At the first Democratic primary debate of the already interminable 2016 Presidential contest, it took a little over half an hour to call in the airstrikes. Ironically, much of the first half hour was spent arguing over who would most effectively curtail the ready availability of firearms on the domestic market. Gun control is a strange and contradictory position for mainstream American liberals. President Obama has observed that America, almost uniquely among developed nations, permits almost anyone to own not just a gun, but lots of guns. The result, he claims, is our national epidemic of gun violence, especially the escalating incidence of “mass casualty” events.
But the United States also uniquely has an archipelago of 700 military bases around the world and is waging hot wars in dozens of countries, from major ongoing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan to air strikes in Syria to drone warfare in Africa. If the US is an unusually gun-loving culture, it is also an unusually militaristic one. Without drawing lazy lines of causation, there’s clearly more at work than just a legal right to possess firearms. What makes a society paranoid and trigger-happy? There must be a reason why a market exists for so many guns.
The candidates, with the possible exception of Jim Webb (whom my astonished boyfriend described as “the worst uncle at your family picnic”), didn’t pitch themselves as pro-war, of course. A mainstay of liberal politicians in America is stake out a position as a staunch opponent of all the bad wars (even those you accidentally voted for yourself) and an enthusiastic supporter of all the good ones. Obama himself campaigned and won his first term in part by casting himself as anti-war; he’d opposed the invasion of Iraq. He won a Nobel Prize for the accomplishment of not being George W. Bush, and then proved to be an even more enthusiastic supporter of drone warfare than his predecessor. He spent the next eight years expanding a secretive campaign of botched assassinations. There are, it turns out, no anti-war American presidents.
The closest thing to an anti-war candidate in the current race is not the supposedly radical leftist, Bernie Sanders, but rather his fellow New Englander, Lincoln Chaffee, a former “liberal Republican” whose chances of winning the nomination are only slightly better than mine. Sanders, meanwhile, positions himself as less committed to foreign military intervention than Clinton—hardly probative, since her principal claim to wisdom and perspicacity on military matters is that the guy who beat her to the 2008 nomination in large part on the issue of her Iraq War vote elevated her out of defeat and made her Secretary of State.
Sanders was a conscientious objector in Vietnam. He was emphatic. “I am not a pacifist, Anderson.” He opposed Vietnam specifically. It would be churlish to mock him for objecting most strongly to the one war in which he stood the greatest chance of fighting. Unlike the Rumsfelds, Cheneys, and Bushes of the world, he did register his open objection; he didn’t mouth support for bloody foreign adventure while trading on his daddy’s connections to keep his own delicate flesh planted firmly on American soil. In effect, Sanders argues that his support for war has been judicious: precisely the quality we’re supposed to want in a commander-in-chief. He opposed Iraq, and looking at Syria, he fears a “quagmire,” though he went out of his way to support air strikes and the nonsensical idea of a no-fly zone.
On the other hand, in making the case for his military bona fides, he proudly noted his support for certain campaigns:
Obviously, I voted, when President Clinton said, “let’s stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” I voted for that. I voted to make sure that Osama bin Laden was held accountable in Afghanistan.
Perhaps we learn better lessons from our bad wars than the “good” ones. It would be more accurate to say that Afghanistan was held accountable for Osama bin Laden, who was discovered and killed more than a dozen years after the Afghan War began, and notably in another country. America is now 14 years into that conflict; the country is riven and unstable; the Taliban, against whom our initial invasion was ostensibly fought, are retaking territory, and have even become America’s tentative allies in some circumstances against ISIS and other foreign militants. It’s a strange resume-builder for a man opposed to quagmires.
Kosovo is a stranger lesson still. There’s little doubt that the NATO air war hastened the end of the Kosovo War, but it did not “stop ethnic cleansing.” On the contrary, it had the opposite effect. Although there were atrocities prior to the bombing campaign, not to mention hundreds of thousands of “internally displaced peoples,” the systematic expulsion of the Albanian population only started after the bombing campaign began. Then, at the conclusion of open conflict, hundreds of thousands of these refugees returned, while almost all of Kosovo’s Serbs fled. As Adam Roberts, hardly a Chomskyite, wrote in an assessment published shortly after the conclusion of the war:
The fact that the campaign failed in the intended manner to avert a humanitarian disaster in the short term, even though it did eventually stop it, makes it a questionable model of humanitarian intervention. The uncomfortable paradox involved—that a military campaign against ethnic cleansing culminated in a settlement in which the majority of Serbs resident in Kosovo departed—must reinforce the sense that humanitarian operations cannot suddenly transform a political landscape full of moral complexity.
Another paradox: a good war that Bernie Sanders supported ended in a scenario terribly similar to the bad war he opposed, the effective ethnic partition of a multi-ethnic state.
He now supports an air war in Syria. It suggests that, though he may differ in the particulars, in broad principle Sanders is a predictably mainstream Democrat with the mainstream’s fatal affection for air war as a neat and clean form of “humanitarian intervention.” What, precisely, the bombardment of Syria is meant to accomplish, tactically or strategically, and against whom, is not so much unanswered as unasked. The natural American reaction—to fill every void of good options with a bombing campaign—is more than bipartisan: it’s the fundamental default of American politics. Consider this: Bernie Sanders is more willing to distance himself from the civic religion of capitalism than he is from American intervention in foreign wars. Socialism, relentlessly demonized in US politics, isn’t a poison pill, but the notion that a military is only for self-defense is.