The war party

With the Republican right still preaching isolationism, it is the Democrats who are now gung-ho for wars and military adventures, writes Daniel Lazare

“A criminal wants to portray Nato enlargement as an imperial project aimed at destabilising Russia,” Joe Biden declared in Warsaw on March 26. “Nothing is further from the truth. Nato is a defensive alliance. It has never sought the demise of Russia.”

An “imperial project aimed at destabilising Russia”? Where did “criminal” Vladimir Putin ever get an idea like that? Could it have something to do with the non-stop threats, accusations and paranoid fantasies that US Democrats have been sending his way for more than a decade?

Years from now, when historians look back at how the United States helped plunge the world into war, Washington’s endlessly bellicose rhetoric will be a big part of the story. Republicans, to be sure, have engaged in more than their fair share of Russia-bashing. But demonising the Kremlin has emerged as a Democratic speciality since early 2011, when Putin infuriated secretary of state Hillary Clinton by opposing Nato intervention in Libya - and the then vice-president, Biden, bragged of meeting the Russian leader and telling him, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”

Whether or not the story is true - Biden stretches credulity by saying that Putin then smiled, as he replied, “We understand one another” - the remark set the tone for a barrage that would only intensify in the years to come. After exulting over the death of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011 and cackling, “We came, we saw, he died”, Clinton sparked unruly protests in Moscow by calling for a “full investigation” into alleged Russian election irregularities because the Russian people “deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable” - words that likely left Putin wondering whether he would be the next national leader to die at the hands of a US-inspired lynch-mob. In early 2012, Clinton said that Russia’s refusal to back efforts to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was “no longer tolerable”, while, a few months after that, she slammed Russian efforts to promote economic cooperation in central Asia as “a move to re-Sovietise the region”.

That was just the warm-up. 2014 saw a quantum leap, when US-backed protestors toppled a Russian-leaning president in Ukraine, causing Putin to retaliate by seizing the Crimea peninsula to protect Russia’s all-important Sevastopol naval base and ensure access to the Black Sea. Comparisons on the American side to Hitler and the 1938 Sudetenland crisis promptly multiplied. The decibel level rose more when Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency in June 2015 and called for a rapprochement with Russia. And it went shooting through the roof in November 2016, when Trump won the White House and Dems chose to blame the upset not on America’s antiquated Electoral College, which allowed him to eke out a victory despite trailing in the popular vote, but on the Kremlin - by now an Elders of Zion-style centre of worldwide evil and subversion.

Campaign manager Robby Mook and campaign chairman John Podesta laid out the Democratic line less than 24 hours after Clinton’s concession speech. According to one account,

Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up and up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centrepiece of the argument.1

2016 allegations

Supposedly, Russian intelligence had stolen a treasure trove of Democratic emails and passed them along to Wikileaks, which dutifully disclosed them to the press. The story did not add up for a variety of reasons. Julian Assange, whose record for veracity is nonpareil, denied it roundly, while the chronology laid out by special prosecutor Robert Mueller had the data reaching WikiLeaks just days prior to publication - far too short a time for an organisation known for its curatorial diligence to vet thousands of documents and verify that all were genuine.

But Democrats would not allow details like that to get in the way. More charges followed, each more outlandish. Russia was hacking state electricity grids. It had taken over hundreds of seemingly respectable websites to spread dezinformatsiya. It was bombarding US embassy personnel with mysterious energy waves. It was communicating with the Republican campaign via a secret internet server in Trump Tower. It was using a secret sex tape to blackmail Trump, and it was paying bounties to the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. The Guardian trumpeted the news that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was meeting regularly with Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in order to advance the conspiracy.2

Such stories were either untrue or exaggerated beyond all recognition. What they showed was the degree to which Democrats had become prisoners of a fantasy world of their own making. But that was not all they showed. They also revealed that Dems had come to see Putin-bashing as a no-lose proposition. The party’s base loved it and the press gobbled it up, while Russia was too weak to strike back. So why not hit Putin with more made-up accusations, the more lurid the better? What could go wrong?

So it went, right up to the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Biden did his bit by accusing Russia of trying to frame him by planting a laptop in a Delaware repair shop containing emails purportedly sent by his son, Hunter, concerning efforts to make money off his father’s position. “You mean the laptop is now another ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ hoax?” an incredulous Trump asked during a televised debate. “You’ve got to be kidding.” (Trump was right: the laptop was not a hoax, the emails were genuine and Russia had nothing to do with it.)3 Biden called Putin a “killer” a couple of months after taking office, while secretary of state Antony Blinken wondered aloud in December 2021 how the Kremlin could ever think that the United States and its North Atlantic allies posed a danger to the Russian Federation. “The idea … that Nato represents a threat to Russia is profoundly wrong and misguided,” he said.4

In fact, it seems clear in retrospect that the rising crescendo of vituperation led Putin to conclude that America would not stop Nato’s eastward thrust until Russia was surrounded on every border by hostile states bristling with western armaments. American claims that an attack was imminent (‘He’s going to invade! He’s going to invade!) may have convinced him that the US was about to act if he did not move first. As clumsy and paranoid as this was on his part, it did not arise out of nowhere. To the contrary, Putin had every reason to fear that the US posed an existential threat to Russia and that it was out to break up the federation, just as former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski had urged back in 1997 (see ‘What hath Zbig wrought?’ Weekly Worker March 315).

This does not mean that Putin’s assault was justified. But it does mean that American claims of innocence are nothing less than laughable. Or, rather, they would be laughable if thousands of people had not already died and if the world did not appear to be plunging off a 1914-style cliff.

Lesser evil?

But the Democrats’ role in paving the way for war means something else: that they have replaced the Republicans as the US war party. This was not the case as recently as 1991, when Dems voted against the use of force in the coming Gulf War by a margin of two to one in the House and by better than four to one in the Senate. With memories of Vietnam still painful, Democrats were the ‘peacenik party’, determined not to be drawn into a military debacle again.

That changed when the Gulf War proved to be a one-sided military romp over the depleted forces of Saddam Hussein. Fearing that they had missed the boat, Democrats swung sharply to the right. The ever-slippery Bill Clinton told a reporter on the eve of the war that he agreed with the arguments against it, but probably would have voted for it regardless.6 As a result, he was careful to choose Al Gore - one of the 10 Democratic senators who had voted in favour of the pro-war resolution - as his running mate and then, in 1997, to name the hawkish Madeleine Albright, a Brzezinski protégé, as his secretary of state. War against Serbia followed, along with the stepped-up bombing of Iraq.

From now on, the Democrats would be the party of endless warfare against a rogue’s gallery consisting of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad … and, finally, Putin, the most villainous of them all. The political implications are sweeping. With the Republicans retreating into isolationism and neo-Putinite authoritarianism, the only anti-war statements one hears in America are from Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others on the ultra-right. From the ‘radlibs’ who opposed US intervention in Vietnam and central America, the message is the opposite: ie, hatred of Russia, cheers for plucky little Ukraine and demands that Washington up the supply of arms. The same Democratic news outlets that once retailed endless horror stories about Russian collusion now fill their pages with tales of Russian atrocities and Ukrainian derring-do. Nato has supplanted the American Civil Liberties Union as the most admired liberal institution of the day!

The implications are particularly striking for the left. The idea of the Democrats as the ‘lesser evil’ - less bellicose, less reactionary, less anti-intellectual than the Neanderthals of the Republican Party - has penetrated deep into leftwing ranks: not only those of Popular Front liberals of The Nation magazine variety, but radicals, Maoists and some Trotskyists as well.

Even the CPGB is not immune. The evidence is the party’s position on the Bernie Sanders campaign set forth in its ‘Perspectives 2022’ document adopted in February. It reads:

From the beginning we argued that the Bernie Sanders movement in the US was of real significance. To have stood aloof from it would have been criminal. For the first time in a hundred years masses of Americans have begun to describe themselves as socialists. Of course, what is meant by socialism owes more to universal healthcare than the rule of the working class. Nonetheless, that, and the very considerable growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, give Marxists a real chance of building themselves into a serious force.

The wording is notably imprecise. Yes, Marxists should not stand aloof. But what should they have done instead - joined in a campaign whose goal is to win the nomination of a party galloping to the right? Considering that Sanders had introduced a Senate resolution in 2018 endorsing the CIA’s nonsense about Russian collusion,7 would his nomination mean combating the party’s pro-imperialist drift - or endorsing it? In fact, Sanders was using ‘socialism’ to draw votes deeper into the Democratic fold, prettifying the party rather than exposing it.

Fortunately, the party’s pro-war stance now makes the problem a bit more clear. Instead of the lesser evil, it is now apparent that the Democrats are fully the equal of their Republican opponents - better, perhaps, in certain respects, but worse when it comes to the life-and-death issues posed by the war in Ukraine.

  1. J Allen and A Parnes Shattered: inside Hillary Clinton’s doomed campaign New York 2017, p396.↩︎

  2. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/27/manafort-held-secret-talks-with-assange-in-ecuadorian-embassy.↩︎

  3. “[N]o evidence has emerged to back up suspicions from former intelligence officials, backed by Biden himself, that the laptop’s leak was a Russian plot” (A Prokop, ‘The return of Hunter Biden’s laptop’ Vox March 25 2022 (www.vox.com/22992772/hunter-biden-laptop).↩︎

  4. Blinken press briefing, December 2 2021: www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-a-press-availability-at-the-nato-ministerial.↩︎

  5. weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1389/what-hath-zbig-wrought.↩︎

  6. S Kornacki, ‘The war that made Bill Clinton president’ Salon January 23 2011: www.salon.com/2011/01/23/clinton_gulf_war.↩︎

  7. www.sanders.senate.gov/press-releases/sanders-introduces-resolution-to-protect-american-democracy-from-russian-meddling.↩︎