Senator Bernie Sanders has sparked a strong grassroots response in his run for the Democratic presidential nomination on social and economic issues. At the same time, he has given short shrift to foreign policy, military spending and war. That approach should change.
I’m among millions of supporters who are enthusiastic about the clarity of his positions in taking on Wall Street, corporate power and economic inequality. But we also need Sanders to be clear about what he would do as commander in chief of the world’s leading military power.
A snapshot of avoidance can be found on the Sanders campaign’s official website. Under the headline “On the Issues,” Sanders makes no mention of foreign policy, war or any other military topic. The same omissions were on display at an Iowa Democratic Party annual dinner on July 17, when Sanders gave a compelling speech but made no reference to foreign affairs. Hearing him talk, you wouldn’t have a clue that the United States is in its 14th year of continuous warfare. Nor would you have the foggiest inkling that a vast military budget is badly limiting options for the expanded public investment in college education, infrastructure, clean energy and jobs that Sanders is advocating.
Such omissions have become typical of Sanders’ campaign. After hearing the candidate address a rally with 8,000 people in Portland, Maine, in early July, longtime activist Bruce Gagnon was glum. An Air Force veteran who coordinates a group opposing weapons in space, Gagnon wrote: “Nothing was said about the metastasizing Pentagon budget nor a mumbling word was spoken about foreign policy.”
Perhaps Sanders prefers to bypass such issues because addressing them in any depth might split his growing base of supporters, who have been drawn to his fervent economic populism. But ongoing war and huge military spending continue to be deeply enmeshed with ills of the domestic U.S. economy and many dire social problems. About 54 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary spending now goes to military purposes, hemming in more productive expenditures.
While unavailable on his campaign website and barely mentioned on the stump, the broad outlines of Sanders’ opinions about foreign policy and war can be gleaned from interviews and Q&A portions of town hall appearances. For the most part, on those subjects, his outlook appears to be in line with the views of many Democrats on Capitol Hill.
After a question about “the military establishment” and “perpetual war” from a man who identified himself as a veteran for peace at a recent town hall gathering in Iowa City, Sanders’ reply was tepid Democratic boilerplate. He blamed Republican hawks for getting the U.S. into Iraq. He called for progress against waste and cost overruns at the Pentagon. And he said that in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the U.S. government should act jointly with regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. (“Those countries are going to have to get their hands dirty, it cannot just be the United States alone.”)
When pressed for details on military intervention, Sanders has indicated that his differences with the Barack Obama administration are quite minor. Like many Democrats, he supports U.S. air strikes in the Middle East, while asserting that only countries in the region should deploy ground forces there. Sanders shares the widespread view among members of Congress who don’t want boots on the ground but do want U.S. air power to keep dropping bombs and firing missiles.
Sanders has also urged confronting Russian leader Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. (“You totally isolate him politically, you totally isolate him economically,” Sanders said on Fox News last year.) Closer to home, the Vermont senator has championed the $1.4 trillion half-century program for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 beleaguered fighter jets. The Air Force is planning to base F-35s at the commercial airport in Burlington, his state’s largest city.
One of Sanders’ great strengths as the longest-serving independent member of Congress in U.S. history is that he has been all about big issues – not personalities. Now that he’s running for president, he should address all of the big issues.
On July 27, Sanders put out a 2,300-word statement on “why I am running” that devoted only a few sentences to U.S. foreign and military policies. “The United States spends more on the military than the next nine biggest-spending countries combined,” the statement noted. Sanders also decried Pentagon cost overruns. But in sharp contrast to his in-depth denunciations of corporate power and “oligarchy,” the statement did little to challenge the status quo of militarism.
"We must be vigorous in combating terrorism, but we can't do it alone,” Sanders said. “We must be part of an international coalition that includes Muslim nations which not only defeats ISIS but which works hard to create conditions for lasting peace. I will vigorously oppose an endless war in the Middle East.”
Such pronouncements are scarcely different than President Obama’s current stance (which includes rhetoric against “perpetual war”) and hardly distinguish him from his rivals for the nomination.
As a genuine economic populist who thrives on fighting for the interests of working people while challenging Wall Street and big banks, Sanders differs significantly from Hillary Clinton. But on foreign policy, he cannot rely simply on his 2002 congressional vote against the invasion of Iraq to set himself apart. (Clinton’s vote in favor was a contributing factor to her loss to Obama in the 2008 presidential race.) Now, Sanders should make clear how he currently differs — or agrees — with Clinton on key aspects of war policies, foreign affairs and the military-industrial complex.
For starters, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders might want to draw on the wisdom to be found on the official Senate website of … Senator Bernie Sanders. He could find useful guidance from this statement: “Any serious discussion of how to reduce the national debt and control spending must begin with defense spending.” As a major contender for the presidency, Sanders should initiate that serious discussion.