What would Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy look like?

A Sanders state department might not be likely—but still fun to think about.
A Sanders state department might not be likely—but still fun to think about.
Image: AP Photo/Andy Duback
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For a Democratic party trying to keep the White House in its grasp for a third consecutive term, Hillary Clinton is the figure party establishment-types sees as their the best choice to compete in the 2016 US presidential elections.

The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state has been a fixture of the Washington policymaking machine for the past 30 years; she is seen as someone who is pragmatic enough to deal with Republicans in order to get things done, as she did during her time as junior senator from the state of New York. And, whether she deserves to be lauded for her accomplishments or not, Hillary turned out to be a stabilizing force for a state department that often had conflicting tensions with the Pentagon during most of the previous administration. Clinton came out of the state department after four years with an approval rating she could have only dreamed of during her first run for the Democratic presidential nomination—numbers that have since declined as she once again entered the electoral arena.

There are a couple of Democrats, however, who are hoping to make the fight for the nomination a little more difficult for her. The Martin O’Malleys and Lincoln Chafees of the world think they could steal the progressive and far left-wing of the party from a more centrist Hillary campaign, but they aren’t likely to have as much success with these particular voters as Massachusetts senator (and notorious anti-big banking hawk) Elizabeth Warren would, in the unlikely event she decides to run. Given the fact that Warren has repeatedly said she isn’t going to contest Hillary’s nomination, the next-best choice for “lefty” Democrats is Bernie Sanders— senator from Vermont, the longest serving independent member of Congress, one-time socialist mayor of Burlington— someone who has defied expectations in the past.

First as Vermont’s only representative in the House, and since 2007 as a senator, Sanders’s entire career has boiled down to two issues: raging about the outsized influence the “billionaire class” holds over the American political system, and ensuring that America’s men and women in uniform have the care they need after returning from the battlefield. It is this second issue that may have helped prod him into becoming the staunch anti-interventionist, if not outright pacifist, he is today.

With the exception of one vote—the vote to authorize the use of military force against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks—Sanders has vocally and consistently been opposed to the use of US military force during what is universally known as the “Global War on Terror.” His past votes as a congressman, and later as a senator, on issues concerning war and peace strongly suggest that a president Sanders would be highly reluctant to deploy any form of US military force, unless it truly is the last resort to a national-security crisis.

Bernie’s legislative history


As a member of Congress over the past 24 years, Bernie Sanders has had participated in arguably the most important votea legislator can make: a vote to put US servicemen and servicewomen into harm’s way in order to defend US interests abroad. Sanders has cast his vote numerous times on measures related to authorizing US military force in a number of conflicts, including against Saddam Hussein in 1991, in the Balkans in 1999, against the Afghan Taliban in 2001, and once more against Saddam in 2002.

Despite Sanders’ persistent calls to use the US military sparingly, he was surprisingly hawkish earlier in his legislative career (at least when compared to the Bernie Sanders that we have grown to know in 2015). Indeed, though Sanders opposed sending US personnel to liberate Kuwait in 1991 and strongly voted “nay” in deploying US troops to overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2002, he was open to using US aircraft to stop genocide in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina during president Clinton’s tenure. In a surprising contrast to the Bernie Sanders of 2015, the Bernie Sanders of 1999 voted “yea” to a resolution that authorized “the president of the United States to conduct military air operations and missile strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.”

The 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF)— the same AUMF that president Obama relies on today to justify his bombing campaign against the Islamic State—was also given a nod by Sanders. This, however, shouldn’t be a shocker: the 2001 resolution passed by a 420-1 vote, with representative Barbara Lee being the only member in the House who did not give consent.

What does this say about Bernie Sanders and his view of the world? It’s pretty simple: he’s open-minded enough to consider and approve use of the US military, but authorizing the use of substantial numbers of ground troops is a completely different story.

The Middle East: Keep out!

If there is one area of the world that a president Sanders would work hard to stay away from, it’s the Middle East.

The Arab world, based on Sanders’s voting record and public remarks, is a black hole that is to be avoided at all costs. The region is a template of gloom and doom, where civil wars and sectarian conflict claim the lives of tens of thousands of people. Sending American lives into such a mess in order to help quell the unrest, this thinking goes, is a recipe for heartbreak and a waste of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be used towards free public-college tuition and infrastructural projects at home.

From the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq to the current civil war in Syria, Sanders wants no part of these conflicts.

He vigorously opposed the war to oust Saddam Hussein in Oct. 2002, and gave a passionate floor speech in the House explaining why the drive towards Baghdad would prove to be a foreign-policy blunder of the highest magnitude.

“Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed?” Sanders asked, “And what role will the US play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country?” These are precisely the questions that too few elected representatives asked at the time. Bernie Sanders, the record shows, was one of the people who piped up and asked them.

Eleven years later, when president Barack Obama was prepared to strike the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in retaliation for use of chemical weapons against civilians outside of Damascus, Sanders found himself in a very similar predicament. Just like he did on the eve of the Iraq War, Sanders took to the airwaves and gave interviews actively lobbying against spending more money on what he viewed as yet another, unnecessary, US-led war in the Middle East.

“I would be less than honest with you,” Sanders told Ed Schultz of MSNBC, “if [I] didn’t say I had very, very deep concerns about this proposal. And, by the way, I can tell you that in my office the phones are bopping off the hook and almost unanimously people are opposed to what the president is talking about.” Better to spend government money on social security, entitlements, health care, and education than sending F-15s and F-16s into the skies over Syria.

The opposite of a defense hawk

US soldiers and civilian personnel in the defense department are often expected to salute and keep complaints to themselves, regardless of who the president of the United States happens to be. It might be difficult for the Pentagon to perform that task if Bernie Sanders is sent to the Oval Office—not because those manning the forts personally despise Bernie as a person, but because the four branches of the US military will be experiencing cutbacks when and if Sanders is elected.

For the military at best, a Sanders administration would seek to curtail defense spending to a level that would make Republicans and moderate Democrats very nervous. The senior senator from Vermont has been and remains highly critical of how the Pentagon spends its money, and consistently brings up the fact that the United States spends more on defense than the next ten most militarily active countries combined.

Sanders hasn’t voted “yea” on a National Defense Authorization Act since FY2011 (he voted no on the FY12, FY13, and FY14 NDAAs), and he’s called this year’s Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee’s NDAA a measure out-of-step with what Americans really care about: sending their kids to college, taking care of the elderly, and repairing the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

Plan for 2016: Hit Iraq hard

When foreign policy comes up for discussion during the campaign, and especially during the Democratic primary debates, expect Bernie Sanders to hit Hillary Clinton’s 2002 Iraq War vote hard. And, just in case you forget, he will remind you that he had the fortitude, skepticism, and judgment to vote against a war that George W. Bush lobbied for.

You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanDePetris. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.