When Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was a candidate for president, he seemed uninterested in talking about foreign policy.
Instead, Sanders cast himself as a progressive populist and focused almost exclusively on domestic issues, particularly speaking out against the injustice of economic policies that support the wealthy.
A quick check of Sanders’ campaign website reveals that his foreign policy leaned liberal but was far from radical.
He preferred diplomacy to war (don’t we all?), but he voted to authorize the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. His website says he supported the war on terror, but whether that meant the unrestrained use of drones and missiles all over the world, he didn’t say.
On September 21, Sanders got around to addressing his foreign policy ideas in a significant speech at Westminster College in Missouri. The Nation hailed it as “one of the finest speeches of his career” and “the progressive foreign policy speech we’ve been waiting for.”
The crux of Sanders’ speech was that war as foreign policy has long been overrated.
“Far too often, American intervention and the use of American military power has produced unintended consequences which have caused incalculable harm,” the senator warned. “A heavy-handed military approach, with little transparency or accountability, doesn’t enhance our security. It makes the problem worse.”
He continued: “We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges ‘seriousness’ according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.”
Not a pacifist, Sanders said that war is properly the means of “last resort,” which is what most politicians say, including President Trump. Unfortunately, this “last resort” mantra often leads, eventually, to war somewhere — often in the name of a humanitarian or patriotic motive.
Was our invasion of Afghanistan, which Sanders voted in favor of, an instance of having no choice but to bomb and invade a foreign country after 9/11? Was there no choice but to kill many innocent Afghans in order to exact revenge against a relatively small number of terrorists? So far we’ve been in Afghanistan, as a “last resort,” for 16 years.
Sanders also spoke recently to The Intercept. One unfortunate question referred back to a Glenn Greenwald column that argues Hillary Clinton lost the election partly through her support of U.S. military interventions. The journalist asked Sanders whether he agreed with Greenwald.
Bernie deftly ducked the question, and I don’t blame him: Greenwald, citing a single study, argues that Trump was perceived as being less of a warmonger than Clinton, therefore military families supported Trump. This is, to say the least, an implausible assertion, given Trump’s own vocal celebrations of torture and bombing.
Sanders said he would support a war of defense should the U.S. be attacked, and that he believes genocide should be dealt with through an armed international “peacekeeping” force.
Sanders also bravely asserted that he would consider voting against U.S. military aid to Israel and lambasted the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia, which is now waging a brutal war funded by the U.S. in Yemen.
Elsewhere, the Vermont senator wants to preserve the nuclear treaty with Iran and stay the course of sanctions and diplomacy regarding North Korea. Sanders now sees the endless “war on terror” as a mistake and deplores the recent increases in Pentagon spending.
Though not, alas, a pacifist, Sanders has at last revealed himself to be an American leader articulating a new and largely peaceable foreign policy. And, given our current president’s bombastic bellicosity, Sanders’ speaking his peace comes not a moment too soon.