Bernie Sanders, now the most popular politician in the United States by a country mile, has long been obsessed with breaking up big banks and getting Medicare for all Americans. He can speak for hours about the evils of income inequality and the grotesquerie of the “billionaire class.”
On foreign policy? Not so much.
Yet this week, the independent senator from Vermont finally delivered his major foreign affairs speech at Westminster College, in Fulton, Missouri, part of the Green Foundation Lecture series. Winston Churchill gave his “Sinews of Peace” speech at Westminster College — in which he famously introduced the world to the concept of “The Iron Curtain” — as part of this lecture series in 1946. Mikhail Gorbachev’s memorable 1992 account of how the Cold War ended was also part of this series. Thus, on the basis of his appearance in Fulton, you might say that Sanders is now playing in the Foreign Policy Big Leagues.
Beforehand, he sat down with me to talk through his thinking on global affairs.
“I think what we have to do is take a hard look at where we are today in terms of foreign policy, and where we have been for many years,” Sanders tells me when I go to meet with him in his Senate office in Washington, D.C. the day before his big speech in Missouri. “And I think the main point to be made is that no country, not the United States or any other country, can do it alone. That if we’re going to address the very deep and complicated international issues that exist, we need to do it in cooperation.”
The senator is tieless, in a crumpled navy suit and light blue shirt. His shock of white hair is, as usual, unruly. He looks distracted and exhausted, perhaps the result of having spent the previous week pitching his landmark Medicare for All single-payer bill to Congress and to the country.
“Many of my colleagues, Republican colleagues, here in the Senate, for example, disparage the United Nations,” he says, sitting across the table from me, in front of a wall of Vermont tourism posters. “While clearly the United Nations could be more effective, it is imperative that we strengthen international institutions, because at the end of the day, while it may not be sexy, it may not be glamorous, it may not allow for great soundbites, simply the idea … of people coming together and talking and arguing is a lot better than countries going to war.”
I ask him how such rhetoric differs from past statements in defense of the U.N. and of international cooperation offered by leading Democrats, such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.
“Excuse me.” Sanders doesn’t like to be interrupted. “Let me just talk a little bit about where I want to go.”
The senator makes clear that “unilateralism, the belief that we can simply overthrow governments that we don’t want, that has got to be re-examined.” After referencing the Iraq War — “one of the great foreign policy blunders in the history of this country” — the senator touches on another historic blunder which, to his credit, few of his fellow senators would be willing to discuss, let alone critique. “In 1953, the United States, with the British, overthrew [Mohammed] Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran – and this was to benefit British oil interests,” he reminds me. “The result was the shah came into power, who was a very ruthless man, and the result of that was that we had the Iranian Revolution, which takes us to where we are right now.”
Does he regret not speaking with such passion, bluntness, and insight on international affairs during his failed primary campaign against Clinton? He shakes his head. “No, I think we ran the kind of campaign that we wanted to run.” There’s a pause. “But I think that foreign policy is clearly very, very important.”
During the Democratic presidential primaries, politicians and pundits alike agreed that Sanders had a foreign policy deficit. “Foreign policy,” wrote David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s foreign affairs doyen, “is the hole in Sanders’s political doughnut.” Patrick Leahy, Sanders’s fellow senator from Vermont, was only a tad more diplomatic in an interview with the New York Times. “It’s not the subject he gravitates to, that’s fair to say,” acknowledged Leahy.
A long-promised set piece speech on foreign policy during the campaign never came, and the Sanders campaign website lacked a foreign policy page for the first few months of his candidacy. Some of the figures identified by the senator as outside advisers on national security issues later claimed to hardly know him.
His discomfort with the topic is palpable, but the truth is that the 76-year-old Sanders is far from a foreign policy neophyte. In the 1980s, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he was an outspoken critic of U.S. interventions in Latin America, becoming the highest-ranking elected U.S. official to visit Nicaragua and meet with President Daniel Ortega (which earned him the soubriquet “Sandernista”). He even went on honeymoon to the Soviet Union in 1988, as part of his effort to establish a sister city program between Burlington and Yaroslavl.
Since 1991, Sanders has served in Congress, as a member of the House and then the Senate, debating and voting on military action, foreign treaties, trade deals, arms sales, international aid, and climate change agreements. Few critics have paused to consider the fact that a President Sanders would have arrived in the White House in January 2017 with far more foreign policy experience under his belt than Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. (Oh, and of course former reality TV star Donald J. Trump.)
Nevertheless the impression persists that Sanders is out of his depth when it comes to the outside world. Perhaps in anticipation of another presidential bid in three years time, the Vermont senator has been taking steps to correct that impression. So far this year, Sanders has hired Matt Duss, a respected foreign affairs analyst and former president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), as his foreign policy adviser, and has given speeches at the liberal Jewish lobbying group, J Street, where he condemned “Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories” as being “contrary to fundamental American values,” and at the centrist Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, where he rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin for “trying to weaken the transatlantic alliance.”
Last week, my colleague Glenn Greenwald penned a column in The Intercept headlined, “The Clinton Book Tour Is Largely Ignoring the Vital Role of Endless War in the 2016 Election Result.” Greenwald argued that Clinton’s “advocacy of multiple wars and other military actions” pushed some swing voters into the arms of both Donald Trump and third-party candidates, such as Jill Stein. I ask Sanders whether he agrees with this analysis.
“I mean, that’s a whole other issue. And I don’t know the answer to that.”
I persist. Surely he’d concede that foreign policy was a factor in Clinton’s defeat?
He doesn’t budge. “I want to talk about my speech, not about Hillary Clinton.”
So foreign policy plays no role in elections?
“The answer is, I don’t know,” he responds wearily. “You can argue that somebody would say, ‘Well Bernie Sanders was too soft on defense, I’m not gonna vote for him because he’s not prepared to bomb every country in the world.’ Do you know how many voters I’ve lost because of that? We don’t know, that’s speculation.” (Not quite: Greenwald cited an academic study published earlier this year which argued “that had the U.S. fought fewer wars, or at least experienced fewer casualties, Clinton would have … won the election.”)
I ask him if there is a foreign policy equivalent to Medicare for All — that is, a radical progressive policy proposal that Sanders intends to campaign on and make mainstream.
“I wouldn’t look at it like that,” he tells me. “Anyone who thinks there is a simple solution in dealing with all of the horrific and longstanding conflicts in the world would be mistaken … Where we’ve got to be radical is to understand we cannot continue with simply using military as a means of addressing foreign policy issues.”
Despite once having hung a picture of legendary antiwar activist Eugene Debs in his congressional office, Sanders is not a pacifist. He backed NATO’s air campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. Yet he opposed the Iraq War and voted against the arming and training of Syrian rebels. So, I wonder, does he have his own test that has to be met before the United States should use force?
The senator makes it clear to me that, in his view, military action should be a last resort, except in cases of genocide. “I think there has to be a legitimate understanding that American interests are being threatened. Obviously if someone was going to wage war against the United States, attack the United States, there is very good reason to respond.” He continues: “When you’re looking at genocidal situations, where people are being slaughtered right and left … we need international peacekeeping force to address that.”
Earlier this week, the president of the United States made what some might call a genocidal threat at the U.N. in New York: “If [the U.S.] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
I remind the senator that both Obama and Trump came to office pledging to meet with their North Korean counterparts — yet Obama never did while Trump is now busy mocking Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.” Does Sanders think a meeting between the two heads of state would be of value?
The senator says he would not object to “face-to-face meetings done in good faith” — rather than as cynical photo opportunities — and says that “in general, discussions and face-to-face meetings” are worthy of support.
So, to be clear, would he support a U.S. president sitting down with the leader of North Korea to try and resolve the nuclear crisis? He shrugs. “Could I see that? Yeah, I could see that, yeah.”
One foreign policy issue, however, on which Sanders has attracted criticism from members of his own left-wing base is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some pro-Palestinian progressives have accused him of giving Israel a pass. In an interview in April, for example, Sanders dismissed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; he also signed his name to a controversial letter attacking the U.N. for having an “anti-Israel agenda.”
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that in recent years the Vermont senator, who is Jewish and briefly lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s, has taken a more pro-Palestinian position on the conflict and, specifically, against the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “There comes a time when … we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he told Clinton during a Democratic primary debate in April 2016.
These days, unlike other members of Congress, Sanders has no qualms about identifying, and decrying, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But does he accept that the United States is complicit in Israel’s occupation, through its military aid and arms sales? And does he also accept, therefore, that the occupation of the Palestinian territories will never end until the U.S. stops arming and funding the Jewish state?
“Certainly the United States is complicit, but it’s not to say … that Israel is the only party at fault,” he tells me. However, he adds, “in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role. Clearly that is not the case right now.”
Would he, therefore, ever consider voting to reduce U.S. aid to Israel — worth at least $3bn per annum — or U.S. arms sales to the Israeli military?
“The U.S. funding plays a very important role, and I would love to see people in the Middle East sit down with the United States government and figure out how U.S. aid can bring people together, not just result in an arms war in that area. So I think there is extraordinary potential for the United States to help the Palestinian people rebuild Gaza and other areas. At the same time, demand that Israel, in their own interests in a way, work with other countries on environmental issues.” He then, finally, answers my question: “So the answer is yes.”
It is — by the depressingly low standard of modern U.S. politics — a remarkable and, dare I say it, radical response from Sanders. “Aid to Israel in Congress and the pro-Israel community has been sacrosanct,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted earlier this year, “and no president has seriously proposed cutting it since Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing Labour Party leader in the United Kingdom, who is constantly compared to Sanders, grabbed headlines in May after urging Britons in a speech, to “be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working” and to draw “connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.” In the past, the Labour leader has labelled NATO a “danger to world peace” and called for engagement with groups, such as the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
You might say Corbyn is a genuine radical on foreign policy. Is the more cautious Sanders willing to match the Labour leader’s rhetoric on terrorism and the West’s response to terrorism? Does he, for example, think the United States has lost the so-called war on terror?
“Well, no, that’s too general of a question,” he replies dismissively. “I think you best deal with terrorism by trying to understand the root causes of those problems: the massive poverty that exists, the lack of education that exists, that when you drop a drone, for example, that kills innocent men, women, and child, that it only forms more antagonism toward the United States.”
I ask about the role of Saudi Arabia in allegedly supporting and funding terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers, lest we forget, were Saudi citizens. So is it an ally or enemy of the United States?
“It is not just that many of the 9/11 bombers came from Saudi Arabia,” he says, “what I think is more significant is their … continuing to fund madrasas and to spread an extremely radical Wahhabi doctrine in many countries around the world. And they are funding these mosques, they’re funding the madrasas, and they are fomenting a lot of hatred.”
Sanders wants the United States to pivot away from blind, uncritical support for the Gulf kingdom. He even seems to suggest that the United States should embrace the Saudis’ mortal enemy: the Iranians.
So could this be his foreign policy equivalent of Medicare for All? Trying to end almost four decades of hostility and mistrust between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran? Without firing a shot? It would be a dramatic and historic shift in approach. During the presidential primaries, Sanders was attacked for suggesting that the U.S. should “move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.”
Yet, almost two years later, he isn’t afraid to make the case again. “I think that one of the areas that we have got to rethink, in terms of American foreign policy, is our position vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia,” he tells me, leaning forward in his chair. “For whatever reason — and I think we know some of the reasons having to do with a three-letter word called oil — the United States has kind of looked aside at the fact that Saudi Arabia is an incredibly anti-democratic country and has played a very bad role internationally, but we have sided with them time and time and time again, and yet Iran, which just held elections, Iran whose young people really want to reach out to the West, we are … continuing to put them down.”
While Sanders has “legitimate concerns … about Iran’s foreign policy” he wants a more “even-handed” approach from the United States to the “Iran and Saudi conflict.”
So I try to pin him down on the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and ask again: Does he or does he not consider Saudi Arabia to be ally of the United States in the so-called war on terror?
He pauses. “Do I consider them an ally? I consider them to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism, so I can’t … No, they are not an ally of the United States.”
Wait, maybe this is the foreign policy Medicare For All — downgrading diplomatic ties with one of the world’s worst regimes. Distancing Washington from Riyadh. But could Sanders really pull it off? Help persuade his fellow senators, on both sides of the aisle to depart from the decades-long bipartisan consensus on Saudi Arabia as a key U.S. ally? In June, the senator joined four Republicans and 42 Democrats to try and block a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. They were defeated — but by only six votes.
Greeted by a cheering crowd of students Thursday and awarded an honorary degree by the college in advance of his speech, a stern Sanders denounced the global war on terror as “a disaster for the American people” because it “responds to terrorists by giving them exactly what they want.”
He also offered a rousing defense of Obama’s key foreign affairs legacy: the Iran nuclear deal. “We must protect this deal,” Sanders told his audience, citing the nuclear agreement as an example of “real leadership” on the part of the United States.
Over the course of an hour on Thursday, the independent senator offered an unashamedly progressive, diplomacy-oriented, non-militarized vision of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century: “The goal is not for the United States to dominate the world. … Our goal should be global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance.
At a time when the U.S. president is beating the drums of war, threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea and tear up the Iran nuclear deal, it is both refreshing and admirable to hear a leading U.S. politician speak in this direct way. Sanders tells me that he wants a “serious discussion about foreign policy” — which, shamefully, is something his Democratic colleagues in the Senate have yet to agree to. For example, he points to a vote in the Senate on Monday, which authorized a whopping $80 billion annual increase in Pentagon spending. “Is that really a wise investment?” he asks.
“I dare say,” he adds acidly, “that most of the people who voted for this huge increase in military spending really would not be able to tell you exactly why it is needed.”
Only four Senate Democrats joined Sanders to vote against the bill. Why does he think the rest of them voted for it?
“You’ll have to ask them,” is the curt rejoinder.
Some of his critics on the left, however, don’t think Sanders goes far enough. Writing in July, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic castigated Sanders over his “relative silence on Obama’s foreign policy” and his “fairly conventional foreign policy thinking throughout his Washington career.” Such critics tend to want to see a full-throated, Noam Chomsky-style denunciation of U.S. imperialism from Sanders — and they want to see it yesterday.
Interestingly, in 1985, Sanders invited Chomsky to speak in Burlington City Hall, introducing him to the crowd as “a very vocal and important voice in the wilderness of intellectual life in America” and saying he was “delighted to welcome a person who I think we’re all very proud of.” In 2016, when I interviewed Chomsky for my Al Jazeera English show, UpFront, the veteran philosopher and foreign policy critic heaped praise on Sanders as a “decent, honest” politician with “the best policies.”
I ask Sanders if, three decades later, he still agrees with Chomsky’s blistering critique of U.S. foreign policy across the board, including his provocative description of the United States as a “rogue state.”
Sanders cuts me off before I can finish my question. “OK, I get it. Noam Chomsky has played an extraordinarily important role. I am a United States senator. We live in different worlds.” He quickly — and conveniently — changes the subject. “Bottom line is I think we need to rethink foreign policy … and that means dealing with issues like income and wealth inequality, which is not only an American issue, it is a horrific global issue.” Sanders is now in his element and on a roll. “We have six of the wealthiest people who have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population. We need to deal with the issue of climate change, because if we don’t get our act together internationally on that, we may not have much of a planet left for our children and our grandchildren.”
Let’s be clear: On foreign policy, Sanders does not go as far in a left-wing direction as his old friend Noam Chomsky or even his U.K. counterpart Jeremy Corbyn. But his renewed interest in foreign policy and his willingness to break with the established consensus could be among his most radical acts yet.
“Where we’ve got to be radical,” Sanders tells me, “is to understand that we cannot continue with simply using military as a means of addressing foreign policy issues. Where we have got to be radical and forceful, in an unprecedented way, is to force debate and discussion on the causes of international conflict – and certainly, we have not been doing that, and we need more American leadership to do that.”