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Will Sanders challenge Clinton on foreign policy?

In debate, Sanders should be less reluctant to stake a position against the militarism of mainstream Democrats

October 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

The presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is challenging Democratic Party elites who serve corporate power at the expense of widening income inequality. No one personifies those elites more than his main rival for the party’s nomination, Hillary Clinton, who will face off with Sanders on Tuesday night in the first Democratic presidential debate.

On the campaign trail, Sanders offers cogent critiques of the economic power structure while deftly tapping into anger at what he calls “the billionaire class.” But beyond domestic issues and trade policies, his positions don’t really conflict with the interests of corporate profiteers who get rich and richer from military spending, global arms sales and perpetual war.

While Sanders is a tiger on economic issues, he’s a restrained cat on foreign policy, hardly laying a claw on elites for their huge Pentagon budgets and interventions overseas. So far, he hasn’t been willing to pounce on Clinton’s hawkish approach to the world. But that may soon change.

Glimmers of a shift appeared earlier this month when Sanders diverged from Clinton on expanding military intervention in Syria. “I oppose, at this point, a unilateral American no-fly zone in Syria, which could get us more deeply involved in that horrible civil war and lead to a never-ending U.S. entanglement in that region,” he told The Washington Post on Oct. 3.

He made that statement two days after Clinton called for “a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridors to try to stop the carnage on the ground and from the air” in Syria. She is among the many politicians who are inordinately fond of the no-fly zone euphemism for aerial bombing and military intervention. As secretary of state, she championed such a deadly maneuver in Libya four years ago — causing more deaths on the ground and lethal chaos that extends to this day.

In contrast to Clinton’s latest utterances, Sanders is standing behind the Syria policies of President Barack Obama, who has declined to order no-fly zone actions. But Obama policies include large-scale bombing of Syria while pouring millions of dollars into training and arming rebel forces that want to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. (On Friday the Pentagon announced it would end a $500 million program of arming Syrian rebels, although the U.S. will continue to give weapons and equipment to some fighters in Syria.) Sanders’ decision to endorse U.S. policies in Syria may or may not be good politics, but it’s bad policy.

The Washington Post reported that Sanders was “offering a less hawkish stance” than Clinton. But Sanders is no anti-war candidate. He has voiced support for Obama’s program that is sending large quantities of weapons and other U.S. military aid to rebel fighters in Syria. It’s an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend policy, reminiscent of the disastrous Ronald Reagan–era gambit of giving massive support to mujahedeen forces fighting to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan. While less aggressive than Clinton’s stance on Syria, the Obama/Sanders approach could be called regime change lite.

Overall, the news media have been slow to show much interest in Sanders’ foreign policy positions and how they differ from Clinton’s. A Washington Post news article at the start of this month, headlined “How Bernie Sanders would transform the nation,” did not mention his foreign-policy positions at all, preferring to do a hatchet job on his domestic agenda for making college, health care and child care affordable.

Bernie Sanders has begun to make statements on foreign policy that Hillary Clinton never would.

For his part, Sanders mostly avoided foreign policy and war issues all summer, even declining to put anything about them on his campaign’s “On the issues” Web page. That changed in late September when the Sanders campaign posted a “War and peace” statement, providing a contrast with the Clinton campaign’s “National security” statement.

The Sanders page doesn’t lack for vague platitudes (“While force must always be an option, war must be a last resort, not the first option”), but it has far more substance that the Clinton statement — which is more belligerent in tone and content. Much of what his site says about war and peace is hard to imagine coming from her. For instance:

  • Our defense budget must represent our national security interests and the needs of our military, not the re-election of members of Congress or the profits of defense contractors. The warning that President Dwight David Eisenhower gave us about the influence of the military-industrial complex in 1961 is truer today than it was then.
  • We must not trade away our constitutional rights and civil liberties for the illusion of security. Instead, we must rein in the National Security Agency and end the bulk collection of phone records, Internet history and email data of virtually all Americans.
  • Senator Sanders strongly condemned indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas into Israeli territory and Hamas’ use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks. However, while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable … The Palestinians must unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist and hold accountable those who have committed terrorist acts. The Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land.

As a candidate for president, Sanders has begun to make statements on foreign policy that Clinton never would. Those statements amount to high jumps over a low bar of Clinton’s overt militarism.

Yet, with the notable and laudable exception of Sanders’ opposition to NATO expansion (which Russia sees as a close-to-home military threat), there are few significant differences between his positions and Obama’s on foreign policy. Evidently, Sanders isn’t willing to distance himself from administration actions that have propelled the U.S. into its 15th year of continuous war.

On the debate stage Tuesday night, Sanders is likely to talk about how he voted against the Iraq invasion on the House floor 13 years ago, in contrast to Clinton’s pro-war vote in the Senate. While he is right to draw that distinction, such long-ago positions are apt to count for little in the debate or at the ballot box. Millions of Americans will want Sanders to be clear about exactly how he differs with Clinton in the present day on military spending, foreign policy and war.

Norman Solomon is the author of “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and a co-founder of RootsAction.org.



The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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