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Democrats and Republicans Pretend They Have Massive, Unbridgeable Differences So They Can Unite Seamlessly on War

Published: August 25, 2022 | Print Friendly and PDF
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Bernie and Lindsey share a moment of collegiality. Photo by Matt Stone via Getty Images

After endless rounds of Hamlet-style legislative tedium, Congressional Democrats finally muscled through a $430 billion spending bill this month which deals with a smattering of their domestic policy priorities. Because Republicans opposed the bill en masse, and Democrats supported it en masse, one might look at this development and conclude that standard-fare partisanship is just as indelible a feature of US politics as it’s ever been. After all, the partisan affiliation of Senators and House members was perfectly predictive of their voting behavior vis-a-vis the “Inflation Reduction Act.” When the rubber hits the road, it turns out Republicans and Democrats really do have competing, irreconcilable interests — right?

Thanks to these occasional instances of classically polarized partisan sausage-making, elected officials and media operatives can claim at least some basis for their frantic insistence that some titanic gulf separates the two parties. The ever-presence of bi-directional Culture War agitation can heighten this impression — upon which it always becomes existentially crucial that one or the other party gets put into power at the next election. Make sure to vote in the upcoming Midterms, because these Midterms just happen to be the most consequential Midterms of all time, at least since the 2018 Midterms. The fate of humanity hinges on whether Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, didn’t you know?

On the other hand, if you’re one of the vanishingly few Americans who’d like to think that your vote this year could meaningfully alter the course of US foreign policy, you’re bound for disappointment. Because even as both parties tried to make it seem like the “Inflation Reduction Act” vividly demonstrated the intractable differences between them, they were simultaneously demonstrating the exact opposite: that at least in regards to another set of issues which genuinely are “existential,” in that they impinge on such matters as whether you’re likely to get incinerated in a large radiation blast anytime soon, there is almost no meaningful distance at all between Democrats and the GOP. Over time, if anything, whatever distance might have previously existed has meaningfully shrunk. Because with limited and marginalized exceptions, both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly functioning as a unified bloc on the questions which most centrally bear on America’s posture as a global military and economic hegemon. As that posture becomes more fraught and antagonistic across multiple theaters, the two parties have become more and more ardent in constricting the range of acceptable debate. Democrats may spend the bulk of their time on social media or in front of TV cameras piously shrieking that the empowerment of Republicans would guarantee the implosion of “democracy,” and Republicans may make funhouse-mirror versions of the same argument. But this phony baloney two-way theater obscures just how much their worldviews have converged.

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Earlier this month, the Senate approved the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO by a vote of 95-1 — formalizing the process by which those two countries have opted to repudiate their historic doctrines of military neutrality. (Finland is abandoning the precedent it adhered to throughout the entirety of the Cold War, while Sweden is abandoning the precedent it has adhered to since the reign of Napoleon.) Speaking from the Senate floor ahead of the vote, Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) joyously declared how “glad” he was that NATO enlargement is something “we can all pretty much agree on.” In a touching moment, Carper noted that he had both the “same initials” and the “same views” on the subject as his colleague Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — perhaps the most ideologically zealous interventionist in the Senate. Cotton also happens to be one of the few remaining US political figures of any notoriety who’s still refused to budge in his conviction that it was a really great idea for George W. Bush to invade Iraq. And unless he just happens to have an unusually specific fondness for Iowa and New Hampshire, Cotton is clearly preparing to run for president — so it should bring Democrats great pleasure that someone they’re in such fundamental agreement with is gearing up to throw his hat in the ring.

“Probably one of the easiest votes I’ll ever make in the United States Senate,” announced Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), who seemed particularly appreciative that he barely had to give the Finland/Sweden issue more than a moment’s thought. “John McCain, I wish you were alive today to celebrate,” chimed in Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). And indeed, there’s little doubt that McCain would have reason to celebrate from beyond the grave: the US political class, whatever their surface-level partisan or factional disagreements, is barreling toward unshakable “unity” on the expansion of US hegemonic power, now arrayed with growing fervor against the reviled tandem of Russia and China. One of McCain’s favorite themes was always “unity,” but a peculiar kind of “unity” whose purpose was mainly to facilitate wars.

Even the lone senator who did vote against the accession of Finland and Sweden this month, Josh Hawley (R-MO), did so on grounds that made abundantly clear he had no objection on principle to the expansion of NATO — much less to the accelerated deployment of coercive US power around the world. What he objected to was simply that expanding NATO at this juncture reflected ineffectual resource allocation, as Hawley preferred that whatever the US may now be obliged to expend in Scandinavia should instead be expended in East Asia, to prepare for an allegedly looming war with China. Hawley stressed that he opposed bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO only insofar as it would be a hindrance to the US implementing “a coherent strategy for stopping China’s dominance in the Pacific, beginning with the possible invasion of Taiwan.”

Hawley explained, “Our military forces in Asia are not postured as they should be,” whether because “we don’t have enough advanced munitions” or because the current fleet of US attack submarines is “sinking.” Fundamentally, Hawley argued, the US is “simply not sized to handle two simultaneous conflicts.” And his objection to NATO expansion boils down to a preference for “handling” a conflict in the Pacific over one in Europe — not, it should be noted, a preference for mitigating conflict in the first place. But even going by his own stated rationale, it’s unclear what the operating principle is for Hawley: in 2019, he voted for the accession of well-known military powerhouse North Macedonia to NATO. All that’s seemingly changed in the interim is that Hawley has taken to framing his views more in terms of opposing what he calls a “globalist foreign policy” — which somehow coincides with his advocacy for dramatically ramping up US militarization on the other side of the globe in East Asia.

Even Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), among the dwindling group of national politicians one might expect to raise at least a perfunctory objection to NATO expansion, conceded during the Senate debate this month: “In this new world I am less adamant about preventing NATO’s expansion.”

It wasn’t always this way. In 1998, 19 senators voted against the accession to NATO of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic — not enough to prevent the proposal from obtaining the required two-thirds majority, but enough to at least prompt a reasonably robust debate, one which far exceeded the pittance that accompanied this month’s vote. Figures as high-profile as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), Hillary Clinton’s predecessor, argued against NATO expansion on the floor of the Senate in extremely stark terms: Moynihan declared his opposition stemmed from a keen wariness about “the dangers of nuclear war in the years ahead,” and said NATO expansion needlessly “put ourselves at risk of getting into a nuclear engagement, a nuclear war, with Russia — wholly unanticipated, for which we are not prepared, about which we are not thinking.”

Moynihan’s primary sparring partner during that 1998 debate was none other than Joe Biden, then the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who appointed himself point-person for the entire process of shepherding NATO expansion through the necessary procedural formalities. In fact, Biden’s conviction in the eternal virtue of NATO expansion seems to be one of the few positions he’s held consistently over the course of his comically long, decades-spanning career. That first round of expansion in 1998, Biden declared at the time, would mark “the beginning of another 50 years of peace” — a prophecy that today some might quibble with.

Biden passionately arguing for NATO expansion in 1998

Though he didn’t succeed, Moynihan’s opposition showed it wasn’t an automatic career-ender to be associated with skepticism of this particular strand of US military expansionism — nor was raising concerns about the specter of nuclear war considered contemptibly “cringe.” Moynihan remained a highly revered figure among his colleagues; a new expansion of Penn Station in NYC was even just named after him last year. With a hot war raging today in Ukraine, in which the US is effectively the leading co-combatant against Russia, the risk of nuclear war is much more acute than when Moynihan warned about it 24 years ago. But almost no political figure of any prominence even appears to be “thinking” about the matter anymore. Indulge in such “thinking,” and you’re liable to be denounced as a Putin agent for your trouble, and/or field a barrage of angry accusations that you’re somehow in league with right-wing “insurrectionists.”

A few who voted against NATO expansion in 1998 are still in the Senate, like Pat Leahy (D-VT), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Jim Inhofe (R-OK) — all of whom just supported Finland/Sweden accession this month, apparently without a second thought. (Leahy, at age 82, was technically absent for the vote due to hip problems.) Even Harry Reid (D-NV), who’d later become the Senate Majority Leader and therefore presumably could not be dismissed as some fringe agitator, voted against NATO expansion in 1998. There were weeks of formal debate back then — Senators actually engaged one another directly with arguments and counter-arguments, an extreme rarity in an otherwise stultified environment. And while Biden’s side prevailed, there was at least some notional sense that another “side” existed. Today, there is functionally just one “side,” with politicians flocking in unison to install another 830 miles of NATO “security umbrella” (by way of Finland) right smack dab on the border with Russia. This would’ve been almost unthinkable in 1998, even for the most ardent NATO expansion advocates — but today the move was swiftly ratified with hardly a critical word uttered. 

Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was in the House at the time, not the Senate, and therefore did not specifically vote on the provision to amend the NATO treaty. But in 1997 he made a point to put some observations on the record concerning a concurrent measure that set the groundwork for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to join NATO (which ultimately happened in 2004, thanks to the friendly bipartisan cooperation of Biden and George W. Bush). Sanders asked on the floor of the House: “First of all, Russia clearly perceives that the expansion of NATO into the Baltics would be an aggressive, wholly unjustifiable move by the United States… since the Cold War is over, why are we militarily provoking Russia?”

Today, Bernie is essentially mute on the subject — except when he votes unfalteringly in favor of the latest NATO-related initiative, such as the Finland/Sweden measure this month, or the $40 billion Ukraine war funding bill in May. And for the most part, he can’t even be bothered to explain his reasoning — which in a way is understandable, since it’s not like there’s some steady drumbeat of “progressive” activists/media holding his feet to the fire on these issues. Could figures who opposed NATO expansion in 1998 theoretically argue that conditions in 2022 have changed so radically that they’ve in turn changed their position? Yes, they could theoretically argue that. But they’re barely even asked to justify their positions, as the near-total eradication of any dissension on the matter has given way to an impenetrable consensus, such that no justification need be given.

The Washington Post was candid in 1998 about the reasons “approval was virtually assured” for NATO expansion, notwithstanding the minority of opposition led by Moynihan. “Pressure from ethnic constituencies and the prospect of new markets for the American defense industry at a time of shrinking US demand,” the newspaper reported, had already sealed the deal. Try mentioning either of those factors in polite company today with regard to the current posture of US foreign policy in Eastern Europe. You’ll probably find you’d prefer to stick with more standard-fare squabbling about things like the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

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