Earlier this month, as the Beltway media was finally starting to realize that Bernie Sanders was mounting a serious campaign for president, MSNBC's Chris Matthews signaled his belated recognition with a Hail Mary of denial.
“Do people really see him [Sanders] as chief executive, the guy or a person in charge of the CIA, the U.S. military, the U.S. Marines? Do they actually see him in that role?” Matthews asked. “Or do they see him as an ideological avatar, of somebody that they believe will express their view, but not to actually have the job of chief executive and commander-in-chief. I don't think anybody`s thinking, commander-in-chief Bernie Sanders! It`s unimaginable!”
It's unimaginable to Chris Matthews—who, typically, once drooled over George W. Bush's “amazing display of leadership,” the day Bush paraded around beneath the “Mission Accomplished” banner wearing a flight suit, later going on to say:
We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like [former President Bill] Clinton or even like [former Democratic presidential candidates Michael] Dukakis or [Walter] Mondale, all those guys, [George] McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple.
Matthews is hyper-typical of how thoroughly our political media misunderstands at least four different matters that all combine in this foolish display: First, the role of the presidency, and presidential leadership; second, the nature of Bernie Sanders, his background and his record; third, the limits of conventional force; and fourth, the unprecedented nature of new international threats facing America today.
In the Hardball segment, Washington Post reporter Bob Costa disrupted Matthews' fantasy with a whiff of basic facts addressing the first two misunderstandings, “He's been a veterans' advocate, committee chairman,” Costa said. “When you talk to his people, they say he`s met the threshold to be commander-in-chief. Treat him with respect. That`s their argument.”
Indeed, that same day, Politico ran a story, “How Bernie Sanders Fought for Our Veterans,” and the week before the Boston Globe went even further, with a story by Annie Linskey reporting from the campaign trail, “Bernie Sanders’ surge is partly fueled by veterans.” There's nothing new in this, either, as could be gleaned from a 2013 Army Times story, “Vietnam protester Sanders now battles for vets,” which reported:
Since his days in the House, the 71-year-old independent has won veterans' support by consistently focusing on the issues most important to them — from health problems caused by Agent Orange and Gulf War illness to disabled veterans' fears that their benefits will be cut.
Now Sanders is simply reaping what he's long been sowing. “Entire Reddit threads are dedicated to how veterans can best pitch Sanders to other veterans,” Linskey wrote, adding:
“He is revered,” said Paul Loebe, a 31-year-old who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan during eight years of active duty and spends three hours a day updating a Facebook page promoting Sanders to veterans. “He’s very consistent with where he stands. He’s the first politician that I’ve believed in my life.”
Veterans were intimately familiar with how he had fought for them. And they either didn't care about his ideological label, or else saw his socialism as a plus:
For Louis Celli, at the American Legion, Sanders’s progressive views make some sense in the context of advocating for veterans’ programs. “Who better than a socialist to advocate for veterans’ health care?” he asked.
In short, the Beltway “conventional wisdom” was wrong from top to bottom, according to the reporting on the ground. And it's only natural to project that, sooner or later, veterans attitudes will be reflected in active troops as well. They look forward to their futures—and it's only natural they should come to place more trust in a politician who does the same, rather than getting himself caught up in the momentary fog of war.
In short, all this speaks to the first two matters that our political media misunderstands in this matter—first, the role of the presidency, and presidential leadership, and second, the nature of Bernie Sanders. The president is not “commander-in-chief” in the sense of some sort of super-macho military leader. That's exactly the opposite of what our system of civilian control of the military is all about. Civilian concerns are necessarily broader than military ones, and how the nation cares for its veterans is one of the most striking examples of how that broader responsibility concerns the well-being of all Americans—including those who serve, or have served, in the military.
The fact that Sanders has devoted himself to veterans issues is actually not the least bit surprising, for those who know something about American history. First, as Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol demonstrated in "Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States," benefits for Civil War veterans and their families were the historical foundations for modern-day American social policy. Second, there was a deep bond between the anti-war left in the Vietnam War era and the great mass of veterans who served in that war, which makes Sanders' concern for veterans affairs reflective of a broader enduring concern.
While the political media inverts the reality, recycling the myth that protesters spat on returning veterans, sociologist and Vietnam vet Jerry Lembcke thoroughly refuted and deconstructed that myth in "The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam."The reality was that the anti-war movement spread to the troops in Vietnam, and their eventual refusal to fight was a major factor in bringing the war to an end. This story is told by David Cortright, a participant in the GI antiwar movement, in his 1975 book, "Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War," and is essentially (though not approvingly) confirmed by an account from a very different source, a 1971 article “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., which appeared in the Armed Forces Journal in June 1971. “By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse,” that true believer wrote, “with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.”
But where Heinl saw a broken military, the anti-war movement that Sanders was part of saw another facet of itself. Thus, there is nothing the least bit surprising in Sanders' long-standing commitment to veterans.
Moreover, this concern for veterans' welfare reflects a broader concern for the consequences of war which ought to be of the utmost concern for anyone holding the office of commander-in-chief. Strikingly, Washington conventional wisdom stands this sort of common sense on its head, assuming that short-sighted hothead blowhards, and know-nothing pose-strikers are the “most credible” sorts to hold the office. This brings us to the second two areas of misunderstanding typified by Matthews' gut disbelief in Sanders' leadership capacity—the limits of conventional force, and the nature of the international threats facing America today.
The first of these should be a no-brainer. America won its independence based on the limits of conventional force. Indeed, the British forces won almost every major engagement with Washington's forces. But that wasn't what determined the course of the war. Revolutionary wars of independence never depend on battlefield victories—except, perhaps, at the very end. America's model has been widely replicated down through the years—including by the Vietnamese we fought against half a century ago. Conventional force is but one element in military struggles, whatever the nature of those struggles may be. No less an authority than Sun Tzu, in his "Art of War," says that the greatest victory is won without fighting—and that victory is assured to whoever knows both his enemy and himself. Understanding is the key to victory—and that includes the understanding of what wars should never be fought in the first place.
But the kind of knowledge Sun Tzu commends also entails a sensitivity to the broadest range of the international threats facing America today—threats which may not necessarily take the forms of armies. Climate change is one such threat, and Sanders—probably more than any other national politician—has recognized it as such. In a 2013 Playboy interview, Sanders said:
Big business is willing to destroy the planet for short-term profits. I regard that as just incomprehensible. Incomprehensible. And because of their power over the political process, you hear a deafening silence in the U.S. Congress and in other bodies around the world about the severity of the problem. Global warming is a far more serious problem than al Qaeda.
In his campaign announcement at the end of May, Sanders again highlighted climate change as a dire threat:
This country faces more serious problems today than at any time since the Great Depression and, if you include the planetary crisis of climate change, it may well be that the challenges we face now are direr than any time in our modern history....
When we talk about our responsibilities as human beings and as parents, there is nothing more important than leaving this country and the entire planet in a way that is habitable for our kids and grandchildren. The debate is over....
The scientists are telling us that if we do not boldly transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energies, this planet could be five to ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the end of this century. This is catastrophic.
The view of climate change as a security threat is not new, but is getting increased attention, as noted recently in an article at Grist, “Climate change is a security threat. Make it a foreign policy priority.” The article first took note of a paper published this past March, by researchers at U.C. Santa Barbara and Columbia, linking climate change-generated extreme drought to the Syrian Civil War. But the main focus was a much broader report, commissioned by members of the G7, “A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks”.
As explained in a summary, the report identifies "seven compound climate-fragility risks that pose serious threats to the stability of states and societies in the decades ahead," including "local resource competition," livelihood insecurity and migration," "extreme weather events and disasters," "volatile food prices and provision," "transboundary water management," "sea-level rise and coastal degradation," and "unintended effects of climate policies." It goes on to warn of the difficulty in dealing with these risks, saying, "Single-sector interventions alone will not deal with compound risks," and advising that "Integrating policies and programs in three key sectors — climate change adaptation, development and humanitarian aid, and peacebuilding — is necessary to help strengthen resilience to climate-fragility risks and realize significant co-benefits."
What this tells us is that a whole new realm of integrating systemic thinking is needed in order to help prevent being overwhelmed by new security threats to the global order in the decades ahead. The stresses and strains we will face in the years ahead are simply without precedent in human history—and the Republican Party is still mired in denial that the problem even exists.
This is chillingly reminiscent of just how badly out of touch GOP party leaders have been on national security matters in the past—a subjecct that Matthews, like most of the Beltway media, has complete amnesia about. While Matthews finds Sanders unimaginable as "commander in chief"—and hence unthinkable as president—this ignores the reality that Republicans have repeatedly been terrible at commanding the armed forces and/or assessing military threats vs. opportunities for peace, while Democrats have repeatedly weakened themselves by mistakenly trying to prove they're as tough as the Republicans.
Republicans' bad judgement goes back at least as far back as the pre-WWII era, when they were thankfully out of power, but the party had more than its share of Hitler and Mussolini fans (Jeb's grandfather, Prescott Bush, for example), this crowd overlapped with the pre- and post-World War II isolationists, led by Robert Taft. Whether allying with Hitler, or trying to remain isolated from the world, GOP thinking from that era was as out of touch with the world around it as the GOP today is out of touch with the reality of climate change, and how it's interacting with other factors to make the world a much more threatening place than it needs to be—if we will take bold, decisive, and deeply informed action, along the lines that Bernie Sanders has been arguing for.
It's not as if the GOP record has ever been shining in foreign affairs. Recklessness and folly have characterized virtually all the GOP presidents since WWII—Nixon, Reagan and both Bushes. In addition to other problems—all the way up to treasonous lawbreaking (Nixon undermining the Vietnam War peace talks, Reagan with Iran/contra and the October Surprise)—all these leaders have all focused on relatively minor, even non-existent problems, and managed to blow them up into something much larger, often while failing to engage with major international threats and opportunities because they were distracted, or simply incapable of seeing what was there.
Thus, Nixon sacrificed more than 21,000 American lives in Vietnam just to “save face” when the war was already lost. Ford, Bush and Reagan were all tangled up by a neocon fantasy that the Soviet Union was trying to win a nuclear war with a massive military buildup. Under Ford, and Bush as his CIA chief, an outside “Team B” of neocons “reanalyzed” CIA data and generated this paranoid fantasy, which then formed the foundation for Reagan's massive military buildup. A succinct account of this, "Team B: The trillion-dollar experiment" by Anne Hessing Cahn, was published in the April 1993 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Cahn published a book-length account five years later, "Killing Detente: The Right Attacks the CIA." The reality was quite the opposite of what “Team B” supposed—the Soviet Union was falling apart, as finally became obvious to everyone when Gorbachov took over. But Reagan's massive waste of money wasn't the worst thing to come out of this paranoid frame of mind. Although it never materialized, things could have been unimaginably worse. As Robert Sheer documented in his 1982 book, With Enough Shovels, the Reagan Administration was planning to start a nuclear war, believing that it could be “won.” With a record like this of chasing phantoms, is it any wonder the GOP today can't recognize the actual threat of climate change that staring us in the face?
All the above is well-documented, but it's all been ignored, because it just doesn't fit into the "Hardball"/Beltway narrative framework of who's “serious,” and who could be a credible commander-in-chief. But the simple truth is, GOP leaders have repeatedly been spooked by threats that they magnified dramatically in their own minds. This was the case once again with Saddam Hussein's non-existent WMDs after 9/11. The attack itself succeeded because Bush and Cheney ignored multiple warnings they received in advance. Afterwards, they overcompensated by misrepresenting it not as a monstrous crime, by a small terrorist gang that got lucky, but as an act of war by shadowy forces—including Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Stumbling from one bad analysis to another, the Bush/Cheney invaded Iraq, destroyed its secular government, and created the conditions for ISIS to evolve—an organization that actually was capable of everything they falsely imagined Al Qaeda was back in September 2001. On the one hand, these leaders act tough and full of bravado, but on the other hand, they're scared of their own shadows—and it's their outsized fear of relatively minor threats that central to turning them into major ones.
These patterns of broad incompetence in national security among GOP presidents were least applicable to Dwight Eisenhower—although he did begin the reckless, immoral practice of using the CIA to covertly overthrow democratic governments we don't like in Iran and Guatemala. In a very real sense, the root of all our problems with Iran traces back to Eisenhower, a damning fact that shouldn't be forgotten. Nonetheless, he is rightly remembered for his farewell speech warning of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex,” which showed an all-too-rare appreciation of the costs of militarism and the importance of avoiding tipping over into imperial over-reach, which Paul Kennedy wrote about at length decades later by. But the seeming prescience of Eisenhower's farewell address is undercut by the fact that he didn't seem much moved to do anything to heed his own advice. Indeed, he expressed remarkably similar sentiments toward the very beginning of his time in office, in April 1953, warning in his “Cross of Iron” speech (aka “The Chance for Peace”) that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms in not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.... This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
The fact that Eisehower's presidency was book-ended by two strikingly similar speeches warning against wasting humanity's future preparing for war stands in stark contrast with his striking failure to actually do anything to bring US policy into line with his prescriptive insight. Still, he at least recognized a problem that all other GOP presidents, in their foolishness, have mistaken for a solution.
As I said before, while Republicans have been terrible at commanding the military and assessing threats and opportunities, Democrats have repeatedly weakened themselves by mistakenly trying to prove they're as tough as the Republicans—which is what some critics of Bernie Sanders think they have to do once again. The most tragic example of this was Lyndon Johnson, and the best explanation of how this played out "A Grand Delusion: America's Descent Into Vietnam," by Robert Mann, which focuses on the role of the Senate, beginning with Korean War, and how that earlier experience and what came afterwards shaped the men and the institutional relationships which paved the way to ever deepening war.
Although there are multiple fascinating and important stories bound together in this book, perhaps the most significant is the impact of the Democrats loss of their senate majority after the Korean War broke out. Johnson was the man who took over as minority leader when that happened, and painfully rebuilt the majority. The political trauma of that experience seemed to have left an indelible mark, making it impossible for him to consider anything less than total military victory—even though he despaired of its possibility. It effectively crippled his ability to think outside the box of the limited GOP mindset that he handily beat at the ballot box.
“Johnson's real mistake regarding Vietnam was to not seize upon the 'opportunity' of Kennedy's death and his own massive landslide election to order a fundamental reassessment of conditions in Vietnam and our policy toward it,” Mann told me recently. “That wouldn't come until Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers and by then it was too late.”
It was a tragic missed opportunity. “If ever a president had the popularity and the mandate to extricate the U.S. from a war, it was Johnson in late 1964. But he didn't,” Mann said. “He never challenged the 'facts' and assumptions about communism in Southeast Asia from Kennedy's advisors and actually exaggerated in his own mind based on painful memories of the Democrats' pummeling in the early 50s over charges they were weak on communism, especially in Asia.”
The factors favoring a withdrawal were significant. “Johnson really had a chance to stand down without the risk of too much political fallout,” Mann continued. “He had campaigned on 'no wider war' and not sending 'American boys' to do the fighting that 'Asian boys' should be doing themselves. And the people gave him a mandate not to start that war.”
It was everything Johnson needed to walk away from war—if that had been his intention. But it wasn't, Mann observed. “It became clear, of course, that it was all a ruse,” he said. “Even during the campaign, Johnson was plotting to escalate the war.”
Summing up, Mann said, “So, there were lies, misreading of history, over-reliance on military leaders, no fundamental reassessment of American policy in the region and his and his advisors' tragic misunderstanding of the nature of the war and the culture and politics of the region. Looking back on it, the whole thing had disaster and miscalculation written all over it.” In short, Johnson ended up acting just like a Republican president.
The same could be said about Obama as well, when he took over from Bush. His historic election gave them the opportunity to make sweeping changes, which he mostly declined to do. He kept Bush's secretary of defense, replicated the Iraq “surge” in Afghanistan, refused to investigate war crimes or roll back the role of private mercenaries. Except for cosmetically dropping the term “war on terror,” it was more like a continuation of Bush's second term than anything resembling a repudiation. He did resume the hunt for Bin Laden, which Bush had abandoned, and there were a range of other changes as well. But collectively these all amounted to a recalibration, rather than a new direction.
All this underscores why Hillary Clinton's “reasonableness” could be a troubling sign that she's can't sufficiently disentangle herself from the morass of mistaken assumptions that have dogged U.S. foreign policy for generations now. The bottom line is that real leadership requires something very different from what the punditocracy imagines. Rather than taking their standards for granted, its worth considering Sanders' record on its own terms, and asking if maybe he's been doing some things that have been missing from our national leadership for far too long.