Not on our side: On Bernie Sanders and imperialism

By Doug Enaa Greene

June 27, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with the author's permission — On February 19, 2019, Vermont Senator and “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders announced his plans to run for the Democratic Party nomination for President. The announcement was met with cheers from large swaths of the American left who identify with his support for expanded labor rights, Medicare for All, free college, and a litany of other  progressive issues. Those appear to be very compelling reasons to back the Sanders’ campaign. However, when it comes to American imperialism and war, Sanders may offer slightly different rhetoric than other Democratic candidates or Donald Trump, but his record proves him to be no alternative at all.

Guns and butter

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Bernie Sanders discusses his record on foreign affairs, particularly during the 1980s while Mayor of Burlington Vermont. Sanders remains unrepentant in his opposition to US support for right-wing death squads in Central America, stating: “I did my best to stop American foreign policy.”

Sanders’ opposition to U.S.-backed death squads in Central America is to be welcomed. But did he do his best? During the 1980s, Vermont was one of the largest recipients of Defense Department weapons contracts, such s the General Electric Plant in Burlington, which produced gatling guns for death squads. When peace activists planned to block the gate to the GE factory on June 20, 1983, Sanders refused to support them and had them arrested. According to Greg Guma, editor of the Vermont Vanguard Press, Sanders “viewed his key constituencies as the unions and the poor. Bread and butter’ economics framed his analysis, pushing long-term issues such as peace conversion to the margins of society.” Even during his “radical period”, Sanders was only opposed to militarism unless it affected the jobs of American workers.

It is that same rationale that justifies Sanders’ long-standing support for the F-35 fighter jet, which at 1.5 trillion dollars is the most expensive program in military weapons history. Sanders has made no secret that he wants that investment in Vermont, which will provide at least 1400 jobs and $124 million worth of investment, stating: “My view is that given the reality of the damn plane, I’d rather it come to Vermont than to South Carolina. And that’s what the Vermont National Guard wants, and that means hundreds of jobs in my city. That’s it.” Sanders’ lobbying has paid off since he managed to persuade Lockheed Martin to place a research center in Burlington and get 19 F-35s stationed at the city airport.

Clinton years

In 1991, Sanders was elected to the House of Representatives as a nominal independent. At that time there appeared to be some justification for calling him anti-war since he voted against the annual Pentagon budgets for war and against authorizing the First Gulf War of 1991. Yet his opposition to war was inconsistent. In 1998, Sanders voted for the Iraq Liberation Act and another resolution that supported American measures to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As Jeffrey St. Clair noted for Counterpunch:

These measures gave congressional backing for the CIA’s covert plan to overthrow the Hussein regime in Baghdad, as well as the tightening of an economic sanctions regime that may have killed as many as 500,000 Iraqi children. The resolution also gave the green light to Operation Desert Fox, a four-day long bombing campaign striking 100 targets throughout Iraq. The operation featured more than 300 bombing sorties and 350 ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, several targeting Saddam Hussein himself.

In voting in favor of these sanctions and interventions, Sanders is a direct accomplice to the deaths they caused.

Sanders did not limit his support to American militarism merely to Iraq. In 1996, he voted in favor of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, which “imposes sanctions on persons exporting certain goods or technology that would enhance Iran’s ability to explore for, extract, refine, or transport by pipeline petroleum resources, and for other purposes.” In 2001, he voted to extend the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act.

In 1998, he voted in favor of extraditing black revolutionary Assata Shakur to the United States in order to face “justice.”

However, the most notorious action of Sanders during the Clinton years was voting in favor of American bombing in Kosovo in 1999. When antiwar activists occupied Sanders’ office in 1999 due to his support for the war, he had them arrested. Sanders’ backing for air strikes in Kosovo led one of his advisers, Jeremy Brecher to resign in disgust, writing: “Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take?”

In fact, there is no limit to the amount of violence that Bernie Sanders is willing to support.

The War on Terror

Three days after the September 11 attacks, Bernie Sanders showed that even “democratic socialists” could rally behind the flag. He voted in favor of H.R. Res. 64, Authorization for Use of Military Force that provided a blank check to President George W. Bush to utilize force against the terrorists responsible. Less than a month later, the United States launched military actions against Afghanistan which over the course of the last 18 years have led to thousands of deaths and devastated the country. The War on Terror marked the beginning of Sanders’ support for the war budget and appropriations to the military in 20022004, 200520062007. and 2008.

When the Bush Administration geared up for the Iraq War in 2003, Sanders did vote against authorizing the use of military force. This is something that Sanders and his supporters point out as reflecting his antiwar record. However, this is a clever bait and switch. Just as American troops put their boots on the ground in a war that would kill hundreds of thousands, Sanders voted in favor of a resolution expressing support for the military. While Sanders has verbally opposed the Iraq War as illegal and wrong, this amounts to nothing but hot air since he regularly votes for military funding. If the war is illegal and wrong, then so is voting to fund it.


Bernie Sanders views on Israel place him well within the liberal Zionist mainstream. While rhetorically in favor of fair play to both sides, in practice he comes down on the side of Israel. While sometimes deploring Israeli excesses, he ultimately comes down in support of the Apartheid regime. In a speech largely devoted to endorsing Jesse Jackson’s campaign and his position on Israel, Sanders did speak out against the IDF’s treatment of Palestinians during the First Intifada was an “absolute disgrace” and that “the sight of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms and legs of Arabs is reprehensible. The idea of Israel closing down towns and sealing them off is unacceptable.” Despite offering some criticism of Israel,  he was more concerned with Palestinian responsibility for the ensuing violence than anything else. He also emphasized his support for Israel: “You need to protect the state of Israel. That’s clearly and absolutely right.”

Sanders’ support for protecting Israel was not just in terms of words, but by votes to provide billions in military hardware and aid to the Apartheid state in 199719992004. When Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Sanders voted in favor of imposing sanctions in order to remove them from power. He has also voted for resolutions in favor of Israeli military actions against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2014. At a town hall meeting on Gaza, Sanders was heckled for defending the Israeli actions, telling the audience to “shut up.” 

It is true that Sanders has expressed opposition to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and even refused to attend a speech by the Israeli Prime Minister in 2015, this remains empty symbolism. He has said that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories is motivated in part by anti-Semitism.

While Bernie Sanders is willing to say that the rights of the Palestinians should be respected, his actions in defense of their oppressors speak louder.

The bomber

During the Obama years, Sanders’ showed his continued support for American imperialism by voting in favor of the military budget in 20092010, and 2013. He supported Obama’s military actions against Libya, sanctions against Russia, providing a billion dollars in aid to the far right Ukrainian government in 2014, and supported arming the Saudi Arabian monarchy to fight ISIS.

Nothing in Sanders’ runs for President in 2016 or 2020 indicates any change in his support for American imperialism. He has refused to end the drone program, but promises to use it “very selectively.” And while he has refused to endorse the American-backed coup against President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, he has legitimized the Trump Administration’s narrative that Maduro’s “authoritarianism” and not American intervention is the problem. Furthermore, he has also called for Maduro to accept the Trojan horse of American “humanitarian aid” and to respect the pro-coup opposition. While Sanders professes his preference for diplomacy and cutting some military spending, he emphasizes that he favors a strong national defense.

While there might be a change of rhetoric from a Sanders administration when it comes to justifying American wars (perhaps painting quotes by Eugene V. Debs on drones to show his socialist bonafides), Sanders’ overall record proves that his administration would change nothing fundamental for those on the receiving end of American imperialism.

Bitter truth

Bernie Sanders’ record is not one of opposition to war and imperialism, since he has continually voted to provide the funds necessary to wage war. However, Sanders’ votes for war funding are often rationalized by his left-wing backers who claim that he is voting for omnibus bills that contain diverse and unrelated types of legislation. So the excuse goes, when Sanders votes for an omnibus bill that includes veterans’ benefits and support for military occupation, he is actually only supporting the former and not the latter. Or that when Sanders’ votes for funding military operations, it is simply to show support for the troops and to make sure they’re adequately funded.

However, what these amount to are excuses to rationalize Sanders’ support for war. The excuses is that we cannot achieve “ultra-leftist” things like stopping the military at a stroke, but should focus on achieving what minimal social reforms that we can now. Therefore, we should be practical and focus on getting small reforms now. The logical end point of this is the denial of both a socialist program and principles, which is precisely the position of Bernie Sanders.

When it comes to the omnibus bills, Rosa Luxemburg long ago spoke againstthe logic of opportunistic support for the military budget provided it was tied to social funding and direct taxation:

Now if one says that we should offer an exchange – our consent to militaristic and tariff legislation in return for political concessions or social reforms – then one is sacrificing the basic principles of the class struggle for momentary advantage, and one’s actions are based on opportunism. Opportunism, incidentally, is a political game which can be lost in two ways: not only basic principles but also practical success may be forfeited. The assumption that one can achieve the greatest number of successes by making concessions rests on a complete error. Here, as in all great matters, the most cunning persons are not the most intelligent. Bismarck once told a bourgeois opposition party: ‘You will deprive yourselves of any practical influences if you always and as a matter of course say no.’…We who oppose the entire present order see things quite differently. In our no, in our intransigent attitude, lies our whole strength. It is this attitude that earns us the fear and respect of the enemy and the trust and support of the people.

In other words, a principled socialist position is to vote no without exception against any and all funding to the military.

Some leftists are willing to acknowledge Sanders’ pro-imperialism, but still argue that it is necessary to be a part of his campaign in order to reach the masses attracted to his message.  After all, we are told that politics is about getting “our hands dirty” and practicing the “art of the possible.” Somehow, we are told, making these types of compromises by supporting Bernie Sanders and softening our criticism of his imperialism, will enable leftists to advance their own agenda. However, the inevitable end result of this support is a downplaying of any criticism of imperialism and an urge to be “patient” and “realistic” while fostering illusions in Bernie Sanders. In the end, support for Bernie Sanders’ domestic reforms becomes more important than opposing imperialism.

In the final analysis, if we are serious about giving life to the slogan “workers of the world, unite!” then we must always and everywhere stand with the oppressed against the oppressors. And for US socialists, that means resolute and uncompromising opposition to our own government, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. And in that struggle, we cannot put any faith in Bernie Sanders because his record makes abundantly clear that he is not on our side.