Bernie Sanders' Run Can Help the Less War Movement

05/04/2015 04:09 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016
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A key problem confronting Americans who would like to see the U.S. involved in less war is that as Peter Beinart recently noted in the Atlantic:

It's also notoriously hard to mobilize Americans against wars until those wars begin. The anti-Vietnam movement didn't become a force inside the national Democratic Party until 1968, when more than 20,000 Americans had already died.

And liberal activists only began putting real pressure on Democratic politicians over Iraq after the war began, when they powered Howard Dean's insurgent campaign. Since World War II, the general pattern has been that elites drive foreign policy -- generally in an interventionist direction -- until they make a mess big enough to make the public cry stop.

The pattern Beinart described is a recipe for a lot of war. It's as if the dial is automatically set to "more war" by default, and we have to make a huge effort each time, for each war, to try to change the setting to less war. Each new war is treated in public discourse as "innocent until proven guilty," -- the initial burden of proof is on war critics to show that this war is a bad one, rather than the initial burden of proof being on war supporters to show that this war is a good one.

One way to address this problem would be to make advocacy for less war a regular feature of electoral politics, so that it becomes a standard question that people (especially media) ask automatically: Where does the candidate stand on less war? Of course, over time, the marquee "less war" issues change, as happens with other concerns. Right now, the marquee less war issue is supporting realistic diplomacy with Iran. Other current less war issues include: Insisting that new wars have to be authorized by Congress; reducing the Pentagon budget to be more like that of a normal industrialized democracy; reducing U.S. support for civil wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine; making U.S. drone strike policy transparently comply with the rule of law; and reducing U.S. support for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

The race for President is to electoral politics what the award for Best Picture is to the Academy Awards: It's the thing at the top of the marquee, the thing that the most people will pay the most attention to. So if we're serious about the project of making less war a permanent electoral issue, then we have to be serious about making less war a permanent issue in presidential politics.

This means that less war activists have a huge stake in what Bernie Sanders says about less war issues right now and in the months ahead, when he will have a platform in the media to talk about less war issues that no other progressive political figure is likely to have.

Of course, Sanders is not going to be a less war candidate in the sense that less war is going to be at the top of his marquee. The top of his marquee is already taken with other issues:

Tad Devine, an informal adviser and longtime friend to the senator, has said that a Sanders campaign would focus heavily on three major issues -- campaign finance reform, climate change and income inequality.

But that makes him potentially an ideal less war candidate from the point of view of maximum impact on the less war issues. The thing that we need most in the United States is not more people for whom less war is their top issue; the thing that we need most is to reduce the general phobia among liberals and progressives so that making advocacy for less war becomes a standard feature of the liberal-progressive package presented to the public. If Sanders makes advocacy for less war a feature of the liberal-progressive package he is presenting to the public, then Sanders will be modeling on a very prominent stage exactly the behavior among liberals and progressives that we most need to encourage.

We're not starting from zero. Juan Cole notes:

Bernie Sanders opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation of that country.

Sanders wanted to get out of Afghanistan from 2011 much faster than the timetable announced by President Obama. Obama has now more or less extended a US military presence in Afghanistan, advertised as a training mission, indefinitely. My reading of Sanders is that he would get out of that country entirely.

A President Bernie Sanders would endorse the Iran negotiations of the Obama administration.

Sanders was the first U.S. Senator to announce that he would skip Netanyahu's anti-diplomacy speech to Congress.

This makes Sanders an ideal candidate to help move pragmatic less war positions on Israel-Palestine deeper into mainstream American political discourse.

We have an ideal test case right now. Supporters of the Netanyahu lobby are trying to make it official US policy to endorse Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank, by attaching a provision requiring the U.S. to oppose European sanctions against Israeli settlements in the West Bank to the "Fast Track" trade package moving (or not moving) through Congress. This pro-settlements provision is opposed by J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Sanders, of course, is opposed to the Fast Track/TPP/TTIP trade package. But that doesn't mean he can't also oppose this specific provision -- other Democrats opposed to the package have done so.

You can urge Sanders to stand with J Street, APN, and JVP against the pro-settlement provision here.