American left

Trump’s recent air strikes on Syria highlight the internal divisions in the American left, as well as the Democratic Party, according to Richard Wagner

Trump’s recent military strike in Syria has invoked contrasting reactions from the American left.  The Democratic Party establishment has been largely supportive of Trump’s decision, even many we’d think of as “solid progressives”, like Nancy Pelosi.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has stated that this strike will make sure that “Assad knows that when he commits such despicable atrocities he will pay a price.”

Hillary Clinton seems to support this air strike also, though her words were devoid of compliments.  

The day after the air strike, Clinton stated, “The action taken last night needs to be followed by a broader strategy to end Syria’s civil war and to eliminate ISIS strongholds on both sides of the border…”

Clinton’s remarkable ability to discuss attacking the Assad regime and ISIS as though attacking opposing sides of a civil war were some sort of coherent strategy never ceases to amaze me, nor does it cease to be thoroughly ignored by mainstream media.

Clinton’s incoherence aside, she’s important to this analysis because she was clearly the candidate of choice of the Democratic establishment, which also shows itself to be largely hawkish in foreign policy.  The establishment narrowly lost in 2008 to the more dovish Barack Obama, but they never gave up on Hillary Clinton.

The Anti-War American Left

Much of the voting base of the Democratic Party, however, are far more dovish.  They were loud and clear throughout most of the Bush era in their opposition to the war in Iraq.  In addition to all of the obvious “No War” signs, there were some more eloquent sign, such as “Money for education not war”, “Labor’s enemy is in the White House and board rooms, not Iraq”, or a man in a Bush mask with a sign that reads “BOMBS not food jobs schools housing healthcare”.  

It seemed hypocritical to some that these protests were nowhere to be found with only a few years before, when President Bill Clinton bombed Yugoslavia into submission.  However, it’s possible that the invasion of Iraq sparked something.  

Given the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, the doves were able to seemingly capture the Democratic Party with the nomination of Barack Obama, who ran a largely anti-war campaign in 2008 against both Hillary Clinton in the primary and John McCain in the General Election.  But this dovish victory was short lived.  

President Obama did not withdraw troops from Iraq until the very timeline established by President Bush was satisfied.  But more importantly, Obama, largely motivated by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, launched an unprovoked attack on Libya to topple the Gaddafi regime.  The anti-war protestors were nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, to the right, it seemed that Republicans were becoming less hawkish, and somewhat more libertarian with the rise of the Tea Party movement.  It seemed that the war hawks were gravitating to the left and that libertarian-leaning conservatives were the new peaceniks.  This last Presidential race between the hawkish Hillary Clinton and the more isolationist “America First” Donald Trump seemed to cement that new narrative.  

The Doves of the American left awaken

I didn’t realize that doves hibernate.  But it seems they were in hibernation when their presidential victor, Barack Obama, invaded Libya without seeking any kind of congressional approval.

This was not a merely targeted air strike to send a message, but a complete toppling of the stable government in Libya.  Yet there was little to no reaction for the left.  There was an attempted lawsuit filed by some members of Congress, but it included only three Democrats, compared to eight Republicans.  Furthermore, it was Republican Speaker John Boehner who warned Obama that he was on “thin ice” for invading without Congressional approval.

All it took was one single air strike, on one air base in Syria, for the anti-war left to rapidly mobilize into protests in various cities across the country.  The common chant is “No justice, no peace!  America out of the Middle East!”

In Jacksonville, FL, a black man gives his passionate denunciations of Trump and the war, railing against the “white 1%” and the killing of “black and brown people who have done nothing to us”.  Such protests could be seen in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, DC, Seattle.  They very well could have used the same signs from the anti-Iraq war protests during the Bush era, but I suppose such signs got moldy sitting in their basements for the last eight years.  So they’ve made new signs, such as “Stop the US war in Syria: Fund peoples’ needs, not war”.  A little like, instead of foreign entanglements, put America first?  

This all begs the question, of course – Had Hillary Clinton won the Presidential race, and if she were, right now, carrying out her plan to bomb every air base in Syria (not just one); would these same protestors be out with the same anti-war signs with “Clinton” in place of “Trump”?  

The neolib/peacenik divide

Since the Vietnam era, the American left has been divided between the war hawks and the peaceniks.  In Vietnam, the war hawks were old school “New Deal” Democrats (pardon the oxymoron).  They blended progressive government interventionist policies at home with progressive government interventionist policies abroad.  These people would later be driven from the Democratic Party and were called “neoconservatives”, as they were neo, or new, to the conservative movement.

With Clinton in the 1990s, however, a new “neoliberal” approach to hawkishness made its way into the Democratic Party.  The neoliberals were less unilateral, however.  The neo libs favored international cooperation, but such was still largely US-led, and still focused on bringing their understanding of American values to the world by diplomacy, trade, and if necessary, by military force.  The neoliberals seem to be dominant in the Democratic Party now.  

Howard Dean once ran an impacting, albeit unsuccessful Presidential primary campaign with opposition to Bush’s war in Iraq as the centerpiece.  Now, this very same Howard Dean is twitter campaigning against his fellow Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard, for her opposition to the strike on Syria.  Yet Gabbard is growing more popular with libertarians on the right, while also being loved by the anti-war left.  Rand Paul, a libertarian-conservative on the right, has also enjoyed some praise from the anti-war left.  Meanwhile, the Warhawk often finds common ground with the neocons.  Left-leaning news and opinion sources, such as New York Magazine were suddenly drawing all kinds of attention to neocon Republicans like Lindsey Graham and John McCain from the time Trump became the Republican nominee until the day before he launched those tomahawk missiles on Syria.

However, their criticism of Trump at least softened, if not turned into praise, right after those airstrikes were launched.  A political party in Greece called “The Popular Orthodox Rally” has stated, “The demarcation of the political world into the Right Wing and the Left Wing is no longer relevant after the end of the Cold War. Nowadays, everyone in every aspect of his or her everyday life is either in favor or against Globalization.”  The divisions saw on the left, and the right, seem to indicate that.  But it does seem that the globalists on the left and right are better at coming together than the anti-globalists.  

As long as the anti-war left continues to have amnesia when a Democrat is the war hawk, they will be limited in their ability to stop wars and save lives.  If they cross party lines, and the anti-war right does the same, then peace will have a chance.

“The distance between at least some parts of the American Left and Right is far smaller than our more irritable pundits would like us to believe” – Dr. Patrick Allitt

Related Articles from Richard Wagner:

On Syria: What we know and what we don’t know

Neoconservatives May have the last laugh

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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