we should have troops in the Middle East. But we have to do it the right way, the smart way.” This sounds great, but what is this right, smart way? When even Noam Chomsky wants U.S. troops to stay in Syria, it’s a little tricky.
Gabbard did aggressively challenge standard U.S. foreign policy blather. She decried “this regime change war” in Syria, and mentioned the unfortunate facts about “the U.S. actually providing arms in support to terrorist groups in Syria, like Al Qaida, HTS, al-Nusra and others.”
What Gabbard didn’t say is that, by this point, any plausible exit by the U.S. will be extraordinarily ugly, with the Assad regime brutally reestablishing control over Syria. The U.S. certainly bears some of the blame for that, as Gabbard said. But she did not mention that Assad, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are also responsible for the past, present and future carnage. Most importantly, she did not mention the much larger context for what’s happening.
And it’s that context that Democrats must get comfortable talking about, if they ever want to deal with the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Any politician brave enough to do that Tuesday night would have had to say something like this:
Look, the U.S. is the center of the most powerful empire that’s ever existed. We’re not in the Mideast for moral reasons, like protecting the Kurds, so you can forget about that. We’re there to keep the oil flowing (even though any Mideast government will happily sell their oil to anyone buying), to get whatever profits we can for U.S. corporations, and to make sure our Saudi friends recycle their profits back into the American economy.
We can protect people like the Kurds only with a massive enlargement of our empire. So if you care about them, get ready for much higher taxes and your kids dying in Rojava. Or we can get rid of our empire — in which case you better start thinking about how to restrain all the other countries who’d like to run the Mideast and care about the people there as much as we do. Or we can muddle along in our current half-assed fashion, in which we agree not to ask too much of you and you agree not to ask any tough questions. You tell us!
Just frankly facing our choices like that would be a huge advance for American politics. But if the history of other empires is any guide, neither politicians nor regular Americans will want to look that truth in the face until it’s absolutely unavoidable — many, many catastrophes, massacres and betrayals from now.
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