Over the past few years, a loose coalition of activist groups, think tanks, and policy-makers dedicated to ending the post-9/11 forever war has asserted itself in foreign policy debates. As recently as February, when Bernie Sanders appeared to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, it seemed possible that US foreign policy was on the verge of turning toward a less militarized and interventionist approach. Sanders and the other major progressive candidate in the race, Elizabeth Warren, had foreign policy advisers who advocated slashing defense budgets and reinvesting in diplomacy to confront nonmilitary threats.
But Joe Biden’s decisive victory over Sanders dealt a blow to those hopes. For decades, Biden has been a representative figure of the mainstream foreign policy establishment, the so-called Blob. He supported the Iraq War, is close with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has premised his campaign on a restoration of the Obama era.
Biden appeared to secure the nomination just as the coronavirus pandemic began radically reshaping every aspect of policy-making, including international affairs. I wanted to take the temperature of leading foreign policy progressives in light of the primary race and the pandemic to get a sense of how they might attempt to influence a Biden administration and to explore what national security means in an age of deadly viruses that don’t recognize national borders. On one key point, there was a broad consensus: Covid-19 vindicates what the left has been saying about foreign policy—that endless war has squandered resources without making Americans safer—and represents an opportunity to shift the debate in a more constructive direction. On the question of whether a Biden administration would be receptive to those urging such a shift, there was far less agreement.
In early April, Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser for President Barack Obama, wrote in The Atlantic that “as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.” That is certainly the hope of all my interviewees, but for now, America’s wars rage on.
“The forever war has clearly not ended,” said one leading progressive foreign policy adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Just because we happen to be more focused on the pandemic right now does not let us off the hook for ending wars.” But everyone I spoke to agreed on the urgency of doing so.
“On foreign policy, as on a range of other issues, the pandemic has starkly demonstrated a lot of Senator Sanders’s arguments about how we have failed to invest in our own country, people, and infrastructure,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign policy adviser. In response to the pandemic, Sanders and progressive allies in Congress recently proposed cutting the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent, a plan since endorsed by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. “It shows very clearly that our security priorities and investments—the obsessive focus on counterterrorism, the overuse of the military as the foreign policy instrument of first resort—have been not just wrong but wildly counterproductive,” Duss said.
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Stephen Wertheim, a cofounder of the Quincy Institute, an anti- interventionist think tank that launched last year with funding from George Soros and Charles Koch, told me, “The pandemic illustrated a lot of what we’ve been saying for some time—that our main challenges from the perspective of US interests are planetary and transnational, not military threats from rival nation-states.”
Wertheim added, “What did our massive military apparatus and our national security state deliver for us against the biggest threat of our lifetime? Not much.”
By international standards, the United States has done an exceptionally poor job of containing the coronavirus. Failures at every level of government mean that Covid-19 continues to spread across the US, even as countries in Europe and Asia turn the corner. All of this suggests that American global leadership, already damaged by Donald Trump’s misgovernance, will have a hard time recovering from the pandemic. “Who would ever take that seriously after this?” said Duss. “This idea of America as this unparalleled and supremely competent global hegemon is over.”
Covid-19 is a preview not only of future pandemics but also of climate change, the transnational security crisis that will define our lives. The rest of the century is likely to see more famines, droughts, flooding, other natural disasters, resource wars, and mass migrations, all of which hurt the poorest countries disproportionately while sparing no one. In the ideal scenario, nations would come together to create solutions to these borderless threats. But it’s at least as plausible that countries will retreat into the kind of right-wing nationalism that has dominated international politics over the past few years.
“Internationalism is not a luxury. It’s a necessity,” said David Adler, an informal Sanders foreign policy adviser and the general coordinator of the Progressive International, a recently launched organization dedicated to fostering ties among left-wing politicians and movements around the world. “All of humanity is thinking about the same crisis and confronting the same question of how you lock down a population while providing for basic resources. We are all consumed by a similar anxiety.”
“But that’s a fleeting moment,” he added. “Very quickly, the old inequalities are going to settle in…. We’re moving to a politics that’s very ripe for nationalism. It’s our plight, as progressives, to have to force our way between those two perspectives to say that [internationalism] didn’t work the way it was constructed for the past half century and also that the direction of the right populists is far too dangerous.”
Kate Kizer, the policy director of the anti-interventionist advocacy group Win Without War, expressed similar fears. “I’m seeing two different paths ahead—either one of authoritarianism, driven by xenophobic nationalism, or an internationalist response that is rooted in cross-border solidarity and cooperation. It’s a little bit scary, because authoritarianism is a playbook that’s tried and true and has been well organized for a long time and building towards this moment.” She called the coronavirus crisis “an authoritarian’s dream” because it provides an excuse to declare emergency powers and suspend normal political processes and civil liberties, something already happening in countries like Hungary and Bolivia.
Covid-19 is also directly affecting the US military and its many theaters of operation. In April the Navy fired Brett Crozier as captain of an aircraft carrier after he raised the alarm about a coronavirus outbreak on his ship. In Yemen, a country mired in starvation and cholera due to an ongoing US-backed Saudi intervention in its civil war—opposition to which has been a central mission for progressive foreign policy activists—deaths from Covid-19 could exceed wartime fatalities in the internationally recognized capital of Aden. In just two weeks in May, the city recorded 950 deaths from the pandemic, roughly half of Aden’s war fatalities in all of 2015.
“The primary focus for us remains asserting congressional war powers to end US support for the war in Yemen that continues to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” said Erik Sperling, the executive director of the left-wing anti-war group Just Foreign Policy. “Covid in Yemen is just starting. They have an absolutely devastated health system. We’ve had Save the Children hospitals that have been bombed by the Saudi coalition.”
The virus has also had a disastrous effect on Iran, which suffers under economic sanctions that were lifted after the Obama administration’s 2015 nuclear deal and reinstated under Trump after he unilaterally withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018. In January of this year, the Trump administration assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassim Suleimani, nearly setting off a regional war. The White House had already imposed sanctions, denying Iranians access to food, prescription drugs, and medical devices. More than 13,000 Iranians have died from Covid-19 as the government struggles to obtain critical supplies. In late March 34 lawmakers—including Sanders, Warren, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar—sent a letter to the administration urging sanctions relief. The letter was endorsed by groups such as Just Foreign Policy, Win Without War, J Street, and the Ploughshares Fund.
On April 2 the Biden campaign released an equivocal statement criticizing Trump’s Iran policy and providing guidelines for humanitarian aid to work around sanctions, but it did not call for sanctions relief. More recently, Biden’s main foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, said at an American Jewish Committee event that under a Biden administration, all sanctions on Iran would remain in place, including those introduced under Trump, unless Iran resumed full compliance with the nuclear deal—which it was doing before the US withdrawal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“It was good that [Biden] said something, but I think what he called for was the bare minimum and that he should go much further,” said Kizer. That summarizes how foreign policy progressives tend to appraise Biden. Should he win the presidency, he will be responsible for managing US military commitments in the Middle East and elsewhere, for pursuing a multilateral diplomatic strategy for threats like the pandemic, and for navigating America’s increasingly fraught relationship with China. Foreign policy progressives are ready and willing to advise him on all of these issues—but will he listen?
The figure most likely to determine the answer is Blinken, a former Obama administration national security official who has been advising Biden on foreign policy since his days on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Blinken, 58, is a former contributor to The New Republic, a partner in a private equity firm (as The American Prospect reported, a number of top Biden foreign policy advisers have gotten rich in the private sector), and an outspoken humanitarian interventionist. Blinken had a hand in Obama’s Afghanistan surge (which Biden, as several interviewees noted, opposed at the time) and intervention in Libya. In New York Times op-eds, Blinken has voiced support for Trump’s air strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and for providing military assistance to Ukraine. Blinken is visible in Pete Souza’s famous photograph of the White House Situation Room during the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Blinken also played a role in shaping the Iran nuclear deal.
Asked whether a Biden administration would be receptive to foreign policy progressives and vocal opponents of the forever war, Blinken said in a statement, “Given the scope of the challenges the next president will face, we’re actively soliciting input and advice from a wide range of experts, including many progressive leaders, to help us build out a foreign policy agenda that reflects Vice President Biden’s long-held values, and will help restore America’s leadership role in the world as we confront new threats like the coronavirus” (emphasis added).
Multiple outlets have reported that progressives have been lobbying Blinken and others to commit to some of the foreign policy proposals embraced by Sanders and Warren, with limited success at best. Duss, the Sanders adviser, said he has had conversations with Blinken, bonding over a shared passion for the Beatles. “I have known him for quite some time,” said Duss. “I like him a lot. I have great respect for him.” Duss added that he has recommended a number of people from Sanders’s foreign policy working group to work on the Biden campaign and that Biden’s team has been in touch with them.
“The Biden campaign has welcomed supporters from not only the other progressive campaigns but from all of the other primary candidates with open arms,” said another progressive foreign policy adviser. “They have incorporated advisers into their working groups. They are proactively seeking to do what they can to unify the party.” But the adviser cautioned, “I think there is still an open question about whether that will result in any substantive changes in terms of policies and whether or not any of the more progressive voices in the party are appointed into positions of influence.”
The adviser also expressed concern that Biden has yet to commit to winding down wars in the Middle East or reducing the Pentagon budget. “Trump has increased it by hundreds of billions of dollars. It doesn’t seem like too much of an ask to expect the Democratic nominee, at a minimum, to say that we’re going to undo those increases, even if they’re not willing to go further.”
Others were even more critical. “I don’t understand why Tony Blinken would want to write, very recently, an op-ed with pro–Iraq War neocon Bob Kagan in The Washington Post,” said Wertheim, who noted that while he has not spoken with Blinken, there are people in Biden’s orbit whose anti-interventionist views align with the Quincy Institute’s. “Biden’s record is the record of a mainstream Democrat over many decades—which is to say, not very good.”
In March, Wertheim criticized an essay written by Biden—presumably with input from Blinken—in Foreign Affairs laying out his most comprehensive foreign policy vision. “It claimed to end the forever war,” Wertheim said. “And then in the next sentence, it explained that what that meant was that perhaps half of US ground troops in Afghanistan and the Middle East would be withdrawn. That’s not ending the forever war.”
Lara Friedman, who succeeded Duss as president of the nonprofit Foundation for Middle East Peace, which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was blunter. She excoriated Blinken for his statement during a webcast in May that “Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences—to the greatest extent possible—between friends behind doors,” referring to how Biden would handle disagreements with Israel. The event was hosted by the Democratic Majority for Israel, a super PAC funded in part by people who have donated to Republicans and that has targeted progressive candidates, including Sanders, with negative ads.
“It’s quite striking,” said Friedman. “They didn’t put this out in August. They put this out in May, before the July 1 annexation date,” referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the occupied West Bank this summer, in violation of international law and against pre-Trump US policy. (As of this writing, the process had not formally commenced.) “He’s saying aid will never be used as leverage of any kind. He’s promising to protect Israel at the United Nations, which I have a hard time reading as anything other than a shot at Obama”—a reference to Obama’s decision not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank in December 2016.
Friedman was pessimistic about a Biden administration’s willingness to listen to pro-Palestine activists. “If they’ve already annexed by the time you come in, how much political capital are you going to spend trying to undo or unwind annexation?” she asked.
One issue that came up repeatedly in my interviews was the US-China relationship. The Covid-19 pandemic was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan; as a result and presumably to distract from their failure to contain the virus, the Trump administration, Republican hawks like Senator Tom Cotton, and right-wing media outlets have attempted to stoke xenophobic outrage against China. But so has the Biden campaign, which in May faced pushback from progressives and Asian American groups for releasing an ad that accused the president of having “rolled over for the Chinese.”
“Even before the [coronavirus] crisis, there was a growing narrative in Washington that the rise of China presented an existential threat to the United States,” said Kizer. “We saw this with Tom Cotton’s proposal to increase military spending for more weapons to be used potentially against China. If we continue down the path of demonizing China and the xenophobia and hate that goes along with it…we’re going to ultimately end up hurting our ability to address security challenges.”
There is also the issue of accountability for past US policies associated with the forever war. In June the Biden campaign announced that its foreign policy and national security transition team will be led by Avril Haines, who during the Obama administration served as deputy director of the CIA, a position in which she helped oversee redactions to the Senate’s torture report.
“Not only was Haines part of the torture infrastructure under [Gina] Haspel, she also actively supported Haspel, a known torturer, to lead the CIA,” said Maha Hilal, an anti-torture advocate with the organization Justice for Muslims Collective. Haspel became the CIA’s director in 2018. “Haines already played a direct role in absolving others of their crimes, so she will surely extend this to her work under a potential Biden presidency.” This might be the hardest aspect of a Biden administration for progressives to accept; given the personnel involved, there is likely to be little appetite for reckoning with the recent past.
The presumed outcome of the primaries is still a sore spot for everyone I spoke with. “It’s immeasurably sad,” said Adler. “Bernie’s campaign was the place where [progressive foreign policy] ideas were getting a fair hearing.” Daniel Bessner, a professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington who advised the Sanders campaign, described himself as “pretty pessimistic about Joe Biden” and said he expected that a Biden administration would be very similar to the Obama administration and would rarely draw on the ideas developed working with Sanders.
But whether a Biden administration listens to foreign policy progressives will depend on not only personnel but also whether anti-war voices can organize and assert themselves. Here, at least, I found some optimism.
“There is a much more solid and continually growing and mobilized coalition around progressive foreign policy priorities that there simply was not toward the beginning of the Obama administration,” said Duss. “It came to fruition in support of the Iran nuclear agreement.”
He added that whereas the neoconservatives who have lobbied in favor of wars have long been well organized, with “a lot of donors and think tanks and letterheads and columnists,” the anti-war left’s main advantage is that its views now reflect a clear majority of Americans’. Meanwhile, in terms of infrastructure, progressives are catching up, thanks to new groups like Quincy with the budgets and connections to provide an alternative to the echo chamber in Washington.
Increasingly, elected officials are listening. After the Suleimani assassination in January, Democrats sprang into action to insist on Congress’s constitutional authority over wars, which Duss called “a positive shift” since the Obama administration—although Democrats may not be as eager to assert such authority against a Democratic president. Progressives both in and out of government are also rallying around the dovish Representative Joaquin Castro’s campaign to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he would replace New York’s recently primaried Representative Eliot Engel, a noted hawk. “Castro has shown a commitment toward various progressive causes, especially ending the US’s unconstitutional war on Yemen,” said Shireen Al-Adeimi, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and a Just Foreign Policy board member.
“I definitely agree that the outside movement is much more organized,” said Kizer. “And I think that’s going to be one of the critical things…for the Biden team to understand, that there is an active, progressive constituency who cares about national security and also that the changes that progressives are seeking on domestic policy are tightly intertwined with changes that are necessary on the international front.”
This summer, mass demonstrations across the country have pushed policy-makers to implement long-overdue reforms aimed at ending racist police violence. Biden may not have been most progressives’ first choice, and he has some responsibility for the modern police state, but he and his advisers seem to understand how that debate has shifted. Should he win in November, perhaps progressive activists will force him to reevaluate the untenable foreign policy status quo in which he is similarly implicated.