Bernie’s Weak Sauce for the World

How Sanders’s failure to outline a clear foreign policy illustrates a major failing of contemporary liberalism.

A question I’ve been wondering about for many weeks now got a partial answer at the debate: What kind of foreign policy president would Bernie Sanders be?

It’s a question that seems not to have occurred to anyone, and I admit that even staring at it here on my computer screen, it’s a jarring string of words and concepts. First, the mere asking of it presumes to take seriously the possibility that Sanders could actually be elected, which I do, at least more than most people. And second, talking about Bernie Sanders and foreign policy is like talking about the Farrelly Brothers and taste. They don’t go together.

Yet I say it’s a question we have to think about. Now I know if you’re feeling the Bern it’s because he wants to slice their walnuts off on Wall Street, not because of anything having to do with foreign policy. One of the things that bugs and disappoints me most about contemporary American liberalism is the extent to which foreign policy has become a second- or even third-order concern. We’re going to be electing a president who’s going to be handed two major intractable crises (Syria and Putin, which are slowly fusing into one), who’s going to have to implement the Iran nuclear deal, respond to China on cybersecurity and currency manipulation, continue to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan…

The world hasn’t been this big a mess in a very, very long time. And yet I get the strong sense that most liberals have taken a basically isolationist posture toward it all. Historically, liberalism on foreign-policy matters in this country has entailed a balancing of two impulses: reticence about adventurism and imperialism, and a desire to help the world’s small-d democrats make some progress against their oppressors. But today, the latter urge has been almost completely swallowed by the former. It’s a reaction to the neocons’ over-the-top adventurism and imperialism that is in some sense understandable, but I have argued for a decade (and I opposed the Iraq War) that it’s an overreaction. The two impulses need a re-balancing.

So. Bernie. (And by the way, back on September 12 I asked a campaign press person if I could interview Sanders on foreign policy; there were initial feints toward interest, but more recently, a string of unanswered emails.) We learned a little in the debate that was interesting and unexpected. He said he was no knee-jerk peacenik: “I am not a pacifist, Anderson. I supported the war in Afghanistan. I supported President Clinton’s effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I support airstrikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do. Yes, I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort; that we have got to exercise diplomacy. But yes, I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary.”

OK, sounds good. But in fact, he doesn’t really support what the president is trying to do in Syria. Now it’s true that a lot of people can’t really figure out what the president is trying to do in Syria, but that’s a different issue. What Sanders meant to convey here and elsewhere in the debate is that he is basically on Obama’s side: airstrikes against ISIS, get the nations of the region to the table, and so on.

The problem is that the two times Obama has asked Congress to back him up on Syria, Sanders was on the other side. The first came in 2013, when Assad’s chemical-weapons usage against his own people was revealed. Obama wanted the authority to do some airstrikes then. No congressional votes ever took place—you’ll recall that David Cameron pushed a vote for such authority in the House of Commons, and when it failed, the Obama administration just scrapped the vote.

So Sanders cast no vote, but his statement at the time made it clear how he would have voted: “Vermonters and the American people want President Obama and Congress to focus on the major crises facing the collapsing middle class—high unemployment, low wages, growing wealth and income inequality, the high cost of college, global warming, and many other issues. I believe that the American people share the president’s concerns about chemical weapons in Syria and the brutal Assad dictatorship. But, in overwhelming numbers, Vermonters are telling me they want those issues addressed diplomatically by the UN and the international community—not by unilateral military action on the part of the U.S.”

The second occasion came almost exactly a year later, when this time, there was a vote in the Senate on extending more aid to the Syrian rebels. It passed 78-22. Sanders voted against it. The 22 consisted of one independent (Sanders), nine Democrats, and 12 Republicans. At the time, he said: “I fear very much that supporting questionable groups in Syria who will be outnumbered and outgunned by both ISIS and the Assad regime could open the door to the United States once again being dragged back into the quagmire of long-term military engagement.”

Well, look, nobody this side of Lindsey Graham wants that. And Lord knows there is no solution for Syria right now. But it isn’t enough to walk away. And it doesn’t mean anything to say, as Sanders said in the debate, that “we should be putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort” (I assume he didn’t mean to exclude the Turks, who of course aren’t Arabs, and meant to say “Muslim”). This is what the Obama administration has been trying to do every day for a year or more. It’s not as if they’re magically going to start listening to a President Sanders.

This is all really important because it gets right to the balancing of the two liberal impulses. Yes—guard against unwise adventurism. I’ll take Sanders over any of the Republicans on this point. But where is he on the other impulse, of helping the world’s small-d democrats get somewhere against the bad guys?

It’s usually incumbent upon first-tier candidates to give that Big Foreign Policy Speech somewhere along the line. Candidate Obama gave one in Chicago in April 2007, and another in early October of that year. Back in 2003, Howard Dean had given two by the summer of the year before the voting started.

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You could say that, well, Sanders has a quarter-century’s worth of congressional votes we can peruse, unlike Obama or Dean. But votes are reactions to matters put before a legislator. They’re not an affirmative presidential vision. I’d like to hear what Sanders’s is. But I’m not sure we’re going to get it, because the marketplace of Democratic primary voters isn’t demanding it, and the marketplace of Very Serious People in Washington for whose benefit such speeches are usually delivered isn’t one Sanders is trying to impress.

That’s all fine, generally speaking, but it’s a rather big part of the job. We deserve to hear something.