In the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, national security has emerged as a point of contention between front-runner Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, her underdog socialist opponent who serves as the junior U.S. senator from Vermont. Many Democrats concede that Clinton has an upper-hand when it comes to foreign policy, citing her tenure as a member of the Committee on Armed Services, as well as her service to the Obama administration as Secretary of State. The mainstream media, which has largely aligned itself with the Clinton campaign, feeds this narrative by painting her opponent as clueless on drone warfare and uncommitted to national security. The implicit message of this smear campaign is that a Sanders presidency will make us less safe, echoing the 2008 Clinton campaign’s accusation that then-Senator Obama was unprepared to be commander in chief of the armed forces. The only thing that has changed since 2008 is that Clinton campaign is no longer able to employ racist sub-messaging to portray her primary opponent as dangerous gamble for the nation’s highest office.
Foreign policy experience is certainly a critical consideration in the presidential primaries, and Clinton’s tenure as the Department of State’s senior official ought to be acknowledged—but only for what it is worth. Pushing back against the tactics employed by the Clinton campaign, Sanders surrogate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard rightfully framed the Democratic race as a “question of experience versus judgement,” highlighting the damaging consequences of Clinton’s foreign policy decisions. Indeed, a careful look at the Democratic front-runner’s national security agenda reveals a disturbing commitment to neoconservatism, an interventionist right-wing ideology that emphasizes regime change and the elusive goal of “American strength.”
In the aftermath of the Reagan Revolution, the Democratic Party’s status as the standard-bearer of the American Left suddenly vanished. In order to win back the so-called Reagan Democrats who defected to the GOP to offer President Reagan landslide victories in 1980 and 1984, the Democrats adopted a “Third Way” platform that disavowed social democratic policies. President Bill Clinton led the Democratic Party in an even sharper turn to the right in 1994, when the so-called Gingrich Revolution swept the House and Senate with stunning Republican majorities. Integral to the Democrats’ betrayal of the Left was the Clinton administration’s execution of an aggressively hawkish foreign policy, particularly under the neoconservative leadership of Secretary Madeleine Albright.
As a U.S. senator and as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton took this nascent neoconservative ideology to its logical conclusions with her vote for the now-infamous invasion of Iraq, her backing of illegitimate right-wing coups in Honduras and Haiti, her push for war in Libya, and her involvement with arms sales to the notoriously authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a prominent Clinton Foundation donor. Clinton openly promises to reassert this hawkish agenda as commander in chief, slamming President Obama’s hesitation to militarily intervene in Syria and pledging to execute a more “muscular” foreign policy as President. In a move that shocked many on the Left, Clinton even assured American supporters of the hard-right Israeli government that she would invite unindicted war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House within a month of taking office.
Clinton’s promise to make America hawkish again is unsurprising to those who have taken note of her close ties to former diplomat Henry Kissinger, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in spite of his roles in Pakistan’s 1971 Bangladesh genocide, the U.S.’s notorious carpet-bombing of Cambodia, and the CIA’s installation of right-wing dictatorships in Argentina and Chile. Both Kissinger and Clinton’s bloodstained records on issues of “national security” should disturb the American Left, to say the least. The 2009 Honduran coup that Clinton facilitated is particularly frightening, given that this illegal regime change has empowered the Honduran state to assassinate over 100 environmental activists and 59 journalists. Ultimately, you cannot separate the line-items of Clinton’s “exemplary” resume from the line-items of obituaries and the countless lines of blood that streak the earth.
The differences between her foreign policy record and that of her opponent in the Democratic presidential primaries are not trifles. Sanders opposed all-out war in Kuwait, led the opposition that voted against the Iraq War, supports a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has an extensive history of opposition to CIA-backed regime change. He is the closest thing to a dove that the Democratic primaries have seen in a generation.
As a nation, we have forgotten what it means to be at peace. Our younger generations belong to an American cohort that has grown up in the shadow of perpetual war, particularly in the aftermath of the fateful September 11th attacks. Islamophobia is rampant, regime change is the norm, and the media ceaselessly beats the drums for war. American interventionism has also been disturbingly technologized, with U.S. drone operators in our backyards initiating gruesome airstrikes on wedding parties seven-thousand miles away. But to what end? The world appears to be more destabilized and ridden with conflict than ever.
It would be wishful thinking to contend that a Sanders presidency would usher in an era of world peace; his vote for the war in Afghanistan, for example, does not rest easy in the minds of many Americans belonging to the Left. However, it is beyond reasonable and fair to insist that a President Sanders would begin to de-normalize the war machine and its insistence on interventionism and unfailingly advocate for peace on the global stage. His approach to international affairs is decidedly worthy of a democratic society. The same cannot be said of Clinton’s.
Christopher Hanna is a sophomore at Cornell University and current President of Cornell’s chapter of Amnesty International. Jevan Hutson is a senior at Cornell and former President of Haven: Cornell’s LGBTQ Student Union.
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