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While most Democratic candidates are finally shifting the debate on Afghanistan, 18 years after the war began, the discussion on other issues, such as Latin America, continues in the same old imperialist vein as before

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GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

This is our third segment on the Democratic Party’s third presidential debate, which took place last Thursday in Houston, Texas. Joining me to analyze the debate are here in the studio, Real News host and producer Jacqueline Luqman, and New Republic staff writer Osita Nwanevu. Joining us remotely is human rights lawyer and University of Illinois-Chicago Professor Helena Olea. Thanks to all three of you for joining us again.


HELENA OLEA: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: In this segment, we will take a closer look at foreign policy.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: We need a foreign policy that is about our security and about leading on our values. The problems in Afghanistan are not problems that can be solved by a military. We need to work with the rest of the world. We need to use our economic tools. We need to use our diplomatic tools. We need to build with our allies. And we need to make the whole world safer, not keep troops bombing in Afghanistan.

DAVID MUIR: Senator Warren, thank you.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: We have got to put an end to endless war. The best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place. And so when I am president, an authorization for the use of military force will have a built-in three-year sunset. Congress will be required to vote and a president will be required to go to Congress to seek an authorization because if our troops can summon the courage to go overseas, the least our members of Congress should be able to do is summon the courage to take a vote on whether they ought to be there.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I was opposed to the surge in Afghanistan. The whole purpose of going to Afghanistan was to not have a counterinsurgency, meaning that we’re going to put that country together. It cannot be put together. Let me say it again. It will not be put together. We don’t need those troops there. I would bring them home.

GREG WILPERT: This debate on Afghanistan, or actually the comments that the different presidential candidates made about Afghanistan, I thought it was rather interesting. It did seem to signify a certain amount of departure from the way it had been discussed, at least under President Obama, and of course under President Trump. One thing that wasn’t mentioned in this discussion, though, is the fact that, of course, there was supposed to be a peace agreement between the US Government and the Taliban, which was scuttled in the last minute, and nobody commented on that it seemed.

I just want to turn to you, Helena, first about what you think of this debate and the turn that it has taken in terms of, first of all, Warren talking about the need for diplomacy. That seemed like a significant shift within the Democratic Party and even Biden’s talk about him being opposed to the surge, which I think is actually one of the things that was accurate. Although, I am very skeptical still to what extent he actually favors diplomacy, considering that he actually favored the war in Iraq. What do you think, Helena?

HELENA OLEA:  I think the aspect of foreign policy was debated in a very particular way. The first thing that we should say is that only three topics were mentioned under it. It began with trade, but somehow trade ends up being separated from the rest of the discussion of foreign policy, which I think is unfortunate. Then they only refer to Afghanistan in tangent, they referred to Iraq, and I think it was also a result of Biden’s comments that it ended up being part of the discussion, but that was not the intention of the questions. Then Venezuela was mentioned shortly. I think that this is very schematic, but we are definitely observing an evolution. Public opinion is shifting to the point where they believe that the troops should – cannot continue in Afghanistan and we need to find a way out.

GREG WILPERT: Osita, what do you think? Does this signify an important shift in the Democratic Party, as regards at least to the war in Afghanistan? Perhaps not in other areas because we’ll get to those in a moment and we’ll see that that might be different, but at least on the issue of Afghanistan?

OSITA NWANEVU: I think that we see a wider shift in foreign policy, both on that debate stage, in Congress and really, even to some extent, across both parties. I think that there’s a wide public impatience with “forever wars,” as Pete Buttigieg called it. We’ve seen, obviously, moves against the United States’ involvement in the war in Yemen. All of this is of a piece with I think a broader public mood that is turning against these wars and doesn’t really see them as fruitful anymore.

It’s become clear that to the extent that we believe that there was an interest in going there after 9/11 to strike against the Taliban, we’re now trying, I guess, to meet with the Taliban. There’s a sense, I think, even if people aren’t willing to admit it openly that we overreacted in the last 20 years to the threat of Islamic terrorism, and engaged in a lot of conflicts that we had no real sense of how we were going to end them, I think that the public’s realization of that now is producing a sea change in American politics— not just within the Democratic Party, but more broadly outside of it.

GREG WILPERT: What do you think, Jackie?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I think the candidates’ responses were definitely a reflection of what both of you said— the public distaste for endless war now. But I think it’s also the Democratic Party’s response to the candidate that wasn’t on the stage, that I think in this issue of war that they most don’t want their message to come out, and that’s Tulsi Gabbard. I think it was sort of a surprise, a little bit, that it was another military veteran, Pete Buttigieg, who sounded so similar to what Gabbard would have said. I think that was probably a shock, a little bit, to the DNC because that’s the kind of message –  that we need to end endless wars. And we need to even further, what Buttigieg and Warren said, we need to not have them. The best way not to have an endless war is to not enter into a war.

We know that the defense lobby is an enormous contributor to both parties, so I’m sure Buttigieg’s comments and Warren’s comments on not even getting into wars made the defense benefactors of the DNC quite nervous. For the American people, both of their comments, and most of their comments at least on Afghanistan, because I agree also that they were very measured in how they talked about military engagement and war and the wider issue of imperialism in the United States and around the world. They were very careful to pick and choose where they would say, “Okay, we’ll stop doing this, but we have a different perspective on what should be done over here.” I do agree it’s a reflection of how this country is seeing our military differently in what it does around the world.

GREG WILPERT: I want to turn to the next clip that we have, which is on Venezuela. Let’s run that now.

JORGE RAMOS: You admit that Venezuela does not have free elections, but still you refuse to call Nicolas Maduro “un dictador,” a dictator. Can you explain why and what are the main differences between your kind of socialism and the one being imposed in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: First of all, let me be very clear. Anybody who does what Maduro does is a vicious tyrant. What we need now is international and regional cooperation for free elections in Venezuela so that the people of that country can create their own future. In terms of democratic socialism, to equate what goes on in Venezuela with what I believe is extremely unfair.

FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I’ve confronted Maduro.

JULIAN CASTRO: Sure. Thank you, Jorge. I’ll call Maduro a dictator because he is a dictator. What we need to do is to, along with our allies, make sure that the Venezuelan people get the assistance that they need, that we continue to pressure Venezuela so that they’ll have free and fair elections. And also, here in the United States, offer temporary protected status, TPS, to Venezuelans.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, this topic could potentially open up a can of worms because there is perhaps substantial disagreement about the nature of Venezuela, although not on that stage, but perhaps among our panel here. We’ll see. Let me turn first to you, Jackie. What do you think of Sanders’s response, especially considering that all of them that we saw, or that spoke to Venezuela, didn’t say anything about the United States, but specifically did zero-in on Venezuela? What do you make of that?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is where the Democratic Party is extremely weak and it is extremely complicit in US imperialism around the world. Sanders, his response about free and fair elections and even the question was deeply, deeply problematic, but the issue that Democrats, any of them, are saying that we’re going to ensure free and fair elections in Venezuela when they can’t even ensure free and fair elections here in the United States, that’s a serious problem. Then, there’s also this talk of the evil that Maduro does, and this is not to say that Maduro is a good guy, but that’s not the point. The point is that Venezuela is facing the economic issues it’s facing because of US intervention and sanctions, primarily. There’s certainly the other arguments and discussions to be made about decisions that Maduro and Chavez made, of course, but primarily the issue now is sanctions that the United States Government has implemented against the elected leadership of that country.

Then that’s the other issue, that the elections in Venezuela are continued to be framed by Republicans and Democrats as fraudulent, and that Maduro was not elected by the people, but six million people did vote for him. None of the candidates— certainly not Sanders, he was guilty of this also— also didn’t bring up the fact that nobody voted for Juan Guido. There are lots of issues with the way the Democratic Party frames this particular discussion because, in my estimation, the Democratic Party is just as pro-imperialist as the Republican Party is. I don’t think there’s much modulation between the two on this particular issue. Even given whatever legitimate arguments people have for or against Maduro as a leader of his country, all of their answers on this particular issue, and even the question itself, were a big problem.

GREG WILPERT: I think the contrast between the answers that they gave to Afghanistan and the answers that they gave to Venezuela is quite telling. That maybe the shift that I was talking about earlier with regard to Afghanistan is not as big as we might think, considering how willing they are to endorse this idea that the US should be involved in Venezuela. I want to turn to you next, Helena. What do you think of that? Is this— especially what Sanders, Castro and Biden said in this context?

HELENA OLEA: Yes. I agree a lot with Jacqueline. I think that the question was terrible and we really have to begin right there. It’s a personal feud that the journalist has with Maduro, which we understand, but I think that that was not the way to frame the issue. Element number one. I do believe that the point made about who elected Guido is quite important. There are a number of questionings about Guido and how – where he’s getting the funding, who’s helping him. There are very recent accusations that he is receiving paramilitary aid from Columbia. I do think that this is much more complicated than how the candidates understand it. I think it’s not a matter of how we label or not label Maduro. The real issue should be what should be the role of the US. Sanctions are very important.

The other element also is that the US withdrew aid to Central American countries to give it to Guido and the opposition in Venezuela. That was not mentioned there, which also reflects that they are very badly informed on this topic. Finally, there was no mention of the six million Venezuelans who are abroad, mostly everywhere in the Americas, trying to start a new life, just a brief mention of granting TPS for Venezuelans by Julio Castro. I think that the issue is much more complex than that, and so it did reflect this very limited view. I think that it’s a great shortcoming in terms of their foreign policy. They talked about human rights as a prescription that should be considered, particularly Elizabeth Warren mentioned it. Then what does human rights translate into, and how do we consider it and understand it from all of the topics? They could have connected that to the US migration policy, and they also failed to address that in their response.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I find it pretty amazing that they didn’t mention at all the issue of sanctions against Venezuela, which are absolutely crucial, especially in the context of the people leaving Venezuela, of course, and the problems, economic problems that the country has. I’m wondering what do you make of this, particularly the way these candidates are treating that particular issue, and does that mean that they’re still wedded to imperialist politics, as Jackie says?

OSITA NWANEVU: I think that to a large extent the Democratic Party obviously is. I don’t think that the American people and Democratic Party specifically have given a lot of thought to the United States’ history in South and Central America. The record of intervention is something that you know about it only if you’re very well read on the left. It’s not something that gets talked about in the media and its history is part of the reason why we have this situation in Venezuela now. I don’t think that there’s a very serious discussion on the Democratic primary debate stage or within the primary on that particular issue. Hopefully, Bernie Sanders and the other progressives in the field raise public awareness of what’s been going on.

I do think that it’s very hard for me to understand why this comes up as an issue time and time again in these debates when the only people who I think respond to the kind of fear-mongering that the moderators are trying to do about Venezuela and socialism are people who already watch Fox News and are not Democratic primary voters. I don’t really think that resonates with anybody. I don’t think that people, for better or for worse, are very clued into what’s going on in the country at all. I think there’s an education, there’s the public education aspect of what needs to go on here as far as Latin American policy is concerned. Hopefully, this sort of positive energy we’ve seen on other foreign policy issues eventually migrates over to that sphere of the world, and people begin taking the situation not only in Venezuela, but across the litany of states America has intervened in over the past couple of decades. Hopefully, people started taking those foreign policy questions more seriously.

GREG WILPERT: The issue that you raise, of course, of the socialism is one that came up and that’s a perfect segue to the next clip that we have, which is particularly Bernie Sanders’s response to that question, and also an ad that ran for the Republicans attacking Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, where she is being portrayed as a socialist and being equated with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Let’s run that clip.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: What I believe in terms of democratic socialism, I agree with what goes on in Canada and in Scandinavia guaranteeing health care to all people as a human right. I believe that the United States should not be the only major country on Earth not to provide paid family and medical leave. I believe that every worker in this country deserves a living wage and that we expand the trade union movement. I happen to believe also that what, to me, democratic socialism means is we deal with an issue we do not discuss enough, Jorge, not in the media and not in Congress. You got three people in America owning more wealth than the bottom half of this country. You’ve got a handful of billionaires controlling what goes on in Wall Street, the insurance companies, and in the media. Maybe, just maybe, what we should be doing is creating an—

MODERATOR: Thank you.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Economy that works for all of us, not one percent. That’s my understanding of democratic socialism.

MODERATOR: Secretary [inaudible], you wanted to—

ELIZABETH HENG, REPUBLICAN CAMPAIGN AD: This is the face of socialism and ignorance. Does Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez know the horror of socialism? My father was minutes from death in Cambodia before a forced marriage saved his life. That’s socialism: forced obedience, starvation. Mine is a face of freedom. My skin is not white. I’m not outrageous, racist, nor socialist. I’m a Republican.

GREG WILPERT: We can see here this incredible contrast between the way the Republicans are portraying socialism, and the way Bernie Sanders is portraying democratic socialism. Of course, this is going to be a major issue, one presumes, especially if Bernie Sanders were to become the candidate. But I imagine that even if not, we know that Obama was regularly being accused of being a socialist. Let me turn to you first, Osita. What do you think? Do you think that this will become like “the” campaign issue and how can Democrats deal with it?

OSITA NWANEVU: I think that’s going to be an issue even if Biden’s nominee. The Republicans, this is the button that they push in every election. The fact that they lost the House in 2018 doesn’t seem to have dissuaded them that this is a reasonable strategy, but it’s what they’re going to do. It’s the only trick that they’ve got. I don’t think that it really resonates with people. People in the country, broadly speaking, there’ve been numbers or polls showing that socialism has gone up in public estimation over the past several years. It’s still kind of underwater compared to when you ask people about capitalism, but that hasn’t really sunken Bernie Sanders’s popularity with the American people, broadly speaking. Maybe they have certain apprehensions about socialism, but he does just as well as any of the other candidates when you do look at these head-to-heads against Donald Trump. The election has yet to happen, obviously, and we don’t know how things would change in certain ways, but I think if you’re a Republican, you have to wonder about the extent to which this is actually something that is going to be effective.

I think it’s important that in the 2016 presidential election, Trump did not win by calling Hillary Clinton a socialist. In fact, he adopted a kind of populist rhetoric, he talked about the fact that the system was rigged, and that certain wealthy people controlled it. It was really like superficially similar to what people on the left said, and it resembled left rhetoric more close and it resembles these attacks on socialism we see now, the attacks on socialism we heard under Mitt Romney’s candidacy and John McCain’s candidacy. The one thing that’s actually won them is turning away from that kind of rhetoric and they don’t seem to have gotten that. They don’t seem to have internalized that fact at all. I think it’s going to be a real point of Republican messaging through the election. I don’t think it’s going to matter very much, but it is what we can, I think, pretty reliably expect them to harp on.

GREG WILPERT: Helena, let me just turn to you quickly. What’s your interpretation of the importance or significance of the issue of socialism in this particular campaign?

HELENA OLEA: I agree very much with Osita’s point. I think that he’s quite on point on a number of these issues. I think that it reflects a great ignorance and I also think that Republicans are failing to understand how faded in the American public the Cold War is right now. When you talk to the younger generations that were not a part of it, they really do not understand what you are referring to, and I think that this is a big mistake on their part, and socialism doesn’t scare the American people anymore. I think that they have to understand that, but they are so much scared that they produced ads like the one you showed. It’s very interesting to see them playing with the issue, portraying a non-white American attractive woman with long hair, dark hair like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, saying “there is another face to it,” and playing to these scare-mongering tactics of the past. I think that it’s in the back of the old Republicans, it’s not in the mind of the American people anymore.

OSITA NWANEVU: I actually want to jump in at that point because I think it’s extremely, extremely interesting and important that the person whose face was burning in that ad was not Bernie Sanders, but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That is no accident. I think the Republicans have been much friendlier to Sanders over the past couple of years, even though he is this socialist candidate who’s actually won millions of votes, than they have been to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s just this random Congresswoman. Why is she the focus of all these Fox News segments? Why is she the focus of all of this attention online and not Sanders, who is ostensibly the greater threat to the country as a socialist?

I think it has to do with the fact, as Helena said, that she is a non-white person, she’s a woman and, like the other members of the squad— Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar— these are the things that Republican voters find threatening. They look at Bernie Sanders, they understand he’s a socialist, but he also looks like them and that’s something that doesn’t register the same fear triggers that putting up a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might. I think that’s an extremely important thing for us to notice and understand. It is not an accident at all that she is the focal point of all of this anxiety about socialism, and not the actual socialist candidate for president who millions of people in this country have already voted for.

GREG WILPERT: Right. Jackie?

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Yeah. There are so many interesting angles to what Sanders said and the ad. I think what Sanders said is the perfect counter to the messaging of the evils of the bogeyman socialism as we’re moving. He moved the discourse from this, as Helena said, this outdated Cold War kind of rhetoric to, “This is the answer to our current economic crisis that we are all facing. And by the way, guess what? Other countries have already done it, so it can’t be that bad.” The interesting thing about what Sanders said is that when he mentioned other countries, he was careful to mention Canada and Scandinavia, but did not mention Cuba and Venezuela. If you’re looking at Venezuela, whatever issues you have with Maduro, Venezuela just completed a housing project where they built three and a half million units of free and affordable housing for working people.

We have an exploding homelessness crisis in this country and in California alone. That is a socialist success story to me, but it’s interesting that that wasn’t mentioned. Cuba routinely sends the best doctors in the world around the world to respond to disasters. Why? Because the people don’t go into debt becoming doctors in Cuba and the government pays for research. Those are socialist success stories, but just as it is intentional the way the Republicans used a woman of color to demonize socialism in their ad, I think Sanders and his team were very careful to use the same kind of imagery of socialist success stories as a counter, and not bringing up these kinds of problematic countries of color where socialism is successful and working for the people, but the government of this country has problems with the leaders. I think that’s intentional too, but I think that again, like we’ve said, the discourse on those issues around those countries is so surface-level, we may not see it. We may not understand it’s there, but it’s definitely. I don’t think his choice of words was accidental either.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there. We’ve run out of time, but I think this was a very interesting discussion. This concludes our third segment of the third Democratic presidential debate. Again, I was joined by Real News host and producer Jacqueline Luqman, and New Republic staff writer Osita Nwanevu. And joining us remotely was human rights lawyer and University of Illinois in Chicago Professor Helena Olea. Thanks again to all three of you for having joined us today.



HELENA OLEA: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: I’m Greg Wilpert and thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.