U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a student meeting at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, New Hampshire
In response to my attempt at elucidating Vermont senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy views, The Diplomacist’s Chris Newton responded with a denunciation of such “oneiric” efforts in Some Cold Water for That Bern: Sanders Has Nothing Close to a Foreign Policy. Mr. Newton asserted that Senator Sanders has no foreign policy platform and that his record on foreign policy is but a “disjointed, garbled legacy” full of “glaring contradictions.” A response to Mr. Newton’s objections and misrepresentations is needed if the debate regarding the senator’s foreign policy views is to remain constructive.
On Narrative Focus
“Sanders prefers to continue his pillory of all things high finance to the exclusion of nearly all else…”
On American Exceptionalism
“The failure to acknowledge the conceptual evolution of American Exceptionalism and the divergent strains that have emerged over time is a troubling oversight…”
Regardless of recent admirable attempts to redefine this term, American exceptionalism will continue to retain the connotation of superiority. The theory since its inception has contended that the United States is almost divinely unique, its values superior to all others. This belief has been used to justify many condemnable missteps and dates so far back that to disassociate the word from its long-held connotation equates to a Sisyphean task in etymology. If “embracing darker moments” in a country’s history and celebrating “the ability of the unsung and the outsiders to challenge the country’s elite and force change,” as President Obama noted last year, makes the United States exceptional, then world history and the capacity of any peoples to improve their sociopolitical and economic conditions must be altogether swept away. Therefore, American idealism would be a more accurate and modest way of conveying the national essence. Mr. Sanders has made the distinction.
On Business With Venezuela
“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…”
Accusations of hypocrisy for helping to broker a deal with Venezuela’s national oil company for discounted heating oil back in 2006 fail to include the fact that Maine and Massachusetts had already secured aid before Vermont, with New Hampshire following as well. Additionally, the US continued to buy almost 6% of its oil from Venezuela while Chavez was in office. Mr. Sanders rightly noted that the United States has purchased and continues to purchase oil from far more culpable sellers, most notably Saudi Arabia.
On Military Intervention: Yugoslavia, Libya, Persian Gulf War, and Afghanistan
“Sanders’ record on humanitarian intervention is drowning in contradiction and reductionism…”
Foremost, the distinction between engagement and intervention must be understood. The former may be mislabeled as ‘retrenchment’ because it does not emphasize the use of the military as the primary course of action. However, Mr. Sanders has already shown he is no dove, citing Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as leaders he admires. Speaking on Russia, he is in accord with NATO’s plans to increase its presence in Eastern Europe in response to Putin’s aggressive actions in the region.
With regards to Yugoslavia and Libya, he saw a humanitarian need for limited intervention in the former. As for the latter, he opposed intervention because even though he voiced his desire to see Gaddafi replaced he was disturbed by the fact that the adventure was carried out through the circumnavigation of the War Powers Act at a time when the situation in Libya was not a national security threat and when the United States could have allocated the more than one billion dollars spent on the intervention towards pressing domestic affairs.
“If this [Persian Gulf War] was not a legitimate use of military force for Sanders, then nothing may ever be…”
Mr. Sanders voted against the Persian Gulf War because, if the Powell Doctrine (an extension of the Weinberger Doctrine) was to be the measure, he was not satisfied with the fact that military force was not used as a last resort when all nonviolent options had been exhausted. Mr. Sanders took into consideration the long-term impact of such intervention, successful or not, ten and twenty years into the future, entreating a hauntingly empty House: “I fear very much that what we said yesterday is that war—and the enormous destructive power of our armed forces—is our preferred manner for dealing with the very complicated and terrible crises in the Middle East. I fear that someday we will regret that decision, and that we are in fact laying the groundwork for more and more wars for years to come.”
“While voting against it may have been politically suicidal in the emotional aftermath of 9/11…the exact wording [of the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force] could and should have been opposed by Sanders, rather than the use of force in Afghanistan on principle…”
Mr. Sanders voted to authorize the use of force because in his view the situation there constituted a clear threat to American national security and the United States had “significant clarity of purpose and moral authority.” How the powers of that act were implemented was the responsibility of the president at the time, and their squandering has led Mr. Sanders to understand the futility of continuing to expend military efforts there.
To reiterate, he acknowledges the validity of military action, but not its preeminence. Retrenchment is not in his rhetoric. Disengagement is not part of his discourse. Isolation does not govern his ideology. There is reason behind his reservations. Calculations that take into consideration the future landscape that current policies will create as well as the lives, American and foreign, that will be impacted are at the core of Mr. Sanders’ vision.
“Bernie Sanders has told the public repeatedly what he is not while failing to offer much in the way of what he is…”
Even if he applauds improving relations with Cuba, continues his condemnation of the War on Drugs, expresses concern for the Syrian refugee crisis, expands his vision on immigration, proposes an approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and promotes paths to resolution of the Puerto Rican and Greek debt crises, he will still fail to satisfy critics who demand specifics which are unfeasible at this stage in the race and impossible to develop without having expert analysts available, most of which are accessible once a candidate becomes president and has the vast intelligence resources of the federal government at his or her disposal. In the end, it should not be forgotten that President Obama, likewise, was deemed unqualified in foreign affairs at the time of his campaign by opponents from within and without his party.
Plamen Mavrov is a recent graduate of Kennesaw State University, where he majored in International Affairs and Political Science.
Image Attribution: “U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking with supporters at a student meeting at Southern New Hampshire University” by Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0