Bernie Sanders’ naivety on foreign policy

Bernie Sanders is a brave and intelligent opponent of the U.S. Wall Street oligarchy.  But I think his foreign policy is naive.

I don’t think he is naive about Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin or Hassan Roubani.  I think he is naive about Democratic presidents.   He takes their statements at face value.   He thinks the only goal of the “war on terror” is to fight terrorist organizations.

berniespeakupFBBernie Sanders is a person of good will.  He is not a warmonger.  I can’t imagine him cackling with glee over the death of a foreign ruler.   But good will is not enough to reverse the bi-partistan militarism of American foreign policy.

I think that if he were President, he would be more reluctant to go to war or overthrow foreign governments than George W. Bush, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.  But I do not think he does shows an understanding of the forces that drive the U.S. government into foreign interventions.

He would, like Obama, resist sending large numbers of American ground troops to fight in foreign wars.  He would prefer negotiations first, economic sanctions next and use of killer drones, bombing campaigns and Special Operations forces after that.  But he has said he is not a pacifist and that he would not absolutely rule out any kind of military action.

Sanders has called for reducing the size and the budget of the U.S. military.  In order to do that, it is necessary to reduce the mission of the U.S. military to the actual defense of the country and its allies.

If the goal of the United States is to be the dominant military power in every region of the world, that goal cannot be achieved on a Sanders budget.   Or even on an Obama budget.

Just because U.S. policy is to have troops all over the world, the number of troops available for actual fighting is relatively small.   The troops sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq were stretched thin and sent on repeated deployments until some of them reached the breaking point.

Obama’s answer is flying killer robots, air power and Special Operations.  What is Sanders’ answer?

I like Sanders’ original 12-point platform and what says about economic policy.  It did mention climate change and trade policy, which are international issues.  But it said nothing about terrorism, military intervention or peacemaking.

Since then Sanders’ supporters have created a web site about his positions on issues, including foreign policy.  There are many things on it that I agree with.

Bernie SandersSanders opposed military intervention in Iraq by both President George H.W. Bush in 1991 and George W. Bush in 2003 (showing a better understanding than I did at the time).  He criticized the Libyan intervention, although more on grounds of President Obama’s failure to consult Congress than on its merits. He strongly opposes sending large numbers of American ground troops back to Afghanistan or into Syria to fight ISIS.  He opposes eastward expansion of NATO.   I agree with all these things.

The destruction of Libya by U.S. and allied forces was both a crime and a blunder.  It brought death and suffering to the Libyan people, and made Libya a haven for extremist jihadist terrorists.  Sanders’ main criticism of the Libyan intervention was President Obama’s failure to consult Congress.  He expressed misgivings about the intervention, but didn’t say how he would have voted if Obama had complied with the War Powers Act.

Sanders thinks ISIS is a grave threat to the world, including the United States.  He supports President Obama’s bombing campaign in Syria, but opposes sending American ground troops to fight there.  He calls upon Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates to take the lead in fighting ISIS, but these are the countries from which ISIS receives support.   .

He ignores the fact that the United States government and its allies in the region—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Turkey—are much more interested in overthrowing the Syrian government of Basahar al-Assad than of fighting ISIS or the al-Nusra Front, the successor to Al Qaeda.   He says nothing about working with leaders of Syria, Iran and Russia, the main countries actually fighting ISIS.

Sanders does not discuss Middle East policy in terms of oil at all.  He does advocate development of renewable energy and reduction of dependence on fossil fuels, which are good things

Sanders regards a nuclear Iran as a potential threat, which I do not, but he at least favors diplomacy as his first choice for preventing this.  He favors the recent United Nations agreement for lifting sanctions against Iran in return for guarantees Iran is not developing a nuclear capability.

If Iran breaks the agreement, he favors resuming sanctions.  He does not rule out use of military force, but said that would be only a last resort.   He doesn’t mention Israeli nuclear weapons, nor Israeli discussions of attacking Iran, as reasons why Iran’s leaders might want the capability of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Nor does he understand that sanctions were part of the struggle for influence in the region among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sanders favors negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians leading to a two-state solution in which the two nations can co-exist without violence—a good thing if possible, but a vain hope for now.

He disassociates himself from Netanyahu, which I agree with.  He doesn’t, however, say anything about curtailing the billions of dollars of military and economic aid that goes to Israel every year.

Sanders favors economic sanctions against Russia to make President Putin stop military intervention in Ukraine.  He doesn’t rule out military force, but favors a “unified stance” with U.S. allies.

This is dangerous.  Russia is the only country in the world with a nuclear force capable of destroying the United States.  This would mean Russia’s destruction as well, so avoidance of war means not backing Russia into a position in which its rulers think they have to get ready to use nuclear weapons in self-defense.

Sanders doesn’t consider that Moscow might have an understandable interest in defending the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine or in not losing its only naval base on the Black Sea and only access to the Mediterranean.   Nor does he suggest negotiations and compromise between the Ukrainian and Russian governments, as he does with Israel and the Palestinians.

He sees China as a threat on two levels, military and economic.  He calls for an arms embargo against China and economic sanctions against foreign companies that sell to China’s arms industry.  He also calls for repeal of free-trade agreements that encourage export of jobs to China.  He opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, which I agree with.

InevitablyDoes he want to confront China over its claims to islands in the South China Sea?  Is that of vital national interest to the United States?  I don’t know Sanders’ position on this.  What would happen if China retaliated with an economic embargo against the United States?   Our whole electronics industry is based on imports of components from China.

I think Sanders is a genuine lover of peace.   I would vote for him over Hillary Clinton or any of the leading Republican candidates.  But I don’t think he realizes what he is up against.


On the Issues: War and Peace from the Bernie 2016 web site.

Bernie Sanders on foreign policy from the Feel the Bern web site.

Bernie Sanders evasive maneuvers on national defense by Scott Beauchamp for The Week.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton & America’s Endless War by Gaius Publius for Down With Tyranny!

The Warmongering Record of Hillary Clinton by Gary Leupp for Counterpunch.

GOP Candidates’ Split on Foreign Policy Intensifies by Janet Hook and Patrick O’Connor for the Wall Street Journal.

How Cruz and Rubio exposed the GOP rift on foreign policy by MIchael Crowley for POLITICO [added 1/1/2016]

No, GOP, you can’t win by carpet-bombing by Juan Cole for Informed Comment.  [added 12/17/2015]

Rand Paul is Virtually the Only Candidate Who Doesn’t Want to Start World War III by Robby Soave for Reason.  [added 12/17/2015]


I think Bernie Sanders’ is above Donald Trump in terms of character and intellect.  But in a lot of ways, Trump is more forthright about foreign policy than Sanders.

Trump has said the United States should ally itself with Russia and Syria to crush ISIS, to keep out of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and to oppose more Jewish settlements on the West Bank.


[Update 12/15/2015]  I made some minor edits to clarify my meaning.

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