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Foreign policy has always been something of a sore spot for the Democratic Party. While less eager for war than the GOP, Democrats feel they have to look “tough” and “credible” on foreign policy, typically done by proving they’re just as ready to fight America’s supposed enemies when push comes to shove. That’s exactly what the Democratic candidates spent much of last night’s debate doing.
With some important exceptions, such as the issue of regime change, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policies were largely on the same page, as they have been throughout the campaign. Sanders joined in with Clinton over the prevailing fear of Russia, praising NATO’s recent provocative amassing of troops along Russia’s border, its largest deployment since the Cold War. The candidates then went on to separately embrace two of history’s worst war mongers.
Clinton went first. After Sanders criticized her earlier embrace of her predecessor Henry Kissinger, calling him “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Clinton doubled down, arguing that whatever complaints one may have of Kissinger, “his opening up of China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship.”
Clinton’s earlier mention of Kissinger wasn’t just name-dropping. She appears to genuinely view him as a role model while serving as Secretary of State. In a 2014 review of his latest book, she called him a “friend.” Her praise has raised eyebrows among liberals, given Kissinger’s well-documented record of war crimes, including the illegal bombing of Cambodia that killed tens of thousands of civilians and brought the genocidal Khmer Rouge to power.
In this context, Sanders’ avowal that “Henry Kissinger is not my friend” played well. It was a good moment for him, forcing Clinton to publicly defend Kissinger — a reviled figure among older Democrats and the Left as a whole — while calling attention to the establishment ties he’s tried to hammer her on throughout the campaign.
And then he mentioned Winston Churchill.
Asked by a Facebook user which foreign leader the candidates took inspiration from when it came to foreign policy, Sanders cited the former British Prime Minister.
“He was kind of a conservative guy in many respects,” said Sanders. “But nobody can deny that as a wartime leader he rallied the British people when they stood virtually alone against the Nazi juggernaut, and rallied them, and eventually won an extraordinary victory.”
Churchill is undoubtedly famed for his wartime speeches, which have become the stuff of folk history, and his image is virtually synonymous with the fight against Hitler. But for a candidate denouncing Kissinger and his record of atrocities, Churchill is an odd choice as an “influence,” to say the least.
Where to start? Churchill’s contribution to the war effort cheered by Sanders helped contribute to the 1943 Bengal famine, which Churchill later callously exacerbated, leading to the fatal starvation of around 3 million people. According to author Madhusree Mukerjee, during World War II, Churchill exported huge amounts of food from India to Britain and various war theaters, despite being repeatedly warned that continued exhaustion of India’s food supplies would lead to famine.
He continued to demand more rice even as India starved, declined offers of wheat from the United States and Canada, and had Australian ships carrying wheat bypass India and travel straight to Europe. Leopold Amery, then the Secretary of State for India, recorded in his diary Churchill saying that “the starvation of anyhow under-fed Bengalis is less serious than sturdy Greeks.”
While leading the UK in the 1950s, Churchill was responsible for other crimes. One of these was the CIA- and MI6-engineered coup in Iran, which saw the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadeq overthrown in 1953 after he nationalized British oil holdings in the country. Churchill had approved the plan and later told the main agent in the plot that he “would have loved nothing better than to have served under your command in this great venture.” (Incidentally, this was the same coup that Sanders denounced earlier in the debate as an example of how the United States should not act on the world stage.)
In the same decade, Churchill also presided over the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, which saw at least 11,000 killed and many thousands more tortured. Rebels, including President Barack Obama’s grandfather, were rounded up in concentration camps that make Abu Ghraib look like Disneyworld. Those strong of stomach can read accounts of what the British did to the prisoners for themselves.
Churchill was also not above using chemical weapons against his enemies. In 1919, he pushed for and executed a chemical attack on the Russian Bolsheviks using the so-called “M Device,” an explosive shell that released a poisonous gas that caused victims to cough up blood and vomit uncontrollably. Churchill also wanted to use the weapon against the northern Indian tribes rebelling against British rule, and was frustrated by his colleagues’ hesitancy to do so, saying: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell which makes the said native sneeze?”
Later, during World War II, at the same time that he was rallying the British public with the inspirational speeches cited by Senator Sanders, Churchill produced a secret memorandum that made clear his desire to “drench” German cities with poison gas so that “most of the population would be requiring constant medical attention.” “I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by the particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across,” he explained.
Churchill didn’t get his wish, but he did get to play a hand in another World War Two atrocity that would arguably come to be most associated with his name: the carpet bombing of Germany. Churchill’s bombing of German cities, part of the “extraordinary victory” celebrated by Sanders, deliberately made no distinction between combatants and civilians and killed around 400,000 civilians.
Dresden has become the most notorious instance of this, though by no means is it the only one. As World War II drew to a close, Britain indiscriminately bombarded the city with more than 4,500 tons of explosives, reducing the city to smoldering rubble and ash and killing between 18−25,000 people. The bombing turned the city streets into bubbling, molten tar and created a fiery vortex that sucked in everything around it.
It’s puzzling as to why, of all people, Sanders chose a figure with a record this bloody to cite as an influence, particularly after having denounced Kissinger so vehemently earlier in the debate. Even Clinton went with the safe choice of Nelson Mandela in her response. Maybe Churchill was just the first name that came to the Vermont Senator’s mind. But it’s also true that Churchill has come to stand as a symbol for military competence and far-sightedness, easy shorthand for politicians attempting to shore up an image of strength. It’s no surprise that George W. Bush elected to keep a bust of Churchill loaned to him by the British government in the Oval Office throughout his presidency.
Sanders’ choice of Churchill may be symbolic, but it’s a pointed symbol. While he has staked out differences with Clinton on certain aspects of foreign policy throughout the campaign, he’s been far less willing to break with establishment foreign policy thinking than his counterpart in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn’s opposition to intervention in Syria, his general anti-war stance and his criticism of the UK’s Trident nuclear program have caused the bulk of the conflict over his leadership, with one British general warning of “mutiny” among the armed forces if Corbyn put some of his ideas into place. Other than some mocking of his lack of knowledge of foreign policy, Sanders has received no such pushback in the United States.
The Sanders campaign, however, is built on the idea that political expediency has no place in his presidency. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that this principle doesn’t seem to apply to his views on foreign policy.
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Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting fellow. He is the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden.