It shouldn't have come as a surprise that in the first Democratic debates after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was asked to comment. Yet the senator seemed almost thrown off by having to shift from his well-worn domestic issues stump speech. He pivoted to climate change. He pivoted to criticism of Hillary Clinton's leadership record. Anything to avoid presenting a comprehensive vision of how America should defend itself and its allies. It was an interesting evasion for someone running for commander in chief, and even more so for a self-described socialist. Socialism, after all, is an ideology that comes with a prepackaged foreign policy vision. The talking points are already written. Does Sanders' flub of the terrorism question, and his reluctance to fully embrace a socialist foreign policy, imply that maybe he's not quite the dove he makes himself out to be?
Bernie Sanders isn't the first socialist to run for president. His hero, Eugene Debs, ran for the office five times. Debs was also arrested and imprisoned for his opposition to the First World War. The speech that got him arrested, delivered in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, claimed that all wars waged throughout history had been for "conquest and plunder." Without equivocation, Debs claimed that wars — all wars, mind you — were waged without the full consent and in opposition to the interests of the classes that would actually be spilling blood: "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives."
Despite Bernie Sanders casting such a long shadow as of late, there are American Socialists still towing this hard, undiluted anti-war line. In fact, there's actually a Socialist Party in America, with its own candidate running for president. You'll be shocked to hear that they have a handbook. In the handbook, it's written, "Socialists have the job of educating the working class that wars are fought against their own interest — that the working classes of different countries have much more in common with each other than with their rulers." That's all wars, at least until a revolution in economic relations changes things.
So what about Sanders? He has gestured at being opposed to war in general — and perhaps within the context of an interventionism-prone Congress he does come off as a dove — but the details tell a more complicated story. The senator might have opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and Operation Desert Storm, but he supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the bombing of ISIS. Protesters, whom he later had arrested, occupied his office when he supported bombing Kosovo. He voted in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 and the Iran Freedom Support Act, which funneled money to "pro-liberation" groups like the oddball murder cult Mujahideen-e-Khalq. These interventionist tactics that Sanders supported don't literally constitute American boots on the ground, but anyone who claims to be a socialist should understand that financing proxy wars, enforcing counterproductive sanctions, and conducting massive bombing campaigns don't fit within the traditional purview of the class struggle.
And neither does being an international arms dealer. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been, to put it mildly, a boondoggle. Costing taxpayers nearly half a trillion dollars to develop and sustain, it's the most expensive weapon in human history. And it doesn't even work. Plagued by faulty targeting systems, bunk helmet displays, and an aversion to bad weather (it can't fly within 25 miles of a bad storm), the F-35 might go down in history as the worst lemon ever sold to the American people.
But the program's size is precisely what sustains it. With contractors spread out all over the country, Congress has a financial interest in keeping the program running. A socialist might rail against the set up, calling it a racket that funnels vast amounts of public funds into private hands while constructing war machines that will, if they function correctly, wind up defending the economic status quo. But Senator Bernie Sanders is a longtime supporter of the F-35, and has even maneuvered to get some of the planes stationed at the Burlington International Airport. There's nothing socialist about full-throated support of the military-industrial complex, especially when the companies you champion are quite explicit about Middle Eastern conflict being good for business.
When Sanders took the time to explain his homemade, ersatz socialism, he compared his own foreign policy positions to FDR's, claiming that no one better understood "the connection between American strength at home and our ability to defend America at home and across the world." But FDR wasn't a socialist, and his foreign policy was a far cry from Eugene Debs. Ensconced as Sanders is in the business of war and the ideology of intervention, one has to wonder if his reputation as a dove is a projection that he's been more than happy to allow the public to cultivate — letting his supporters make assumptions about his preferences in order to avoid clearly articulating his positions.