Fresh from pulling the Democratic Party leftward on health care, Bernie Sanders wants to do the same on geopolitics. The independent socialist senator will use a Thursday speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri—where Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” address—to catalyze an intra-progressive debate on foreign-policy principles.
“The Global War on Terror has been a disaster for the American people and for American leadership,” Sanders will say Thursday in perhaps his biggest foreign-policy speech to date, according to an excerpt seen by The Daily Beast.
Sanders also intends in his speech to go after Vladimir Putin “by name,” an aide said.
With Trump flirting at the United Nations with pulling out of the deal—and his administration already having laid the groundwork for that ahead of a critical October recertification—“this speech is partially intended to sound the alarm,” a Sanders aide told The Daily Beast. “It’ll also underline the necessity of defending this deal against a faction in Washington trying to destroy it.”
To Sanders, the Iran deal, which removes Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon for a decade in exchange for sanctions relief, is an example of “how American leadership should work,” the aide said, citing “pressure, negotiations and the marshalling of a consensus [internationally] to a solution. Is it a perfect solution? No. Is it preferable to the alternatives? Yes.” Sanders is hardly a foreign-policy cipher. His 2016 presidential primary campaign made unapologetic cases against military intervention, particularly in the Syrian civil war (PDF), and drew sharp contrasts with Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness. But Sanders, who does not serve on Senate committees with foreign-policy oversight responsibilities, has emphasized redressing economic inequality and health care as his signature issues.
After generations of diminished progressive aspirations, with the exception of Barack Obama, the simultaneous rise of Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the U.K. has led to inevitable comparisons. That’s been particularly true on foreign policy after Corbyn, in the wake of the Manchester attack, challenged the mode of transatlantic counterterrorism dominant since 9/11.
Corbyn unambiguously declared “the war on terror is simply not working” and, with the wounds of a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert fresh, urged his countrymen to be “brave enough to admit” it.
Some Bernie fans and other observers have wondered if Sanders would follow suit. His speech on Wednesday echoes Corbyn substantially, according to an excerpt seen by The Daily Beast.
“Orienting U.S. national security strategy around terrorism essentially allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate policy for the most powerful nation on earth. It responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want,” Sanders will say.
The excerpt seen by The Daily Beast does not lay out alternatives for combatting terrorism outside the context of war.
Other themes the speech will cover include combatting catastrophic climate change, global inequality, foreign aid, and North Korea—an urgent global threat over which Sanders will respond to Trump’s UN bellicosity. Sanders will tie North Korea to the Iran deal, contending that “we may not get another nonproliferation agreement again if no one trusts the U.S. is going to stick to these kinds of agreements,” the aide said.
Additionally, Sanders plans on challenging Russia and calling out Putin for interference in the 2016 election. The speech will tie Russia to the challenge of “the rise of oligarchy, authoritarianism and corruption” globally. It’s a theme that dovetails with another major aspect of the speech. In contrast to Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has denigrated American values as an “obstacle” to U.S. foreign policy objectives, Sanders intends to pick a fight on human rights.
“He’s saying that it’s important for the U.S., even as it recognizes it’s sometimes done poorly in the past, to be out there waving the flag of human rights, human dignity, democracy and for all people having the right to a decent life for them and their kids,” the aide said.
That formulation, placing democracy as an instrument of human dignity, recalls the way Obama tended to talk about democracy promotion. It suggests that beyond the speech, Sanders will make a play for championing the leftward edge of Obama’s geopolitical legacy—if not the drone strikes or the Afghanistan surge, then the Cuba deal, the Iran deal, and his 2008 campaign-era desire to end not only the Iraq war but “to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”
That means sparking a foreign policy debate amongst Democrats and in progressive circles about the purpose of American power. Sanders intends to “widen the aperture of things we consider when we talk about foreign policy,” the aide said.
And like the Obama campaign of 2008, Sanders intends to use the Iraq war as a case study in the misapplication of American power—only this time, with the added contrast of the Iran deal as an example of foreign policy done right. “It’s not just a good deal but it shows the sweep of this policy, offered very boldly by Obama, bashed by the Washington elite, then [building] consensus. That’s how Senator Sanders thinks a progressive American foreign policy should look,” the aide said.
So does all this means Bernie Sanders is running for president again?
“You should see it just as Senator Sanders being very much concerned with the policy discussions we’re having here now, like with Medicare for All,” the aide dodged. “That was something he wanted to do to expand the debate over a very important health care issue, and he wants to expand the debate over foreign policy as well.”