Responses to the November 13 terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Paris from U.S. political leaders and the mainstream news media have been predictably bellicose. Unfortunately they serve to reinforce commitment to a self-undermining, 14-year long war on terror that has no terminus in sight. CIA Director John Brennan called for an end to “hand-wringing” about government spying programs, while Rep. Peter King of New York stated that “we have to put political correctness aside” in order to “have surveillance in the Muslim communities.” Republican presidential contenders have led the drumbeat for hardline action. Marco Rubio described a “civilizational conflict with radical Islam,” while Jeb Bush, stated, “This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization and we need to lead in this regard.” For his part Ted Cruz asserted that Islamic State “will not be deterred by targeted airstrikes with zero tolerance for civilian casualties,” while Donald Trump proclaimed that “we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago” which he later defined as a return to the waterboarding of suspects.
The desire for revenge has been prominently displayed in post-Paris media analysis, with a CNN reporter asking President Barack Obama, speaking at the G-20 conference in Turkey, “why can’t we take out these bastards.” Such approaches reinforce a narrative about U.S. national security that is more the problem than the solution, as this narrative guarantees the kind of foreign policy blowback of which the events in Paris are but the most recent example. Its logic is to support the intensification of exactly the kind of U.S.-led military provocations that Islamic State and other jihadist radicals rely on for recruitment and movement building. In the last GOP debate Marco Rubio identified the premise of this narrative in response to criticism from Rand Paul, declaring “I believe that the world is a safer and a better place when the United States is the strongest military power in the world.”
There are strong pressures in our political system for presidential campaigns to reinforce the national security paradigm that is one of the pillars of the modern American presidency. Historian Andrew Bacevich defines this dominant national security “credo” about America’s role in the international order. “In the simplest terms, the credo summons the United States—and the United States alone—to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world,” Bacevich writes. This is the operative meaning of “American exceptionalism.” The credo, and the way in which it shapes and constrains presidents, needs to be understood in the context of the ends or goals that the U.S. state pursues.
As we argue in our recent book The Unsustainable Presidency, we have an imperial presidency because the U.S. is an imperial power. American strategy has been one of expansion at least since World War II and there is a bipartisan elite consensus that U.S. dominance is necessary to maintain the world order as we know it. Bacevich defines the “bedrock assumption” as holding that “the United States itself constitutes the axis around which history turns.” Simply put use of military force is a tool of empire management. There are disagreements within elite circles about which policies are best suited for the larger goal, but there is no doubt that militarism is an essential accompaniment of the American presidency, a point that is reinforced by the campaign for president in 2016, on the Democratic as well as the Republican side.
Hillary Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution in October 2002 proved to be a major liability in her quest for the Democratic nomination in 2008. While she has since called that vote a “mistake” her record as Secretary of State and as a presidential candidate once again make clear that there would be few, if any, reconsiderations of the national security consensus if she were president. Serving under President Obama she consistently supported military escalation in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Her connection to the Libya intervention is usually discussed in terms of the 2012 attack on the Benghazi diplomatic mission, but more significant is that the U.S. backed overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011—described triumphantly by Clinton as “we came, we saw, he died”—has had catastrophic consequences in deepening instability and facilitating the growth and operation of terrorist networks in Libya and the region, an outcome that neoconservatives and liberal interventionists alike prefer to ignore.
In the current campaign, Clinton has delivered two foreign policy addresses that position her to the right of the Obama administration. In a September speech at the Brookings Institution Clinton suggested new sanctions against Iran backed by the threat of military force. She decried Russia’s plans to “undermine American power whenever and wherever they can.” For Clinton, “Only the United States can mobilize common action on a global scale, and that’s exactly what we need. The entire world must be part of this fight, but we must lead it.” She also stated that she would invite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House in her first month in office, a stance she reinforced in her October article in The Forward in which she correctly stated “I have stood with Israel my entire career.” In a post-Paris speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Clinton called for intensified bombing against Islamic State, the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, and the deployment of additional ground troops in the Middle East. She is a fervent believer in the idea of America as the “indispensable nation.” As Anatol Liven put it, Clinton’s entire record shows that “she has made herself a captive of those nationalist myths beyond any possibilities of escape.”
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong campaign is rooted in his economic populist challenge to neoliberalism and his call for a “political revolution.” To date, however, he has been unable or unwilling to challenge the national security credo that shaped the modern presidency and that has been reinforced by Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as Barack Obama. While he voted against the Iraq War, he has supported the U.S. wars in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and recently endorsed Obama’s decision for the long-term maintenance of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. In the last Democratic debate he called for more Muslim nations in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, to “get their hands dirty” in the fight against Islamic State. For a progressive to demand a greater role for the reactionary Saudi regime, which has underwritten Islamic extremism for decades and is helping to destroy Yemen through military intervention, is fantastical. He has also been largely silent or evasive on the use of drone warfare, the military budget, and U.S. support for Israel.
More hopefully, Sanders on occasion shows an ability to “connect the dots” and an awareness of the need for a structural and historical critique of national security policy. For example, in the recent Democratic debate he stated, “I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.” In a more recent speech Sanders argued that his approach to foreign policy “begins with the reflection that the failed policy decisions of the past—rushing to war, regime change in Iraq, or toppling Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, or Guatemalan President Arbenz in 1954, Brazilian President Goulart in 1964, Chilean President Allende in 1973. These are the sort of policies that do not work, do not make us safer, and must not be repeated.” This view moves well beyond Clinton’s standard homilies.
But Sanders must go further. He must strengthen his insistence on connecting domestic and foreign policy, for American exceptionalism and empire are deeply rooted in our political economy. The ends, not just the means, of U.S. national security policy need to be criticized, for they are unsustainable and self-defeating in that they create their opposite: insecurity. Without this, Sanders will not be able to differentiate himself sharply enough from Clinton, giving progressive and left-leaning Democrats little reason to peel away from her. And he will resemble those nineteenth century social democrats of whom Engels wrote that their vision is merely “the present-day society without certain of its defects.”