I went out for a beer the other night with a guy who was critical of Bernie Sanders for, among other reasons, his involvement with the Democratic Party.
Understanding that I, like Sanders, was prepared to – reluctantly and with great reservation – support Biden should he win the nomination, he asked the very fair question of whether I felt confident that things would actually be better in a Biden rather than Trump Administration.
I told him that so far as domestic politics went, yes, I felt that Biden would probably be an improvement in almost any area I could think of. But I did have to say that so far as foreign affairs, war and peace, etc., no, I was not confident – and acknowledged that this was no trivial matter.
I wish I could say that anything Biden said in the March 15 debate changed my thinking. The sharpest foreign policy exchange came over the Iraq War, which then U.S. Senator Biden voted to authorize after holding hearings as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Sunday, Biden claimed he was misled – “I learned I can’t take the word of a president when in fact they assured me that they would not use force,” although what he was actually saying in 2002 was “We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who is an extreme danger to the world. “He must be dislodged from his weapons or dislodged from power.”
If you’re inclined to be generous, you might argue that his attempt to recast his Iraq War support implies that at least he now recognizes that supporting that war was a bad idea and acknowledging that support would be a liability in an election against Trump – better to be seen as a fool than a knave. But you gotta ask if the voting public will be that forgiving.
A 2017 study of the prior year’s election between Clinton – who also voted for the Iraq War and had shaped our foreign policy as Secretary of State in the outgoing administration – and Trump – who claimed to have opposed the Iraq War and to support ending our current wars – “concluded that regions that had seen high concentrations in casualties over the past 15 years of warfare saw a swing in support towards Trump.”
If successful, Biden would be the third Senator who voted for George Bush’s Iraq War to win the Democratic presidential nomination, following the unsuccessful candidacies of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.
But Biden only fully displayed the depth of the insularity and incoherence of his foreign policy thinking when arguing that it is absolutely out of bounds to acknowledge that a government that official Washington disapproves of, e.g., China, Cuba, Nicaragua, has ever achieved anything good. When confronted in the February debate with the words of President Obama doing precisely that, his response was to contradict himself in two sentences: “Barack Obama was abroad, he was in a town meeting, he did not in any way suggest that there was anything positive about the Cuban government. He acknowledged that they did increase life expectancy.”
This time his response leaned more toward incoherence than contradiction. Answering the question, “Vice president Biden, you have criticized Senator Sanders for embracing Castro’s education system, but in 2016 President Obama said Cuba made, “A great progress in educating young people and that its healthcare system is a huge achievement that they should be congratulated for.” How is that different from what Senator Sanders has said?” Biden responded, “He [Obama] was trying to change Cuban policies so the Cuban people would get out from under the thumb of the Castro and his brother. That is to change the policy so that we can impact on Cuba’s policy by getting them opened up. That was about, but the praising of the Sandinistas, the praising of Cuba, the praising just now of China …”
The China reference came in response to Sanders having noted that “China is undoubtedly an authoritarian society. Okay? But would anybody deny, any economists deny that extreme poverty in China today is much less than what it was 40 or 50 years ago? That’s a fact. So I think we condemn authoritarianism, whether it’s in China, Russia, Cuba, or anyplace else. But to simply say that nothing ever done by any of those administrations had a positive impact on their people, would I think be incorrect.”
In response, Biden claimed, “the idea that they in fact have increased the wealth of people in that country, it’s been marginal that change that’s taken place.” The United Nations Development Program saw it quite differently in 2015, however, reporting that “during 1990-2005, China lifted 470 million people out of extreme poverty, contributing to 76.09 percent of poverty reduction in the world over the same period of time.”
Biden’s sputtering about the Sandinistas didn’t ultimately go anywhere on Sunday, yet it seems worth noting that the only attention paid to that country in our national debate is to raise it as an example of an authoritarian state. The fact that the Sandinistas left office when voted out and were subsequently reelected is ignored. As is the fact that our tax dollars were used to fund – legally and illegally – the Contra guerillas attempting to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, as well as to fund the Sandinistas’ electoral opponents.
And the truth is that no matter how absurd and inept Biden’s arm-flapping foreign policy pronouncements may get, he is unlikely to pay a political price for them. After all, the fact that the United Nations General Assembly has adopted a resolution calling for an end to the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba for 28 consecutive years – and last year did so by a 187-3 margin, with two abstentions – is seen to carry absolutely no weight either in official Washington or within mainstream American news media. Nor is the 1986 World Court ruling that the U.S. government violated international law in “training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces,” as well as in mining three Nicaraguan harbors.
But while Biden may not suffer from living in the Washington bubble, we will. We will, that is, when we try to fund things like health care, education and child care and run up against the fact of a military budget larger than those of the next seven highest-spending countries combined (or in another reckoning the next ten largest combined). And, more importantly, we will suffer the casualties – domestic and foreign – resulting from the continual military interventions that come with this out-of-control spending.
As we know, though, from the perspective of the people making and critiquing the “smart politics” of the nation’s capital, these considerations are beside the point – and naive, really.