President Donald Trump’s decision to carry out a series of airstrikes on Syrian government chemical weapons facilities on Friday, April 13, may signal a new front in the US wars in the Middle East. Although Democrats have largely opposed the strikes, too many in the Democratic Party continue to react to Trump through the lens of American exceptionalism — a belief in the myth of the unique righteousness of the United States. This approach is destined to enact domestic and foreign policy based on oppression, rather than justice.
Instead of centering an endorsement of (or opposition to) military action, the Democratic Party should base its foreign policy on a holistic, anti-imperialist approach that would resonate with voters in the US and scale back the harms of US militarism abroad. This vision would not be welcomed by the Party establishment. Rather, it would have to come from leftist activists wresting control from the centrist, corporate wing of the Democratic Party that benefits from a state of never-ending war.
Many people in the US, including elected Democrats, appear unsure as to what exactly the new US policy in Syria entails. When Trump gave his prepared remarks on Friday evening, he initially seemed to be announcing an open-ended campaign against the government of Bashar al-Assad, following the suspected use of chemical weapons by Assad’s military on April 7. “We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents,” Trump said. About an hour later, Secretary of Defense James Mattis described a much more limited approach, calling the attack wave a “one-off.”
Jingoism is dangerous, whether espoused by liberals or conservatives.
Democrats, and liberals more broadly, have been split in their reaction to Trump’s bombing of Syria. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted limited support for the strikes. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official under Obama and a liberal hawk, praised the strikes as well, even as she acknowledged they were illegal under international law. “I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons,” Slaughter tweeted. “It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.”
Other Democrats were critical of Trump’s military escalation, primarily along procedural grounds, citing a lack of congressional authorization. “The President must come to Congress and secure an Authorization for Use of Military Force by proposing a comprehensive strategy with clear objectives that keep our military safe and avoid collateral damage to innocent civilians,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Rep. Adam Schiff blamed Congress for having “willingly abdicated its role in approving or disproving military action.” Sen. Tim Kaine said: “It’s very, very clear Congress has the power to declare war — and only Congress.” Both Kaine and Pelosi supported a strike on Syria in 2013, when Obama was considering striking the Assad government, and Schiff was undecided.
Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee — the lone member of Congress to vote against the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the legal underpinning of the “war on terror” — was more forceful in her explicit denunciation of Trump’s bombing campaign itself. “I fully support all international accountability mechanisms to prosecute these war crimes and to negotiate a political solution to the war in Syria,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “But as we’ve seen over the last 16 years, we cannot bomb our way to peace.”
In order to create a humane foreign policy, the Democratic Party will have to think beyond borders, not double down on them.
Lee remains the elected Democrat who has most clearly articulated a progressive foreign policy that breaks from decades of establishment consensus. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has offered some substantive criticisms of militarism as well: His major foreign policy speech last September sought to lay out a vision of US involvement in the world based not on empire, but on cooperation. In the speech, Sanders rejected the doctrine of “benevolent global hegemony,” arguing against the post-WWII conventional wisdom that US foreign policy is a default net good in the world:
The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. Nor, on the other hand, is our goal to withdraw from the international community and shirk our responsibilities under the banner of “America First.” Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance.
Sanders is not beyond criticism, of course. Palestinian activists have pushed him to go further in criticizing Israel’s occupation, expressing dismay at his decision to sign a letter to the United Nations that demonizes the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). However, it’s also worth noting that Sanders and Sen. Patrick Leahy were the only senators, as of April 3, to have commented on Israel’s latest round of violence against Gaza.
Lee and Sanders, however, remain outliers in mainstream liberal thinking. The reaction to Trump’s electoral win in 2016 among establishment liberals was a call for a renewed liberal nationalism: an interventionist, militaristic mindset that has always been embraced by centrist Democrats, but has gained even greater status following evidence of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. This liberal nationalism positions the US against Russia in a new, generational struggle — a new Cold War based on old ideological and nationalistic divisions.
The new heroes of the anti-Trump “resistance” are members of Congress like Sen. Mark Warner, who has said the United States is in a “shadow war” with Russia, and the militaristic Rep. Schiff, who has risen to prominence by calling for increased antagonism toward Russia. Their rise has been mirrored by Iraq War-supporting conservative pundits like David Frum and Bill Kristol, whose “Never Trump” stances have endeared them to liberals. Frum and Kristol have been rehabilitated because they purport to offer a more sophisticated administering of US empire, one which liberals have been happy to embrace even as leftists cry foul.
The Democratic Party must not only challenge Trump’s illegal strikes, it must begin to step back from a world where the logic of empire trumps all else.
This nationalistic, us-versus-them mentality does nothing to challenge global inequities. Jingoism is dangerous, whether espoused by liberals or conservatives. It justifies discarding international law based on a flawed perception of American benevolence — as exemplified by Slaughter’s tweet — a perception that benefits weapons manufacturers and the campaigns they fund.
One way the left can push the Democratic Party to embrace a foreign policy of addressing oppressive hierarchies, rather than reaffirming oppositional national identities, is by intervening in the public discourse concerning the investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. As David Klion has argued, the Russia investigation should be reframed and embraced by the left as a story about international criminal enterprises, money laundering, and the dangers posed by offshore tax havens and oligarchs centralizing power and sucking wealth from a society to a small number of beneficiaries at the top, rather than as a story about an external existential enemy.
The reemergence of the subtler liberal nationalism, the belief in the inherent righteousness of US projection of power abroad, also allows for unacceptable moral compromises — first and foremost, the continued US support for Saudi Arabia’s relentless bombing of Yemen. Sanders sponsored a bill to end US involvement in that campaign, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Mike Lee, but was defeated after 10 Democrats voted against it. Just as importantly, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, architect of the war on Yemen, was recently embraced by the cultural elite of the United States, receiving a hero’s welcome in the supposed hotbeds of liberalism, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
There is no easy or clear answer for what US policy towards Syria should be, other than admitting historic numbers of refugees. The Obama administration should have done more on that front, following the template set by the resettling of Vietnamese refugees following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Trump, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to seal up the United States, especially from Muslims, Africans and Latin American immigrants.
But as the Democratic Party seeks to rebuild and redefine itself, the answer can’t be a doubling down on “American exceptionalism.” The left needs to force the Democratic Party to embrace an internationalist position that sees oppressive hierarchies of class, ethnicity, race and gender as global issues that demand global answers. No one will ever mistake the Democrats for the International Workers of the World, but in order to create a humane foreign policy, the Democratic Party will have to think beyond borders, not double down on them.
Despite predictions that Assad has nearly won the war in Syria, both the near and distant futures of that country are far from certain. So, too, are the coming levels of US military involvement. The Democratic Party must not only challenge Trump’s illegal strikes, it must begin to step back from a world where the logic of empire trumps all else.