Will the Left Get a Say in the Biden Doctrine?

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Over the past few years, a loose coalition of activist groups, think tanks, and policy-makers dedicated to ending the post-9/11 forever war has asserted itself in foreign policy debates. As recently as February, when Bernie Sanders appeared to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, it seemed possible that US foreign policy was on the verge of turning toward a less militarized and interventionist approach. Sanders and the other major progressive candidate in the race, Elizabeth Warren, had foreign policy advisers who advocated slashing defense budgets and reinvesting in diplomacy to confront nonmilitary threats.

But Joe Biden’s decisive victory over Sanders dealt a blow to those hopes. For decades, Biden has been a representative figure of the mainstream foreign policy establishment, the so-called Blob. He supported the Iraq War, is close with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has premised his campaign on a restoration of the Obama era.

Biden appeared to secure the nomination just as the coronavirus pandemic began radically reshaping every aspect of policy-making, including international affairs. I wanted to take the temperature of leading foreign policy progressives in light of the primary race and the pandemic to get a sense of how they might attempt to influence a Biden administration and to explore what national security means in an age of deadly viruses that don’t recognize national borders. On one key point, there was a broad consensus: Covid-19 vindicates what the left has been saying about foreign policy—that endless war has squandered resources without making Americans safer—and represents an opportunity to shift the debate in a more constructive direction. On the question of whether a Biden administration would be receptive to those urging such a shift, there was far less agreement.

In early April, Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser for President Barack Obama, wrote in The Atlantic that “as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.” That is certainly the hope of all my interviewees, but for now, America’s wars rage on.

“The forever war has clearly not ended,” said one leading progressive foreign policy adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Just because we happen to be more focused on the pandemic right now does not let us off the hook for ending wars.” But everyone I spoke to agreed on the urgency of doing so.

“On foreign policy, as on a range of other issues, the pandemic has starkly demonstrated a lot of Senator Sanders’s arguments about how we have failed to invest in our own country, people, and infrastructure,” said Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign policy adviser. In response to the pandemic, Sanders and progressive allies in Congress recently proposed cutting the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent, a plan since endorsed by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. “It shows very clearly that our security priorities and investments—the obsessive focus on counterterrorism, the overuse of the military as the foreign policy instrument of first resort—have been not just wrong but wildly counterproductive,” Duss said.



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