Last summer at the Democratic National Convention, a group of delegates loudly interrupted former CIA director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as he attempted a takedown of Donald Trump's views on foreign policy, chanting "no more war." The next evening, Gen. John Allen faced the same chant as he delivered a speech during the convention's final session.
Bernie Sanders had boldly energized the Democratic Party's progressive base, bringing with him delegates who questioned the party leadership on a number of issues, including their ongoing support for perpetual war overseas. At the time, polls suggested that antiwar sentiments among Democrats had grown during the final years of the Obama administration. However, this was not enough to prevent a hawkish Hillary Clinton from winning the nomination with help from the party establishment.
The Clinton campaign would go on to effectively take voters in its base for granted, pushing policies that prioritized "elusive" Republican swing voters instead, according to a new "autopsy" of the Democratic Party released by progressive activists who have formed Action for a Progressive Future, a 501(c)4 organization. As a result of this skewed prioritization, Clinton and the Democrats suffered from low turnout among young people, people of color and the working class, helping Donald Trump secure an upset that has placed him at the helm of the world's largest military.
Fast forward to today. Any hope that the White House might take steps toward ending the 16-year "war on terror" spanning multiple continents was dashed on Monday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where a number of lawmakers are considering options for reasserting Congress's authority over when, where and how the nation makes war overseas.
In response to questions from senators concerned about the recent deaths of four US soldiers in Niger and President Trump's handling of North Korean nuclear threats, Mattis and Tillerson claimed that the threats posed by "transnational" enemies of the United States continue to "mutate" and "morph." Any attempt by Congress to limit the military's ability to go anywhere in the world and fight anti-US Islamic groups for as long as necessary would be a mistake, they said.
Senators Question Unlimited Power for Endless War
Lawmakers called in President Trump's top national security officials to discuss the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that has allowed the executive branch wide-ranging powers to wage war over the past 16 years. Congress passed the AUMF in 2001, in the emotional days following the 9/11 attacks. The authorization allowed the Bush administration to pursue Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and it continues to be the legal justification for a broad range of military operations in countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The operation which killed four elite US soldiers and several Niger troops was authorized not by the AUMF, but by the federal law outlining the basic role of the military.
Today, US forces are deployed and equipped for combat in 19 different countries, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Every year, the US spends about $100 billion maintaining 800 military bases in 70 countries across the globe.
Senators from both parties said members of Congress never expected that the AUMF would still be used to justify combat operations a decade and a half after its initial passage against groups like ISIS (also known as Daesh), which did not exist in 2001. There is a growing interest, at least in the Senate, to consider a new AUMF that would force debate over a seemingly endless war on terror that has expanded the US military footprint to the far reaches of the globe.
There's little doubt that senators in both parties are motivated by the fact that a former reality TV show star with a penchant for framing US foreign policy with explosive statements on Twitter is now the military's commander in chief. The big question facing lawmakers is whether a new use of force authorization should include restrictions on how the so-called "forever war" is waged, including, for example, limits on the number of troops that can be deployed in foreign countries.
Mattis and Tillerson pushed back against proposals for limitations, arguing that a renewed AUMF should not include restrictions on where US forces can operate geographically, what resources they can use and how long they can be there. The Trump administration asserts -- as the Bush and Obama administrations did before it -- that the president and Pentagon have broad authority to wage war against Islamic extremists around the world.
"We cannot afford to have any gap in terms of our authorities," Tillerson said.
The military enjoys "authority" to operate overseas outside of the 2001 authorization, of course. Mattis revealed that the operation in early October in which militants killed four elite US soldiers and several Niger troops was authorized not by the AUMF, but by the federal law outlining the basic role of the military in defending the country. This section of US Code has been interpreted to authorize "train-and-advise" missions with local forces in Niger and many other countries.
The Antiwar Movement and the Future of the Democratic Party
Sen. Cory Booker, the Democratic Party's rising star from New Jersey, pointed out that the US creates more terrorists when it partners with brutal regimes in countries like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia that have a record of killing civilians and other human rights atrocities. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) questioned whether the White House is seeking a "permanent transition of power" that takes Congress out of the picture.
Could such criticism from leading Democrats after years of complicity with the international war machine be a sign that the party is ready to listen to its progressive base and take a more antiwar stance in the Trump era? Not so fast, says Norman Solomon, an antiwar activist and journalist who co-authored "Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis."
"We got to raise hell from the grassroots to turn the party around, and in turn, the whole country."
"One has to wonder how deep and wide within the Democratic Party the genuine opposition to perpetual war really is," Solomon told Truthout.
Solomon drew an analogy to another cause championed by progressives: single-payer health care. Democrats in the California legislature successfully passed single-payer legislation in 2006 and 2008, knowing full well that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, would veto it. Progressives launched a renewed push for single-payer under a Democratic governor last year, but the bill famously never made it to the governor's desk despite a Democratic majority.
"I draw the analogy because we have not seen during the eight years of the Obama administration any substantial movement from the Democratic members of the House or Senate to stop perpetual war," Solomon said.
Barack Obama originally ran for president on an antiwar platform, and much of his base of support was passionately against the war in Iraq. However, he did not untangle the country from the quagmire created by his predecessor, despite attempts to replace troops on the ground with indigenous security forces and high-tech killer drones. (Of course, drone attacks are an act of war, not an end to war.) Despite this disappointment, much of Obama's base remained loyal to the president. The antiwar movement dwindled, but never died.
Now, Solomon says, the push to end the "forever war" must come from the progressive movement itself, and it's time to rededicate energy toward challenging US militarism and imperialism overseas. While Democratic lawmakers may question the president's authority to wage endless war, they are still part of a political system in which the military-industrial complex holds a considerable amount of wealth and political power.
"We, as the US public overall, have been led by the nose to accept perpetual war," Solomon said. "I think there is a notable lack of enthusiasm for perpetual war, but that is different than the active opposition that I think we really need."
In their "autopsy" report, Solomon and his co-authors argue that the base voters neglected by Clinton and the Democrats in 2016 are not only the people who can lead the charge to end the war on terror, they are also the future of the Democratic Party, if only the party could see it. People of color will make up the majority of the working class by 2032, and countless young people are energized by grassroots calls to reject environmental destruction, institutional racism, economic equality and endless war.
"If the Democratic Party is to determine how to truly connect with this new universe of voters -- and young people overall -- the party must grasp that the high support for Sanders from those voters in the 2016 primaries and his enduring popularity are markers for a sustained progressive wave," the authors of the report conclude. "The Democratic Party can learn to ride that wave or choose to duck under it."
What course leading Democrats in Washington will choose in the Trump era remains to be seen. In the meantime, Solomon said people who oppose endless war must get (or stay) active and fight for a Democratic Party that is built by the participation of its base instead of by insiders who lock the grassroots out.
"We got to raise hell from the grassroots to turn the party around, and in turn, the whole country," Solomon said.