Bernie Sanders’ Foreign Policy and Other Adventures on the Campaign Trail


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Finally. Bernie Sanders is feeling his own “bern.” Especially after a win in Wisconsin, his fourth in a row, Sanders is now speaking a lot more on foreign policy. In a long interview with the Daily News, Sanders went in a little more detail, giving us a better sense of how he would run things as commander-in-chief. When you read it, notice how many times he says “I don’t know” to questions he should probably be able to speak to. Some of them are below, but there are many throughout, including his plan on what to do about banks (!). Here he is on his Middle East views:

I think we can argue reasonably that the most important and significant and far-reaching debate that we’ve had on foreign policy in this country in recent years was on the war in Iraq. Not only did I vote against the war in Iraq, not only did I lead the opposition to the war, helped lead the opposition to the war in Iraq, if you look at the statements that I made on the floor of the House in 2002, sadly to say, much of what I feared would happen actually has happened. …

Now, in terms of ISIS, this is a barbaric organization that obviously has got to be destroyed. But it must and can be destroyed without the United States getting involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East, something that I fear very, very much.

So my view is that, very similar to what King Abdullah of Jordan said, that essentially the war against ISIS is a war over the soul of Islam. And the war must be won by Muslim troops on the ground with the support of the United States and other major powers. That is what I believe.

On using drones:

What I do know is that drones are a modern weapon. When used effectively, when taking out ISIS or terrorist leaders, that’s pretty impressive. When bombing wedding parties of innocent people and killing dozens of them, that is, needless to say, not effective and enormously counterproductive. So whatever the mechanism, whoever is in control of that policy, it has to be refined so that we are killing the people we want to kill and not innocent collateral damage.

On where to send captured terrorists, after Guantanamo was suggested:

Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot. I suppose, somewhere near the locale where that person was captured. The best location where that individual would be safely secured in a way that we can get information out of him. … Would it be in the United States? It could be, yeah.

On handling Israeli–Palestinian issues, especially settlements:

Well, again, you’re asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer. But I think if the expansion was illegal, moving into territory that was not their territory, I think withdrawal from those territories is appropriate.

It’s worth noting that the words “Asia,” “Europe,” “Africa,” “cyber,” and other foreign affairs and national security terms did not come up. Indeed, it wasn’t the most convincing performance by Sanders on foreign policy. He’s going to need to show more breadth and depth of his world affairs knowledge going forward instead of his Middle East and anti-Iraq War stance. This interview will only feed the belief that Hillary Clinton is the better foreign policy candidate. Let’s see if Sanders can attain some foreign policy mojo at the next debate.

Nuclear security. Last week saw the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) come and go, angering commuters (including yours truly) along the way. The big takeaway was President Obama’s caution to all world leaders that “madmen” — terrorists like ISIL, in this case — could get their hands on nuclear weapons. Of course Obama has warned against a “nuclear attack,” but not a “nuclear war,” since his famous 2009 Prague speech. Other than that, Russia’s absence led the summit’s successes to be “marked by mostly technical measures instead of policy breakthroughs.” Perhaps the most exciting thing about the 2016 NSS was the dustup at Brookings over President Recep Erdogan’s speech.

Despite a lot of focus during the primary races on the threat of terrorism, there has not been much talk of nuclear issues. Donald Trump’s stance may be the most notorious. Overturning years of non-proliferation orthodoxy in the United States, he suggested it wouldn’t be bad if Japan and South Korea got nuclear weapons to protect themselves from North Korea, although any actor getting a nuclear weapon would be a “disaster,” he said, thereby contradicting himself. Unsurprisingly yet depressingly, Trump is the Republican most trusted to safeguard and use, if necessary, our nuclear arsenal.

Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton continue to hold their same positions on nuclear weapons. It’s Bernie Sanders who recently carved out an interesting space for himself on the nuclear weapons issue. He doesn’t mind the 1,550 warheads we have, he just doesn’t like how much we pay to deliver them. As Joe Cirincione and Tom Collina put it, Sanders’ position is quite centrist: “Keep a large nuclear arsenal, but scale back, delay, or cancel programs that are excessive to our core goal of deterring a nuclear attack on America.”

It’s clear the main four candidates differ a bit on nuclear policy, but it’s doubtful this will matter much in the campaign. The only thing that might change that is if a terrorist group credibly puts together a nuclear program or North Korea actually follows through on one of its threats. Experts have worried about a nuclear attack for some time, and just last week former Secretary of Defense William Perry said an attack in our time is more likely than during the Cold War. Scary to think about.

Who’s foreign policy is scarier: Cruz’s or Trump’s? This is the question Fred Kaplan asked on April Fool’s Day.

First up, Trump:

In [his] view of the world, when things don’t work out well or spin out of control, it’s not because the post-Cold War world is a fragmented, fractured place; it’s because America’s leaders and negotiators are “idiots.” Trump seems to think that because he’s done some clever deals in Manhattan rentals (never noting the disastrous deals he’s also done, including four that led to his firm’s bankruptcies), he can do the same to blunt Iran’s nuclear program, China’s naval expansion, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the Islamic State’s barbarism.

Fair point. How about Cruz?

He differs little from Trump’s insistence on banning Muslims from entering the country. He’s called for constant police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods, and he advocates “carpet bombing” ISIS-occupied territory — possibly with nuclear weapons (“I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he once said, “but we’re going to find out”).

Well that’s not much better. But let’s be clear: they would both be terrible foreign policy presidents, and experts agree. Back in February, a poll of Republican international relations experts showed that only 1.7 and 1.5 percent of them believed Trump or Cruz “would most effectively manage the most important foreign policy issues facing the U.S. today,” respectively. Kasich was seen as the top candidate by 54 percent of the experts. Also keep in mind this poll was taken while Bush, Rubio, Christie, Fiorina, and Carson were still around. (For good measure, Clinton was viewed by Democratic experts are the best candidate on foreign policy issues by an 80-20 margin.)

Of course, what experts believe makes good foreign policy and what the average voter believes can differ. Still, in what was supposed to be the foreign policy election, it’s interesting to note how two of the least trusted candidates on foreign policy are the final two (ok, technically three) left in the Republican Party.

What do allies think of the U.S. election? Two prominent ones are unimpressed, according to Sen. Tim Kaine:

I was in the Middle East in January and back-to-back had evening meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israel and President Erdogan in Turkey. These guys agree on nothing but they both said to this group of senators “what’s going on in the presidential race?”

And especially, they were very worried about some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming out of some of the candidates because they are societies that are too sectarian. … They hope one day to be less, but the only way to get there is if they have an example of a country where people of different religions can live and work together and go to school together and make it work. We’ve been that example for them and they’re very nervous when they see us backsliding.

Netanyahu denies that he said anything like this, with a spokesperson saying he is “very careful to avoid even the appearance of preference among American presidential candidates.” (Wrong.) And Erdogan seems to be grumpy, also complaining about the current president behind closed doors. Yet, two of America’s major allies are reportedly worried about what the election portends for their relationship with the United States and chatting with U.S. political leaders about it. Not good. Not good at all.

Weirdest article of the week. This isn’t necessarily a weird article, but it certainly goes against the grain. After article(s) after article after article after article after article after article told us the NATO Libya intervention was a “failure,” here comes Shadi Hamid telling us they’re all “wrong.” “It is certainly true that the intervention didn’t produce something resembling a stable democracy,” he says. “This, however, was never the goal. The goal was to protect civilians and prevent a massacre.”

His main complaint is that we’re all adopting Obama’s “consequentialist” worldview — that is, America can’t act unless it is sure of the second- and third-order effects of any action. Thinking solely along those lines leads us to forget the good that certain actions can bring, like saving countless innocent lives.

Hamid’s argument matters because Clinton is seen as the main cheerleader and architect of the Libyan intervention. Sanders uses this to hammer her on foreign policy, going so far as to say her pursuit of “regime change” in Libya led to ISIL’s rise. So, Hamid’s take not only goes against the grain, but may become part of the Clinton campaign’s narrative going forward.

Hamid’s bravery to put this out, especially now, is uncommon, which I guess makes it weird. It’s a stretch, but it was too good not to mention this week.


Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense policy and national security strategy. His current focus is the foreign policy debate in the U.S. presidential election, which he writes about weekly for the #NatSec2016 newsletter. He tweets at @AlexWardB.


Photo credit: Gage Skidmore