Bernie Sanders’ top foreign policy adviser has an unusual résumé for someone in that role. Matt Duss comes from the progressive blogosphere, not the foreign service. He worked for Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign, and he joked after it was over that he and his colleagues will “get jobs in the Bush administration.” AsThe Nation’sDavid Klion wrote earlier this year, “No one besides Sanders has hired an adviser with such a clear track record of defying the Blob”—the mass of conventional thinkers in Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
But Duss sounded quite Blob-like earlier this month when I asked him what Sanders would do if he faced a humanitarian crisis such as imminent genocide. Would a President Sanders consider using American military force without the support of Congress and the broader public? “If there’s a situation in which, as president, Senator Sanders feels that he needs to act,” said Duss, “and he’s spoken to the experts, and he’s engaged with as many people as he possibly could, and comes to that decision point, he’s going to do what he feels is right.”
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Coming from the foreign policy adviser to any other candidate, this statement wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But Sanders has tried to position himself as a radical alternative to all his hawkish rivals in both parties. In a recent online video, he made “no apologies” for his “opposition to war.” In a major address before his official entry into the presidential race, he pledged to turbocharge American diplomacy with the help of a “global progressive movement.” In Congress, he has led the effort to end all U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war, insisting that Congress must take back from the president its “constitutional responsibility over war making.” After running in 2016 on reshaping the American economy, it seems Sanders has now given himself the even more audacious task of dismantling the military-industrial complex.
And yet, as Duss’ comment indicates, Sanders is not a pacifist and his opposition to war is not absolute. He has supported military operations on humanitarian grounds. He’s campaigning as a peace candidate, but it’s not implausible that he could end up a war president.
During the 2020 campaign, Sanders has talked about foreign policy far more than any other major presidential candidate—even Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience is unmatched in the Democratic field. That’s a shift from Sanders‘ 2016 bid, when he campaigned heavily on his democratic-socialist domestic agenda, leaving himself vulnerable to charges he wasn’t prepared to be commander in chief. Before beginning his second presidential run, Sanders laid out a foreign policy vision that is nothing less than transformational—rejecting the entire “mindset” that “military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.” When MoveOn.org invited presidential candidates to share a single “big idea” at a California forum last month, Sanders did not highlight single-payer health insurance, his signature domestic policy proposal. He chose “ending endless wars.”
But despite Sanders’ bold foreign policy principles, the complete picture of how a President Sanders would exercise his powers overseas remains blurry. Not only has Sanders neglected to offer much policy detail for how he would achieve his peacemaking objectives, but he also has failed to explain how his antiwar rhetoric squares with some of his past positions. Most notably, he supported the 1999 American bombing operation in Kosovo. Even though Sanders has criticized the high cost of the F-35 fighter jet program, he supported the Air Force’s decision to base some of those F-35s in his home state of Vermont, protecting more than 1,000 jobs tied to the military-industrial complex.
Sanders supported what became known as the Global War on Terror at the outset, voting to authorize military force against “those nations, organizations or persons” connected to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Like many of his fellow Democrats, he has since become a skeptic of the forever war. In a 2017 address at Westminster College in Missouri, the site of Winston Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, Sanders condemned the strategic framework of the war on terrorism as “a disaster” because of its “heavy-handed military approach,” and singled out drone strikes for their “high civilian casualties.” And Sanders has long expressed his unease with giving a president too much unilateral authority to deploy weapons of war. He often advocates for a strict interpretation of the War Powers Resolution, the post-Vietnam law that denies the president the power to engage in more than 60 days of military “hostilities” without formal congressional authorization.
Yet during his 2016 presidential campaign, Sanders’ counterterrorism rhetoric was more muted. He said on multiple occasions that while errant drone strikes are “terrible” and “counterproductive,” drones have also “done some good things,” and “taken out people who should be taken out.” And so, he said, he would continue to use drones, “very selectively and effectively.” When asked about that shift in tone by Sanders since 2016, Duss argued that President Donald Trump has “dialed up” the use of drones. How exactly Sanders would dial it down is not yet clear. Duss informed me Sanders would initiate “a comprehensive review” of American counterterrorism policy—after his inauguration.
Sanders is hardly the first candidate in history to punt the specifics on a complicated, controversial matter to some sort of blue-ribbon commission. But Sanders has been deferring to such a future commission for years, since his 2016 campaign. Three years later, his attacks on the counterterrorism status quo have dramatically intensified, but he appears to have failed to come up with an alternative strategy.
What does Sanders actually believe?
Rhetorically, at least, Sanders’ critique of the Global War on Terror resembles the Republican attacks on Obamacare: Promise to “repeal and replace” it without having the “replace” part figured out.
In fairness to Sanders, he has never pretended there are easy answers to complex foreign policy challenges. In a 1999 town hall, then-Congressman Sanders described the Kosovo crisis as “enormously complicated, enormously difficult.” In a 2015 primary debate with Hillary Clinton, he said Syria “is a complicated issue. I don’t think anyone has a magical solution.” In 2016, in an interview with theLos Angeles Times, Sanders said pressuring Middle Eastern regimes to do more on counterterrorism, was “not easy.” This year, while speaking to a reporter forThe New Yorkerabout foreign policy, he sounded positively daunted: “Look, this is very difficult stuff … I most certainly do not believe that I have all the answers, or that this is easy stuff. I mean, you’re dealing with so much—my God.”
Voters may find this shocking bit of honesty for a presidential candidate either refreshing or unsettling. Perhaps more wannabe presidents should have the humility to acknowledge that they don’t know everything. But maybe that humility should be reflected in a realistic, detailed foreign policy agenda.
Sanders made that point himself in the 2016 primary, when he chided Hillary Clinton, and in effect, the Blob, about the decision to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya: “Regime change is easy; getting rid of dictators is easy,” he said. “But before you do that, you’ve got to think about what happens the day after.”
Back in April 1999, then-Congressman Sanders was on the House floor giving a three-minute speech about the military intervention taking place in what was then known as Yugoslavia. In the first 90 seconds, Sanders gave the familiar argument that military operations—like that one—without congressional authorization are unconstitutional. But for the second half of his remarks, he shifted his focus. Without expending a word to satisfy his own constitutional concerns, Sanders defended the NATO bombing as necessary on moral grounds to stop “ethnic cleansing,” the war’s euphemism for atrocities targeting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The Kosovo operation is a 20-year old episode, but it’s a rare example of Sanders openly, if not quite transparently, grappling with his conflicting principles—and presidents often have to do that. Sanders voted for a resolution, preferred by the Clinton administration, which “authorized” the operation without codifying that the authorization was legally required under the War Powers Act. (Sanders, and nearly all of his colleagues, voted against a formal declaration of war.) And when even that resolution failed in the House on a tie vote, Sanders did not insist the operation end on the basis of its constitutional illegitimacy. Five days later at a Montpelier, Vermont, town hall, he passionately supported the bombing.
Twenty years later, when it comes to defending NATO allies if attacked, the Blob will be happy to know Duss was unequivocal that Sanders would respond militarily: “Shared security is something Senator Sanders strongly believes in, and the principle of collective defense is at the core of NATO’s founding treaty. It’s important for friends and foes alike to have no doubt that the United States will honor this commitment.”
Beyond that, Duss told me that cases of “genocide or of mass atrocities” would “weigh heavily” on the mind of Sanders as president. And he laid out the questions Sanders would pose: “Does this meet the level of an emergency, an imminent atrocity? Does it immediately impact the security of the people of the United States? And if it doesn’t, does that imminent atrocity, rise to the level of a global norm which we have interest in enforcing and upholding? And finally, and very important, what are the chances for creating a better outcome having taken this step of introducing U.S. military forces into the situation?”
These are all essential questions, and they are reassuring to Democratic foreign policy experts, even some progressive ones, who want Sanders to leave the door open for military force. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione, an anti-nuclear weapons activist who informally advises Sanders, told me: “I think Senator Sanders would not hesitate to use military force to defend the country from attack, to defend our vital interests, to prevent atrocities like genocide. But he’s made clear that military force should be the very, very last option.”
For a small but noticeable anti-Bernie strain on the far left, that wiggle room for military strikes makes Sanders a hypocrite. For example, Ajamu Baraka, the last vice presidential nominee for the Green Party, said in an interview that Sanders’ openness to military action amounts to “saying one thing publicly but then appearing to have a different position that is reflected sometimes in his legislative decisions, and I think the Kosovo situation was a very important example of that.”
But most of the anti-interventionist left aren’t quibbling about the smattering of past disagreements with Sanders such as Kosovo. They are mostly enthralled at how Sanders’ campaign rhetoric is broadening the foreign policy debate. In particular, they are bowled over by how, earlier this year, Sanders used the War Powers Resolution to move a bipartisan bill through Congress demanding Trump end American military involvement in the Yemeni civil war, where the U.S. has supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention. Although the bill was vetoed, the fact that it got to Trump’s desk both legitimized the War Powers Resolution and bolstered Sanders’ case that he can get things done in Washington.
Most of the activists with whom I spoke put more emphasis on Yemen than Kosovo when gauging how a President Sanders would involve Congress in his foreign policy. Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, raved over email: “Sanders was the first to introduce a privileged resolution invoking the War Powers Resolution to force a vote to end unconstitutional U.S. participation in the war and lead it to completion, passage by Congress. That never happened before in the whole history of the War Powers Resolution since 1973.”
But Sanders’ proud defense of his Kosovo stance to his antiwar allies should not be ignored. He thundered at the May 1999 Montpelier town hall: “What do you do to a war criminal who has led, for the first time in modern history, the organized rape as an agent of war, of tens of thousands of women? What do you do to a butcher who has lined up people and shot them? Do you say to them, ‘You have won Mr. Milosevic. We are not going to stand up to you. We are going home’?” Sanders once put the end of genocide ahead of a strict adherence to the War Powers Resolution, and his foreign policy adviser has now left the door open to him doing it again as president.
Before President Barack Obama’s 2011 intervention in Libya, another instance of the use of American force to try to stop genocide, Sanders initially indicated support for military action. Sanders co-sponsored a Senate resolution that urged “the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan territory.” The Security Council did just that, setting in motion a multilateral military operation.
Nine days after hostilities began, however, Sanders wasn’t stoutly defending the Libyan operation, as he had with Kosovo. He was betraying squeamishness about how long the operation would last, telling Fox News: “Everybody understands Gadhafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but I think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war, and I hope the president tells us that our troops will be leaving there, that our military action in Libya will be ending very, very shortly.” After the death of Gadhafi and the subsequent destabilization of Libya, Sanders took a far dimmer view of the operation. He said four years later in a primary debate with Hillary Clinton, “Yes, we could get rid of Gadhafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS.”
The common thread in Kosovo and Libya was Sanders’ impulse to stop genocide, mitigated by his strong desire to limit the duration of any hostilities. If you are mainly concerned about getting bogged down in quagmires, you will be comforted by Sanders’ discomfort with prolonged military action. However, those that are more comfortable with direct military action are unnerved that Sanders generally doesn’t talk about the nuances of his views on the campaign trail.
“If the anti-war rhetoric becomes too unequivocal, a leader may compromise their ability to rally popular support in the event that they judge intervention necessary,” said Suzanne Nossel, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, in an email exchange. “If Bernie Sanders is serious about leaving himself leeway to act militarily where necessary, it would be useful to articulate that idea to his supporters in the context of the campaign.”
Nossel’s concern is indicative of the skepticism Sanders receives from many inside the Blob.While the left loves Sanders’ principles and his outsider posture, the Blob worries about his lack of details and experience in crisis situations. Mieke Eoyang, a former congressional staffer who once advised Congresswoman Pat Schroeder and Senator Ted Kennedy on defense issues, argues that Sanders was largely absent from serious legislating about foreign policy matters throughout the bulk of his congressional career.
Now vice president for the National Security Program at the centrist organization Third Way, Eoyang worries that, despite the occasional examples of supporting military force, Sanders possesses “a real reluctance to use American power.” “The president has to make choices about how to exercise American power,” she told me, “and there are serious negative consequences that flow from inaction as well as action. So you have to choose from a bunch of imperfect outcomes. And I have not seen Bernie, over the course of his career, being willing to select from imperfect outcomes.”
But Blob members are not solely fixated on what, and whether, Bernie would bomb. They also question his faith in people-to-people public diplomacy. “The devil is always in the detail,” warns Bishop Garrison, a former foreign policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who founded the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy, a “post-partisan” think tank. Asked what Sanders’ highly ambitious goal of building a “global progressive movement that speaks to the needs of working people” to counter “a growing worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy and kleptocracy” means in practice, Duss said, “The goal here is to promote the idea that progressives at the civil society level need to be reaching out, and meeting, and working, and networking and coordinating with each other much more energetically than we have been doing up until now, because we see right-wing forces doing that.”
Duss went on: “Building a global community is not just about relationships between governments, but it’s about relationships between peoples. As president, he would have a foreign policy that worked to protect political space where civil society groups from different countries under different forms of government can build relationships.”
To Garrison, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom with two Bronze Stars, this seemingly heartwarming approach is fraught with danger. “One could argue you’re talking about interfering with the ongoing political efforts of a society, on a grand and global scale across different sovereign nations. That’s not diplomacy.” While Garrison was supportive of civil society groups that invest in “local populations,” he worried that Sanders’ vision “sounds like you’re going go in and start an uprising somewhere.”
Jonathan Katz, a former State Department official in the Obama administration who has been sounding the alarm about “democratic backsliding” within the NATO alliance, is more positive about the civil society push, and urged Sanders to show some specific figures for how much money he would “be willing to put into an effort to promote democracy” abroad. (Duss in turn said it has not been decided yet if a budget proposal, delineating how much money would be cut from the military and redirected elsewhere, would be released during the campaign.)
But Katz, now a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund, cautioned against a pro-democracy outreach strategy rooted in a left-versus-right framework of the kind that Sanders seems to envision. “More often than not,” Katz said, “in the cases of countries where you have democratic backsliding, it’s not because people on the right or the left don’t want democracy. It’s usually a leader that comes in—an oligarch, an authoritarian—that starts to use and manipulate the system for his or her own good, or to benefit a small group around them.” He added, “Bernie is narrowly pointing to progressives in terms of a global democracy fight. I like the idea of a global democracy fight. But it’s got to be inclusive … Otherwise, you’re pitting groups against each other, potentially.”
Duss may have given me a Blob-like response when asked about Sanders’ criteria for going to war, but I would not suggest he’s become a card-carrying member. When you talk to Duss, he’s far more likely to say “military violence” than “military power.” He told me Sanders’ counterterrorism strategy review would “take a much more aggressive look at how we are using military violence.” Such language doesn’t preclude the use of the military. But Duss, and more important, Sanders, routinely send the signal that they harbor an extreme distaste for the use of force.
Even so, Sanders has views about military intervention that are more complicated than his campaign rhetoric. And that may explain why he hasn’t delved into much detail about foreign policy. Once a candidate wades into the sea of international crises and hypothetical threats, eventually the possibility of military force arises. Any discussion of that risks making Sanders look more like a conventional commander in chief than a revolutionary one.