Anyone hoping for a more realist U.S. foreign policy had to be buoyed by Senator Bernie Sanders’s performance in the New Hampshire debate last night. He said that the United States should stay out of the “quagmire” of “perpetual war” in the Middle East. He called out Hillary Clinton for backing “regime change” that just fosters turmoil. He said that Assad must stay in Syria. And he mentioned great interventionist foreign policy mistakes, from removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq to toppling Allende in Chile in 1973 to removing Mohammed Mossadegh as Iranian Prime Minister in 1953.
Indeed, the Mossadegh mistake of more than 60 years ago was trending last night; former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley also mentioned the Mossadegh coup as a foreign policy error.
Sanders challenged Hillary Clinton directly, saying that a “fundamental difference” between himself and the former secretary of state is that she is “too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.” The Iraq war, he pointed out, created turmoil, instability and terrorism.
He opened the night with the warning about perpetual warfare, albeit with the inevitable political gestures on ISIS:
I’m running for president because I want a new foreign policy, one that takes on ISIS, one that destroys ISIS, but one that does not get us involved in perpetual warfare in the quagmire of the Middle East, but rather works around a major coalition of wealthy and powerful nations supporting Muslim troops on the ground.
The quagmire language was reminiscent of the Vietnam War, of course. Sanders’s challenge also goes to all the hawks of the Republican Party. Sanders is putting out ideas that we can only hope gain traction in the political process. Though, no, he is not going so far as to say what so many thoughtful scholars of the realist left are saying, that terrorism is an understandable response to western intervention in the region. Today Sanders talks about Mossadegh, maybe he will talk about Sykes Picot tomorrow….
Sanders has sounded these anti-interventionist themes for a long time. A year ago he said he’d be damned if the U.S. led the fight against ISIS.
“I’ll be damned if kids in the state of Vermont — or taxpayers in the state of Vermont — have to defend the royal Saudi family, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”
But last night he said so openly and forcefully with a national audience. He denounced the idea that the U.S. must be the policeman of the world, and did so in populist, almost isolationist scorn:
What I believe right now, and I believe this is terribly important, is the United States of American cannot succeed or be thought of as the policeman of the world, that when there’s an international crisis all over the world, in France, or in the UK– Hey just call up the American military and the American taxpayers, they’re going to send their troops, and if they have to be in the Middle East for 20 or 30 years, no problem. I have a problem with that.
He challenged Saudia Arabia to go to war against ISIS rather than in Yemen and also called out Qatar:
Tell Qatar, instead of spending $200 billion on the World Cup, maybe they should pay attention to ISIS.
He said that the terrible blunder of the Iraq war had generated terrorism; and he called for an international coalition with Russia to deal with Syria, which means keeping Assad.
Yes we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS…. Yeah, regime change is easy. Getting rid of dictators is easy… The truth is it is relatively easy for a powerful nation like American to overthrow a dictator…
But in the Syrian case, “the primary focus now must be on destroying ISIS and working over the years to get rid of Assad.” International coalitions, he said, would “move steadily and maybe slowly toward democratic societies.” Steadily but maybe slowly. That means about never.
Israel barely got one mention in the debate last night. Of course, we keep waiting for Sanders to mention that the Israeli quagmire of 50 years of occupation is fostering terrorism (which he understands; he went out to live in Israel when it was the socialist utopia of his youth). He does hint at the truth on his foreign policy web page:
Moreover, the failure to resolve that crisis [the Israel Palestine conflict] has helped fuel other conflicts in the region.
Crisis– a helpful world. In his piece on Sanders’s appeal at the National Journal, John Judis says the middle/upper-middle professionals who support Sanders are antiwar, and not at all troubled by his socialism. They throw around the word “revolution”:
What excited them is the belief that a “political revolution” is necessary.
During the past two decades… the progressive Left has again begun to stir. The contributing factors have been varied—opposition to the Iraq war; the increasing power (especially at the state level) of an ever-more-conservative GOP; a growing sense, in the wake of the Great Recession, that conspicuous consumption, political corruption, and under-regulated capitalism were all out of control.
It is reminiscent of the Ron Paul revolution in the last presidential race, which also had a populist, anti-war character. Ron Paul’s son Rand has sold out to the hawks, alas, but there is surely a lot of antiwar feeling in the country that requires leadership and instruction. By talking about Mossadegh, Sanders (along with O’Malley) is doing that.