Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall event in Berlin NH
This article is a counterpoint to “A Measured Way” – The Foreign Policy of Bernie Sanders
The debate over presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy is a nonstarter. He not only lacks a foreign policy platform entirely, but he also refuses to produce one. His campaign is inexplicably bereft of foreign policy advisers, as if he cannot be bothered to even countenance the intrusion of such topics into his populist crusade. Rather than follow his professed ideology to its logical policy conclusions at the international level, Sanders prefers to continue his pillory of all things high finance to the exclusion of nearly all else. This has made him difficult to question on issues of foreign policy, an effort akin to pressing a small child for his or her views on molecular biology or nuclear physics. Droll, maybe, but hardly a fruitful endeavor.
Given so little to work with, apologists for Sanders are forced to deal in the oneiric. Ranging from Sean Kay over at War on the Rocks to The Diplomacist’s own Plamen Mavrov, they make valiant, yet tortured and ultimately quixotic, efforts to defend the man’s limited record and rhetoric on foreign policy. Kay’s piece offers three points in support of Sanders, two of which are quite tellingly two of the senator’s primary talking points on domestic policy. Get the money out of American politics and into infrastructure – noted and moving on. The third point concerns the overuse of the American military abroad, a thread taken up in greater detail by Mavrov in an ironically titled piece, “A Measured Way” – The Foreign Policy of Bernie Sanders. In offering a closer look at Sanders’ actual foreign policies, his piece only serves to expose the glaring contradictions of the democratic socialist’s disjointed, garbled legacy, diminutive as it is. It seems the only thing “measured” here is the Kool-Aid being passed Millennial to Millennial, that generation so wary of inheriting America’s weighty foreign policy burdens and about which I have written previously.
“But Hold Your Nose ‘Cause Here Goes the Cold Water”
Mavrov spills as much ink skewering former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for what he perceives as an unforgivably hawkish track record as he does on pained efforts to demonstrate Sanders’ supposedly contrasting pragmatism. His assault begins with the following salvo:
“[Sanders’] foreign policy exemplifies judicious pragmatism, especially when contrasted with Mrs. Clinton’s militarism, hubristic belief in American exceptionalism, undermining of international law and state sovereignty, support for dubious insurgencies, and overall statecraft-centered realist approach to foreign affairs.”
Aside from the fact that the citation for Sanders’ alleged pragmatism in foreign affairs pertains to his mayoral domestic policy in the 1980’s, this line offers several points of entry. The failure to acknowledge the conceptual evolution of American Exceptionalism and the divergent strains that have emerged over time is a troubling oversight, indicative of the increasing preference among Sanders’ younger supporters for American retrenchment. For many American Millennials, a sharp and indelible line has been drawn from American Exceptionalism to chest-thumping nationalism, the self-righteousness of the city-on-a-hill ideal, and the arrogant foolishness of the invasion of Iraq. This narrow view, held by so many self-identifying progressives, obscures, perhaps willfully so, the progressive revival and reformation of the term over the past seven years of the Obama presidency. To label Obama’s Selma speech “hubristic” would be a heretical act of lexicographic revisionism.
Most importantly, however, the comparison drawn by Mavrov between the Democratic contenders betrays a fittingly confused understanding of the basic terminology, history, and realities of international relations. First, there is the eyebrow-raising phrase “statecraft-centered realist approach to foreign policy.” It is unclear what statecraft-centered even means here, as its usage is akin to saying leg-centered walking. More importantly, the examples identified throughout the piece for Clinton’s militarism lead to her commonplace categorization as a liberal interventionist, hardly a realist. A dyed-in-the-wool realist would certainly not have invaded Iraq. Indeed, were Sanders to actually be a judicious pragmatist in his foreign policy, he would likely find himself somewhere along the spectrum of realism with Barack Obama and – hold onto that Ben & Jerry’s pint, Bernie – Henry Kissinger, the realist identified in Mavrov’s source like some sort of smoking gun for Clinton. It is clear that the fundamental schools of international relations have been woefully misappropriated, for though Clinton might occasionally look to Kissinger, she is no realist. Her record shows a dogmatic pursuit of a big “L” Liberal world order, with its attendant preferences for neoliberal economics, pluralistic democracies, and Enlightenment values. Efforts involved have encompassed a broad spectrum of statecraft and consequences, ranging from the expansion of NATO to the democratic opening of Myanmar.
Of greater consequence and still greater concern is the pattern of ideological inconsistency and listlessness of Sanders’ few concrete actions in foreign policy, outlined in some detail by Mavrov. Here, the senator’s tenure as Burlington’s mayor may actually be briefly illuminative. When pressed, many of his supporters are quick to turn to his mayoral foreign policy, highlighting a period where he wrote letters which “solicited major powers to engage in disarmament efforts and called on others to rectify domestic injustices such as apartheid and human rights abuses.” This bout of epistolary activism is laudable, though its adduction as foreign policy experience for a presidential candidate is reminiscent of Sarah Palin’s comically cringe-worthy résumé padding during the 2008 campaign. Such letter campaigns may be better left to municipal librarians – the response rate and impact seems to be a tad higher.
Yet when it comes to cutting an oil deal with a known Latin American dictator in 2006, his campaign actually celebrates it. Operating in blithe ignorance of a long list of well-documented human rights abuses, Sanders worked out a deal with then Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez for discounted heating oil for his Vermont constituents. The cognitive dissonance required to reconcile his cutesy letters with this act of naked political self-interest verges on schizophrenic, a disconcertingly common undercurrent manifest throughout his foreign policy record.
The Senator from Vermont Has the Floor
The heart of Mavrov’s defense rests on the self-defeating nature of America’s past and ongoing military adventurism. Sanders’ would steer clear of this, “with diplomacy and multilateralism standing above spearheaded military force.” The awkwardness of the diction used is surpassed only by that of the voting record subsequently offered in support. Sanders “voted to authorize the use of air force in Yugoslavia, Syria, and Afghanistan” and “emphatically rejected the invasion of Grenada, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the demands…for the deployment of US ground forces in Syria.” Mavrov also provides an interesting list of allowable uses of military force in a hypothetical Sanders Doctrine, including “in the face of humanitarian crises, clear national security threats, and when the parameters of the use of force are well-defined.” Scoring his own record on the proposed criteria demonstrates that Sanders is not only inconsistent with his own beliefs, but also displays a worrying aversion to geopolitical challenges.
Sanders’ record on humanitarian intervention is drowning in contradiction and reductionism, as he both inconsistently applies humanitarian ideals and fails to consider the relationship between humanitarian intervention and broader geopolitical objectives. He voted for the air war in the former Yugoslavia, yet berates the implementation of the world’s first Responsibility to Protect (R2P) intervention in Libya. Despite Libya meeting even the most prohibitive of R2P criteria, he still would not support any intervention. Had Benghazi become Libya’s Srebrenica, he would find his opposition difficult to maintain. Further, R2P is not synonymous with regime change, and an air war to protect the seat of the rebellion in Benghazi followed by a negotiated settlement was theoretically feasible and could have easily been a Sanders proposal. Even with the deposing of Gaddafi, however, Libya’s fate as a failed state was by no measure preordained.
To delve deeper into history, part of the criticism heaped upon Kissinger, and recently Clinton by mere association, is that the former sat and watched as East Pakistan and Cambodia were consumed by genocide. Critics, however, tend to not only gloss over the ideological nuances of Kissinger throughout his career, but also to overstate the influence of Kissinger over Nixon on an issue like East Pakistan, and in turn the Nixon administration’s ability to influence events on the ground. Nixon’s own ability to affect the calculations of West Pakistan’s Yaya Khan was limited, and Kissinger’s policy of inaction was likely the least of all evils. Eventually, the Indian army intervened after the monsoons subsided and achieved a key geopolitical objective in the bifurcation of Pakistan and the establishment of an independent Bangladesh, while the United States achieved its famed opening with China and put Cold War tripolarity on firmer footing.
Turning to threats to national security and well-defined parameters, Sanders once more finds himself on shaky ground. His opposition to the splendid little war of Grenada and the Liberal crusade of the Iraq War is noted and applauded, but the debate does not end there. Mavrov’s lampooning of Clinton’s interventionism and supposed violation of state sovereignty and international law, while in the same breath calling for an increase in multilateralism and congratulating Sanders on voting against the Gulf War, is a self-delusion too far. The First Gulf War satisfied the restrictive and onerous tenets of the Powell Doctrine – essentially a script for using military force in a potential Sanders foreign policy – while also uniting a massive array of American allies in opposition to Saddam’s flagrant breach of international law in one of the most awesome displays of coalitional military might in history. If this was not a legitimate use of military force for Sanders, then nothing may ever be.
And yet, while Sanders voted no on the First Gulf War, he voted yes on Afghanistan. Anyone who voted in favor of the all-encompassing 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has, at best, an attenuated claim to supporting the judicious use of force. This AUMF has led to America’s longest running war to date, the forever war du jour of American counterinsurgency. Its expansive mandate has also allowed for its appropriation for a wide range of interventions, such as America’s renewed involvement in Iraq and its mission-creep in Syria. While voting against it may have been politically suicidal in the emotional aftermath of 9/11, even for a senator from the pacifistic tundra of Vermont, the exact wording could and should have been opposed by Sanders, rather than the use of force in Afghanistan on principle. This was an authorization designed for Sanders to vote down, his moment to stand alone for his beliefs as he erroneously thought he had done in 1991. Nonetheless, the AUMF that will not die somehow bears his name.
H is for Hawk, B is for…
Bernie Sanders has told the public repeatedly what he is not while failing to offer much in the way of what he is. It seems incumbent upon the broader foreign policy community to help this wayward Vermonter out of his identity crisis. He appears as some sort of progressive dove, espousing what could be taken as a loosely formed Millennial Doctrine – actively diplomatic, wary of involving the United States in any situation which could require the use of force in the future, and quite simply baffled that Great Power politics still exists at all. It is an avoidance of the brutal and unflinching trade-offs of foreign policy and a preference for retrenchment and disengagement. Would Sanders have pressed Khan on East Pakistan, only to see his pleas for mercy ignored and the Chinese refusing to answer his calls? Would he have fiddled while Benghazi burned?
More germane to the present day, it is instructive to consider two paths a President Sanders might take the United States down. Given his prior interest in Latin America, it is odd that his only substantive comments on the region have been in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With the dearth of attention typically paid to the region in American foreign policy and Sanders’ at least nominal familiarity with it, it is an opportunity for him to parry the accusations that he has no foreign policy with little expectation of being challenged. The region as a whole appears to be steadily shifting to the center and center-right, an interesting opening for him to delve deeper into his own political philosophies and to show his ability to analyze international trends. More specifically, the normalization of relations with Cuba and the Colombian peace process should be celebrated by Sanders – victories for diplomacy and loose ideological fits overall. He could also offer policies on the adolescent migrant crisis and the horrific criminality of the Northern Triangle, in turn attacking the failed War on Drugs, bringing democratic socialism into the immigration debate, and offering his own thoughts on how his populism extends into international development policy.
On Latin America, Sanders could probably deliver a cogent policy platform and should do so with all haste. Regarding matters more urgent for the American public, it is difficult to fill in the blanks for him. When all is said and done, Sanders cannot be trusted with major geopolitical issues. If in the next few years, Putin were to dispatch proxies to seize Maripol in Ukraine or to engage in so-called hybrid warfare in the Baltics, or even to threaten the Suwalki gap, Sanders would not know how to react. When China continued placing advanced A2/AD systems on contested and artificial islands in the South China Sea, slowly choking off American and allied access to key maritime trade routes, he would be at a loss.
It is in the global Balkans, however, that Sanders would find his true comeuppance. He has little to say on Syria and issues within the broader Middle East. He calls for multilateral solutions, regional ground forces, presumably those of Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the ousting of Assad. The Middle East, unfortunately, is where principled foreign policy so often goes to die. Policy in the region requires especially difficult choices between differing and often competing objectives, choices that Sanders is not ready or willing to make.
The current state of American policy in the region is poor, with Obama having underplayed his hand in the early aftermath of the Arab Spring. Overreach in Libya prompted excessive reticence on other regional issues, leading to a lack of friendly forces on the ground in Syria and a battle with Iran for influence in Baghdad. Russia is now the dominant player in Syria and, should Aleppo fall and the Syrian military be the force to retake Raqqa, the US will be in a precarious position. Like Russia, the United States needs a negotiated settlement, something only possible when one’s own side has nearly won or there is a mutually hurting stalemate. With recent Syrian government victories, the tide has turned sharply against Turkish, GCC, and Western supported rebels, leading to the possibility of escalation by some of these supporters to return balance to the conflict. The GCC and Turkey, a NATO member state, are beating the drums of war, rattling their fair share of sabers as the Russians lay waste to their proxies and Assad’s position is strengthened. Sanders may yet have his regional ground forces – and his supporters should note that such invasions would constitute gross violations of another state’s sovereignty – though likely without considering the full range of calamitous results that would occur should Turkey and/or the GCC invade. The irony of his proposal is apparently lost on him.
If a Turkish ground invasion ignites full-scale, cross-border civil war with the Kurds, the Syrian faction of which is currently affiliated with the US, Russia, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party to varying degrees, while also bringing tensions with Russia and its S-400 air defense systems to a boil, many will turn to the US for support and guidance. Similarly, if the GCC invades its Shia-led neighbor with Sunni ground forces from the south in support of the Jordanian-supported Southern Front, possibly with its now infamous South American mercenary corps in the van, the US will likely be faced with a mounting sectarian war and accompanying death toll in Syria and the possibility of the Iranian-Saudi cold war turning hot. While the potential for a regional war remains low, American disengagement would likely help to facilitate miscalculation and dire, long-term regional repercussions. Extremely creative and intensive statecraft, including the limited use of force, will be necessary to prevent this and other adverse outcomes and to achieve vital American foreign policy objectives. No one is seriously asking for an American ground invasion, and the foreign policy-minded are not requesting a detailed urban assault plan for the retaking of Mosul, but Sanders needs to offer something more than diplomatic half-measures and escapist non-policies.
Just Another Weekend at Bernie’s
When Sanders does venture into the realm of foreign policy, he reveals himself to be a latter day Prince Myshkin. The antagonist of the aptly titled Dostoevsky novel, The Idiot, Myshkin bears uncanny parallels to Sanders and his foreign policy allergy. Both share a complete ignorance of the realm in which they find themselves, knowing nothing of the rules of the game they are attempting to play, or even that there is game going on at all. Myshkin is eventually driven insane by his foray into an incomprehensible Russian aristocracy, fleeing back to his former sanitarium in Switzerland. Conniving Russians prompting a retreat to a familiar, wintery home after a lengthy bout of horrendous decision-making would not be a farfetched conclusion to a Sanders presidential foreign policy saga.
Those rushing to his defense are forced to pull together the scraps of an incoherent foreign policy record and to stand up empty, lifeless op-eds in an apparent editorial redux of his cinematic namesake. Whether or not this is a foreign policy election is moot, because these issues will remain urgent if the American public pays attention to them or not. If the avoidance of all issues international gets Sanders elected, so be it. But let us not suffer foreign policy fools gladly and pretend that the man will know what he is doing as Head of State and Commander-in-Chief – Americans do not have the luxury of entertaining delusions about his abilities or even his desire to lead the United States in the broader world.
Chris Newton is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, pursuing a one-year fellowship with AVSI Foundation in Juba, South Sudan.
Image Attribution: “US Senator of Vermont Bernie Sanders in Berlin NH on August 24th, 2015” by Michael Vadon, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0