Sanders’ foreign policy positions are better than those of his Republican and Democratic opponents—though that’s not a terribly high bar, it must be said. He is the least hawkish of the major party candidates. As he has stated repeatedly, he’s proud that he voted against the war in Iraq—in contrast to Hillary Clinton, who has only grudgingly said that her pro-war vote was a mistake—and note that even now she calls it a “mistake,” not a decision that was fundamentally wrong. Like Clinton, Sanders supported recent moves toward normalization of relations with Cuba. He also supported the nuclear deal with Iran; though Clinton too supported the Iran deal, with her trademark “muscular” approach to foreign policy, her tone is quite different from Sanders’: she has emphasized that, if elected, she would back up the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement with the threat of military reprisal if Iran violated any of its terms. Indeed, she seems coiled and almost looking for a justification to spring into action. Sanders condemns past U.S. interventions in Guatemala, Central America and Iran, and has sharply criticized Clinton’s embrace of Henry Kissinger. (Note by the way that Clinton doesn’t stand alone in Democratic Party establishment circles in her enthusiasm for Kissinger; in May 2016 President Obama’s Defense Secretary Ash Carter presented him with the Department of Defense’s Distinguished Public Service Award.)
Obama, despite his frequent impassioned anti-nuclear rhetoric, has called for a trillion dollar modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons. Sanders strongly opposes the plan. In contrast, Hillary Clinton has been, in the words of Lawrence Wittner, “more ambiguous about her stance. . . . Asked by a peace activist about the trillion dollar nuclear plan, she replied that she would ‘look into that,’ adding: ‘It doesn’t make sense to me.’ Even so, like other issues that the former secretary of state has promised to ‘look into,’ this one remains unresolved. Moreover, the ‘National Security’ section of her campaign website promises that she will maintain the ‘strongest military the world has ever known’ —not a propitious sign for critics of nuclear weapons.” Sanders favors the eventual complete elimination of nuclear weapons and says he would work to get U.S. and Russian weapons down to 1,000 each—a goal which Clinton too says she favors. Sanders calls for cuts in the military budget, but he gives no specifics and makes it sound as if the cuts will all come from eliminating waste and cost overruns—a standard politician’s evasion to avoid discussing policy. Such trimming of the fat in a military budget that stands at close to $600 billion will be too small to provide a real revenue source for Sanders’ social and infrastructure programs. (The likely Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, on the other hand, calls for a 50 percent cut in military spending and indicates how the saved funds will be used. Full disclosure:Stein is the candidate I intend to support.), and too vague to generate a useful conversation about a different sort of U.S. foreign policy, one that doesn’t depend on overwhelming military power.
The Middle East
Sanders has reflected and amplified a growing feeling in the American public— including among younger American Jews—that the United States shouldn’t automatically fall in line to uncritically support the Israeli government no matter how badly it treats the Palestinians. Sanders hasn’t gone far enough: crucially, he hasn’t called for an end to the U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic support that sustains Israeli policy toward Palestinians. However, his sharp words of criticism of Israeli policies during the Democratic presidential debates, even if those criticisms were limited, have helped further a much-needed public debate about the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Unfortunately, Sanders’ foreign policy positions are too often inconsistent with his democratic and anti-elitist domestic politics. Taken as a whole, his foreign policy approach doesn’t come anywhere near constituting an agenda that addresses the needs of the global 99 percent (or, say, 90 percent) who suffer from today’s wars and the cruel global economic order of neoliberalism and austerity that the United States promotes.
As recently as October of last year Sanders has said that he supports keeping U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan. He voted for NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which caused one of his staffers, my friend Jeremy Brecher, to resign in protest. And Sanders voted for the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF), which has been used to justify U.S. military action in the Middle East (apart from the 2003 Iraq invasion) ever since.
Notwithstanding his criticisms of Hillary Clinton for her inclination to favor U.S. military intervention around the world, Sanders himself has generally supported America’s wars. Rather than putting forward a progressive, non-imperial alternative to ISIS and Al Qaeda that can appeal to ordinary people in the Middle East, Jeremy Scahill reminds us that in the 1990’s Sanders supported the Iraq Liberation Act and the brutal economic sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and that he supported President Clinton’s bombings in Iraq that were packaged as part of the so-called no-fly zones. And this is not just in the distant past. For example, in October 2015 Sanders said he wouldn’t end Obama’s drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, saying only that strikes must be deployed “selectively and effectively.”
On MSNBC’s April 25, 2016 town hall moderated by Chris Hayes, Sanders repeated his endorsement of drone strikes, and said that he supported a “constitutional, legal” presidential kill list. He agreed with Obama’s action in sending 250 Special Forces operators to the ground in Syria, saying to Hayes, “I think what the President is talking about is having American troops training Muslim troops, helping to supply the military equipment they need, and I do support that effort. We need a broad coalition of Muslim troops on the ground. We have had some success in the last year or so putting ISIS on the defensive, we’ve got to continue that effort.”
The basic problem with Sanders’ approach is that he believes that the solution to the threat of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ilk depends on resolute action by reactionary Middle East governments, backed by the United States, Russia, and other powerful countries. But the solution actually lies in the opposite direction. What is needed is an end to intervention by outside powers (including regional heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and Iran) and a thoroughgoing transformation of the Middle East, a transformation that can only be begun by the revival of the grassroots democratic movements of Iran’s Green movement and the Arab Spring that challenged and threatened to replace despotic rulers across the region.
Sanders summed up his anti-ISIS strategy on November 19, 2015, when he said:
While the U.S. and other western nations have the strength of our militaries and political systems, the fight against ISIS is a struggle for the soul of Islam, and countering violent extremism and destroying ISIS must be done primarily by Muslim nations—with the strong support of their global partners. . . . A new and strong coalition of Western powers, Muslim nations, and countries like Russia must come together in a strongly coordinated way to combat ISIS, to seal the borders that fighters are currently flowing across, to share counter-terrorism intelligence, to turn off the spigot of terrorist financing, and to end support for exporting radical ideologies. . . countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE—countries of enormous wealth and resources—have contributed far too little in the fight against ISIS. That must change. King Abdallah [of Jordan] is absolutely right when he says that that the Muslim nations must lead the fight against ISIS, and that includes some of the most wealthy and powerful nations in the region, who, up to this point have done far too little.
The governments of these reactionary “Muslim nations” can’t possibly offer the millions of people in the Middle East an attractive alternative to ISIS. Jordan uses a broad and vague counterterrorism law to strictly curtail freedom of expression and outlaws criticism of the king, of the government, and of Islam. Kuwait’s government aggressively cracks down on free speech. Qatar engages in the trafficking of ruthlessly exploited forced labor and provides for penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment for criticizing the emir or vice-emir. UAE courts have invoked repressive laws to prosecute government critics, and a counterterrorism law poses a further threat to government critics and rights activists. And Saudi Arabia’s hideous police state is a byword for blind and bloody repression—against women, religious minorities, and even the most peaceful of government critics—little different from ISIS itself.
These regimes are part of the problem, not part of the solution. But that’s equally true of the “U.S. and other Western nations” that Sanders believes can play a crucial role in the fight against ISIS. The international financial institutions the United States and other Western nations dominate, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have helped to create the conditions that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. They pressed governments across the region to adopt policies of privatization, cutbacks in state investment, and government subsidies for energy and other day-to-day essentials. These governments—from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya and Syria—acquiesced to Western pressure and implemented such neoliberal policies, using their repressive state apparatuses to squelch popular discontent with the painful consequences. The Arab Spring was a rebellion against both despotism and the economic suffering inflicted by the despots.
Sanders, then, is looking in all the wrong places for a lasting victory against ISIS. Bombings and military intervention by the United States and NATO, with their killing of hundreds of innocent civilians, have only succeeded in creating more terrorists and driving millions of people in the Middle East into passive acquiescence or sometimes actual support for ISIS and other reactionary fundamentalist forces. Likewise, Syria’s murderous Assad regime, with critical assistance from Iran and Russia, has killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Assad’s war against his regime’s opponents is not, as Sanders seems to think, the first step toward defeating ISIS. In fact, the effect has been the opposite, and the only way Assad can triumph is by turning Syria into even more of a wasteland than it already is, which will actually serve to encourage groups like ISIS.
Unlike Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders isn’t drawn to dictators. Nor is he a macho warmonger by nature. The problem is that he hasn’t systematically broken with the foreign policy of the 1 percent. What is needed is a new, independent foreign policy of solidarity with grassroots movements for democracy and social justice around the world—an internationalist extension of Sanders’ domestic program. To the extent that Sanders enmeshes himself in the Democratic Party, an institution deeply entwined with corporate and financial interests, he will be unable to champion political or social revolution abroad, or, for that matter, at home. It is to be hoped that the millions of Sanders supporters will come to see that they need to build a new political party not only to reverse America’s militaristic, anti-democratic and imperial foreign policy, but even to achieve many of the more limited goals for which they are fighting today.
Sanders opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. So does Clinton, although many pundits consider her position to be totally opportunist, designed for battling Sanders in the primaries, and the president of the Chamber of Commerce has suggested that Clinton will switch to backing the deal if she wins the election. Certainly, Clinton has been an enthusiastic supporter of corporate-oriented free trade deals for her entire career, whereas Sanders has consistently opposed them. Trump opposes the TPP too, but his stance is based in part on his belief that no one can negotiate a deal like he can, and also on his economic nationalism—which also leads him to threaten China with a 45 percent tariff.Given the current U.S. tariff rate of about 3.5 percent, Trump’s policy could not fail to create havoc in the U.S. and world economies.
Sanders emphasizes fair trade over free trade, and insists that workers not corporations should be the beneficiaries. But he has done a poor job of articulating a progressive foreign trade policy that is not narrowly nationalist. It has to be admitted that the left as a whole has failed to outline such a policy, and that’s a challenge that lies before all of us. One thing certain, though, is that the type of global democratic economic planning that would be required to achieve economic security and wellbeing for all will never be adopted by the 1 percent.