Bernie Sanders - His foreign policy might not represent the radical change we want, but it's not the same old, either.
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A friend of mind recently cracked that Bernie Sanders has been around the American left for so long that a lot of people probably just assumed his foreign policy must be pretty much the same as that of another institution of the left -- Noam Chomsky. But by now, with Sanders joining rival Hillary Clinton in support of Barack Obama's latest extension of American troop presence in Afghanistan, everyone pretty much knows that's not the case. When it comes to international affairs, Bernie Sanders, it seems, is, well, no Dennis Kucinich. Still, while Sanders has clearly not devoted the same attention to matters of war and peace as he has to economic inequities, his spectacular success in changing the terms of the national debate on the latter would seem to demand that we pay close attention to the ways in which he does actually differ from the endless-war consensus currently in force in Washington.
Sanders, for instance, took some flack for suggesting that Muslim nations in the region needed to take the lead in the fight against ISIS, and specifically for citing the substantial military capabilities of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, of course, is currently engaged in a bombing campaign in support of the exiled government of Yemen that has involved substantial civilian casualties. This counts as just one of many reasons that the country conforms to almost no one's notion of a "good guy" nation. So the suggestion that it take on some kind of knight in shining armor role is quite offensive to some. Fair enough, but let's consider a couple of questions.
First off, who here thinks that ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State should live long and prosper? Nobody? I didn't think so. Then who thinks the United States should go in there and try to overthrow ISIS? Given who's likely to see this article, I expect there's not many of you out there who think this option make much sense either. After all, we tried that in Afghanistan and fourteen years later we're still there and the U.N. reports the Taliban is at its greatest strength since our invasion.
So should Saudi Arabia take some kind of lead as Sanders suggested, its poor record regarding civilian casualties notwithstanding? Or should Turkey, which currently appears to be increasing its military action against Kurdish separatists? Iran? None of these options sounds too great, but beyond the ultimately sensible call for international negotiations to end the war (as a Congressional letter circulated by Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) advocates), it's not really clear what we have to offer. Hillary Clinton suggests a No-fly Zone, the enforcement of which would entail shooting down Russian or Syrian planes, so clearly she's learned little from the last decade and a half. In contrast, Sanders's recognition that almost any option, perhaps even including Saudi military action, would be preferable to yet another American military venture in the region suggests that he does recognize that there is profound need for this country to change course.
And there is also the fact, as former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, the war's junior architect, acknowledged, there would be no ISIS had there not been the Iraq War, which Sanders, unlike Clinton, voted against.
In general, we might say that while Sanders has clearly preferred to focus on domestic issues, he has often displayed a certain "negative capability" in foreign policy. That is to say, that when he talks about how we should dedicate ourselves to assuring decent treatment of the current veterans of past foreign wars before we go out there and create new veterans, he is recognizing that it is often a far better idea for the U.S. not to do something, when that "something" invariably involves military action.
So far as Israel and Palestine, although there are many actual and potential Sanders supporters who feel that he has been too supportive of the Israeli government, it's worth noting that he was the first Senator to announce he would not attend Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's February 2015 speech to Congress. More importantly, Sanders has called for Israel to "end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land." How significant is that? Well, I'll let Robert Naiman of the organization Just Foreign Policy describe it:
"At Just Foreign Policy, we struggled with very limited success to get Congressional Democrats to come out for ending the Gaza blockade ... Keith Ellison ... Barbara Lee, Danny Davis. That's the sum total of Congressional Democrats that we were able to get to call for ending the Gaza blockade."
That is, until Bernie Sanders put it on his website in the midst of a presidential campaign.
On the matter of nuclear proliferation, when Congress took up a bill promoting cooperation with India as a nuclear power in 2008, Representative Barbara Lee (D, CA) argued that the "agreement undermines our efforts to dissuade countries like Iran and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. By approving this agreement, all we are doing is creating incentives for other countries to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." The legislation passed, because of the prevailing notion that nuclear weapons are bad when "they" -- our presumed enemies -- have them, but fine for the "good" countries -- the U.S. and our "friends." Recognizing that opposing nuclear-weapons proliferation must go for "friend" as well as "foe," Sanders was one of only 13 Senators to vote against.
Certainly voters should never make the all-too-tempting mistake of believing that a candidate is actually closer to their positions than he or she says publicly. There is the all-too-clear memory of the 2008 voters who believed that Barack Obama would end the Afghanistan War when he quite clearly said he would escalate it -- and then were disappointed when he didn't end it. When the candidates say they don't agree with you, believe them.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the role that the combine we have come to call the military-industrial complex plays in all of this, and the candidates' relationship to it. It would be simplistic, certainly, to say that the U.S. has undertaken any particular one of our many military ventures strictly for the sake of corporate profit; greed matters, to be sure, but so does stupidity. At the same time, however, it would be naive to think that our national corporate armament investment does not create an atmosphere of incentive for the continual use of our arsenal. And if one thing has been clear from the day he first set foot in Congress to the first presidential debate when he said, "Let's talk about what democratic socialism means," Bernie Sanders stands outside the corporate consensus that envelops almost every Republican and Democrat on Capitol Hill -- most certainly including Hillary Clinton. That's probably worth something.