War on Terror

Death of the Anti-War Candidate

Where have all the anti-war candidates gone?


Department of Defense

I have a student in one of my classes who told me the other day he had to finish the semester early because he was being deployed to Afghanistan for a second time. The class is about the history of American journalism, so the final lectures cover the media's role in pushing wars like the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, and even the war on drugs. I hope I get to cover that with him before he leaves.

The war to which the student is being sent ended in 2014, according to President Obama, who said the Afghanistan effort was over even though he had left 10,000 U.S. troops there. The withdrawal of those troops has been postponed a number of times, often at the behest of the weak Afghan government.

In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on the idea that he would end the unpopular Iraq War and focus on prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, which he argued President Bush had ignored by starting a second war in Iraq. Today, the Obama administration has been engaged in the war in Afghanistan longer than the Bush administration prosecuted the Iraq War. There are few pronouncements anymore explaining why the U.S. is in Afghanistan, other than to train Afghan troops and support counterterrorism operations, the mission for many years now.

Obama launched his presidential campaign as one of the few candidates who had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning (he was a state senator representing Hyde Park in Chicago in 2003). The introduction of positions on the war in Afghanistan complicated the anti-war narrative, but did not dispel all his supporters of it, as Obama apologists argued when President Obama's Afghanistan surge was being announced.

Of course there were authentically anti-war candidates in 2008, on the Democratic and Republican side. The most successful of them was Texas Rep. Ron Paul (R), who also ran in 2012, winning six state primaries. The anti-war candidates on the 2008 Democratic side, like Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, were relegated to the fringes quickly.

Paul's position on non-intervention and war was unique among Republicans, whose foreign policy platform was captured in the 2000s entirely by philosophies of interventionism. In a 2007 debate, Ron Paul reminded his fellow candidates that George W. Bush ran in 2000 on a platform of "no nation building" and "no policing of the world." There's an even longer tradition of anti-war and non-interventionist sentiments on the right. Yet by the 2008 election, supporters of interventionism argued that "9/11 changed everything."

Eight years later, the stalking horse of interventionists is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that metastasized out of terror groups like Al-Qaeda that were able to operate in the region in large part because of the instability and power vacuums the Iraq War created. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Ron Paul's son, brought up this important critique in the 2016 election cycle, but dropped out after a poor showing in Iowa. Of the remaining candidates, the one who suggested he'd like to find out whether sand glowed by carpet bombing Iraq is trying to sell himself as least interventionist to non-interventionists.

Paul's critique—the acknowledgement that interventionist U.S. foreign policy contributed to the rise of ISIS—is lost to most of the remaining Republican field because it includes an indictment of the policies of a Republican president.

Democrats aren't as shy, and also have no shame. While Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have blamed the rise of ISIS on Bush policies, ISIS now operates in Libya as well, a country in chaos, one long crime against humanity. Libya was destabilized by a U.S.-led intervention under President Obama—one championed by Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, and which did not receive any kind of Congressional authorization in advance. Hillary Clinton has faced little criticism for her role in what's happening in Libya today.

Bernie Sanders continues to use his no vote on the Iraq war, now 14-years-old, as an indicator of his foreign policy. Yet at debates he often finds himself agreeing with Clinton on foreign policy. In the last Democratic debate, Sanders engaged the idea of the unintended consequences of Clinton's interventionist policies more directly than he ever had before. He talked about the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and how his replacement by the shah contributed to the 1979 Islamic revolution. He finally lambasted Clinton for boasting of her relationship with Henry Kissinger, who was Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and is a leading interventionist thinker in the foreign policy establishment.

Yet Sanders' understanding of unintended consequences isn't just limited to foreign policy (he never considers the unintended consequences of his economic proposals): it's also limited within the foreign policy domain. At the same debate where he promised to "look very carefully about unintended consequences," he endorsed the idea of taking a more aggressive stance vis a vis Russia and endorsed continuing U.S. involvement in the fight against ISIS.

At a previous debate, he called ISIS a "war for the soul of Islam," supporting a campaign of Muslim troops on the ground supported by major powers including the U.S. That's a position not far off from what many Republican candidates have said they support, although Republicans will usually refer to Arab troops, not Muslim troops. And Sanders' formulation of the struggle against ISIS as having to do with "the soul of Islam" falls closer to the "call it radical Islam" rhetoric of Republican interventionists than the "ISIS isn't Islamic" rhetoric of the Democratic interventionists.

Meanwhile, at the most recent Republican debate, in South Carolina, Donald Trump received among his loudest boos of the election cycle for pointing out that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, happened under George W. Bush's watch. Trump has repeatedly trumpeted comments he made in 2003 calling the Iraq War a mistake, and gave the equivalent of the "Bush lied, people died" argument about the war, pointing out that the Bush administration said there were weapons of mass destruction but that there were no WMDs found.

But Donald Trump is no anti-war politician. In a recently uncovered 2002 interview, Trump was found to have supported the Iraq War. "I wish the first time it was done correctly," he told radio host Howard Stern back then. Trump doesn't necessarily oppose wars, he just thinks he can do a better job prosecuting them.

Most importantly, the critiques of the Bush and Obama-Clinton policies are incomplete without each other—both have contributed to regional instability that is now used to justify even more intervention. And both are responsible for normalizing (or, if you're a pessimist, maintaining the normality of) pro-war politics in America. Four years ago, Glenn Greenwald pointed to polls that showed deep support among Democrats for the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens not given due process, and for keeping Guantanamo Bay open.

At the last Democratic debate in New Hampshire, Afghanistan got two mentions from the candidates. Sanders said it wouldn't be possible to withdraw "tomorrow" and then pivoted to talking about Iraqi army gains over ISIS in that country. Clinton re-iterated Obama's decision to keep troops longer at the request of the Afghan president, and argued any decision on withdrawal would have to consider how much the Afghan government "continues to need." She even mentioned ISIS outposts in the country as a potential reason to stay longer.

There are no candidates left who can offer a substantive engagement of the effect of U.S. intervention on creating the conditions that are then used to justify even more intervention. It's not an issue voters appear to care about—certainly not one they've appeared to press their candidates on. The occassional bromide that suggests some understanding of the role of interventionism in contributing to foreign policy problems from someone like Sanders or Trump is usually decontextualized and left unapplied to the kinds of decisions the remaining candidates might be asked to make in the future. Issues like U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen are almost completely absent from the debate.

The fate of former Sen. Jim Webb in the Democratic presidential race illustrates the damage done by the imposition of bipartisan support (rhetoric aside) for the actual workings of U.S. foreign policy. Webb was a critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq as well as Libya, and called for Congress to reclaim its role in decisions about war-making. He also happened to be an early proponent of criminal justice reform (in a way, the effort to limit the wars the U.S. wages on its own people). But at his only debate appearance, he defended the rights of poor and middle class people to defend themselves with guns, pointing to the hypocrisy of well-guarded elites pushing to abrogate the rights of everyday people. He eventually announced he was dropping out of the race, and the Democratic Party.

Democrats made a big deal out of issues of war and peace during the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has continued many of the same policies, and innovated new ones along the same ideological lines.

At that one Democratic debate with Jim Webb, the candidates were asked what enemy they were proudest of. Hillary Clinton mentioned Republicans. Webb mentioned an enemy soldier he had killed while serving in Vietnam. The crowd wasn't amused. The line from Clinton indicating she considered her political opponents to be her greatest enemies got applause. A line that reminded the audience of what war on the ground actually means provoked discomfort.

Notably, Clinton, the candidate who laughed about the sodomy and killing of Col. Qaddafi at the tail end of the U.S. intervention in Libya. "We came, we saw, he died," she joked, even as the Obama administration insisted officially that protecting the Libyan people, and not regime change, was the mission. It failed, and voters fail to care, content instead to accept any position coming from their partisan team because they've been convinced the other side is that much more awful, even as their foreign policy differences are increasingly only rhetorical.

NEXT: RIP: Harper Lee, DOJ Bosses Apple Around, Jeb Stumbles: P.M. Links

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  1. They died on 9/11 unfortunately.

  2. I recall W being loudly applauded by conservatives during his 2000 campaign for saying that the US should not be the world’s policeman. By 2008, Rudy was running on being the world police and both he and fox news were mocking Ron Paul for disagreeing.

    1. How’d that foreign policy platform work out for Rudy?

      He finished well behind Ron Paul in the Republican primaries.

      1. And yet they still haven’t seemed to learn their lesson.

        1. Trump, Cruz, and Carson don’t want to be the world’s policeman. If any of ’em are lying it’s probably that slick Canadian Harvard lawyer.

  3. Death of the Anti-War Candidate
    Where have all the anti-war candidates gone?

    I’m not sure where Ned Lamont is now.

    1. Whatever happened to all those anti-war protesters including The Sheen and Sheehan Show?

      They’ve been awfully quiet.

      Apparently, there’s only one type of war they hate.

      1. Sheehan got quiet when NPR no longer found her useful.

      2. Actually Sheehan kept it going for a while under Obama but the media turned on her immediately after the election. She went from being unquestionable anti-war mother to being that crazy Cindy overnight.

          1. That’s not much of a surprise.

  4. Progressives shouldn’t be using big words like “unintended consequences.”

  5. Just because you are not interested in war doesn’t mean war isn’t interested in you.

  6. If ISIS is a war for the soul of Islam, maybe Bernie is a war for the soul of the Democratic Party and Donald Trump is a war for the soul of the GOP. Just don’t be surprised if the winner isn’t the side you’re rooting for, if it turns out the soul of Islam is Blowing Shit Up, the Democratic Party is More Free Shit and the GOP is Whatever Shit Sells.

    1. Wait, I thought the soul of the GOP was We Don’t Take Kindly To [whatever] Around Here

  7. “I wish the first time it was done correctly,”

    This, by itself, is not a pro-war statement.

    In context it is anti-war. If Saddam Hussein had been removed from power in the first Gulf War there would be no cause for a second. It does not suggest Trump supported “Desert Storm”. “Yeah I guess so” does show Trump did not “always oppose the invasion of Iraq” but it is hardly a full-throated waving-of-the-bloody-shirt endorsement of the second.

  8. ” the final lectures cover the media’s role in pushing wars like the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan”

    If you think the media just pushes for war then you’re so hopelessly myopic that you shouldn’t be talking about anything ever.

    1. “If you think the media just pushes for war”

      It’s clearly American voters who are happy with their country endlessly at war. If they wanted more anti-war candidates, they’d vote for them.

  9. the acknowledgement that interventionist U.S. foreign policy contributed to the rise of ISIS

    Funny how there isn’t an equal acknowledgement that isolationist U.S. foreign policy also contributed to the rise of ISIS.

    Obama cut and ran from Iraq, Iraq went down the tubes, and there were no significant US forces available in Iraq to stop ISIS as they took much of Iraq riding across the desert in pick up trucks. Wonder how those convoys of pickups would have fared against attack helicopters and a few A10 warthogs.

    1. “Obama cut and ran from Iraq”

      Obama simply followed the agreement ironed out between the Iraqi government and Bush. To call either Obama or Bush an isolationist is ludicrous.

      “Wonder how those convoys of pickups would have fared against attack helicopters and a few A10 warthogs.”

      Were you aware that the US State Department supplied dozens of new pickups to ISIS? Though not directly, due, no doubt, to their isolationism.

  10. “We need a comprehensive strategy to combat ISIS, not only in Syria but around the world.”

    Oh so that kind of comment makes Samders like all the rest? Please. He isn’t close. Yeah, he says things like that.

    Too bad that was a quote from your paragon of virtue, Rand Paul. Who you think was the peace candidate. Get real.

    1. Everyone knows the Peace candidate is Hillary.

      1. She certainly isn’t the piece candidate.

  11. Obama doesn’t do war.

    ‘Kinetic military action’ or ‘war’?

    Administration officials told congressional aides in a closed briefing earlier this week that the United States is not at war with Libya, and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes danced around the question in a Wednesday exchange with reporters aboard Air Force One.

    “I think what we are doing is enforcing a resolution that has a very clear set of goals, which is protecting the Libyan people, averting a humanitarian crisis, and setting up a no-fly zone,” Rhodes said. “Obviously that involves kinetic military action, particularly on the front end. But again, the nature of our commitment is that we are not getting into an open-ended war, a land invasion in Libya.”


    See – no war

  12. The idea that Americans are anti-war is a leftover from the Vietnam days. That war killed 50,000 Americans. A couple hundred coffins came back per week, many containing draftees. There were 500,000 troops fighting at peak involvement. so everybody knew somebody affected by the conflict.

    Now we have a volunteer military sustaining losses at a fraction of the Vietnam rate and they’re volunteers only known to family and friends. The country just doesn’t care about them in a personal way. Thus the indifference.

    1. Yet another lesson on what is seen and what is unseen.

  13. Can we please have more thoughtful foreign policy articles like this one instead of the weekly Sheldon Richnan self-parodies?

    1. Richman.
      Damn auto-correct

  14. Nice piece. If the people don’t care, the politicians won’t either. The one encouraging sign is the deep unpopularity of Jeb Bush; most Republicans regard the war as a disaster, but they don’t like to say so out loud.

    1. Unfortunately many of them have jumped on the Marco Rubio bandwagon, a candidate who is just as bad if not worse.

  15. Once you are in a conflict you can be anti-war if you do not care what happens outside your borders. What you cannot do is be anti-war and care about happenings like ISIS.

  16. He talked about the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and how his replacement by the shah contributed to the 1979 Islamic revolution.

    The Iranians did not know how bad they had it until the Islamics got in.

    1. Ah, Iran in 1953. Yes, I’m sure we can take at face value the preposterous claim by Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. about how his CIA operatives managed to overthrow Mosaddegh on a budget of $1 million. Everybody knows that no one in government would ever look at an event that worked out the way the US wanted it to and try to take credit for it even if they had essentially no actual effect on the outcome. If only we’d followed up by deploying Mr. Roosevelt with $10 million to overthrow the Soviet Union.

      And 1979? The idea that a religious conservative dictatorship was blowback for, a quarter-century-earlier, giving a small amount of non-military aid to the substantial domestic opposition to a secular socialist (who illegally and repeatedly suspended parliamentary elections in order to prevent his opposition from winning power) who was trying to consolidate a dictatorship with a blatantly phony referendum (in which there were separate polling stations for yes and no voters, for fuck’s sake) is one of the most idiotic ideas ever put to paper.

  17. We’ll see plenty of anti-war candidates once they have a Republican President to run against.

    Being anti-war now is being anti-Obama, because he’s running the wars. I don’t think its any more complicated than that.

  18. Did something happen to Austin Petersen? Unlike the parties of Lyndon Johnson and Tricky Dick Nixon, the LP has antiwar candidates all over the map.

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  20. “Where have all the anti-war candidates gone?”

    They dropped out, lost, retired, or never ran in the first place. 2012 was the last time we had a pure non-interventionist candidate (Ron Paul) run for the Presidency for either Party. I suppose Obama gets a large part of the blame for this, while his first term through some of his second saw him increase interventions in Afghanistan, and Libya. And an attempted intervention in Syria, the latter part of his second term with his Iran deal, normalizing relations with Cuba, and now deciding against putting ground troops into Syria have helped galvanize Republican support for hawkish candidates.

    I imagine if President Obama had attempted to intervene further in the Arab Spring, had gone into Syria with out Congressional Approval, or started a War in Iran, then you’d see more anti-war candidates running today. But right now If you’re a non-interventionist libertarian the only real options you have left in the two major parties is to hold your nose and vote for Cruz or get very drunk and vote for Trump or Sanders.

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