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Bernie and Iran

Even after Trump’s conciliatory speech the world still teeters on the brink of war, which could immediately draw in countries across the Middle East and beyond. Anything remains possible, since there are powerful nations on all sides demanding peace on one hand and clamoring for war on the other.

It’s possible that a multi-nation ‘grand bargain’ of de-escalation could be made, though it’s equally possible in the coming days or weeks that dramatic military escalation could threaten the lives of millions. The upper-echelons of the U.S. ruling class are deeply split on the issue, playing an epic game of tug of war about how to best deploy the war machine.

The same splits are present in Iran and Syria, where there are powerful people not content with merely a “symbolic” retaliation against Trump’s act of war; if they strike more targets the U.S. war hawks will reassert themselves.

The militarists among the Republicans and Democrats will not tolerate a quiet withdraw from the Middle East, as some people naively assume.  An empire that relies more and more on military supremacy cannot simply holster its guns, since that would mean packing up history’s largest military-political empire.

While mass protests should be organized in every city in the United States, demanding ‘No War’ might not be enough, especially when a state of war already exists. Sometimes more specific demands can help agitate people into action, just as the “Out Now!” demand helped mobilize people into action to shut down the Vietnam War.

By pushing strategic demands Bernie and those who support him can apply maximum pressure to the establishment by mobilizing the maximum number of people.

Law Doesn’t Stop War Anymore  

Bernie supporters cheered, prematurely, when he announced legislation would be introduced to “defund” any Iranian military action. Other legislative maneuvers were offered by Ilhan Omar, which would enable Congress to retake their power of authorizing war; though it’s likely much too late for legal tactics.

It’s hard to prevent a dog from attacking once it’s been let off the leash. Killing the Iranian general was the act of war that needed to be prevented; the ongoing proxy wars that the U.S. and Iran have been fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen also needed to be prevented. In the minds of the senior U.S. establishment, Iran and the U.S. have been involved in a regional war since 1979, which occasionally boils over but always simmers.

Bernie should have also warned his supporters that his Iran legislation would likely be symbolic, since the Senate would almost certainly vote it down, and If by some miracle the law passed Trump would veto it, with zero repercussions. If by some greater miracle the veto was overridden in Congress, Trump would still feel comfortable ignoring the law, since wars historically act as a ‘super veto’ to the sturdiest legislation.

How the Legal Precedent Was Set 

The truth is that Democrats — including Bernie — helped pave the warpath we’re on: after 20  years of bi-partisan war, the president now has dictatorial powers to make war. The political fallout from the 2003 Iraq war vote was so major that Democrats and Republicans agreed that such votes were no longer necessary; the political blowback was too dangerous. The 1973 War Powers Resolution is technically still in effect, but it’s been actively ignored for years.

That’s why, in 2011, Obama invaded Libya without a clammer for a vote from Congress, and nobody — including Bernie — had much to say about it (though Bernie did co-sponsor a resolution in the weeks before the war that condemned the Libyan government, which served to jumpstart the war machine).

The Washington Post said, correctly, that ‘Obama is Defying the Constitution on War’, but both parties seemed happy that the war machine was permanently unshackled. The precedent set in Libya allows Trump to “legally” do similar things to Iran, and Democrats all know it.

After Libya, Obama launched a proxy war in Syria that helped destroy the country and made war with Iran all but inevitable. Bernie supported Obama in Syria and Congress never asked to vote on the issue.

Obama only went to Congress after the Syrian war escalated, and his motive was to blame Congress for not escalating the conflict, since he knew Congress didn’t want to be accountable for the war they wanted. Congress ignored Obama’s request for a vote: the Syrian war resolution never made it to the floor for a vote, again reinforcing that Congress is irrelevant during wartime.

Obama made sure to say that asking Congress was purely symbolic: “while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.” Few Democrats had any appetite to contradict him.

Obama then launched a new proxy war in Yemen, collaborating closely with Saudi Arabia in creating an epic humanitarian disaster that led the U.S. further down the warpath with Iran. No congressional vote was demanded of that war, which Sanders only began opposing after Trump inherited the conflict.

The U.S. government has largely been ruled by the military-industrial complex since WWII, as President Eisinhower warned while leaving office. The last 20 years of increased warfare — triggered by the Afghan War that Bernie voted in favor of — has made the implicit more explicit and can’t be undone by symbolic legal maneuvers.

How Bernie and the Squad Could Actually Stop War

It would be easy to stop an Iran war if Trump was the only problem, but he has a large supply of accomplices in the Democratic Party that act as key cogs in the war machine. They are also the most vulnerable to a frontal attack from Bernie.

Sanders has a historically-powerful bully pulpit, especially while he’s actively campaigning for president. Any issue he decides to focus on becomes a national conversation, which he can further focus by applying urgency and repetition. Just as Bernie brought Medicare For All from obscurity to necessity, so can he attack the U.S. war against Iran, but he has to also attack fellow Democrats to be successful.

He could start by demanding that Trump and leading Democrats immediately call for U.N. brokered peace talks, with a guarantee of full U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East.

Blasting this demand on social media, the debate stage, press conferences, television interviews, town halls, and rallies would agitate the nation and appeal to much of Trump’s base. It would also appeal to the rank and file soldier.

Public demands for peace talks from a U.S. Presidential candidate would also appeal to the Iranian public, including the warhawks in Iran — now empowered after Trump’s insane provocation.

Bernie’s campaign could further jumpstart the anti-war movement by calling for anti-war marches and rallies in every town and city he campaigns in. Tens of thousands would mobilize in cities across the country, raising the alarm further still.

Ultimately there is a critical difference between holding a political position and actively organizing in favor of that position. An antiwar tweet— or symbolic legislation— is nice but ultimately means very little.

Bernie and the Dems at the Crossroads 

After Trump’s initial act of war he expected support from the Democratic Party, since for 40 years the Democrats have been as hungry as the Republicans to overthrow the Iranain government, while Middle East wars — from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, to Yemen — have been a bi-partisan project. If it’s one thing that has united the two parties over the decades it’s been war.

But to maintain their anti-Trump #resistance credentials, most Democrats used doublespeak to half-denounce Trump’s act of war, following a nearly identical formula: agreeing with Trump that General Qassim Suleimani was a “murderer,” or “evil” (essentially Hitler), but afterward offering some “resistance” by saying that Congress should have been asked first, or suggesting that Trump lacked a “plan” in the Middle East.

The various forms of Democrat quibbling accepted Trump’s motive behind his act of war — it’s the kind of resistance that ultimately serves as an effective war-lubricant, since killing a “butcher” is always a “good” thing. Once you agree that the first shots were justified, you’ve accepted the premise of the conflict, the logic of which leads to an escalation that leaves secondary arguments in the dust of tanks.

Alexandria Acasio-Cortez recently said, correctly, that in most countries she and Joe Biden would be in a different political party. The Democrats are proving, yet again, that she and Bernie are the ones that don’t belong in the establishment party — outsiders who are trying to reform an unreformable party of big business and imperialism.

House Speaker Pelosi made this point even clearer when she announced, at the most critical moment, that Ilhan Omar’s Iran War Powers resolution would be delayed for a week, in the wake of Iran’s retaliation. Pelosi and others wanted to give Trump the longest leash possible to make war.

The already-weak war resistance melted away the nearer full-scale war approached. Bernie too seemed to blink at the wrong moment: after Iran retaliated the world held its breath, terrified at what Trump might do next— during this excruciating long moment of crisis Bernie went media silent.

If Bernie and the Squad are serious about stopping war they should throw a serious gauntlet down: threatening to form a new party if Democrats don’t actively agitate, organize, and legislate for peace talks to be immediately held, with the goal of removing the U.S. military from the Middle East. This or a similarly-meaningful demand is what’s required to actually mobilize the energy of working people to break the bi-partisan unity for war.

One cannot stay in a party with so much blood on its hands that passively allows another catastrophic war, the repercussions of which may lead to not only bloodshed, but the final nail in the coffin of U.S. democracy.  If Bernie and the Squad don’t use their full power to stop a new war, they should stay in the Democrat Party while working-class people finally form a party of their own.

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Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

August 11, 2020
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