So when you watch these debates, you're looking for a needle in a haystack. Amidst all the talk of torture, carpet-bombing, "smart power", Internet censorship, and no-fly zones, we're just hoping that at some point something sensible will make it into the discussion as well. Occasionally, there's something worthwhile, but thus far even the best statements have mostly stayed at the surface. Yes, we were grateful when Rand Paul or others made the obvious point that overthrowing dictators often has very negative consequences. But skepticism alone isn't enough to change minds or even make many headlines. For that, you need something more. You need something that confronts the conventional foreign policy wisdom directly.
In some ways, the last two presidential debates have given us precisely that.
First up, we had Bernie Sanders give us a brief history lesson on some of America's foreign policy disasters after World War II. He specifically mentioned the case where the US and British overthrew the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 and replaced him with a brutal dictator. He mentioned the disastrous overthrows in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, both of which are now increasing filled by radical terrorist groups. He also went on an apparently planned attack former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Hillary Clinton describes as a kind of mentor. Here's the relevant discussion of Kissinger from Bernie:
"Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference, in the last debate — and I believe in her book — very good book, by the way — in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger."Bernie was absolutely right about Kissinger--a man who successfully advocated for war crimes while in office. And it was great to hear someone to discuss the disastrous foreign policy history of the US, particularly after World War II. It was also surprising because it means that Bernie actually does know and acknowledge the history of US intervention.
But if he does know this history, then why has he been so inconsistent on issues of war and peace? A liberal author I respect, attempted to cast Bernie's Kissinger attack as a sign of the clear difference between Hillary and Bernie on foreign policy. And when the issue comes up, Bernie certainly conveys a much more peaceful note. But in reality, the difference between Bernie and Hillary is really one of degree rather than principle as a new article makes clear.
Like Bernie, Donald Trump is also very far from a principled noninterventionist. But in Saturday night's GOP debate, he offered probably the best antiwar statements of the entire campaign season. Here are the main highlights (I've just omitted the parts where the moderator attempted to interrupt.):
Quote 1: Obviously, the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake. All right? Now, you can take it any way you want, and it took -- it took Jeb Bush, if you remember at the beginning of his announcement, when he announced for president, it took him five days.
He went back, it was a mistake, it wasn't a mistake. It took him five days before his people told him what to say, and he ultimately said, "it was a mistake." The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don't even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world...
George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East...
You do whatever you want. You call it whatever you want. I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
Quote 2: How did he [Bush] keep us safe when the World Trade Center -- the World -- excuse me. I lost hundreds of friends. The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe. That is not safe, Marco. That is not safe.In short, Donald Trump took on the Republican orthodoxy head on. And while the audience was apparently full of Rubio and Bush supporters that booed at every turn, the fact is that what he said was true. Yes, the Iraq War was sold on a deliberate lie, and it's also true that everyone else is expected to start doing their job sooner than 9 months after they take a position. Just as important, this is the kind of aggressive truth that can get people to rethink their position. Not his fellow candidates certainly, but maybe their voters.
Of course, none of the above should be taken as support for Bernie or Trump. They're still bad on foreign policy in severe ways. But while they may be deeply flawed messengers, part of their message this past week supported the cause of peace. It's nice to have something to cheer for.