Bernie’s Foreign Policy Appeal

At his last debate, Bernie Sanders showed his true colors as an old school non-interventionist. That’s good news for his young supporters.



Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton (Alex Brandon/AP)

The next wave of the Bern is-a-comin’, and this time, it’s striking Hillary Clinton right where everyone thinks she is least vulnerable.

For the most part, in the domestic policy portion of the most recent Democratic debate in Wisconsin—although it was the first time Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were able to take to the stage without Martin O’Malley—things went largely as usual, or at least as expected. The candidates ended up agreeing on a lot of ideological issues. Bernie spouted a lot of depressing yet somehow inspirational statistics. Hillary tried to convince voters that her economists are more correct than Bernie’s economists. Bernie subtly expressed doubt at Hillary’s progressivism, while she called into question the viability of his policy proposals. And, of course, things got heated when talk turned to healthcare.

It all got a bit more interesting, however, during the final third of the debate, when the moderators started throwing out some intense foreign policy questions. A defining point in the night came in a series of Bernie responses in which he more or less attacked American neo-imperialism—a moment which has been severely under-discussed.

In response to the debate’s first foreign policy question, Sanders took his usual mainstay talking point—his opposition to the war in Iraq and his unfortunately correct prediction of its consequences—and turned it into something much greater. Speaking about his differences with Clinton regarding “regime change,” he lamented the United States’ past mistakes in creating ultimately malevolent power vacuums after ousting dictators, and mused about smart, predictive foreign intervention (or lack thereof).

“But the point about foreign policy,” he said, “is not just to know that you can overthrow a terrible dictator. It’s to understand what happens the day after.”

He then went on to give two examples besides Iraq of when the United States made the mistake of haphazardly overthrowing a regime.

He first pointed to Libya, when Western powers, guided by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, assisted in the ousting of Muammar Qaddafi, leaving a power vacuum that paved the way for ISIS to organize in that country.

His second example, which he admitted to be somewhat obscure for today’s audience, was when the U.S. and Britain overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 “because he threatened the oil interests of the British.” That subsequent vacuum, of course, led to the rise of the Shah in Iran, which led to the Iranian Revolution and the mess in that country we see today.

And as an add-on to a later answer, Sanders attacked Clinton for publicly seeking the approval and mentorship of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, referring to him as “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.” He went on to describe how Kissinger’s intervention in Cambodia in the late 60s and early 70s created the instability that led to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and the genocide of over one third of Cambodia’s population, further driving home his point of irresponsible American-sponsored regime change.

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This is a huge (read yuge) development in the Sanders public presidential agenda. For those of us on the far left, this is what we’ve been waiting for: an unfiltered Bernie Sanders attack on power-brokering, inhumane, neo-imperialist American foreign policies. But this development isn’t only good news to leftists and academics; it has the potential to be a defining moment in the dialogue of Bernie’s key supporting demographic: young people.

Up until this point, Sanders’s political revolution has, loudly and without reservation, revolved almost exclusively around issues of increasing wealth and income inequality. He has vowed to take on large corporations and the billionaire class on behalf of working Americans, and his rhetoric drips of class warfare. To young voters who are coming of age in a time in which it is becoming abundantly clear that the myth of the meritocratic American Dream is just that, a myth, this combative socioeconomic outlook is the main appeal of the time-tested, grassroots purist Bernie Sanders campaign.

Of course this has left Sanders’s critics, especially those supportive of Clinton, a mile-wide opening to attack his apparent lack of interest in foreign affairs. How can someone running for the most important international position in the world be so domestically focused and so vague when it comes to addressing questions of foreign policy?

First of all, it’s important to note that, as Max Fisher points out in his article in Vox, many political commentators don’t see Bernie’s foreign policy vagueness as big of a deal as his critics make it out to be, and I think that many young voters agree. Due to the touch-and-go nature of international events, giving inflated specifics in foreign policy talk during a campaign is more of a ritual than an indication of what will happen during a presidency, and, as the Republican candidates are so fond of pointing out, very few American presidents enter office as seasoned foreign policy experts—that’s what good advisors are for.

What is a good indicator of a presidential candidate’s future foreign affairs performance is how the candidate frames his or her philosophy regarding the United States’ role on the international stage, and that’s exactly what Bernie shed light on when he brought up the topic of American-sponsored regime change. Up until this point his campaign has skirted by on its anti-Iraq deflections of foreign policy questions, but now he has finally taken a step toward proactivity, giving his supporters—namely the youngins who have thus far placed trust in Bernie’s foreign policy wisdom mostly on faith—something concrete to stand on.

It should be noted that the historic Sanders’s position on Israel-Palestine has been uncharacteristically mainstream liberal, supporting a two-state solution, the path to which is all but invisible. His relative quietness on the nearly century-long conflict has been criticized by the foreign policy left, but the issue, a breakthrough in which seems inevitable at this point, is undoubtedly being closely monitored by pundits and election news media.

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With his newly vocalized and reinvigorated non-interventionism, Bernie has the opportunity to tap into two very powerful social forces. The first is the end of American exceptionalism, a concept that pundit Peter Beinart, among others, has been pushing for years.

Beinart describes the phenomenon in a February 2014 article published in National Journal (the article has since been reserved for paid subscribers). The tagline of the piece says it all: “The very attributes conservatives say make America special—religiosity, patriotism, and mobility—are ones they’ve inadvertently undermined. Is it any wonder millennials are less impressed with their country?” In other words, since we can attribute center-right American policies to many of the woes that have plagued the U.S. in the past two decades—lack of progress in race relations and social conservatism, chaos in the Middle East and irresponsible military intervention, increased inequality and neoliberal economic policies, etc., etc.—then it only makes sense that people, especially young people, are becoming increasingly disillusioned to the very sentiment on which those policies are based—the sentiment that claims that the U.S. is undoubtedly the most exceptional country on earth.

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Beinart adjusted his claim to put it into context with the prevalence of what the mainstream news media has called “outsider candidates,” namely Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Trump, Beinart claims, is trying to reclaim the popular sentiment of American exceptionalism—i.e. “Make America Great Again”—whereas Sanders has abandoned it. Sanders is “patriotic but not nationalistic,” a notion that has resounded with young voters who thirst for the radical socioeconomic change he promises.

Translated into foreign policy, the end of American exceptionalism is exactly what Bernie articulated in his last debate, and exactly the opposite of what Hillary has historically stood for: non-interventionism, anti-imperialism, an emphasis on the dignity of foreign peoples, and an unwillingness to play the international game of thrones. Both candidates may claim that they want an end to the era of America policing the world, but only Bernie has proven that he has been fundamentally against it all along.

The second force, and the one perhaps more specifically tailored to the Sanders campaign, is the hope of retaking the failed counterculture of the 1960s.

There’s a word that describes a nostalgia for a time one has never actually known—anemoia—and it’s something that many young voters are feeling intensely when they hear about Bernie’s political youth. To young people, the 60s was a magical, exciting, foreign time of which Bernie Sanders is a special relic. Formerly widely thought of as an era of hippy nonsense, the issues that 60s counterculture attempted to address have become all too familiar to today’s youth, and thus the caricaturized social politics of that time have become recognizable, even attractive.

In a way, Bernie represents the ongoing spirit of that period, and how its once defeated ideology has proven to be correct on many fronts. On the domestic,  Bernie’s relentless attacks on moneyed interests, Wall Street, and nonstop financialization address some of the co-optational forces that whitewashed the 60s’ countercultural politics, and then decades later killed the American Dream. Whereas on the foreign front, his staunch opposition to the Iraq War, and as the public has learned, gung-ho intervention in general, is a concrete representation of how the U.S. political elite still haven’t learned their lesson from Vietnam.

His recent attack on Henry Kissinger as well as his laundry list of foreign intervention failures completes the image of Bernie Sanders as the leader of the comeback of once quelled 60s movements, only this time his new revolutionary generation of young people have the lessons of recent history to attack the forces of elitism that subsumed the movements the first time around.

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All in all, unless Bernie Sanders proves to be an unequivocally genius debater, he is going to have to move past his beaten-to-death talking points on foreign policy in order to continue his grassroots assault on the Hillary machine. His moves in Wisconsin were promising. If he plays his cards right and keeps going on that trajectory, he may see a new wave of passionate support coming his way.


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