Could Bernie Sanders Bring a Radical New Approach to the Middle East?

The Democrats' most startling new contender for the nomination once had ties to a philosopher who changed the Kurds' strategy.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 30, 2015, to speak to the media about his agenda in running for president.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 30, 2015, to speak to the media about his agenda in running for president.Credit: AP
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Could Senator Bernie Sanders, the Burlington, Vermont, socialist running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president, offer a radical new approach to the Middle East? Well, if he wanted to, he wouldn’t have far to go, and therein hangs what is, at least to me, an intriguing tale as the war in northern Syria grows ever more desperate.

Sanders’ long-ago former press secretary is the daughter of the late Murray Bookchin, also of Burlington, Vermont. Bookchin was a one-time Marxist philosopher. He was born in the Bronx in 1921 and died in Burlington in 2006. He grew disillusioned with Stalin’s ilk after World War II. Instead, Bookchin, inspired by the town meetings of Vermont, turned to direct democracy.

Then one of those strange things happened. As Bookchin turned out books, articles, and philosophical treatises, his ideas managed to penetrate the island prison where Turkey has been holding Abdullah Ocalan on a life sentence for treason. Ocalan is the leader of the radical-left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. With America’s help, Turkey captured him in 1999. He’s spent his years since in solitary confinement, reading and writing and communicating through intermediaries.

Now Ocalan has reportedly become infatuated with the ideas of direct democracy advocated by Bookchin. This has been reported by Bookchin’s daughter, Deborah Bookchin, in a recent interview with the website ROAR Magazine, which has been billed as a journal of revolutionary imagination. It’s also been recounted, separately, by Janet Biehl, who was Bookchin’s companion for the last 19 years of his life, his collaborator, and most recently his biographer.

A “Eureka moment” is how Biehl, when I reached her by phone this week, characterized Ocalan’s abandonment of his movement’s demands for a Marxist Kurdish state and his awakening to Bookchin’s ideas of direct democracy. If that’s genuine, Ocalan wouldn’t be the first Marxist who changed. Ocalan, in Biehl’s account, began telling his PKK followers to read Bookchin. When Bookchin died in 2006, she relates, the PKK praised Bookchin as a great thinker.

Bookchin’s daughter, Deborah, in her interview in February in ROAR Magazine, insists that Ocalan “abandoned his Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution” in favor of her father’s “non-statist, libertarian municipalist approach.” That strikes me as no small thing as Ocalan’s followers in northern Syria wage a valiant campaign against both ISIS and the Syrian regime. They fought bravely in, among other battles, the fight that America supported to drive ISIS out of the city of Kobani on the Turkish border.

All this would be intriguing enough in its own right, but it is doubly so given that Bookchin’s daughter was once press secretary to a young congressman named Bernie Sanders. She married his then-campaign director, Jim Schumacher, and the two have been writing up a storm since, including on this topic. She tells me in an e-mail that a Sanders angle to this story would be “truly a bit of a stretch,” given that neither she nor her husband has worked for or interacted with him for more than 20 years.

I wonder, though, whether, in the pressure of a presidential campaign, Sanders might look around his own back yard and, via another Vermont left-winger, become a creative force in the Middle East debate. Hillary Clinton is not. She has been on the defensive since the failure of her re-set with Russia and the Obama administration’s quarrels with Israel. She is bogged down in Benghazi. She has supported U.S. President Barack Obama’s appeasement of the Iranian regime. She stands for more Obama-ism. Could she get outflanked by Sanders in the debate over the crisis in Syria, Iraq and Turkey?

It’s not my purpose here to endorse Bookchinism or to throw in with the left. The best friend the Kurds have had in the American debate, after all, have been the neo-conservatives, who marshaled backing for the Iraqi Kurds who have emerged as such an important success. Nor is it my purpose here to endorse all that Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK have stood for. But the cause of the Kurds generally is one of the great unresolved struggles in the Middle East and potentially a way to open up a new approach.

The Kurds fighting in northern Syria represent, among other things, one of the few non-Islamist factions hewing to a secular approach to government. Women serve in their fighting units and make up something like 40% of their governing council. So if Senator Sanders wanted to drive the debate in that region, he could reach out to his former aides. It looks like they are ahead of the story and could help him bring this issue to the American stump at a time when the Democrats could use a breath of fresh air.



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