“He’s an imperialist. He thinks it’s America’s job to play Team America: World Police. Using our tax dollars, he has joined with warmongers in both political parties and condoned – directly or indirectly – some of the most gruesome US foreign policy decisions in decades.” — Jon Reynolds for Screeching Kettle.
Self-described progressives don’t have an easy life in America. They have languished, although often quite willingly, under the Democratic Party machine since their movement began, usually out of fear that another far-right Republican would step into the White House. Like in England, the perceived need to keep the other guy out of office has led to a collective sacrifice of progressive principles in favour of tactical voting. The result? Violent heads of state like Clinton and Obama who have pursued almost identical policies to their Republican counterparts, at least where foreign policy is concerned.
Now that somebody like Bernie Sanders has come along, American progressives might finally get a chance to preserve some of their deeply-held principles at the ballot box. Thus, they jealously safeguard his candidacy from criticism like a child with a lollypop.
Sadly, this means those who ‘feel the Bern’ are woefully inadequate when it comes to challenging their candidate on his foreign policy, or lack thereof. Compared to Trump or Hillary, Sanders may look almost saint-like in his vision for America, but this alone should not let him off the hook, and blindly following a man who is, after all, still running for the Democrats, could have dangerous consequences.
He may not be like all the other bastards, but that doesn’t automatically make him an ally in the fight against colonialism, imperialism, and state-sponsored violence. A deeper examination of his votes and speeches is needed.
Noam Chomsky once said that “Obama and his campaign managers made sure you knew nothing about him, or very little about him. If you look back at the campaign, the slogans were ‘hope’ and ‘change’. Hope for what? What change? […] In fact those were McCain’s slogans too, he just didn’t do it as well! […] [Obama’s team] were very careful to keep it quiet”.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the case with Sanders too. The obscurantism of his campaign only really applies to foreign policy – he does at least issue nuanced policies about domestic issues – but the sore lack of a viable worldview means that his domestic policies will fall short. America is, after all, an empire, and so the foreign policy of a candidate cannot be separated from the domestic agenda, despite Sanders’ best efforts. His campaign so far has been quite consistent in saying that he is focusing on the issues at home that matter, which misses the point, and leads one to the conclusion that he is deliberately hiding his foreign policy.
This means we are left trying to complete the Sanders foreign policy jigsaw with half of the pieces missing, but even that incomplete picture offers a worrying insight into a man who, in most other policy areas, seems to have the people’s best interests at heart.
One of the most contentious foreign policy discussions in America is undoubtedly her relationship with Israel. American progressives (not Obama or Clinton liberals) have laid considerable groundwork in formulating an anti-apartheid policy towards Israel, the consequences of which have been a more mainstream and open discussion about its use of police brutality and racial segregation – two diseases that America has considerable experience of too. Long gone are the days where a candidate could just pledge mild allegiance to Israel and be done with it – now, people want to know exactly who the candidate is pledging allegiance to and why. This is to the credit of Palestinian activists.
And indeed, one of the most effective tactics of the anti-apartheid movement is to point out the glaringly obvious injustice being done to the people of America in order to assist Israel. Popular memes, such as this one, express exasperation at how much taxpayer money is exported to an apartheid state (over $3 billion a year and climbing), so one would expect this to fall into Bernie’s category of wasteful spending, corruption, and “the billionaire class” getting away with murder (quite literally in Israel’s case).
But no, it does not. Sanders voted to give Israel a $3 billion aid package in 1997, a further $2.16 billion aid package in 1999, and a further $2.2 billion aid package in 2003. Through his votes, he has taken over $7 billion of taxpayer money and shipped it to a country with a dire human rights record. Worst of all, Saudi Arabia would also be showered with gold under a Sanders Presidency, due to what he calls their commitment to “fighting terrorism”. Words fail me.
Sanders has also had considerable opportunity to explain or justify his support for aid packages to Israel, and has failed to do so. An explosive town hall meeting last September revealed the darker side to his candidacy, a meeting in which he told an audience member to “shut up”, all for calling out his unwillingness to condemn Israel’s latest death campaign. Bernie paid little more than lip service to the victims of Operation Protective Edge before launching into a tirade against Hamas, a group he seems to blame the entire conflict on. He then quickly derailed the discussion and began talking about ISIS. When the aforementioned audience member wouldn’t let it go, Sanders threatened to have him arrested.
Town hall fiascos aside, the Washington Post points out that Sanders has used the same evasive lines on the conflict since 1988, calling it a “tragedy” that has gone on “for many years” every time he is cornered into making a statement. He did once refer to the death toll after Operation Protective Edge as “disproportionate” and “completely unacceptable” on his website, but in keeping with his town hall belligerence, was quick to find a way to blame Hamas for an assault that they did not start. In a decades-long political career, Sanders has consistently and disappointingly expressed mild regret for the apartheid, and vitriolic contempt for the Palestinian resistance.
Returning to his record in Congress offers little respite. In 2008 he co-sponsored a Senate resolution that commemorated Israel’s 60th birthday, and in 2014 voted for another resolution supporting “Israel’s right to defend itself”. More pernicious is the fact that this resolution was pushed into Congress by powerful lobby groups, i.e. the “billionaire class”, and was passed at a time when civilian deaths in Gaza reached exasperating highs.
But his negligent reticence does not stop at Palestine. Although Sanders voted against authorizing force against Iraq in 2002, he previously voted for a bill which gave the Bush administration authority to declare war any time, anywhere and on anybody who was possibly involved in terrorism. This of course laid the foundation for the drone strike programme, which rapidly expanded under Obama and which Sanders says he would not shut down.
On the issue of shutting things down, Sanders refers to the Guantánamo torture camp as a “complicated issue” and refused to support a resolution that would close it down too. Between 2004 and 2007, Sanders also voted for four bills that collectively assigned over $332 billion for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite apparently objecting to them and later calling them “the worst foreign policy blunder in our lifetime”.
The official Feel The Bern website, rather than publish a true account of his votes, whitewashes his record and only mentions votes where Sanders was opposed to military intervention. The issue of Palestine is deliberately obscurantist on the website too, placing emphasis on Hamas’ role in the violence and sticking to vague “both sides” rhetoric that helpfully avoids wading in to any meaningful debate.
From all of this, it is clear that Sanders largely supports the status quo when it comes to foreign policy, and is doing everything he can to make sure you don’t talk about it, don’t question it, and don’t vote against him based on it. If you do, he’ll probably just tell you to “shut up”.