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Meet Bernie Sanders’ New Foreign Policy Vision

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a student meeting at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, New Hampshire.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaking with supporters at a student meeting at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, New Hampshire. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“How many people in the United States understand that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to put in the Shah?”

2020 Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders told a CNN town hall event on Monday he is more focused on foreign policy than he was in 2016.

“I was rightfully criticized the last time around because I didn’t pay as much attention as I might,” the Vermont Senator said, after being asked if he had changed anything about his platform in recent years.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Sen. Sanders’ expanded on his foreign policy vision. The self-described Democratic Socialist was a prominent critic of Reagan era military actions in Central America during the 1980’s while serving as the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Sanders expressed his belief that most Americans are unaware of the darker elements of US interventionism:

“How many people in the United States understand that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to put in the Shah? Which then led to the Revolution. How many people in this country do you think know that? So we’re going to have to do a little bit of educating on that.”

The 2020 Democratic Hopeful was primarily focused on domestic economic issues in 2016, although his vote against the 2003 Iraq invasion came up in debates with Hillary Clinton. Sanders recently hired Matt Duss, a former employee at think tanks like the Foundation for Middle East Peace and Center for American Progress, as his foreign policy advisor. Duss has received praise from Rep. Ro Khanna and former Obama national security advisor Ben Rhodes for developing Sanders’ foreign policy vision.

Sanders most significant foreign policy initiative is the recently vetoed Yemen Resolution, which would have ended US support for the Saudi coalition in the Yemeni Civil War. The UN declared the conflict in Yemen, “the worst humanitarian crisis” in the world, and a UNICEF official describes it as a “war against children.” Despite outcry against the war, intensified by the Saudi-ordered murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump vetoed the resolution. The president argued the bill threatened his executive authority and would embolden Iran’s aggressive regional expansionism.

“The president’s action is a very serious challenge to congressional authority that demands a response,” Sen. Sanders wrote to his colleagues. The Democratic 2020 candidate wants to move towards a neutral role in the Saudi-Iranian battle for regional dominance, arguing that neither countries reflect US values.

Sen. Sanders’ position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to support the populations of both countries, but take a stern approach on their governments:

“While I am very critical of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, I am not impressed by what I am seeing from Palestinian leadership, as well. It’s corrupt in many cases, and certainly not effective.”

Sen. Sanders referred to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s leadership as a “right wing, dare I say, racist government.” But despite his criticisms, Sanders desires to return to a Carter-Clinton type position on the conflict, which he believes was more balanced.

“I’m not proposing anything particularly radical. And that is that the United States should have an even-handed approach both to Israel and the Palestinians.”

On Venezuela, Sen. Sanders’ condemns the Maduro regime, but does not believe military intervention is an option:

“It is a failed regime. From all of the recent evidence, it appears that the election was fraudulent. And, despite his ideology, what we need to see is democracy established in Venezuela. That does not mean deciding that some politician is the new President, who never won any election.”

Sanders’ foreign policy vision is influenced by his views on the treatment of veterans, having previously said:

“If you are not prepared top take care of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country – who came back wounded in body, wounded in spirit – if you’re not prepared to help those people, then don’t send them to war in the first place.”

According to Vox’s Mathew Yglesias, Sen. Sanders most impactful work has been with the VA. The Democratic Socialist Senator achieved a bipartisan bill with the late Sen. John McCain, who complimented Sanders’ commitment to veterans:

“I will say Bernie Sanders worked very hard when he was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, he, he and I had many disagreements, but we were able to come together, finally, after very spirited discussions—I think my reward will be in heaven, not here on earth for that exercise. But the fact is we were able to come together and come and pass legislation that was nearly unanimous in both House and Senate. So he does have a record of advocacy for our veterans.”

Sanders’ economic views also inform his foreign policy stance, “When I talk about income inequality and talk about right-wing authoritarianism, you can’t separate the two.” The link between severe inequality and political volatility is well documented, as recently brought to attention by hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio.

The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells finished the interview wondering if Sanders’ fundamental view on statecraft was doomed by optimism. Sanders believes climate change’s role as a universal existential threat could entice global powers to work together and share technology, but Wallace-Wells fears it may only destabilize the liberal democratic order further. Either way, the Vermont Senator is prepared to bring his progressive values to the realm of foreign policy.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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