Opinion |

Does Bernie Sanders Really Have a 'Principled, Progressive' Foreign Policy?

Sanders has a noble cause: to fight the world’s authoritarians. So why was his first partner in the 'global progressive movement' an apologist for anti-Semites, dictators and theocrats?

Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson
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Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the ninth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Las Vegas, Nevada. Feb 19, 2020
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during the ninth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Las Vegas, Nevada. Feb 19, 2020Credit: AFP
Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson

What would a progressive foreign policy actually look like? With Sen. Bernie Sanders near the top of the Democratic field, this question suddenly matters in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Even when Sanders was a serious contender for the nomination in 2016, he barely uttered a word about what the United States should do abroad. He delivered his first major foreign policy speech almost a year after Trump was elected. 

His 2020 campaign is supposed to be different. Earlier this year, Sanders’s foreign policy adviser Matt Duss explained: "Coming out of 2016, we recognized that he had a much bigger platform, a much bigger opportunity to move things in a progressive direction and the importance of making foreign policy part of that."

And for the most part, this is what Sanders has done – from touting his efforts to extricate the United States from its "endless wars" to outlining how he’ll "combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism."

Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cheer during his campaign rally in Denver, Colorado on February 16, 2020
Supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cheer during his campaign rally in Denver, Colorado on February 16, 2020Credit: AFP

Peter Beinart enthusiastically describes Sanders’s newfound emphasis on foreign policy as the "second phase of the assault on American exceptionalism that Sanders launched in 2016," while applauding his ability to "widen the parameters of acceptable debate." In New York Magazine, Eric Levitz highlights what he describes as Sanders’s ability to craft a "tale about the global struggle between the forces of democracy and the 'authoritarian axis'" – a term Sanders used in an October 2018 speech at Johns Hopkins University. In The New York Times, Jamelle Bouie argues: "What separates him [Sanders] from the pack in this race are his forceful and well-defined foreign policy views.”

This is a remarkable turnaround: A candidate whose foreign policy was an afterthought and a liability in 2016 is now considered by many to have a forceful, well-defined progressive vision for how the United States should conduct itself in the world. 

Bernie Sanders' progressive foreign policy address at Westminster College, Sept 2017

Sanders argues that the United States must resist the "rise of a new authoritarian axis" everywhere from Moscow to Jerusalem, Budapest to Beijing to Brasília. In his 2017 foreign policy address at Westminster College – where Winston Churchill delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946 – Sanders explained how his domestic and foreign policies are connected: "Inequality, corruption, oligarchy, and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way." 

But Sanders didn’t explain how he would wage this fight. He called for a rejection of xenophobia and racism in the United States, the more judicious deployment of American force, and a greater reliance on diplomacy and other forms of international cooperation. He also demanded international action on climate change, attacked the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and defended the Iran nuclear deal – exactly what any mainstream Democrat would do. 

Defeating the authoritarian axis was the explicit theme of Sanders’s speech at Johns Hopkins a year later: "Those of us who believe in democracy, who believe that a government must be accountable to its people and not the other way around, must understand the scope of this challenge if we are to confront it effectively."

But understanding the scope of the challenge and confronting it are two very different things. How is Sanders going to combat corruption in other countries? How is he going to reform the U.N., reduce inequality outside the United States, and mobilize democratic forces against authoritarianism?

At Johns Hopkins, Sanders attacked the usual suspects: Bolsonaro, Mohammad bin Salman, Putin, Orbán, Erdogan, Duterte, and of course, Trump. He argued that these leaders "share key attributes: intolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities, hostility toward democratic norms, antagonism toward a free press, constant paranoia about foreign plots, and a belief that the leaders of government should be able to use their positions of power to serve their own selfish financial interests."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks during a news conference on a measure limiting President Donald Trump's ability to take military action against Iran, on Capitol Hill, Washington, January 9, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks during a news conference on a measure limiting President Donald Trump's ability to take mCredit: AP/ Jose Luis Magana

But these aren’t exactly novel observations – how many times have you read about the rise of authoritarianism and the "retreat of democracy" over the past few years? 

Only a "strong global progressive movement," Sanders contends, can address the underlying economic and political factors that lead to authoritarianism. But he hasn’t even begun to explain how this central aspect of his foreign policy would work in practice. 

Would the State Department support some civil society organizations but not others, depending on how "progressive" they are? How would a Sanders administration approach authoritarian movements and parties that come to power democratically, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2012? How would Sanders’s efforts to support democratic institutions differ from previous administrations? 

In a recent interview, Duss compared Sanders’s strategy for "progressive international engagement" to the Marshall Plan and emphasized the need for "massive economic mobilization and investments in technological innovation needed to address shared global challenges like climate change," but he offered no specifics.

According to Beinart, "When I asked Sanders whom he imagined partnering with in this global progressive movement, his first answer was British Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn." When the UK electorate went to the polls last December, Sanders’s national organizing director, Claire Sandberg, posted a photo of campaign staffers holding up Corbyn signs with their fists in the air: "The Bernie team says #VoteLabour."

The Labour Party then suffered its worst general election defeat since 1935, and Corbyn immediately announced his resignation as leader. Sanders emphasizes "democratic solidarity" often, but he may want to remember that UK voters' definitive rejection of Corbynism, too, is democracy. 

In a profile of Duss published in The Nation last year, David Klion repeated the new narrative about Sanders’s foreign policy: "Sanders has won over skeptics in the foreign-policy establishment with substantive speeches in 2017 and 2018, laying out a comprehensive vision for America’s role in the world." Klion also cites Rep. Ro Khanna, who argues that Sanders now has an impressive record to complement this vision: "Last time, they said he [Sanders] was naive on foreign policy. This time, he’s responsible for the biggest foreign policy success of the past few years, with the Yemen vote." 

In March of last year, the Senate invoked the War Powers Act to demand an end to American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Sanders was one of the resolution’s authors, so its passage has repeatedly been cited by his supporters as a major achievement that demonstrates his foreign policy credentials.

However, these supporters never mention the political context surrounding the Yemen vote, which took place at a time when Republican senators were furious with Trump for defending Saudi Arabia after its killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The New York Times described the vote as a "rebuke" of Trump and speculated about whether it was the "opening salvo in a week where Senate Republicans have the opportunity to hit back at the president’s aggressive use of executive power." Trump promptly vetoed the resolution, and the Senate failed to override him. 

A man carries Buthaina Muhammad Mansour, believed to be four or five, rescued from the site of a Saudi-led air strike that killed eight of her family members in Sanaa, Yemen, August 25, 2017.
A man carries Buthaina Muhammad Mansour, believed to be four or five, rescued from the site of a Saudi-led air strike that killed eight of her family members in Sanaa, Yemen, August 25, 2017. Credit: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Sanders and other progressives in Congress then pinned their hopes on a proposed amendment to the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would have cut U.S. funding for the Saudi war in Yemen. That amendment – along with a range of other progressive priorities – was dropped from the final NDAA. This is hardly the "biggest foreign policy success of the past few years" – a fact that must be clear to Sanders and Khanna by now. 

Sanders voted against the Iraq War in 2003, and of all the Democratic candidates, he’s the most circumspect about the deployment of American force. As he put it in his Westminster address: "Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm."

He went on to cite the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, and several other interventions, which led Beinart to observe that the address frequently "resembled a Noam Chomsky lecture more than a typical presidential candidate’s foreign-policy speech."

However, Sanders’s record is less rigidly consistent than his "endless wars" rhetoric would suggest. Unlike Corbyn, he is prepared to make humanitarian interventions an exception to his aversion to American military intervention. 

Before the NATO intervention in Libya, he co-sponsored a Senate resolution that condemned the "gross and systematic violations of human rights in Libya" and called upon the U.N. Security Council to "take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory." This didn’t stop him from later using the chaos in Libya as a political weapon against Hillary Clinton.

Sanders also supported the NATO bombing of Kosovo, arguing on the House floor in April 1999 that his "assessment of the situation at the present moment is that Mr. Miloševic is a war criminal and that ethnic cleansing, mass murder, rape, and the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from their homes is unacceptable and cannot be ignored."

Syrian internally-displaced persons in a camp in Sarmada in the north of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on February 17, 2020
Syrian internally-displaced persons in a camp in Sarmada in the north of Syria's northwestern Idlib province on February 17, 2020Credit: AFP

When Trump made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria, Sanders attacked him: "You don’t turn your back on an ally [a reference to U.S.-aligned Kurds] that lost 11,000 troops fighting against terrorism through a tweet and a discussion with Erdogan." Unless you turn your back slowly, that is. 

Sanders and Trump are both constantly telling us how badly they want to "end the endless wars," including the United States’ involvement in Syria. Despite the fact that 800,000 Syrians have been displaced in three months as the brutal siege of Idlib continues, Sanders no longer appears to be concerned about mass murder and displacement. He told the Washington Post he’d be "open" to reopening diplomatic relations with Bashar Assad because "diplomatic engagement does not imply approval of him or his activities."

So who would be sitting in the Situation Room in a moment of crisis? The Sanders who was willing to use American force to stop a war criminal responsible for "ethnic cleansing, mass murder, rape, and the forced evacuation of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from their homes" in Kosovo? Or the Sanders who is prepared to normalize, at least formally, the war criminals in Syria guilty of doing the exact same thing on a much greater scale? 

In some ways, we know exactly what to expect if Sanders makes it to the Oval Office. U.S. policy toward Israel, for instance, would undoubtedly change: Sanders includes Netanyahu in his authoritarian axis and he has stated that he would be willing to cut U.S. aid to Israel. But despite Beinart’s optimism about how this "unusual boldness" will "fundamentally change the debate inside the Democratic Party on Israel," is he so sure this change will be positive? 

Recall that, when Beinart asked Sanders who he would partner with to build his global progressive movement, the first leader who came to mind was Jeremy Corbyn. Before Corbyn and his party were crushed in the election, Labour MPs frequently emphasized the "special relationship" he would’ve had with Sanders.

As a recent Politico article noted: "Because Sanders had praised Corbyn in the past and his current and former aides have boosted him, Labour’s monumental defeat trained attention onto him in particular." The article also points out that "two 2016 aides to Sanders, Becky Bond and Zack Malitz, had traveled to London earlier this year to help the pro-Corbyn group Momentum." 

The Democratic Party isn’t on the verge of anything like the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism scandal and Sanders shouldn’t be held responsible for what Corbyn has said and done. Sanders describes himself as "100 percent pro-Israel," he doesn’t believe the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor” (unlike Corbyn’s Labour Party), and his record on foreign policy diverges from Corbyn’s in other important ways, not least his willingness to hold Putin and Iran to account. 

But these differences don’t change the fact that Sanders’s once-close relationship with Corbyn dilutes his message and calls his principles into question.

If Sanders is really committed to anti-authoritarianism, why was his main ally in the global progressive movement an apologist for anti-Semites and theocrats? How does his two-state commitment chime with Corbyn’s description of terrorist rejectionists Hamas and Hezbollah as dedicated to "long-term peace and social justice and political justice"? And what kind of progressive makes Linda Sarsour – a fan of the Nation of Islam who thinks "nothing is creepier than Zionism" – a surrogate for his campaign? 

Imagine if Sanders tried to take a harder line on Israel as president – his opponents would relentlessly seize upon these connections to discredit him, and they would have a point. Beinart is right that a Sanders presidency would fundamentally change the debate on Israel – it would become much uglier. 

While some are relieved that the populist left in the United States hasn’t gone the way of the British Labour Party, at least he’s better than Corbyn doesn’t offer much reassurance when it comes to the next president of the United States. At least he’s better than he was four years ago doesn’t inspire confidence, either. 

Sanders has made foreign policy more of a priority because he realizes that a serious presidential candidate can’t ignore the rest of the world. But reviewing the coverage of his major foreign policy speeches, it appears that this shift in messaging has been successful – we’re constantly hearing about Sanders’s forceful, clear, comprehensive and courageous foreign policy.

However, a closer look at that foreign policy invites legitimate skepticism about how Sanders would translate his fine words - and discomforting inconsistencies - into reality as president.

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, Quillette and Editor & Publisher. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas. Twitter: @mattjj89

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