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Sanders and Foreign Policy

Conor Friedersdorf wonders why Sanders’ better foreign policy judgment hasn’t mattered very much so far:

Bernie Sanders has exhibited much better foreign-policy judgment than Hillary Clinton. Yet for some reason, that’s made little difference so far in the Democratic primary race.

There are a few reasons why Sanders hasn’t been able to use this to his advantage, but probably the biggest one is that Sanders seems leery of talking about foreign policy unless he absolutely has to. For instance, Sanders has been promising to deliver a foreign policy speech for months, but he has no intention of giving it before voting starts on Monday:

With time running out before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, an aide confirmed Friday that presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has no plans to deliver a previously advertised speech on foreign policy before the first votes are cast in the Democratic race.

This may make sense for Sanders for now. His campaign has done as well as it has to date by emphasizing domestic issues, and like most Americans almost all Democratic and independent voters are much more interested in those issues than they are in foreign policy. For her part, Clinton has been trying to obscure her hawkish record, and so her record of bad judgment may not be as visible as it was in 2007-08. Sanders’ rising poll numbers have already caused Clinton and her supporters to overreach and remind Democrats of Clinton’s poor judgment when they launched an attack on Sanders for supposedly being too “soft” on Iran. Maybe Sanders thinks Clinton will discredit herself as the campaign continues. More likely, he wants to fight the campaign primarily on domestic issues because that’s what he cares about most and that’s where his greatest strengths with Democratic voters are.

Besides, except for hitting Clinton on her Iraq war vote, Sanders doesn’t really have that much he can say against her. Clinton favors a more aggressive policy in Syria than Sanders, but Sanders has repeatedly endorsed Obama’s policy in the war on ISIS and has acquiesced in the waging of an illegal war in Iraq and Syria. Sanders is constrained in what he can say against Clinton on some of these issues because many of the strongest criticisms of her that can be made require criticism of Obama as well, and attacking Obama isn’t popular with most Democratic voters.

On the Libyan war, Sanders has another problem: he appears to have supported the war at the time. There are certainly some important differences between being one of the architects of the disastrous Libyan war and co-sponsoring a Senate resolution that expressed support for a U.N.-backed “no-fly zone” in Libya, but it’s hardly the sort of sharp contrast that he needs in order to use the issue against Clinton. Sanders did go on record complaining about Obama’s failure to consult Congress before bombing Libya, but he didn’t really question the wisdom of the intervention or the desirability of ousting Gaddafi. The most that he said against it was this: “I’m not quite sure we need a third war.” That’s better than being a cheerleader for the intervention, but it’s not the rejection of the policy that it needs to be for him to use Clinton’s bad judgment on Libya against her. The upshot of this is that Clinton can shield herself from Sanders’ criticisms on Libya, and that allows her to get away with being partly responsible for one of the biggest blunders of Obama’s presidency.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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