Dear Sen. Sanders,

Congratulations on your strong showing in Iowa and your victory in New Hampshire.

It’s exciting to see Democratic primary voters—especially younger ones—choosing your program of social democracy over the unfettered liberal capitalism to which they’ve always been told there’s no alternative. They’re making that choice even though you call yourself a “socialist” and refuse to disavow the label amid the corporate media’s sneers. Imagine that—voters think they should decide who’s electable.

It’s obvious why your plain-speaking left-wing populist campaign has caught fire. Americans across the political spectrum think the system is broken. You’ve got the ear of the many alienated voters who blame the powerful, rather than the powerless, for the country’s problems. That’s true whether we’re talking about big banks or the “perpetual war” you are concerned about in the Middle East.

In fact, given the enthusiasm you’ve generated with your broadsides against Wall Street, we wish you would talk a lot more about another wasteful, wanton white elephant on a rampage—what President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex.”

You’ve made repeated reference to Ike’s famous line in Congress, and Peace Action finds you’ve got a pretty good record speaking out against the “bloated military budget.” But you’ve kept relatively mum about this topic on the presidential campaign trail, as you have about foreign policy in general.

You could distinguish yourself even further from your primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton—she voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, you voted against it—by taking on the permanent war economy backed by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.

Under the Obama administration, we have seen lurid illustrations of how much of US Middle East policy is based on the export of lethal weaponry. In 2010, the White House notified Congress of a record $60 billion in planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including 84 F-15 fighter jets (made by McDonnell Douglas) and a cornucopia of high explosives. Those transfers have continued even as the Saudis use these very armaments to commit war crimes in Yemen. In March of last year, the US resumed selling weapons to Egypt, despite a military coup against a democratically elected president and the massacre of hundreds who protested it. Two months later, the US approved $1.9 billion in arms sales to Israel, including 3,000 Hellfire missiles (made by Lockheed Martin), 250 air-to-air missiles (made by Raytheon) and 50 BLU-113 “bunker buster” bombs (made by Lockheed Martin). In the summer of 2014, Israel expended untold numbers of US-manufactured munitions in bombardment of Gaza so intense that artillery experts in the Pentagon were shocked. “The only possible reason” for firing as many shells as Israel did at one Gaza neighborhood, said a US officer, “is to kill a lot of people in as short a period of time as possible.”

The deals with Israel and Saudi Arabia were cut to maintain these two “special relationships” as the Obama administration wrapped up the nuclear negotiations with Iran (which you wisely endorse). But traffic in the machinery of death is business as usual: Since 2007, for example, Israel has received $3.1 billion per year in military aid from Washington. Most of that money is Foreign Military Financing—by US law, Israel must spend 78 percent of its annual haul on purchases from US arms dealers. (Other countries have to spend 100 percent.) How’s that for corporate welfare?

And then there’s the massive US military presence in the Persian Gulf and around the world. By the count of anthropologist David Vine, who just published a sobering study entitled Base Nation, the Pentagon has some 800 installations overseas occupied by hundreds of thousands of “forward-deployed” personnel. Vine found that the Pentagon doesn’t really know how much these bases cost. He did some calculations of his own and came up with a total bill of $168,769,714,522 for fiscal year 2012. Who gets this boodle? A lot of it goes to salaries and benefits for the troops, of course, but much of it also goes to private contractors like KBR, which by Vine’s accounting collected $44.4 billion in Pentagon contracts abroad from 2001-2013. The only bigger beneficiary of contracts during this period was “miscellaneous foreign contractors”—that’s right, a category of companies that the Pentagon does not identify publicly.

Most important, all these installations allow the bipartisan foreign policy establishment to conceive and carry out an imperial geostrategy. The US couldn’t even contemplate such a policy without the pre-positioned assets of the Pentagon and the pork-barrel politics of the big arms manufacturers. This critique has to come from someone like you who relies on small donors: Lockheed Martin and its ilk spread the campaign cash around so as to have plenty of friends on both sides of the aisle.

Big banks that exist to maximize returns to shareholders will despoil the fortunes of everyone else to fulfill their purpose. By the same logic, an industry that builds things meant to blow up will do its damnedest to make sure they blow up—so as to build more and more. And the revolving door between the weapons firms and the Pentagon guarantees that people in government will always be looking for proving grounds.

Please, Sen. Sanders, connect your own dots—your supporters want to hear you do it, and it’s the right thing to do.

UPDATE: As a mayor and senator, you, too, have been susceptible to the blandishments of big weapons dealers because you’ve wanted to create jobs for your constituents. Now that you’re running for national office, you don’t have to play that particular game.

How to cite this article:

The Editors "Letter to Bernie," Middle East Report Online, February 11, 2016.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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