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.