A relatively new organization, Common Defense, founded in 2016 by several dozen veterans of the post-9/11 wars, is challenging the field of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls to sign a pledge promising to put an end to what George W. Bush called the “Global War on Terror” and to insist that Congress assert its responsibility to authorize any and all U.S. military actions overseas. Called the End the Forever War Pledge, it’s a one-paragraph declaration that so far has been signed by two 2020 candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and by a handful of progressives in the U.S. House of Representatives.
This week, The Dreyfuss Report interviewed Alex McCoy, the spokesman and political director for Common Defense, about the organization’s strategy and its current focus on 2020. McCoy, the son of U.S. Navy veteran, himself served from 2008 to 2014 in the Marine Corps, stationed in the Saudi Arabia, Honduras and Germany. When he left the Marines, he got involved with other, progressive-minded veterans and, in 2016, was one of several dozen who founded Common Defense. Since then, the organization has won the support of 150,000 people across the country, including tens of thousands of veterans and their families, according to its website.
One of its goals: to use the pledge as a litmus test to distinguish among Democrats running in 2020. Too often, McCoy says, Democrats try to signal their opposition to President Trump by seeming to be more hawkish than the president himself.
What follows is a slightly edited version of the interview with McCoy.
Q. Tell me about Common Defense.
McCoy: Common Defense arose during the 2016 campaign, when veterans came together to protest Donald Trump, and we realized that there was really no organization that was connecting and convening and mobilizing the progressive veterans community. And in fact our entire community was almost entirely erased, and veterans were conceded as a right-wing group, and Trump flagrantly used us a political props. We wanted to present an alternative view of patriotism, based on equality and justice for all and striving for what we believed American ideals ought to be, rather than nationalism and jingoism and justifying endless war. I’m one of the co-founders, one of a small group of 30 or 40 who found each other, mostly younger vets, of the post 9/11 era.
We’ve felt frustrated with how Donald Trump has pretty successfully fooled a lot of people into thinking that he is going to end these wars, and that he supports ending these wars. And the reality is that that’s a lie, like so much else. He’s a fraud. He’s realized that the American public and the American military community is tired of these wars, and he’s trying to tap into that for his own political gain, while simultaneously appointing warmongers like [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and riling up tensions with Korea and Iran and Venezuela.
But equally frustrating for us was seeing some Democrats reflexively responding to Donald Trump by becoming more hawkish, thinking that, well, anything that Donald Trump says, we have to say the opposite. In fact, that made them get further and further away from what regular people want. So the idea behind this pledge was, you know, we want to re-ground the Democratic party in what regular people want, which is where the Democratic party has been and must be again. So we have to give them the backbone to stand up against the military-industrial complex, the Pentagon, and spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money. And give them the backbone to stand up against the generals who, for reasons primarily to do with their ego, have come up with plan after plan for prolonging these wars, even though they have to metric for success, because they don’t want to be the one who loses it on their watch.
Q. Are you worried that you’ll be criticized for dividing the party, by people who say that the No. 1 issue in 2020 is simply defeating Trump?
McCoy: We are not afraid of getting involved in primaries. … There is a desire among many candidates to be an etch-a-sketch candidate and not be pinned down. But we believe that electorally and morally, that’s a mistake. In the age of Trump, what people crave is authenticity. We don’t want people who float with the wind.
Q. It’s often said that voters don’t really care about foreign policy, and so politicians feel safe when they ignore or speak in vague terms about it.
McCoy: One of the things we discovered as we met with politicians in D.C. is that many candidates are surprised that anyone cares about foreign policy. They have this perception that this is something that nobody gives two cents about. Okay, there aren’t many antiwar marches in the streets, but there are zero pro-war marches. The power of the military-industrial complex is not to be trifled with, but it is also soft and vulnerable, and an organized movement can beat it.
Too often discussions of foreign policy and the military get sunk into this granular, hyper-specific, wonky, death-by-a-thousand details discussion. Like, this war doesn’t have the right paperwork! And the generals say, ‘Bombing this village is different than bombing that village.’ And the wars are multiplying. We need to make a morally driven case for what America should stand for, and we need to put it in terms that regular people understand. They do care about this issue. People care about imperialism abroad, especially when you connect it to racism here at home.
Q. Sanders and Warren have already signed your pledge. Have you read what they’ve said in recent foreign policy speeches and articles? What do you think about what they’ve put forward?
McCoy: We’re very excited by the foreign policy visions put forward by Senator Warren and Senator Sanders. There are a lot of elements there that have been missing in the past, like a discussion of the global inequality and the power of a corrupt corporate elite underlying the world’s foreign policy system. We think we have a key opportunity now. A lot of candidates have not put out foreign policy visions. It’s a sign of a lack of discussion within the Democratic party on this issue that so many candidates lack a coherent expression of their view of what America’s role in the world should be. That’s why we think the pledge is such an important first step, for grounding what has been a space we have largely ceded to people who don’t care about us.
We believe in challenging the basic premise that foreign policy ought to be exclusively the domain of experts. Foreign policy should be grounded in the needs of and the impact on the people it affects.