Why Bernie Sanders Needs Jim Webb on His Foreign Policy Team

“The most important – and unfortunately the least debated – issue in politics today is our society’s steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century. America’s top tier has grown infinitely richer and more removed over the past 25 years. It is not unfair to say that they are literally living in a different country. Few among them send their children to public schools; fewer still send their loved ones to fight our wars. They own most of our stocks, making the stock market an unreliable indicator of the economic health of working people. The top 1% now takes in an astounding 16% of national income, up from 8% in 1980. The tax codes protect them, just as they protect corporate America, through a vast system of loopholes.

“Incestuous corporate boards regularly approve compensation packages for chief executives and others that are out of logic’s range. As this newspaper has reported, the average CEO of a sizeable corporation makes more than $10 million a year, while the minimum wage for workers amounts to about $10,000 a year, and has not been raised in nearly a decade. When I graduated from college in the 1960s, the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker made. Today, that CEO makes 400 times as much.

“In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn’t happen. Despite the vaunted all-time highs of the stock market, wages and salaries are at all-time lows as a percentage of the national wealth. At the same time, medical costs have risen 73% in the last six years alone. Half of that increase comes from wage-earners’ pockets rather than from insurance, and 47 million Americans have no medical insurance at all.

“The politics of the Karl Rove era were designed to distract and divide the very people who would ordinarily be rebelling against the deterioration of their way of life. Working Americans have been repeatedly seduced at the polls by emotional issues such as the predictable mantra of ‘God, guns, gays, abortion and the flag’ while their way of life shifted ineluctably beneath their feet. But this election cycle showed an electorate that intends to hold government leaders accountable for allowing every American a fair opportunity to succeed.

“With this new Congress, and heading into an important presidential election in 2008, American workers have a chance to be heard in ways that have eluded them for more than a decade. Nothing is more important for the health of our society than to grant them the validity of their concerns. And our government leaders have no greater duty than to confront the growing unfairness in this age of globalization.”

If you thought the above op-ed “Class Struggle: American Workers Have a Chance to Be Heard” was written by the independent democratic socialist Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, you’d be wrong.

The author is former Democratic presidential candidate Jim Webb.

Staffing America’s sprawling national-security bureaucracies with qualified, experienced people whose politics are to some degree consonant with Sanders’ foreign policy approach would be a serious challenge for a Sanders administration. Unlike the economic field — where Sanders could choose Cabinet-level appointees from a plethora of accomplished liberal thinkers like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, or associates of think tanks like the Roosevelt Institute and the Economic Policy Institute — the national-security and foreign policy realms are dominated by experts and political forces to the right of liberalism, to say nothing of democratic socialism. The utter absence of left-wing expertise in foreign affairs and defense policy is why Sanders was stumped when reporter Mark Halperin asked who he thought would make or was a good Secretary of Defense:

The next time Sanders is pestered about potential Secretaries of Defense or who he gets foreign policy advice from, he should name Jim Webb.

While Webb is to the right of Sanders on many issues, both men have class-based politics, both strongly believe in economic fairness and racial justice, and both are men of conviction who say what they mean and mean what they say. Another commonality is their devotion to the men and women who wear the uniform of the U.S. military, although the roots of this devotion could not be more different. For Webb, it was practically encoded in his DNA; he was born into a family whose sons have served in the armed forces ever since the 1776 revolutionary war. Webb himself served in Viet-Nam where he won a Navy Cross for valor before becoming an author, a Middle East journalist, and Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. For Sanders, championing the interests of veterans, active-duty personnel, and their families was part and parcel of his democratic socialism and democratic socialists have always been vigorous opponents of shedding Joe Six Pack’s blood for the profits and power of kings, Kaisers, and capitalists.

Webb and Sanders were physically on opposite sides of the Viet-Nam war issue — Webb was fighting in An Hoa basin while Sanders was applying for conscientious objector status at home. Their actions at the time were completely consistent with their respective beliefs unlike chickenhawks like Donald Trump who were gung-ho for the war but continually obtained frivolous deferments to dodge the draft.

Webb and Sanders2

Why We Fight: Webb and Sanders on different front lines in the 1960s.

With so much foundational common ground between Webb and Sanders, it should be no surprise that their views on major foreign policy questions align more often than not.

They both opposed the 1991 Gulf War and did so on a similar basis. Both were critical of the first Bush administration’s rush to war (the administration secured approval for the use of force against Iraq from the United Nations Security Council before seeking Congressional authorization). Both worried about the unintended consequences of establishing the large, enduring regional U.S. military footprint necessary to police the peace after victory. And just as Webb and Sanders feared, that post-war peace never materialized. U.S. military operations in and over Iraq began in 1991 and continued through to the present day across four successive presidential administrations, morphing from no-fly zones and punitive airstrikes during the 1990s into invasion and occupation during the 2000s that, in turn, necessitated a U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) that the U.S. invasion and occupation begat in an unending series of over-corrections and strategic flip-flops.

Sanders and Webb opposed the second Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, again, on similar strategic grounds. Both supported overthrowing the Afghan Taliban after September 11, 2001, opposed President Obama’s half-baked intervention aiding the Libyan revolution, and believe Chinese and Russian aggression must be confronted whether in the South China Sea, cyberspace, or Eastern Europe. Both take very seriously the threat posed by North Korea to its neighbors and to U.S. troops in the region.


Webb and Sanders today: still fighting for the middle and working classes, especially our soldiers, our veterans, and their families.

Yet despite the striking similarity in their foreign policy positions, Sanders is derided by the establishment as a foreign policy neophyte while Webb is hailed as a serious man with serious things to say on the subject. Establishment double standards aside, Webb’s credibility was earned through four decades of military service, government experience, and public criticisms of two major mistakes made by every administration since Reagan:

  1. Failing to develop a national security doctrine dictating the size, makeup, and appropriate use of the American armed forces in the post-Cold War strategic environment.
  2. Engaging in ill-conceived military actions — in Bosnia under Clinton , in Iraq under Bush, in Libya under Obama — that drained national resources and political capital even though no clear nor compelling national interests were at stake.

As a democratic socialist, Sanders thinks in terms class interests rather than “national interests” but Webb’s definition of “national interests” is largely compatible with Sanders’ class-based thinking because he too prioritizes the needs and interests of the working and middle classes. For Sanders and for Webb, it is simply unacceptable for presidents to send Americans into harm’s way without clear, achievable, and worthy objectives as well as the political will to commit the ways and means necessary to achieve those objectives. This morally-based approach to national security is codified in the Webb Doctrine*, a strategic doctrine developed for the post-Cold War era:

  • Retain our position as the dominant guarantor of world-wide stability through strategic and conventional forces that deter potentially aggressive nations.
  • Retaliate fiercely against nations that participate in or condone aggressive acts, as well as non-national purveyors of asymmetric warfare.
  • Maintain global order by partnering with other nations diplomatically through alliances and militarily using a “cooperative forces” approach.
  • Take great care when it comes to committing large numbers of ground forces to open-ended combat and especially avoid using them as long-term occupation troops.

President Obama’s refusal to retaliate fiercely — against Iranian subversion across the Middle East, against Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, against China’s expansionism into the South China Sea, against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s flouting of Obama’s self-proclaimed “red line,” or against ISIS’s aggression in 2013-2014 — has made the world facing the next president far more dangerous and violent than the world Obama faced when he succeeded George W. Bush. The foreign policy tasks the next presidential administration will be forced to undertake are daunting:

  • Repair U.S. credibility among adversaries and allies alike.
  • Outline a new deterrence-based strategic doctrine appropriate for the Second Cold War.
  • Change America’s self-defeating anti-ISIS policy in which U.S. allies kill one another while the main contributor to the ISIS insurgency in Syria — the murderous war launched by Bashar al-Assad, now sustained by Iran and Russia — remains untouched.

Untangling these intertwined policy catastrophes will require the kind of rigorous, long-term strategic thinking Webb has been doing for decades.

So Webb would be a ‘yooj’ asset to the foreign policy team Sanders will eventually have to assemble if he is serious about becoming commander-in-chief. In terms of merit, he has decades of foreign policy and national security experience, a proven record of sound judgment, and the grand strategic vision Sanders lacks on matters of national security and defense policy. At a time when Sanders’ path to the nomination is becoming a steeper climb, taking Webb on as a foreign policy adviser would be a shrewd political move. It would generate positive media attention and assure Sanders-skeptical voters that he is indeed strong on foreign policy. As a surrogate, Webb could transform Sanders’ vulnerability on foreign policy into an asset and transform Clinton’s foreign policy assets into vulnerabilities given her robust support for “regime change” via the U.S. military in Libya and Iraq which turned both into failed states and ISIS breeding grounds. If the Clinton machine tried to assail Webb’s character or credibility in response, it would be political suicide.

Sanders is absolutely right that on foreign policy you don’t just need to be tough, you need to be smart and on foreign policy, there is no one tougher and smarter than Jim Webb.

*The so-called Webb Doctrine outlined here is a series of paraphrases from Webb’s 2001 Wall Street Journal op-ed, “A New Doctrine for New Wars.”

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