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No Alternatives to US Empire: Bernie Sanders and the 2016 Elections

By Vincent Emanuele

May 03, 2015 "
Information Clearing House" - Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading numerous articles and listening to many speeches by potential and actual 2016 US Presidential candidates. Unfortunately, it’s abundantly clear that US citizens will endure an entire election cycle without hearing any alternatives to the US Empire. Indeed, while the GOP and Democrats squabble over minor policy differences, and while Bernie Sanders rails against the Koch brothers and economic inequality, the US Empire is entirely, and conveniently, left out of the national conversation.

In some ways, I feel ridiculous even writing this article, as it’s a foregone conclusion among leftists that elections in the US are useless endeavors, at least within the current political-economic coordinates. In short, most activists don’t expect political candidates in the US to oppose the US Empire, and for good reason: they have failed to do so in any meaningful fashion and fully adhere to the project of US Imperialism.

Many of my liberal and progressive friends remain clueless about the US Empire, instead opting for the easy explanation: “Bush and GOP started the wars, not Obama and the Democrats.” Of course, liberals usually neglect to mention Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, drone strikes, Libya fiasco, massacre in Gaza, etc. Most importantly, my liberal friends believe, like so many Democrats, that US citizens can force domestic reforms without directly challenging the US’ bloated, unsustainable and insane military budget and Empire. Here, they are gravely mistaken.

Immediately, it would be worth noting that 57% of the US discretionary federal budget is dedicated to warfare. Whatever liberals and activists wish to do with the remaining 43% doesn’t really matter because the remaining 57% of the budget is off limits and devoted to Empire. In fact, it’s not even part of the discussion. The dominant discourse surrounding the US Empire still takes place within the ideological-political prism of the War on Terror. Within this context, only minor reforms have been suggested concerning the US Empire.

For instance, Bernie Sanders once said, “The situation has become so absurd, that the Pentagon is unable to even account for how it spends its money. Now we can argue about whether we need this weapon system, or that weapon system, or the size of the Pentagon, but I would suggest there is no disagreement that we should have an understanding of how the Pentagon spends its money.”

What does Sanders’ comments tell us about his ideology? He, like so many US politicians, believes that the United States plays a special role in world affairs. For Sanders, it’s not the Pentagon, per se, that’s the problem, it’s the mismanagement of the Pentagon. In other words, it’s not that the US Empire or Pentagon is inherently unsustainable and destructive, it’s that they are simply being mismanaged and misused. For liberals like Sanders and Obama, the US Empire is essential, yet should operate differently. In some ways, they view the Pentagon the same way Donald Rumsfeld did: as an entity to be reformed, modernized and streamlined.

In December of 2013, Bernie Sanders, along with Senator Patrick Leahy, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, and Representative Peter Welch issued the following statement after the US Air Force announced its decision to base the F-35 at the Vermont Air National Guard base in Burlington, Vermont:

“The Air Force decision to base its newest generation of planes in Burlington is a tribute to the Vermont Air National Guard, which is the finest in the nation. It reflects the Guard’s dedication to its mission and long record of outstanding performance. The Air Force has made clear that this aircraft, which will anchor our national air defenses, is the Air Force’s future. Now the men and women of Vermont’s Air National Guard have been chosen for a vital role in that future. The decision ensures the Vermont Air Guard’s continuing mission and protects hundreds of jobs and educational opportunities for Vermonters while securing its significant contribution to the local economy. We appreciate the Guard’s commitment to continue working with its airport neighbors to address legitimate concerns about noise and other environmental concerns.”

This statement tells us much about Sanders’ worldview and political ideology. However, is Bernie simply ideologically misguided? I don’t think so. It’s clear that Sanders understands the US political economy. He understands that the F-35 fighter jet  is “securing its significant contribution to the local economy.” He gets it. He knows, unlike his liberal supporters, that a good segment of the US political economy is based on a form of “Military-Keynesianism,” as the conservative historian Chalmers Johnson once observed. Without drastic injections of capital and resources into the US Empire, a significant portion of the US economy, particularly research and development, and manufacturing industries, would come to a screeching halt.

Practically, it should be noted that Sanders has thrown his weight behind a lemon, as the F-35 joint strike fighter is not only unnecessary and will undoubtedly be used for imperial purposes, but it’s also an inadequate and useless machine, at least by any reasonable standards:

“Last summer, the entire fleet of existing F-35’s had to be grounded because one of them caught fire on the runway. It’s the 13th time the fleet’s been grounded since 2007. Multiple studies have revealed a host of other problems. The pilot’s helmet-mounted display doesn’t work. The inertial navigation system doesn’t work.
It can’t land safely on an aircraft carrier because the tailhook doesn’t work. It doesn’t accelerate well because it’s so heavy, and using the afterburner for extra speed damages the aircraft. The main air to air missile doesn’t work, and no one can seem to figure out why. A new and sophisticated threat detection system can’t tell the difference between an incoming missile and the airplane’s own flares.”
Again, I don’t think Bernie is stupid, nor do I think he’s naive enough to believe that this F-35 fighter jet is necessary or useful; he’s a crass politician who understands that Vermont’s political economy, and indeed the US’ political economy, is largely dependent on the military-industrial-complex. The Republican Lt. Governor of Vermont, Phil Scott, spoke honestly about his state’s political economy back in 2012, reminding Vermonters that “if the [F-35] program is not located here, there is a real chance the base could be reduced in size or possibly closed altogether.” Scott continued, “This would have a profound impact on the City of South Burlington, the Chittenden County region, and the state as a whole. And it’s not just the 400 (National Guard) jobs; it’s the ripple effect as well.”

Speaking of the “ripple effect,” Greg Guma goes on to note that, “The engine of Vermont’s military sector is aerospace, aviation and related manufacturing operations.” Furthermore, Gum writes, “According to the Vermont Aerospace and Aviation Association, a division of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce that represents about 250 members, the industry currently provides or supports more than 9,000 jobs, and generates around $2 billion in economic activity a year.” Indeed, the Green Mountain State is doing much more than producing maple syrup.

But let’s not get bogged down in details. Let’s get back to ideology and values. What are Bernie’s guiding principles? While he may believe in a “Nordic Model” of government, whatever that means, Bernie is wholeheartedly committed to supporting the US Empire. At this stage, that news should be unacceptable to anyone with decent values and principles. It is unacceptable for liberals and progressives to apologize for, or whitewash, Bernie’s dubious record on matters concerning the US Empire, or Israeli war crimes.

To be sure, those seeking social change in the US cannot have their cake and eat it too. The unions in the US still haven’t learned their lesson, as the vast majority refuse to seriously challenge the US Empire or militarism abroad. To me, none of this is surprising, as most of unions cannot seem to muster the courage to speak out against the murder of young black people within the US, let alone those we kill overseas. For example, Richard Trumka, in an official statement, could barely muster two banal, vague and uninspiring paragraphs about the situation in Baltimore:

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Baltimore, the injured police, and especially the family of Freddie Gray.  What is happening there reminds us of the challenges of inequality and unease in America that we must address.

The labor movement is a part of the community and we stand with working families who seek constructive dialogue and long term community change.  As we have said before, we are committed to combatting long term issues of racism, inequality and discrimination.  And our work will continue long after the cameras have left.” 

All of this, for those who’ve been organizing primarily around issues of militarism, is terribly depressing. Fourteen years after 9/11 and we’re still left with an election cycle void of any serious discussion surrounding US Empire abroad. Here, ideology is important. What’s the ideology of modern liberalism within the US? Popular liberal commentators such as Rachel Maddow, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders would lead us to believe that our only option is a rehashing of Keynesian programs and the European Welfare State. Yet, those days are over.

In my thinking, the more we regurgitate old ideologies and policies, the more disappointed the US public will become. Cynically, or naively, liberals are telling working-class and poor Americans that we can relive the glory days of Capitalism’s “Golden Era” (1945-1971). But that’s a lie. Those days are over. And even if we had the opportunity to reestablish those political-economic measures, such policies are inherently inadequate and environmentally unsustainable. In short, we require new ideologies and fresh ideas. Accordingly, without a serious discussion about US Empire, very little will be accomplished. That’s a terribly depressing fact that so few US citizens wish to accept.

The almost constant discourse in US politics around individuals, personalities and leaders is nauseating. Unfortunately, many liberals are looking for the next JFK or FDR. Indeed, the mythologies surrounding liberal leaders are akin to the mythologies surrounding conservative heroes such as Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. Regardless of their official political orientations, and minor policy differences, these political leaders agreed on one very basic maxim: the US Empire will not be challenged. Hence, Global Capitalism will remain unchallenged in any serious manner.

Today, same is true, whether we’re talking about Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush, any serious discussion of the US Empire is still off the table, and will remain so as long as the US doesn’t have an antiwar movement capable of articulating, and organizing around, these basic truths. To be fair, many of my friends in the antiwar movement have remained principled during the Obama-era, yet we have failed to grow our numbers or organize effectively enough to become a force within US political culture.

Without a serious movement aimed at dismantling the US Empire, which includes the Surveillance and Police State, we cannot expect candidates to organically come to the conclusion that US Empire must be opposed. Sanders, like all US politicians, is a nationalist who believes in the concept of American Exceptionalism. As a result, activists shouldn’t expect much, especially from someone who hails from a state that’s all too willing to capitulate to the needs of the military industrial complex. Turns out, nationalists and those who are politically and financially dependent on the US Military-Industrial-Complex aren’t willing to oppose the US Empire. Imagine that.

Of course, there is room for optimism as young activists and organizers hit the streets across the nation in opposition to militarized policing. Hopefully, they can inject a critique of US Empire into the ongoing discussion surrounding domestic militarism. The parallels are striking. In Ferguson, I met several people who were carrying “Solidarity with the Palestinian People” flags, t-shirts and banners. They understand these connections. I also saw a man who had a sign that read, “Billions for Wars, Nothing for the Poor.”

Fortunately, for the rest of the world, there are principled activists and organizers in the US who are dedicating themselves to the very difficult project of growing a robust, vibrant and sophisticated anti-Imperialist movement in the belly of the Empire. In my opinion, those roots are already taking form in Baltimore, Ferguson and elsewhere. People are talking about policing and militarization. The leap from domestic policing to international policing isn’t a drastic one, and it’s already been discussed.

People are starting to talk about Gaza and Baltimore, Guantanamo Bay and Pelican Bay, Iraq and Chiraq in the same breath. Therein lies the hope: people connecting struggles and working effectively to resist domination and oppression. Forget about the elections, for now. Let the rich play their horse races. As David Swanson recently mentioned, maybe one day we’ll have elections in this country. Meanwhile, we have serious work to do and communities to organize.

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist who lives and works in the Rust Belt. He’s a member of UAW Local 1981. Vincent can be reached at vince.emanuele@ivaw.org

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