To Stop Trump’s War with Iran, We Must Also Confront the Democrats Who Laid the Groundwork

Democratic leaders are feigning outrage, but they’ve supported the precursors to war.

Sarah Lazare and Michael Arria January 3, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump confers with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) while departing the U.S. Capitol following a St. Patrick's Day celebration on March 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Since Pres­i­dent Trump took office in 2017, the lead­er­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ed the pre­cur­sors to today’s dan­ger­ous U.S. esca­la­tion towards Iran: sanc­tions, proxy bat­tles and a bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­get. Yet, now that we stand on the brink of a pos­si­ble U.S. war of aggres­sion, Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers are feign­ing con­cern that Trump is lead­ing a march to war with­out con­gres­sion­al approval, and using a faulty strat­e­gy to do so. These objec­tions, how­ev­er, are ground­ed in process cri­tiques, rather than moral oppo­si­tion — and belie Democ­rats’ role in help­ing lay the ground­work for the grow­ing confrontation.

These failures are consistent with a troubling pattern: Democrats tee up the ball for Trump’s aggressive maneuvers, and then express outrage when his administration takes a swing.

The U.S. drone assas­si­na­tion of Maj. Gen. Qas­sim Suleimani, the com­man­der of Iran’s Quds Force and a rank­ing offi­cial of the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment, takes con­fronta­tion with Iran to new heights, inch­ing the U.S. clos­er to the war the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been push­ing for. While Trump deserves blame for dri­ving this dan­ger­ous esca­la­tion, he did not do it on his own.

As recent­ly as Decem­ber 2019, the House over­whelm­ing­ly passed the Nation­al Defense Autho­riza­tion Act (NDAA) for Fis­cal Year 2020 with a vote of 377 – 48. Two amend­ments were stripped from that bill before it went to a vote: Rep. Ro Khanna’s (D‑Calif.) amend­ment to block fund­ing for a war with Iran bar­ring con­gres­sion­al approval and Rep. Bar­bara Lee’s (D‑Calif.) amend­ment to repeal 2001’s Autho­riza­tion for Use of Mil­i­tary Force Against Ter­ror­ists” (AUMF). That AUMF effec­tive­ly allows the gov­ern­ment to use nec­es­sary and appro­pri­ate force” against any­one sus­pect­ed of being con­nect­ed to the 911 attacks, and has been inter­pret­ed broad­ly to jus­ti­fy U.S. aggres­sion around the world. Offi­cials from the Trump admin­is­tra­tion have sug­gest­ed that the 2001 AUMF may give them author­i­ty to go to war with Iran.

Of the 377 Rep­re­sen­ta­tives who vot­ed for the $738 bil­lion defense bill, 188 were Democ­rats. Just 41 Democ­rats opposed the leg­is­la­tion. The bill cleared the Sen­ate with a tal­ly of 86 – 8, with just four Democ­rats vot­ing against it. None of the Sen­a­tors run­ning for the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion were present for the vote. Before the vote, Sen. Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky.) took to the Sen­ate floor to brag about the fact that par­ti­san demands” had effec­tive­ly been removed from the bill and declared that san­i­ty and progress” had won out. Reas­sur­ing­ly, the past few days have final­ly brought an end to bipar­ti­san talks and pro­duced a com­pro­mise NDAA,” said McConnell.

At the time of the bill’s pas­sage, 31 orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Yemeni Alliance Com­mit­tee and the Nation­al Iran­ian Amer­i­can Coun­cil Action, put out a joint state­ment con­demn­ing the NDAA as a loom­ing dis­as­ter des­tined to be abused by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. The NDAA is a mas­sive blank check,” reads the state­ment. The autho­riza­tion of $738 bil­lion is obscene. Fur­ther inflat­ing the Pentagon’s over­stuffed cof­fers does not make us safer — it per­pet­u­ates a sys­tem that treats mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion as the solu­tion to all world prob­lems.” Despite these con­cerns, Democ­rats did not put up much of a fight, and the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus declined to whip the vote against the NDAA.

Democ­rats’ com­plic­i­ty doesn’t stop with bloat­ed war bud­gets. In July 2017, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) was the only law­mak­er in both the House and the Sen­ate who cau­cus­es with the Democ­rats to vote against a bill that bun­dled togeth­er sanc­tions on Iran, Rus­sia and North Korea. Pro­po­nents of the bill, mean­while, used anti-Rus­sia rhetoric to ram it through Con­gress. Sen. Dianne Fein­stein (D‑Calif.) told the Inter­cept at the time, I just looked at the sanc­tions, and it’s very hard, in view of what we know just hap­pened in this last elec­tion, not to move ahead with [sanc­tions].”

Sanders was clear that he opposed the bill because of his oppo­si­tion to sanc­tions on Iran, but sup­port­ed sanc­tions against Rus­sia and North Korea, which are also aggres­sive and harm­ful to the peo­ple of those coun­tries. Still, he was demo­nized by some in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment. As we pre­vi­ous­ly report­ed, Adam Park­homenko, for­mer Hillary Clin­ton aide and founder of the Ready for Hillary PAC, said on Twit­ter at the time, Feel the Bern? Bernie Sanders vot­ed against Russ­ian sanc­tions today. 98 Sen­a­tors vot­ed for Russ­ian sanc­tions today. Sanders vot­ed the same way any­one with the last name Trump would vote if they were in the Sen­ate. No excuses―stop mak­ing them for him.”

When Trump — sur­round­ed by hawk­ish advi­sors — pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May of 2018, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment round­ly crit­i­cized him, often cit­ing the sup­posed threat posed by Iran, even though the coun­try has no nuclear weapons pro­gram, accord­ing to U.S. intel­li­gence agen­cies’ own assess­ments. The pres­i­den­t’s will­ing­ness to shat­ter the inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus, forged over years of ardu­ous nego­ti­a­tions, on how to con­strain Iran’s nuclear pro­gram only makes sense as part of a cam­paign to erase his pre­de­ces­sor’s lega­cy, regard­less of the con­se­quences to our nation­al secu­ri­ty,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D‑Calif.), the rank­ing Demo­c­rat on the House Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said at the time.

Yet, Democ­rats’ pre­vi­ous sup­port for sanc­tions already vio­lat­ed the Iran deal, whose ben­e­fits for the Iran­ian peo­ple were almost entire­ly premised on relief from dev­as­tat­ing sanc­tions. In Decem­ber of 2018, high-pro­file Democ­rats, includ­ing Eliz­a­beth War­ren, called for the Unit­ed States to return to the Iran nuclear deal. While such a move would cer­tain­ly con­sti­tute a de-esca­la­tion, these calls were bereft of account­abil­i­ty for the role that Democ­rats played in embold­en­ing Trump to impose even more sanc­tions—and ulti­mate­ly walk away from the agreement.

These fail­ures are con­sis­tent with a trou­bling pat­tern: Democ­rats tee up the ball for Trump’s aggres­sive maneu­vers, and then express out­rage when his admin­is­tra­tion takes a swing. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has been on a course towards towards con­fronta­tion with Iran for three years. He’s hired noto­ri­ous Iran-war fanat­ics Gen. James Mat­tis, John Bolton and Elliot Abrams. His biggest donor is anti-Iran rad­i­cal bil­lion­aire Shel­don Adle­son. His State Depart­ment appears to have staffed out some of its Iran pol­i­cy to the pro-Israel, rightwing think tank Foun­da­tion for Defense of Democ­ra­cies. He’s sig­naled from day one his goal was to march the Unit­ed States towards war. Yet, Democ­rats still padded his war bud­gets, vot­ed for his appoint­ments, bait­ed him to have a tougher stance against Iran’s most impor­tant ally, Rus­sia, and did noth­ing to curb his sup­port for anti-Iran forces in the Mid­dle East. Democ­rats have, for the most part, been not only unwill­ing to spend their polit­i­cal cap­i­tal try­ing to change this course, but have active­ly encour­aged it through their sup­port for proxy bat­tles against Iran in Syr­ia and Iraq. And we must not for­get that it was Pres­i­dent Oba­ma who, in 2014, sent troops back to Iraq as part of the war against ISIS.

Although many Democ­rats were quick to crit­i­cize Trump’s dead­ly drone strike, most of the state­ments were qual­i­fied with asser­tions about the mur­der­ous nature of Suleimani. No Amer­i­can will mourn Qassem Suleimani’s pass­ing,” begins Joe Biden’s state­ment. He deserved to be brought to jus­tice for his crimes against Amer­i­can troops and thou­sands of inno­cents through­out the region. He sup­port­ed ter­ror and sowed chaos.” Ini­tial state­ments from Sens. Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Amy Klobuchar began with sim­i­lar dec­la­ra­tions. The first state­ment that has even referred to the killing as an assas­si­na­tion” has been from Bernie Sanders. War­ren lat­er fol­lowed up her ini­tial state­ment with remarks that also used the lan­guage of assassination.

Some Democ­rats who vot­ed for the NDAA and hand­ed the Trump admin­is­tra­tion a blank check sud­den­ly expressed con­cern about the President’s pow­ers. Soleimani was an ene­my of the Unit­ed States. That’s not a ques­tion,” tweet­ed Con­necti­cut Sen. Chris Mur­phy (D‑Ct.) — who vot­ed or the bill. The ques­tion is this — as reports sug­gest, did Amer­i­ca just assas­si­nate, with­out any con­gres­sion­al autho­riza­tion, the sec­ond most pow­er­ful per­son in Iran, know­ing­ly set­ting off a poten­tial mas­sive region­al war?”

Oth­er Democ­rats are also express­ing con­cern that Trump is deploy­ing the wrong strat­e­gy against a dan­ger­ous ene­my, while accept­ing the premise that inter­ven­tion could be jus­ti­fied. This approach is reflect­ed in pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Pete Buttigieg’s state­ment, released today: Before engag­ing in mil­i­tary action that could desta­bi­lize an entire region, we must take a strate­gic, delib­er­ate approach that includes con­sul­ta­tion with Con­gress, our allies, and stake­hold­ers in the Mid­dle East.” This state­ment pre­sumes that a desta­bi­liz­ing war of aggres­sion could be jus­ti­fied, con­ced­ing Trump’s moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, even as Buttigieg hand­wrings about the method.

We can’t stop a war with Iran unless we rec­og­nize U.S. aggres­sion is not the prod­uct of failed strat­e­gy, or the Repub­li­can Par­ty alone. It’s the prod­uct of a sys­tem where it’s nor­mal bipar­ti­san pol­i­tics to lay the build­ing blocks of war with no pub­lic account of the pro­found harm that is being done. And then, on the eve of said war, those Democ­rats who have been set­ting its course feign out­rage and shock — if a Repub­li­can is in the White House, that is. We saw this script play out with the Iraq War, and we’re see­ing it again now. In a U.S. polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment where killing peo­ple abroad comes with lit­tle polit­i­cal cost, the politi­cians who con­tributed to the U.S. cli­mate of bel­liger­ence are nev­er forced to face the con­se­quences. It costs noth­ing to to jock­ey for war, but every­thing to stand against it — includ­ing war’s pre­cur­sors, such as sanc­tions, bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­gets and CIA med­dling. Our only hope is to change this.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazareMichael Arria cov­ers labor and social move­ments. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria
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