[Bernie’s] platform is largely domestic as a foreign policy, meaning that as he pursues his agenda to improve the plight of all people in the US (because he has clearly stated that immigrants – illegal or otherwise – enemy combatants, and all non-citizens in US custody deserve equal treatment under the law) the US will then be in a healthy enough position to improve the plight of all people. We must lead by example. If we are not the pillar of equality and justice how can we advocate for equality and justice across the globe? If we are not a stable and secure nation of opportunity for all how can we help other nations become stable and filled with opportunity?
Though he and I would likely disagree on the best means for achieving these ends, no one should question the merits of the goals expressed. In some ways, it is a modern edition of the “City upon a hill” vision offered by the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop (and cited by many politicians since).
And it makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Obviously, no one likes to take advice from a hypocrite. If the US is to be a positive leader, it must do so by leading by example. I completely agree with that sentiment, and I sincerely hope that I live to see the day when America’s role in foreign policy will be confined to only leading by example. But that day is a long way off.
Today, the United States is not a neutral actor in global affairs. On the contrary, the US government is directly or indirectly responsible for much of the suffering that exists in the world today. As President Obama recently bragged, the US has dropped bombs on seven countries during his Presidency. And since most humans tend not to idolize those that bomb them (or other innocent people for that matter), my argument is simple: Before we can consider leading by example, we have to stop causing and enabling direct harm around the world.
It’s fair to say that the US policy is hypocritical in domestic affairs as well as foreign ones. Thus, US credibility is unlikely to be restored until both issues are remedied. So in the short run, our priorities must be decided on where we can do the most good (or stop the most harm, if you prefer). And since we have already explained yesterday why we can’t intellectually justify prioritizing the interests of Americans over other people, we have to consider each of them equally. So let’s consider the numbers.
First, let’s look at the likely beneficiaries of positive domestic policy. Let’s set aside economic questions, and presume for the sake of argument that Bernie’s policies would work precisely as hoped and have no negative unintended consequences. In this light, the primary beneficiaries of Bernie’s policy would likely be the following:
- 2 million Americans currently incarcerated. According to Wikipedia as of 2013, the full prison population in 2013 was actually 2.2 million, and we’re assuming the overwhelming majority (~90%) were incarcerated for marijuana possession or given preposterously long sentences thanks to mandatory minimums. Bernie has campaigned on addressing both of these issues.
- 11 million illegal immigrants, which Bernie would offer a path to citizenship.
- 45 million Americans living in poverty. Of course, it’s unlikely poverty would be fully eradicated by a Sanders or any other presidency. And one could quibble with the definition of poverty, since US poverty isn’t quite as bad as say, Yemeni poverty. But again, let’s just assume all of these people receive significant benefits for the purpose of the argument.
- 32 million – Afghanistan
- The population of Afghanistan as of 2014. Last year, a record 11,000 civilians were reported killed in Afghanistan, and it’s fair to say that essentially the entire country has been destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The US bears responsibility for this by first overthrowing the government of that country in 2001 and continuing to occupy it, bomb it, and support a government that lacks popular support (or any meaningful control outside of the capital city). If the US left Afghanistan, the country would have a chance at self-determination and things could finally start to stabilize.
- 17 million – Syria
- The population of Syria proper was around 17 million. By now, this number is probably much lower due to casualties and more refugees fleeing the country. The US was not the only catalyst of this crisis, but our actions, and those of our allies, have prolonged it. If the US were to withdraw support for the not-so-moderate rebels in that country and (ideally) attempt to convince allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia to stop fueling the flames, an enduring ceasefire could be reached much sooner.
- 1.6 million – Iraq
- The population of Anbar province in Iraq circa 2011, which is now mostly controlled by the Islamic State and likely less populous. Obviously, the entire country of Iraq has been disastrously destabilized by the US invasion of 2003 and the brutal sanctions regime before that. But as of right now, most of the suffering is occurring in territories held by the Islamic State. And as the past year and a half of bombings suggest, the Islamic State, like any other insurgency, cannot be defeated by airstrikes. Instead, the US is its greatest recruitment tool.
- 26 million – Yemen
- The approximate population of Yemen. Fully 80% of Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian aid after nearly a year of war and blockade by US ally Saudi Arabia, and the entire country has been destabilized. While Saudi Arabia initiated this crisis, it is fully enabled by the US government, which permits the sale of weapons, refuels the Saudi planes, and reportedly even helps select the targets. Without US support, the War in Yemen could not persist. It’s true that Yemen was exceedingly poor before the recent war as well, but the US bore a share of the blame for that as well by backing a despotic government in the name of, of course, counterterrorism.
- 6 million – Libya
- The approximate population of Libya, as of 2013. Like Iraq, this country was also destabilized by a military intervention pushed by the US. France was a major driver as well, to be sure, but it couldn’t have happened without US support. The country remains in chaos as ISIS has gained a foothold and two separate governments are competing for control.
- 4.4 million – Palestine
- The approximate number of Palestinians living in Gaza, East Jerusalem, or the West Bank. The much-hyped two state solution is no longer possible. But the blockade of Gaza, the continued theft of land from Palestinians in the West Bank, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the two-tiered legal system would not endure long without diplomatic cover and the ever-reliable American veto on the UN Security Council.