America needs a "Bernie Doctrine": How Sanders' foreign policy weakness could become a game-changing strength

The Vermont senator has taken flack for his lack of attention to foreign policy. Here's how he should address it

Published February 11, 2016 9:25PM (EST)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (AP/John Minchillo)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (AP/John Minchillo)

Sure, Bernie Sanders’ dovish instincts beat out the hawkish proposals advanced by Hillary Clinton for anti-war voters. But many fans of the upstart democratic socialist readily concede the consensus view: He seems neither very knowledgeable about nor particularly interested in foreign policy.

“I like his domestic politics. I’m a progressive,” says Jillian Schwedler, a political scientist and expert on Middle East politics at Hunter College. “But this sort of gaping hole in his foreign policy seems kind of notable.”

In part, the growing media scrutiny appears driven by the fact that establishment dons are mad, as Vox’s Max Fisher put it, that Sanders has refused to kiss their ring: He has declined to participate in a perennial “ritual" whereby candidates for president consult with and appoint "credible" foreign policy apparatchiks to their campaigns, a performance meant to "signal to party and media elites that the candidate will uphold establishment consensus, will listen to the foreign policy expert class, and will empower grown-up foreign policy professionals to conduct policy in a way that elites would consider generally responsible and correct.”

The Clinton campaign, eager to pivot to the offensive, is in yet another primary fight making the case that her opponent is unqualified to be commander in chief, blasting out a letter signed by military-industrial complex luminaries warning “that Senator Sanders has not thought through these crucial national security issues that can have profound consequences for our security.”

On the left, however, watching Sanders can feel like whiplash, cheering on the candidate's denunciations of Clinton’s Iraq vote one minute and then wincing the next as he praises Jordan’s autocratic King Abdullah as “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.”

Sanders can do better, for starters, by not referring to these places as “Muslim nations,” which describes them precisely the way reactionary forces in the region prefer. But does he want to do better? Critical analysts are divided.

Noam Chomsky tells Salon that he sees “no indication that he intends a very different foreign policy than, say, Obama, who he says he admires.” Toby C. Jones, an historian at Rutgers University, complains that “Sanders is fully committed to the foreign policy status quo, which is at odds with our perception of him as a progressive or a radical. From supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia without qualification or criticism, I wonder whether he either lacks the energy or just the will to cast what appears to be critical view of power beyond American borders.”

Sanders’ shortcomings begin with the War on Terror’s point of origin, the invasion of Afghanistan, the vote in favor of which he has cited in order to demonstrate that he’s no pacifist. The invasion, opposed by just one member of Congress but now considered to be a mistake by many Americans, not only turned out to be a disaster but conveyed statutory and political legitimacy to the current state of permanent warfare.

That aside, Sanders does have pieces of a possible foundation for something different, from expressing an uncommon wariness toward military intervention to forthrightly insisting that global warming, and not ISIS, remains the United States’ greatest national security threat. With regard to Latin America, his opposition to Reagan’s dirty wars holds out the possibility that he could understand the importance of shutting down a drug war that is today bloodying the region anew.

“Bernie Sanders has indicated that he stands for principals that would be closer to that of the independent, progressive foreign policy experts, activists,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies who takes a more optimistic view. But what would it look like if he were president? “We don’t know yet,” Bennis says.

Iran specialist Adnan Tabatabai, CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, tells Salon by email:

“Sanders would be able to build on what President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have established: a functional modus operandi between Tehran and Washington which is far from ‘normalized relations’ and yet a major improvement of past enmities. Sanders would try - regardless of successfully or not - to redefine US regional policies in the Middle East. The most important character of Sanders' Middle East policy would probably be that of non-interventionism…Hillary Clinton, on the contrary, represents a hawkish position on Iran and its role in the region.”

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, a political scientist at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, emails that Sanders has significantly tried “to emphasize multilateralism, working with allies and through institutions. ‘Strength through diplomacy’ ironically distinguishes him from former Secretary Clinton, who served as a diplomat but did little to depart from our militarized approach to conflicts in the region.”

But if Sanders is interested in a better foreign policy, how quickly can he can get up to speed?

“Sanders has the right movement and the right platform right now to articulate a real left-realist foreign policy vision, but I think he's the wrong candidate in the right circumstance, because he can't possibly get savvy enough on this stuff to do that in the limited time left in the campaign,” emails Derek Davison, a foreign policy analyst who contributes to LobeLog.

In order to defeat Clinton, and then whichever Republican warmonger wins that party’s primary, Sanders must better counter her argument that “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.” Looking out onto a world wrecked by the establishment he so despises, Sanders could articulate a coherent alternative vision that places diplomacy at its heart, confronts the bipartisan national security state’s permanent government, and makes clear exactly how he would fulfil his promise to make the use of force “a last resort.”

Fight the entire establishment 

Not to make a virtue of ignorance, but there is a certain savvy to Sanders’ refusal to allow foreign policy to dominate a debate that too often comes down to being for or against us, and loving our troops versus appeasing our enemies.

“So many domestic reform presidents wind up getting chewed up by foreign policy, something he obviously would like to avoid were he to become president,” emails Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University and the author of Kissinger's Shadow: The Long Reach of America's Most Controversial Statesman. “So much of ‘foreign policy’ is really just subordinated to domestic craziness. Iraq, Syria, etc. etc. has nothing to do with objective interests or geopolitics, but rather using foreign policy to leverage domestic polarization. I think that Sanders is just hoping to break that equation by ignoring foreign policy. Not getting caught up in any rhetorical compromises, where he has to condemn this or that country, or call to right this or that wrong abroad.”

Still, Sanders could do a much better job carving out his position to Clinton’s left, protecting his candidacy’s weakest flank and making him the first major presidential candidate seeking to break the War on Terror’s 14-plus year grip on policymaking and political culture.

“Both parties essentially agree on the need for us to continue on our interventionist path,” emails James Russell, a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey. “This is utter madness.”

Russell continues:

“Sanders is missing an opportunity here to separate himself from the ‘corporate’ mindset of the Democratic foreign policy establishment — which is really the Council of Foreign Relations — a group full of people who were cheerleaders in the Iraq War —  the greatest strategic disaster for the US since Vietnam. Sanders has correctly identified the critical issue of today on the domestic front — which is income inequality and the impact of corporate money in politics, but he’s not carving up the low-hanging fruit in foreign policy.”

Some of that low-hanging fruit includes President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, with which Sanders has closely aligned himself. It ties him to a president who remains popular with most Democrats, particularly with black voters he has not yet won over in sufficient numbers. It also effectively draws a contrast to Clinton’s more hawkish approach and recognizes some of Obama’s foreign policy successes, notably the moves toward rapprochement with Iran and Cuba.

But Sanders should develop a savvier appraisal of Obama’s foreign policy that also takes stock of its failings. In doing so, he can sharpen his attack on Clinton’s disastrous escapade in Libya, her saber-rattling toward Iran, and her foolhardy proposal to create a no-fly zone over Syria. Bennis says that Sanders should be emphatically asking Clinton: "is she prepared to go to war with Russia in order to establish a no fly zone in Syria?”

Sanders should also make Clinton’s ties to Henry Kissinger a liability in the same way he's made her Wall Street speaking fees an embarrassment. This isn't a hard argument to make, because the corporate and military elites are intertwined: "Much of US Middle East policy is based on the export of lethal weaponry," as Middle East Report's editors wrote in a letter to Sanders," through a system that requires countries like Israel and Egypt to spend most or all "of its annual haul on purchases from US arms dealers...How’s that for corporate welfare?"

The same bipartisan establishment that substituted unregulated finance and skyrocketing executive compensation for the real economy’s health has accommodated itself to the national security state’s permanent government. A true populist insurgency, garnering support from a general public tired of war and angry over economic inequality, must necessarily aim to smash both.

Sanders can maintain his focus on a “political revolution that really is largely focused on issues of economic inequality during primaries but he’s not going to be able to get away with that in a general election,” says Andrew Bacevich, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. Should he become the Democratic nominee, Sanders will face a Republican stoking fears about ISIS and attempting to paint him as weak. To counter that message, he should “be able to articulate a distinctive national security policy as distinctive as his recipe for domestic policy,” Bacevich says.

Such an approach would foreground diplomacy, recognize the failure of military force to shape global events and challenge the dominance of the Washington security establishment, says Bacevich. Forging an understanding between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other regional heavyweights to bring about a “new equilibrium of power that excludes entities like ISIS” would be the key. That won’t be easy. But it has the virtue of being the only possible solution.

“The interstate system in that region is a pretty complicated one,” says Bacevich. “And so the diplomatic task is enormous…But guess what? The military task is even larger,” and “not only has not worked but has actually made things worse.”

A new approach would also involve, says Stephen Walt Robert, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a realistic assessment that Assad and Russia can’t just be willed out of Syria if ending the violence is the primary objective.

“Unfortunately,” says Walt, “we learned from Libya and Iraq and Syria and Somalia and Yemen that the only thing worse than an awful government is no government at all.”

And it’s not as if the U.S. interest in Assad’s ouster is in based in a concern for human rights—just look at Egypt, where the U.S. has backed Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s brutal and extraordinarily murderous regime.

A smart foreign policy would have to chart a new course away overthrowing brutal regimes the government all of a sudden doesn’t like and uncritically funding and defending those that they do. For one, Walt says that Sanders should also move away from the establishment take on Israel, recognizing that “the goal of a two state solution is never going to be achieved” because there is already a “one-state reality” on the ground. An American president interested in solutions will ultimately one day have “to admit that and try to develop a different policy.”

Sanders’ history on Israel-Palestine subject is “to straddle the hawkish policies of the Washington consensus with the concerns of many in his progressive base” Rania Khalek writes in an Electronic Intifada overview of Sanders’ approach to the issue. His record, she writes, is still “a striking contrast to his opponent’s enthusiastic embrace of Israel’s right-wing leadership and brazen contempt for the lives of Palestinians.”

Saudi Arabia, another troublemaking friend in the region, is currently leading a catastrophic war in Yemen backed by American assistance. This is the sort of misadventure that Sanders should steer away from.

Think outside the war machine's box

There's a classic progressive bumper sticker that reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” As the aphorism suggests, a progressive foreign policy would dovetail nicely with Sanders’ domestic agenda.

“A progressive foreign policy would have to” involve “rethinking on a big level what our national interest is,” says Schwedler, namely: What American interests are being advanced -- the average American’s or just the finances of the military-industrial complex? If the objective is truly security, says Schwedler, redirecting huge sums from military contractors to alleviating hunger and poverty might be a good bet.

One problem for Sanders is institutional: The number of anti-interventionist foreign policy experts with a hand in policymaking is small. The U.S. government has under both major parties for decades embraced an imperialist approach, ensuring that most left-wingers and anti-intervention realists remain critics ensconced in academia.

“The national security establishment is so inbred, to become a member of that establishment requires sort of being able to recite the lines thereby demonstrating that you are a member in good standing,” says Bacevich. “It simply does not welcome much in the way of fresh thinking…The imaginative critics are outsiders.”

That said, Bacevich has a number of suggestions, from who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Department of State, should Sanders be interested. Philbrick Yadav says that part of the problem is government’s typical reliance on U.S.-focused foreign policy experts instead of area specialists who might have a clue as to how those policies will actually play out on the ground.

“What Sanders needs is knowledge of the communities and institutions that will be impacted by different policies - for this, people with a strong fieldwork-informed foundation in regional dynamics would be key,” emails Philbrick Yadav.

There is no doubt a macabre irony to Sanders’ dilemma: The world has become a more dangerous and complicated place without easy solutions at hand in large part precisely because of the mess that hawks like Clinton have created. Clintonites are in no position to argue that only the sort of people who have made such enormous militaristic blunders have the acumen to sort out the chaos. As Sanders has made clear, experience is no substitute for good judgment. He needs a foreign policy worthy of a political revolution.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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