Bernie Sanders delivered a fairly wide-ranging foreign policy speech at Westminster College in Fulton, MO earlier today. He outlined in broad strokes his views for what U.S. foreign policy includes and what it should do. Among other things, he also spoke directly against U.S. support for the Saudi-led war on Yemen:
Unfortunately, today we still have examples of the United States supporting policies that I believe will come back to haunt us. One is the ongoing Saudi war in Yemen.
While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.
While I wish Sen. Sanders would have said a bit more about this in the speech, I applaud him for speaking out against our indefensible policy in Yemen. He is in a position right now where he can call attention to policies like this one and get large numbers of Americans to take notice. If there is more sustained criticism and scrutiny of U.S. support for the Saudis’ atrocious war, the administration may come under some real pressure to scale back or end U.S. involvement or to press the Saudis and their allies for a cease-fire. It would have been easy in a speech like this to neglect mentioning specific policies, and Sanders should be commended for making a point of including Yemen.
Sanders also gave an interview to The Intercept this week, and based on the excerpts published so far he is going beyond criticizing the Saudi-led war on Yemen to questioning the relationship with Saudi Arabia itself:
Sanders issued a scathing denunciation of the Gulf kingdom, which has recently embarked on a new round of domestic repression.
“I consider [Saudi Arabia] to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism. … They are not an ally of the United States.”
The Vermont senator accused the “incredibly anti-democratic” Saudis of “continuing to fund madrasas” and spreading “an extremely radical Wahhabi doctrine in many countries around the world.”
It will take a long time to break American politicians and analysts of the habit of referring to the Saudis as an ally, but Sanders is taking a necessary first step in explicitly denying that claim. Once we start to recognize that the Saudis are not an ally in any sense, the relationship may be changed accordingly.
Sanders went on to say other important things in his speech. Here he made a valuable observation:
We must rethink the old Washington mindset that judges “seriousness” according to the willingness to use force. One of the key misapprehensions of this mindset is the idea that military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.
Yes, military force is sometimes necessary, but always — always — as the last resort. And blustery threats of force, while they might make a few columnists happy, can often signal weakness as much as strength, diminishing US deterrence, credibility and security in the process.
Here Sanders directly challenges the bias in our foreign policy debates in favor of “doing something” in which “something” is almost always some military option. We frequently hear a policy derided as “bystanderism” or “standing idly by” if it doesn’t involve bombing or arming someone, and rejecting that mindset is at least as important as any specific policy recommendations Sanders might make. Sanders illustrates his point with a very constructive and timely contrast between the Iraq war and the nuclear deal with Iran:
Today it is now broadly acknowledged that the war in Iraq, which I opposed, was a foreign policy blunder of enormous magnitude.
In addition to the many thousands killed, it created a cascade of instability around the region that we are still dealing with today in Syria and elsewhere, and will be for many years to come. Indeed, had it not been for the Iraq War, ISIS would almost certainly not exist.
The Iraq war, as I said before, had unintended consequences. It was intended as a demonstration of the extent of American power. It ended up demonstrating only its limits.
In contrast, the Iran nuclear deal advanced the security of the US and its partners, and it did this at a cost of no blood and zero treasure.
The contrast couldn’t be clearer between the two. The first was an illegal preventive war launched in the name of eliminating a non-existent threat at enormous cost to the U.S. and the region. The other was a negotiated agreement that resolved an outstanding issue peacefully and thus headed off the danger of a new war and eliminated the possibility of further nuclear proliferation. The Iraq war cost America thousands of lives, tens of thousands of wounded, and trillions of dollars, while the nuclear deal cost the U.S. nothing at all. They are two of the more significant policy debates on foreign policy of this century, and the people that both opposed the war and supported the deal (including Sanders) have shown demonstrably better judgment than their opponents.
Sanders followed up this contrast with a strong defense of the need to keep the deal as it is:
I call on my colleagues in the Congress, and all Americans: We must protect this deal. President Trump has signaled his intention to walk away from it, as he did the Paris agreement, regardless of the evidence that it is working. That would be a mistake.
Not only would this potentially free Iran from the limits placed on its nuclear program, it would irreparably harm America’s ability to negotiate future nonproliferation agreements. Why would any country in the world sign such an agreement with the United States if they knew that a reckless president and an irresponsible Congress might simply discard that agreement a few years later?
If we are genuinely concerned with Iran’s behavior in the region, as I am, the worst possible thing we could do is break the nuclear deal. It would make all of these other problems harder.
His Senate colleagues should heed what Sanders is saying and follow his example in standing up for a successful non-proliferation agreement that is squarely in the national interest.
During the 2016 campaign, I thought Sanders could and should have said more about foreign policy. I still think the Democratic Party and the country would have benefited if he had done that, but fortunately he is doing it now. He should be commended for giving a thoughtful, important speech that should open up new debates on foreign policy on the left and perhaps across the political spectrum.