Citizen Bernie

By Michael R. Allen
web posted July 12, 1999

One of the more positive results of NATO's bombing of Serbia has been the chance to see who is really against United States participation in imperialism, and who loudly or tacitly endorses it. Some of those on either side were not surprising, but other figures took sides that were not obviously theirs. While most of the surprises were defections to anti-interventionism, a noticeable defection from that camp was seen.

The defector was the lone independent member of Congress, Representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont. And maybe it wasn't that surprising, after all.

Representative Sanders has yet to write or speak extensively on his opinion of military action in Yugoslavia, but he has voted several times to approve the Clinton administration's plans. Sanders voted "nay" on H. Con. Res 82, which would have removed all troops from Yugoslavia unless a declaration of war was passed. He also voted "yea" on S. Con. Res. 21, which offered Congress's symbolic - though not legal - acceptance of the US-directed air strikes on Serbia. True, the congressman did vote in favor of requiring congressional approval for ground troops (H.R. 1569), probably to show that he wanted everything to be loosely constitutional.

Coming from the congressman who claims to be an "independent" and a "socialist," this toadying to the Democratic administration did not go unnoticed by the left. The immediate repercussion was the April 29, 1999 resignation of Jeremy Brecher from Sanders's staff. Brecher was a mere aide, but his action underscores the growing suspicion of Sanders by those who once saw him as a staunch critic of American imperialism.

The young Mr. Brecher's letter was sententious:

"It was your vote in support of [S. Con. Res. 21] that precipitated my decision that my conscience required me to resign..."

Brecher asked himself:

"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?

"My answers led to my resignation."

Writing in Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn was harsher, calling Sanders "that brass-lunged armchair bomber of Vermont." It is true that the socialist congressman supported the bombing of Serbia, but he did not enter any justification of his position into the Congressional Record. He did take part in the delegation to Serbia led by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), and mentioned this in a House floor speech, but he never condemned or praised the air strikes in his official capacity. Far from being "brass-lunged" he has been more often silent, passing tacit endorsement.

Contrast this with his open criticism of the air strikes on Iraq, from a December 17, 1998 press release: "I am concerned that this action took place with no discussion in the U.S. Congress, despite the fact that war-making responsibility rests with the Congress under the Constitution." Sanders bravely condemned the United Nations-backed sanctions against Iraq: "For years now... innocent civilians of Iraq, whose only "crime" is that they live under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, have been punished terribly. ... We should not add to their suffering with attacks like this."

Bankrolling Bernie

The congressman from Vermont showed great concern for the victims of U.S. aggression in Iraq. When it comes to Serbs, he seems to prefer the conventional wisdom that the Kosovar Albanians deserve to be avenged through the systematic destruction of Serbia. What could explain this difference of opinion? Sanders hasn't said so explicitly, but a look at his political patrons reveals a lot. Bankrolling him are Barbra Streisand, Norman Lear, and other Hollywood pseudo-socialists who are fiercely loyal to President Clinton.

On an issue such as Iraq, where only five House members (not including Sanders) refused to support the troops, there is no chance that Sanders's stand would generate any major publicity. But on the issue of Serbia, House Republicans finally acquired the gall to mount some opposition to Clinton's foreign policy. Sanders couldn't join them without alienating his supporters, many of whom still support Democrats like Clinton. Remember 1996? Then, Bernie Sanders refused to support Ralph Nader's presidential bid because he did not want to cause Clinton to lose the election.

With his principles contingent on his constituency's views, Sanders is no more different than most other Congressmen. He is constantly fawning over the Democratic Party, getting party unity scores higher than Minority Leader Dick Gephardt! Of course, as an "independent," he can take the moral high ground when the Democrats blunder. But most of the time, he is part of the blunder himself. Jeffrey St. Clair wrote in the November 25, 1998, issue of Eat the State, "...Bernie's real function in Congress: he can't pass any legislation or stop any legislation, but he can be used as a vehicle to make bad policies law."

The battle against imperialism needs stronger left-wing allies than Bernie Sanders, and there is not much difficulty finding them. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) has condemned the Clinton administration's handling of Iraq and Serbia, and has a voting record on those issues to back up her words. Unlike Sanders, she is an official member of the Democratic Party; thus, she has even less reason to be so outspoken. Still, she outpaces the "independent" on every issue. While she's definitely not libertarian, Lee has a healthy distrust of the military-industrial complex.

On the other hand, Sanders only battles against imperialist foreign policy when it is convenient for him. His departure from anti-interventionism does not come as a surprise, but it does come as a blessing. Halting the military state is the most difficult and most important task for defenders of liberty, and it cannot be done half-heartedly. Good riddance, Bernie Sanders.

Michael R. Allen is the editor in chief of SpinTech magazine and a frequent contributor to ESR.

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