Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Clinton’s, but irks me so much more

Sanders-Clinton debate.
Sanders and Clinton debate on MSNBC, February 4, 2016.

The Western left in general is wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics.

On foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, I lean closer to Bernie Sanders’ hands-off instincts than to Hillary Clinton’s interventionist ones. Americans do not have the will to fight another Iraqi or Afghan war in Syria, or Libya, or Yemen or anyplace else around here, and I don’t blame them. These wars tend to be futile, bloody, and cause more harm than good. And because Americans so clearly do not want to get stuck in another long-term Mideast war, it becomes very dangerous for U.S. leaders, like Hillary, to think they can intervene “surgically” and safely, that they can drop a few bombs, get rid of the bad guys and go home, mission accomplished. If that’s all you’re willing to do – and that is all America is willing to do – it’s generally safer all around to do nothing. So Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Hillary’s.

But it irks me so much more. This week Sanders said of the Hillary-Trump exchange of accusations over foreign policy:

I think frankly they both make a point. I think that her support for the war in Iraq was not just an aberration. I think that her willingness to push President Obama to overthrow [Libya’s Muammar] Qadhafi and lead to the kind of instability we’re seeing now in Libya, not inconsistent with her views on Syria, where she wants a no-fly zone. … Bush’s era, Clinton’s era has caused us incalculable harm.

Sanders implied Hillary was no better than Trump on foreign policy, and explicitly lumped her policies together with those of the George W. Bush administration. The comparison to Trump is beyond ridiculous, while the Hillary-W. equation is just crude, especially since she’s publicly regretted her support for the Iraq War over and over.

But beyond distorting Clinton’s policies, Sanders’ remark shows the kind of automatic rejection of any use of American military power abroad, and the self-righteousness that goes with it, that plagues the Sanders campaign and the Western left in general. They’re wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics – again, in an irksome way.

Cold War is over

America has changed since the end of the Cold War. It doesn’t support leaders like Augusto Pinochet against those like Salvador Allende anymore, it doesn’t kill masses of Vietnamese fighting for their independence because it wants to lick the Commies. America’s enemies are no longer people like Ho Chi Minh or Mohammed Mossadegh, popular left-wing figures trying to throw off foreign domination.

No, since the Cold War ended, America’s enemies have been people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Bashar Assad. Leaders whom the locals, or most of them anyway, experience as monsters. So America’s involvements in Syria, Libya and yes, Iraq, have been on a whole different, much higher moral level than the policy of supporting fascists against Communists and socialists that the U.S. pursued during the Cold War. But the Western left doesn’t recognize this.

For months I’ve been debating Sanders supporters on Facebook, most recently about foreign policy, and the most common view of Hillary is that she’s simply a war-monger. Few of them seem to see any respectable argument for fighting the Middle East’s monsters, few are ready to say that Hillary’s approach, while mistaken, is honorable – no, it’s rotten, not to say evil. She can’t be motivated by any desire to save innocent people, it’s just power, glory, American triumphalism (some also mention oil and arms sales), she’s no better than the worst Muslim-hating GOP hawk.

I have a hard time getting these people to acknowledge that as terrible as the Iraq war has turned out, ousting Saddam was a historic achievement, as was the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. I get the same resistance when I suggest that no matter how bad the situation in Libya has gotten, helping get rid of Qadhafi before he could take his revenge on his opponents  was not an immoral act, certainly not at the time. It’s the same story in the debate over Hillary’s support for a no-fly zone in Syria. And these are obviously not fringe views in the Sanders camp – they’re endorsed by the candidate himself.

Not good vs. evil

I don’t see what is so morally superior about watching passively while the likes of Saddam, Qadhafi and Assad slaughter hundreds of thousands of people. I agree that for America to intervene militarily to stop them is probably a bad idea – but it should not automatically be ruled out, which is the instinct of the left. American military power is not always futile; for instance, it got Saddam out of Kuwait in the first Iraq war and cut him down to size, another historic achievement. (Even though the postwar sanctions were a humanitarian catastrophe, American power at its worst.)

American military intervention in places where people are under attack by genocidal dictators is not immoral. It may well be a bad decision, even a reckless one, but evil it’s not. Immoral is when you’re fighting on the side of the bad guys against the good guys. America used to do that a lot; it doesn’t anymore.

Unlike what the Western left in general and the Sanders campaign in particular thinks, the foreign policy challenges facing America are no longer  about good vs. evil, like they were in Vietnam and Latin America; they’re about the lesser evil vs. the greater one, like in Iraq, Libya and Syria. I prefer Sanders’ choices to Hillary’s. But they’re nothing to cheer about, and Hillary’s are nothing to boo. The left should learn a little humility, especially in the face of the Middle East’s tragedies.