While Sanders positions himself as an anti-war candidate, so too did Trump. Sanders even echoes the Trump talking points: China and Russia are our enemies; Maduro won his presidency through election fraud; and Iran is a sponsor of terror.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is now leading the pack of Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination. In the previous election cycle, Sanders served as an anti-establishment underdog, bucking Democratic orthodoxy with a strong progressive economic message. But this time the field is more crowded with like-minded candidates –“progressives” like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris. It follows then that in order to distinguish himself, Sanders needs visionary solutions to problems outside of the economic realm. In the foreign policy arena, however, he is looking for inspiration on Israel-Palestine from tried-and-failed Democratic presidents of the past — namely, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — all while echoing Trump and Bush Jr. administration talking points.
Sanders has also brought one Robert Malley onto his foreign policy team. Malley served on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council as “Special Assistant to President Obama & Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIL Campaign” from February 2014 to January 2017. Under his watch, the U.S led operations which saw the near-total destruction of the historic cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Despite this, the New York Times opinion section has said Sanders “stands as one of the few candidates with a fully formed vision for American foreign policy,” while The Atlantic claims “It’s Foreign Policy That Distinguishes Bernie This Time.”
As journalist Mathew Yglesias — who is not necessarily known for his moral clarity but is indisputably one of the more knowledgeable wonks on Washington’s most boring inner workings — noted, “There are two main things the president actually does — executive branch appointments, which nobody is really talking about, and then foreign policy.”
Sanders has worked hard to lay out his 2020 foreign policy vision in April. It was the subject of an in-depth article in The New Yorker, and he also touched briefly on it in a Fox News town hall on Monday.
In the New Yorker piece, journalist Benjamin Wallace-Wells recounts his interview with Sanders and his foreign policy advisor, Matt Duss, a former “Policy Analyst” at the notoriously anti-Sanders Center for American Progress, which receives funding from the United Arab Emirates.
Right away, Wallace-Wells notes that “Sanders had scarcely talked about foreign affairs in his 2016 campaign.” This time seems different, however.
Still, Sanders hasn’t done all of his homework, and openly admits it. After getting into some of the nitty-gritty of international affairs and the historic role of U.S. foreign policy, Sanders concedes to Wallace-Wells:
Let me — I should have prefaced everything that I said by saying I most certainly do not believe that I have all the answers, or that this is easy stuff. I mean, you’re dealing with so much — my God.”
A bit later in the story, Sanders seems to blame the ignorance he just owned up to for much of the world’s woes: “You know, a lot of attitudes about foreign policy are based on lack of knowledge.”
A decent staff, except . . .
Earnestly, Wallace-Wells notes that Sanders’ full foreign policy team left him “surprised” by “how mainstream they seemed.”
Joe Cirincione, the antinuclear advocate; …Robert Malley, who coördinated Middle East policy in Obama’s National Security Council and is now the president of the International Crisis Group; Suzanne DiMaggio, a specialist in negotiations with adversaries at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Vali Nasr, the dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins and a specialist in the Shia-Sunni divide.”
Joe Cirincione is a well-known and well-respected progressive figure devoted to denuclearization. Suzanne DiMaggio, for her part, has received praise from Timothy Shorrock — a leading progressive journalist focused on the defense industry and the Korean Peninsula. Her words have also been featured by 38 North, which is arguably the fairest outlet focusing on North Korea and is distinguished by its facts-first approach. She is, however, indisputably part of the establishment, as is respected enough by members of the U.S. Senate that her advice was sought after Trump agreed to an initial meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Like DiMaggio, Vali Nasr appears to be cut from the cloth of dovish foreign policy “experts.” He once wrote: “Without Iran’s military reach and the strength of its network of allies and clients in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would have quickly swept through Damascus, Baghdad, and Erbil.”
Malley is, in truth, the most objectionable of Sanders’ foreign policy team. As Wallace-Wells noted, Malley served as Obama’s Middle East coordinator.
He also worked as an advisor to Obama on the U.S. counter-ISIS campaign up until January 2017. That campaign, notably, included the destruction of Raqqa (80 percent destroyed) and Mosul (eight million tons of debris and 90 percent of the Western portion of the city destroyed.) Malley also spent six months as a Senior Fellow at the ultra-hawkish Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
And Malley also worked for about two and a half years under Clinton as his “Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs.” He has previously caught the attention of the venerable Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah, who has tweeted:
Malley isn’t ‘pro-Palestinian.’ He’s a liberal Zionist who believes in and wants to bring about ‘two state’ segregation by soft means.
Peace process industrialists like Robert Malley can never recognize role of BDS or speak openly about [a] one-state solution.”
Israel lobbyist Robert Malley on NPR advising how to put "pressure" on Syria. Is there anything Israel lobby experts can't do?
— Ali Abunimah (@AliAbunimah) August 5, 2011
On Israel-Palestine, Sanders invoked former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as a source of inspiration for him.
As MintPress News has previously covered the policies of those presidents (in contrast with the positioning of President Donald Trump):
Unlike previous U.S. presidents, who have meddled in Israeli elections in order to support peace processes, Trump is doing the opposite by appeasing the settler movement… While Washington orthodoxy dictates strict adherence to a two-state solution, the idea has long stalled a real resolution to Israeli apartheid, as Israeli settlers continue to make bold land grabs. The far-right president, in bucking the trend of supporting peace processes so doomed, coupled with the far-right prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu], now emboldened by his fifth premiership, are on a path to see the total disappearance of historical Palestine from the map.”
There is no doubt that Sanders’ presidency would make a real solution to Israeli apartheid less improbable than a second Trump term would. Nor is their any doubt that his foreign policy is markedly less hawkish than that of many in the Democratic field. But he is also flanked from the left by candidates like Tulsi Gabbard and Mike Gravel, and so it is worth examining his milquetoast antidotes with this context in mind.
Sanders — despite being almost 80 years old — is getting hip to the desires of young progressives in the foreign policy realm. As DiMaggio correctly points out:
The case for restraint seems to be gaining ground, particularly in its rejection of preventive wars and efforts to change the regimes of countries that do not directly threaten the United States.”
In other words, the “humanitarian intervention” canard is losing its selling power. Moreover, Sanders rightfully puts more blame on the U.S. for various foreign policy failures over the years. He says:
“How many people in the United States understand that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to put in the Shah? Which then led to the Revolution. How many people in this country do you think know that? So we’re going to have to do a little bit of educating on that.”
But Iran’s revolution was 40 years ago — about half of Sanders’ lifetime. When it comes to Iran today, Sanders differs drastically from the aforementioned views of Nasr, which painted Iran as a force for anti-terrorism in the Middle East. Sanders explicitly rejected this conception of Iran, saying Tehran is “involved in terrorism, doing a lot of bad things.”
In the case of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the Israel-Palestine conflict, Sanders makes “both sides” arguments. On Saudi Arabia, he says “I don’t see why we’d be following the lead or seen as a very, very close ally of a despotic, un-democratic regime.”
Of course, Saudi Arabia is a theocratic petro-monarchy. Denouncing it as “un-democratic” is about the least imaginative criticism conceivable. To Sanders’ credit, however, he has been a leader in efforts to put an end to U.S. support for the Saudi war on Yemen.
.@realDonaldTrump, tonight you have the opportunity to do something extraordinary: Sign the resolution ending U.S. support for the catastrophic Saudi-led war in Yemen. #BernieTownHall pic.twitter.com/OYWS5K3bzk
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 16, 2019
Sanders went even further on Fox News, arguing that “Saudi Arabia should not be determining the military or foreign policy of this country.”
For a moment, imagine that Sanders had used that same phrasing regarding Israel, whose lobbyists hold far more sway over elected officials in the U.S.: he would be relentlessly condemned as anti-Semitic or a “self-loathing Jew” — at least, presumably, as he has never made criticism so harsh of the apartheid state and its America lobby. He did, however, say that Representative Ilhan Omar can do a “better job in speaking to the Jewish community,” but rejected the idea that she is an anti-Semite.
Regarding the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which Sanders seems to mischaracterize as religious instead of geopolitical, he said the U.S., under his watch, would not be “going to be spending trillions of dollars and losing American lives because of [their] long-standing hostilities.”
On Israel-Palestine, Sanders said the following:
While I am very critical of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s right-wing government, I am not impressed by what I am seeing from Palestinian leadership, as well.
It’s corrupt in many cases, and certainly not effective.”
It is true that Hamas has had problems with corruption, and the Palestinian Authority is far from effective. But Hamas was democratically elected to lead Gaza. In contrast, Netanyahu won his fifth premiership with help from his Likud Party, which hired a PR firm to place 1,200 hidden cameras in Arab polling places. The firm even boasted that, in those areas, the cameras and the uproar they caused “managed to lower the voter turnout to under 50 percent, the lowest in years!”
Sanders’ prescription for the Israel-Palestine conflict is to cut U.S. aid to Israel. But asked whether the aid would be “contingent” on “fuller political rights for Palestinians,” Sanders said he’s “not going to get into the specifics.”
Sanders has previously rejected the prospect of equal rights for Palestinians, saying in 2017 that “if that happens,” in the context of a one-state solution, “that would be the end of Israel.” In the same interview, Sanders said “I don’t support [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement],” which seeks to economically pressure Israel and Israeli companies into ending apartheid and respecting Palestinian human rights.
In other words, the proper way to reproach Israeli apartheid is to stop giving Israel free handouts. Sanders himself noted that “$3.8 billion is a lot of money!” But sanctioning Israel for its human rights abuses is out of the question.
Let us use a quick metaphor to describe this approach: your child is throwing a fit in the supermarket, knocking over racks of goods and shoveling cereal boxes onto the ground. Instead of grounding them, you say “that’s it! We’re not going to the toy store.”
This approach is in line with his hardline economic angles on almost every issue. In the New Yorker article, Sanders said that the $6 trillion spent on the War on Terror since 2001 is “an unbelievable amount of money.” But the human cost of the War on Terror goes unmentioned.
“I’m not proposing anything particularly radical,” Sanders admitted. “And that is that the United States should have an even-handed approach both to Israel and the Palestinians.”
Perhaps even more troubling than Sanders’ views on Israel are his positions on Venezuela. He expressed worry at what he calls the “rise of a new authoritarian axis” — echoing the “Axis of evil” talking point elevated by George W. Bush.
Asked whether Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, was part of that axis, Sanders said:
It is a failed regime. From all of the recent evidence, it appears that the election was fraudulent. And, despite his ideology, what we need to see is democracy established in Venezuela. That does not mean deciding that some politician is the new President, who never won any election.
The world community has got to be mindful of the humanitarian suffering and the hunger that’s going on in Venezuela right now. But, at the end of the day, I think what you want in one of the largest countries in Latin America is free and fair elections, and we want to do everything we can to establish democracy there.”
There is no evidence of electoral fraud in Venezuela. It is also worth noting that, while Sanders rejected the U.S.-backed coup leader Juan Guaidó, his inclusion of Venezuela in the “authoritarian axis” follows in the footsteps of the Trump administration’s own rebrand of the “axis of evil” — the “troika of tyranny.” While Sanders undoubtedly has ruled out the possibility of a military intervention in Venezuela should he become president, he says nothing of rolling back sanctions against Venezuela — or Iran, for that matter.
“I have reviewed sanctions across the world. Very few of them have really been a positive, helpful factor,” the UN special rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures recently told The Grayzone. “It’s like going into microsurgery using a kitchen knife. It’s a very blunt tool to achieve [regime change].”
While Sanders positions himself as an anti-war candidate, so too did Trump. And he echoes the Trump talking points: China and Russia are our enemies; Maduro won his presidency through election fraud; and Iran is a sponsor of terror.
In a rare mainstream media broadcasting of an anti-interventionist Syrian-American, a real estate agent named Tony asked Sanders in his town hall on Fox News on Monday whether he would “partake in any foreign affairs that don’t directly affect our national security,” adding, “I believe we need to stay out of Syria, Venezuela, and other countries.”
Sanders’ immediately touted his anti-Iraq war credentials before doing the same regarding his record on Yemen. But before long, he said, “clearly we are concerned about China and concerned about Russia.”
“Clearly we need a strong defense,” Sanders added.
Sanders has previously, and repeatedly, called for countries that have funded and armed the jihadist proxy war in Syria — Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, et al. — to “get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground” in Syria.
Imagine all the farmers
One anecdote from the New Yorker article lays bare the candidate’s half baked solutions to foreign policy as a chief executive:
He remembered, in a gauzy way, a program he had overseen as the mayor of Burlington, in which kids from his city traveled to the Soviet city of Yaroslavl, and Russian children traveled to Vermont.”
Sanders has sought to implement similar solutions even more recently, having proposed a failed amendment to dedicate 0.1 percent of the military budget “to support exchange programs to bring foreign teenagers to the U.S. and send American kids abroad.”
“To bring farmers from Turkey to farmers in Iowa. You know, just to get people to see each other as human beings. I think it could go a distance,” Sanders said.
Turkey? More like bologna. While a Soviet-U.S. exchange program, during the Cold War, is a solid program that could have, if nationally implemented, perhaps even altered the course of world history, the prospect of Turkish farmers going to Iowa or vice-versa seems purposefully meaningless. Turkey is, after all, a nuke-holding NATO ally.
Wallce-Wells, the New Yorker reporter, smartly noted that Sanders’ list of enemies — the “authoritarian axis” — was a lot better defined than his list of allies. And so, he “asked about where he thought his allies might come from.” The candidate deflected from offering a real strategy, however, arguing that climate change will help usher in a new era of global solidarity and peacebuilding.
Maybe I’m wrong on this, or maybe I’m seeing something that other people don’t see, but I look at climate change as a very, very serious threat — to the entire planet, to every country on earth.”
Sanders made the exact same deflection in his Fox News town hall. After bloviating about “concerns” with Russia and China, he placed climate change front and center of the “national security” debate.
This vision for a new era of international cooperation is lofty and utopian enough to make even John Lennon’s eyes roll in his grave.
Top photo | Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., steps off a Black Hawk helicopter at the Afghan National Police Academy Feb. 20, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sanders was part of a congressional delegation visiting the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan supported training site, Feb. 20, 2011. Ernesto Hernandez Fonte | DVIDS
Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News.