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The Dangerously Limited Foreign Policy Discourse of the Democratic Candidates

After the Paris attacks, the Democratic candidates had a chance to offer progressive foreign policy ideas. They missed that chance.

The terrorist attacks in Paris have reverberated across the globe. As tragic as these events were, they also provide an opportunity to change how US leaders approach the “war on terror.”

In the United States, the most recent Democratic presidential debate offered candidates the chance to articulate a less militaristic, progressive foreign policy vision. Their failure to do so reflects the dangerously narrow limits of “acceptable” US political discourse.

Over the past year, the US has experienced a dramatic upsurge in progressive politics. A key issue for both Republican and Democratic voters has been rising economic inequality and the political influence of corporations.

From the left, Senator Bernie Sanders has challenged centrist Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, calling for nothing less than a “political revolution.” As a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, he is trying to build a broad-based popular movement to transform the country’s rigged economy by taking on the power of the billionaire class.

Progressivism at Home and Abroad?

Sanders’ progressivism has failed to extend, though, to foreign policy. Sanders has importantly called climate change the country’s greatest national security threat. Yet he has said little in depth about how his presidency would revolutionize the United States’ role in the world.

Instead he has blamed the growth of terrorism on the Iraqi invasion – which he voted against. This critique, however, is not a substitute for a socialist or even an informed progressive account of the reasons for 21st century terrorism and how it can best be combatted.

When pushed to articulate such an account, he refers back to using the military budget more effectively and having Arab countries “put more boots on the ground.” Just as worryingly, he has stated that he would continue to deploy drone attacks, themselves responsible for killing over a 1,000 innocent civilians by some estimates.

Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton has maintained the same hardline positions as a candidate that she took as secretary of state. While domestically moving further to the left, internationally she remains committed to aggressively fighting terrorism as well as preserving US military power and interests.

A Missed Opportunity

The attacks on Paris occurred only the day before the second Democratic presidential debate. The candidates were told that they would each have time to deliver an opening statement directly addressing these events. If there were ever a time to show progressive leadership in foreign affairs, this would be it.

Unfortunately, none did. Senator Sanders stated merely that, “Together, leading the world this country will rid our planet of this marvellous organization called ISIS,” before almost immediately turning his attention to economic issues at home.

The failure of the Democratic candidates to offer a truly progressive response to the Paris attacks puts the world in further danger.

Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley simply echoed the established party position of using all available means to pursue ISIS wherever they may be. She described the group as “the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” Despite giving lip service to “diplomacy” and “development aid,” she ultimately reaffirmed that “American leadership is essential,” and blamed Assad and Iraqis rather the US for the rise of terrorism.

Indeed their main contrast with their Republican rivals was largely one of language rather than policy. Each Democratic candidate refused to refer to this as a war against “radical Islam” – preferring instead a less sweeping framing about “radical jihadists.”

Significantly, later in the debate Sanders was asked directly whether he felt his opponent Hillary Clinton had made any mistakes as Secretary of State. From the perspective of a “democratic socialist” he could have listed any number of issues – ranging from her failure to support democracy in Egypt and Honduras to her failed strategy in Libya to her seeming commitment to putting US corporate interests over global values of human rights and democracy. Sanders, by contrast, merely stated that he was against US backed “regime change.”

It was a clear and tragic missed opportunity to expand US progressivism beyond its borders.

A Failed Democratic Debate

The lack of a progressive foreign policy vision at the debate shows the broader limits of US political discourse. Whereas the government and corporations can be criticized for the damage they do in the US, the destruction they wreak abroad is ultimately off limits.

Ignored are the deeper causes of this problem – something that a socially progressive and socialist perspective would be uniquely able to provide. More than just focus on the “military threat” of ISIS, this would permit for a larger discussion of the economic and social deprivation fueling such extremism. It would also help to clarify to the US public the reasons for these conditions, effectively framing corporate power and political oligarchy as a global rather than just national problem.

This is not just good politics. It is also necessary for strengthening national and international security. Quoting British Labour leader Corbyn, “It’s vital at a time of such tragedy and outrage not to be drawn into responses which feed a cycle of violence and hatred.”

At present, there is a failure in democratic discourse happening in the United States. The failure of the Democratic candidates to offer a truly progressive response to the Paris attacks puts the world in further danger.

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