It is a truth universally acknowledged that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced foreign policy candidate in the race. Compared to her record, those of other candidates — Republican and Democrat alike — come up short. So it is to the advantage of many candidates to try to change the terms of the foreign policy debate and distract voters from the serious national security challenges that face the country. Bernie Sanders has tried to change the conversation from one of experience to one of “judgment,” while at the same time not articulating a detailed foreign policy of his own. And for many months Clinton looked like the presumptive nominee, so people did not give Sanders’ proposals the same level of scrutiny.
But Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire means that he’s a serious enough contender that voters should give his foreign policy record a second look. While Sanders himself has said little about his foreign policy, a few brave souls like Larry Korb, Sean Kay, and Conor Friedersdorf have taken to their keyboards to defend Sanders’ foreign policy views and tried to weave a coherent worldview out of the strands that Sanders has articulated through his remarks in Congress and on the campaign trail. Kudos to them for trying to defend Sanders, for the senator from Vermont has given them thin strands indeed with which to work.
The key themes they are making in the case for Sanders as commander-in-chief seem to be as follows:
- Sanders has superior judgment because he opposed the Iraq War and Clinton didn’t.
- Sanders would exercise restraint in intervention, where Clinton is on record supporting U.S. intervention in a number of cases.
- Sanders would restrain defense spending.
Unfortunately for Sanders’ defenders, these arguments alone don’t provide enough insight into Sanders as a potential commander-in-chief to be able to judge his qualifications. They each lead to further questions that Sanders should have to answer about what kind of commander-in-chief he would be.
First, while the Iraq War was an important test of foreign policy judgment, it is also important for leaders to be able to admit when they have made a mistake and course-correct. Part of the problem with President George W. Bush and many of the Republicans is that a failure to admit that something is a strategic mistake leads to confusion and defensiveness. A candidate’s ability to admit he or she has made a mistake and take corrective action is far more important in the world where imperfect information and changed circumstance may render initial judgments as poor decisions. No one gets it right all the time. How do candidates cope when they get it wrong? What lessons do they learn? What steps do they take to address the problems?
Second, Sanders has repeatedly said that he would exercise restraint in intervening abroad and that the United States shouldn’t be the world’s policeman. It makes for a nice debate line, but it doesn’t give voters a sense of when Sanders would intervene. While the costs of intervention seem clear in the wake of the Iraq War, there are serious costs to non-intervention as well. The crises in Rwanda, Sudan, and Syria all demonstrate the stark humanitarian costs of U.S. non-intervention. Terrorist groups organizing in the chaos in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Yemen, and perhaps even Libya pose direct security challenges to the United States. Russian incursions into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 undermine the sovereignty principles on which the modern international order is founded, and run the risk of further invasion. Sanders should clearly articulate when, as commander-in-chief, he would be willing to send American troops into danger to confront a threat, and what principles he would use to make that decision — not just when he would say no.
Third, Sanders’ defenders argue that he would cut wasteful defense spending. Across the ideological spectrum there is agreement that there is waste, fraud, and abuse happening in the Pentagon. What separates candidates is not their desire to root out wasteful spending but their ability to do so. And this is perhaps where the distance between Sanders’ words and actions is the greatest. Twenty-five years in Congress, and Sanders has not seriously grappled with wasteful spending in the Pentagon, especially in comparison to his colleagues.
Sanders arrived in Congress in 1991, at a time when there were bipartisan coalitions arguing for post-Cold War Pentagon reductions. Other progressive members in the House took on leadership of various issues to reduce spending. Barney Frank championed burden-sharing to try to force our European allies to contribute more to their defense through NATO. Democrat Ron Dellums had joined with Republican John Kasich to try to eliminate the B-2 bomber, a program that at that time was plagued with technical problems and cost overruns.
Championing a particular cost-savings measure takes time, effort, passion and study. It is not for the faint of heart and requires fighting the bureaucracy and all the inertia and influence the bureaucracy can bring to bear. And in today’s political climate, a president would have to build bipartisan consensus to effectively deliver change. Sanders did not show that he had the fortitude for such a fight then, which calls into question his ability to bring effective change to Pentagon spending now. Those who view Sanders as a cost-cutter should square that view with his support of the F-35, one of the most expensive and troubled Pentagon acquisition programs today; Sanders sought to have some of the first F-35s based in Vermont with the state’s Air National Guard.
Sanders’ defenders are right that his foreign policy agenda deserves a second look. Voters should scrutinize him carefully, and decide for themselves whether he can back up his instincts and rhetoric with a record of achievement and policy coherence to deliver on his promises. And then they should ask him why, if he believes so passionately about these issues, he didn’t use the levers of power available to him over 25 years in Congress to bring about the change for which he calls.
Mieke Eoyang is Vice President for National Security at Third Way and a former Defense Policy Advisor to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore