Bernie Sanders used to have basic anti-imperialist positions. Now he embraces war and sanctions. What happened?
At the latest Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders was attacked by billionaire Mike Bloomberg for being a “communist.” While smearing liberals as communists is nothing new in U.S. politics, Bloomberg’s attacks seemingly have a veneer of truth due to Sanders’ self identifier as a “democratic socialist.” Additionally, he has taken trips to Cuba and the USSR, and spoken out against fascist Latin American death squads. Unfortunately, these basic anti-imperialist stances came at the extreme beginning of Sanders’ political career. As Sanders advanced politically, he has abandoned anti-imperialism.
The Cold War in Burlington
As a mayor in Burlington Vermont in the 1980’s, Sanders spoke positively about the USSR, Cuba, and the anti-Imperialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, even meeting with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as popular forces battled U.S. funded death squads in that country. As mayor, Sanders denounced the U.S. invasion of Grenada and spoke out against brutal U.S. backed military dictatorships in El Salvador and Chile. At a time when Soviet officials were begging their western counterparts to conduct bilateral, verifiable disarmament, Sanders actively lobbied his own constituents and other countries to support mutual disarmament. But even in Sanders most radical years, he abandoned anti-imperialism whenever it became politically convenient. When local anti-war activists, including a Sanders staffer, were arrested at a GE plant, Sanders supported arresting the anti-war activists. At the time, GE was supplying weapons to the same El Salvadorian dictatorship Sanders supposedly opposed! Sanders also fought to bring the F-35 fighter plane program to Vermont, under the guise that it would bring jobs. While Sanders did oppose the most horrific actions of the U.S. empire in Burlington, even then he was unwilling to take a committed anti-imperialist line.
Moderating in the House
While in the House of Representatives, Sanders initially opposed the nominal defense (war) budgets. However, in 1998 he voted for the “Iraq Liberation Act”. Sanctions on Iraq had already killed over 500,000 children at this point, and the Iraq Liberation Act further escalated these sanctions killing even more people. A year later, he voted to extradite Black civil rights leader and political refugee Assata Shakur. That same year, he voted for the NATO terror bombing of Kosovo, a campaign that deliberately targeted journalists and national infrastructure. NATO terrorists fired 10 tons of depleted uranium shells that have caused a spike in cancer and poisoned the region . After the vote, Sanders once again supported arresting anti-war activists protesting in his office. Jeremy Brecher, a senior advisor to Sanders, finally had enough and resigned from his position with a heated letter. Sanders’ support for U.S. Imperialism ramped up again post 9/11. He voted in favor of the Afghanistan war in 2001. That war, which spilled over into neighboring Pakistan, killed more than 280,000 people. In the House, Sanders also began voting for the defense (war) budgets, voting in favor of the defense (war) budget in 2002, 2004, 2005, votes he would continue in the Senate.
Embracing Empire in the Senate
Now a Senator, Sanders voted for the defense (war) budget in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013. Additionally, he routinely voted to support Israeli apartheid, voting in favor of Israel’s illegal invasion of Lebanon in 2006 and Israel’s terror bombing of Gaza in 2014. While Sanders occasionally pays minimal lip service to Palestinians living under occupation, he supports a “two-state solution”, an impossible proposition that only further cements the occupation. He has even suggested the non-violent BDS movement is motivated in part by “antisemitism”, an offensive smear directed at colonized Palestinians and their supporters. Furthermore, Sanders voted in favor of a resolution calling for regime change in Libya. The ensuing war killed at least 21,000 people in a single year and turned Libya into a failed state (the Pentagon’s goal). He even supported the illegal U.S. sponsored war on Syria, where foreign terrorists armed by the west have sought to topple the Syrian government and turn Syria into a failed state. Sanders even supported arming the illegitimate far-right government in Ukraine. Compared with his overwhelming support for war and occupation, his limited opposition to the Iraq war is the exception rather than the rule.
A Neoliberal Candidate
On the trail, Sanders has falsely labeled Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro as a “vicious tyrant”, soft pedaling the propaganda used for regime change while supposedly opposing that regime change. Sanders has claimed that China is committing “genocide” against its Uighur population, an inflammatory claim pushed by western capitalist countries and not endorsed by a single majority Muslim country on the planet. Sanders claim of genocide is nothing short of disgusting coming from someone who has voted to bomb, militarily occupy, and sanction multiple Muslim nations. Sanders has also voiced support for the Hong Kong separatist movement, in which ‘protesters’ have lit people on fire, beat people who disagree with them, openly endorsed Donald Trump and British colonialism, and firebombed clinics during the Corona-virus outbreak.
As alarming as Sanders actions and rhetoric is, who he has decided to surround himself with speaks volumes as well. For example, take Sanders’ decision to hire Matt Duss as his senior foreign policy advisor. Since joining the Sanders campaign, Duss has faced criticism for a tweet that suggests that the U.S. regime change operations in Venezuela have opened the door for Russia to increase its influence in that country. Besides reeking of colonialism, this Monroe Doctrine rhetoric continuously serves as the justification for the extreme violence unleashed on South America by U.S. capitalists. Duss has also called for increased aggression towards Russia, a country still recovering from the devastation caused by U.S. imposed austerity. Duss has proudly touted Russian oligarch and “opposition leader” Alexei Navalny’s support for Sanders. Navalny is a white supremacist who once compared Muslims to cockroaches who need to be exterminated. Even worse, Sanders’ other foreign policy advisors make Duss look like Che Guevara by comparison. They include Robert Malley, who worked on Obama’s National Security Council, Suzanne DiMaggio, who works for the pro regime-change Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Vali Nasr, an Obama State Department appointee who also worked for the neoliberal Carnegie foundation.
Sanders utilized basic anti-imperialism to build a political base, but abandoned these positions when it suited him. In fact, Bernie would not be where he is today if he had not abandoned them. This rigged political system, the corporate controlled media, and a culture built upon the spoils of war necessitate abandoning such positions to advance electorally. Even as a pro-empire social democrat, Sanders has faced monumental ruling class opposition. His moderation has not only failed electorally, it has made him into the war criminal he once opposed. It begs the question, what could have been accomplished with the hundreds of millions of dollars in donations and tens of thousands of hours of labor by volunteers if the focus was on mutual aid and challenging the political system in the workplace and the streets? Our collective power is not with Sanders or any politician, it is with solidarity among all oppressed people, domestically and abroad. If Medicare for all is passed, if the forever wars are ended, it will be because working people are in the streets demanding it, not because of Bernie Sanders.