2020, Foreign Affairs

Workers of the World, Unite!

Bernie Sanders' crackpot foreign policy.
July 10, 2019
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At the first Democratic debate, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed a bold idea: He wants to change human nature. The socialist from Vermont called for the nations of the world to come together and stop spending money on their militaries.

Which seems . . . unlikely?

You never know, of course. If you can give away free health care and free college and pay for it all with the money you take from blood-sucking capitalists—no problem—then maybe you can make everyone beat their swords into plowshares for the first time since the apes picked up the bone by the monolith.

On the other hand I probably wouldn’t bet the milk money on it.

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Bernie Sanders is running for president again and because of that he has to talk about foreign policy every so often. This is clearly a subject he has neither an interest in nor an understanding of, despite two and a half decades of service in Congress. His senatorial record is stained by wrongheaded votes against overwhelmingly popular bills such as the Magnitsky Act and sanctions against Iran and Russia.

And yet, in spite of all this, Sanders seems to have something like a foreign policy vision. Last year, he gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. This week, he published a more concise version of that speech in Foreign Affairs.

Since Sanders is one of a very small number of Americans who might become the next president, it’s worth understanding what, exactly, this vision is.

Sanders begins his Foreign Policy piece by warning against going to war with Iran, which would be, he insists, “many times worse than the Iraq war.” To support this argument, Sanders cites “military leaders” and “security experts.” When he says “military leaders” he links to a 2009 Think Progress article written by his national security adviser, Matt Duss, in which there is a quote from former CENTCOM Commander Anthony Zinni. So perhaps this is not a widely held consensus opinion.

He then moves on to Afghanistan, where he promises withdrawal and the creation of a diplomatic and political strategy in cooperation with allies to stabilize the region and prevent a repeat of 9/11. However, Sanders doesn’t explain what that strategy would be, or how it could be enforced without military assets. He doesn’t explain, because there cannot be a strategy in that part of the world without a military presence on hand to enforce it.


You may not be surprised to learn that the man who literally spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union tends to blame America first. He cites a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies that estimates that the number of Islamist terrorists has quadrupled since 9/11, and blames this growth on how the United States has conducted the war on terror.

This is, at best, a misreading of events. The same report shows a significant proliferation of Islamist attacks in 2011, the year that the Obama administration changed the United States’ counterterrorism strategy following Bin Laden’s death. And how, exactly, does one explain Islamic terrorism in Nigeria and Mali as a reaction to the U.S. prosecution of terrorism? Sanders repeats the claim that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill, which has been definitively disproven. That is, if you care about actual numbers and not just rhetorical flourishes.


But let’s get back to the overall increase in the number of Islamic terrorists. Sanders’s figures are correct, but he is incorrect about when, and why, the radicalization happened. In 2011, the enemy’s view was that the war was over and they had lost. A perfect storm changed that. First, the Arab Spring led to the release of Islamists from prisons in Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Second, President Obama announced the beginning of withdrawal from Afghanistan and changed the United States’ mission from counterterrorism to advising and training Afghan security forces. Nigerian terrorists who were hiding in Somalia and creating an affiliation with al-Qaeda returned to Nigeria. Malian Islamist separatists went to fight in Libya during the civil war there and returned more experienced and better armed. Following their return, these terrorists started a rebellion that ended democracy in Mali. Finally, a civil war broke out in Syria and the United States’ lack of intervention led to an escalation of conflict that radicalized people there.

Follow this chain of events and it’s clear that it was not the United States’ intervention that contributed to this storm but America’s decision either not to act or to stop acting. The United States failed to secure a safe transition of power in Egypt. It failed to prevent the civil wars in Syria and Libya. (The Libyan civil war was not a result of the military strikes but due to insufficient action.) As for Afghanistan, Bernie Sanders seems to forget that it was precisely taliban control of the country which contributed to the start of this generation’s phase of the war on terror.


Sanders has many blindspots when it comes to U.S. foreign policy.

For example, he blames the United States for falling into the terrorists’ trap by orienting its national security strategy around terrorism. This is quite untrue. The United States’ strategy did not become counterterrorism after 9/11—because the United States did not have a grand strategy. (This is a good thing, but more on that later). And the war in Iraq was not a counterterrorist operation, as Sanders claims. It was an counterproliferation war.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States’ strategies in other parts of the world—to the extent that they existed—mostly remained centered around preserving stability and extending the American security umbrella to allies.

Sanders writes that “[c]ompetitors like China and Russia have exploited our forever wars to expand their economic and political influence around the world.” “Competitors” is an interesting word to use for China and Russia. But put that aside for a moment and remember that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations began during the Bush administration as part of an effort to contain China. (Trump killed the TPP.)

The Bush administration also expanded NATO and reached an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic for a missile defense plan to deter Russia. (The Obama administration canceled this agreement.)


What are Sanders’s proposed alternatives?

Sanders says that the post-9/11 foreign policy has been missing the more pressing issues: climate change, global income inequality, global poverty, global healthcare, etc. It does not seem to be an exaggeration that his vision for foreign policy is, more or less, “socialism for the world.”

And that he believes the United States can afford all of this socialism if only it would stop spending money on its military.

You will not be shocked to learn that Sanders points out that the United States spends more on its military than next several other countries on the list combined and cites Dwight Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex.” He is nothing if not a diligent Marxist.

He calls for reinvestment in diplomacy and development aid. Diplomacy is great—yay diplomacy. But soft power without the threat of hard power often turns out not to be “power” at all. And as for development, Sanders doesn’t offer any indication of how he would use development as a tool of foreign policy. Or evidence that he understands that development aid is a double-edged sword. It can help build nations, but in authoritarian countries, aid is more likely to go into the pockets of corrupt leaders and be spent on security forces that would suppress peoples who want accountability from their governments.

Speaking of authoritarians, Sanders has a few good ideas. But even then, he engages in hypocrisy. He criticizes Trump’s deference to right-wing authoritarians and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism such as the Saudi Prince bin Salman, the Philippines’ strongman Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—wait, what?

The hypocrisy is not in what he says. It is in what he doesn’t say. Sanders omits the two authoritarians closest to the United States: communists Raul Castro and Nicolas Maduro. He also omits Iran’s totalitarianism, Lebanon’s move towards authoritarianism, and authoritarianism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—I leave it to the reader to decide why this might be.

Sanders’s other big foreign policy idea is using better international cooperation to address the flow of migrants across borders. Yet, he fails to mention that the greatest migration crisis since World War II is the Syrian refugee crisis—a crisis that has disrupted European politics in ways not genial to Sanders’s views—and that this migration was the direct result of America’s refusal to intervene in Syria in time. The single most troubling aspect of Sanders’s views are his refusal to admit (or inability to understand) that crisis management is often the question of choosing the least-bad option.

Which brings us, finally, to Sanders’s biggest foreign policy idea. It may sound familiar to you: It’s that the 1 percent are eating the 99 percent’s lunch. The rich are not paying their fair share. They are influencing politics. They are exploiting the workers.

Sanders has a clear vision for foreign policy: A global welfare state that is paid by taxing the wealthy and ending military expenditures and wars across the world and a tough stance against right-wing authoritarians. And his administration will achieve this through diplomacy.

It is a fool’s errand proposed by a man who should know better.

At last week’s debate, Sanders attacked Joe Biden for having made the wrong call on Iraq. But Bernie Sanders made the wrong call on the Cold War.

The fact that he has not apologized for this—in fact, seems not even to understand that he was wrong—tells you everything you need to know about him.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.