Thursday, April 23, 2020


When Bernie Sanders exited the Democratic presidential contest earlier this month, speculation as to the outcome of the general election became wilder than ever. 

Tara Reade’s sexual assault accusation against Joe Biden could very well sink his chances to defeat Donald Trump. On the other hand, Mr. Biden’s higher favorability might secure him crucial swing states necessary to win the presidency. At this point, who’s to say?

One outcome, though, is almost guaranteed: The United States’ belligerent foreign policy and domestic surveillance will continue unabated.

These days, bipartisan consensus in Washington might be rare, yet the U.S. national security state has remained consistent across administrations. For decades, the United States has engaged in reckless, wasteful regime-change wars. Since 9/11, the United States has spent a whopping $6.4 trillion on these wars, to little avail. From Vietnam to Iraq, the United States continues engaging in these conflicts partly at the behest of war-profiteering industries, such as oil companies and defense contractors. 

The costs of these conflicts extend far beyond government budgets. Civilian casualties from regime-change wars are in the hundreds of thousands, including victims of war crimes committed by the United States and its allies. Furthermore, the cost of destabilizing entire regions and supporting tyrannical regimes can hardly be measured in numbers. 

What did we (or the countries we invaded) get in return for all of this destruction? A communist state in Vietnam, a radical Islamist state in Iraq and a failed state in Afghanistan.

Naturally, such colossal failures breed resentment from citizens. So in order to minimize public dissent against these actions, the federal government has repeatedly lied to the public. U.S. officials knowingly fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident in order to stir the public into the Vietnam War. They lied about weapons of mass destruction to justify their invasion of Iraq, and they continue to lie about the War in Afghanistan in order to justify American presence.

Naturally, the public tends to react negatively to these revelations, but the government doesn’t like that. To prevent too much resistance to the status quo, the government illegally spies on citizens during wartime. Protesters of wars are profiled, logged into databases and tracked.

Virtually all of these actions have been supported by both major American parties. Occasionally, presidential candidates such as Barack Obama and Donald Trump postured as critics of the national security consensus. But inevitably, their administrations repeat and expand on these practices.

At least Bernie Sanders, for all of his problems, presented a rare opportunity for real reform on these issues. 

Mr. Sanders’ track record, though certainly far from perfect, demonstrated some degree of restraint toward the “establishment” national security state. From objecting to the invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s to predicting the disastrous outcome of the invasion of Iraq in the 2000s, he proved to be a healthy skeptic of the bipartisan national security consensus. His 100 percent rating by the American Civil Liberties Union and campaign platform that strongly limits federal surveillance and war powers offered reason to also be optimistic for stronger civil liberty.

Why can’t Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump do the same? If we’re using their track records to determine how U.S. national security policy might look in the coming years, that future doesn’t look so bright. 

Mr. Biden’s history on these issues is shoddy at best. During his career, he strongly supported the Iraq War, oversaw reckless regime change in Libya, backed the criminal Saudi regime and advocated for sweeping government surveillance. Despite posturing as a peacenik, the fact that Mr. Biden misled the public about his record as recently as months ago should make us skeptical that he’s had a true change of heart.

This leaves us with Mr. Trump, who, despite claiming he wants to end our wars, has stances on regime change and civil liberties that are no better. He, too, supported the Iraq War, intervention in Libya and government surveillance. As president, he nearly started a war with Iran, promoted regime change in Venezuela, and has launched attacks that have killed more civilians than President Obama. His positions on civil liberties are even worse. He’s called for the execution of dissidents, threatened to silence the free press, and used the surveillance state against whistleblowers. 

That’s why, regardless of whether Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump wins the presidency, we can only expect business-as-usual on foreign policy. Barring a surprise showing of a potential third-party candidate like Justin Amash, the United States will continue to engage in costly, wasteful foreign policy blunders, unconstitutionally spy on its citizens and put Americans at risk. 

• Yusuf Mahmood is a Young Voices contributor and an associate at a political nonprofit in Washington, D.C. 

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