A Sanders Foreign-Policy Doctrine?
How About ‘No Wars for the Billionaire Class’?
It provides a framework to address a host of issues, including the Middle East wars, intervention and aid, trade deals, and negotiating with adversaries.
By Phyllis Bennis
FEBRUARY 23, 2016
Lots of people—supporters and opponents alike—are asking what a Bernie Sanders foreign policy doctrine would look like. Beyond a few specific references and the important reminder that he, unlike Hillary Clinton, opposed the Iraq War, he’s tended to redirect questions about international issues to his strong suit—his powerful talking points about economic inequality at home. Here’s a potential “Sanders Doctrine” linking Bernie’s focus on domestic inequities directly to the most pressing foreign policy issues of our time: No Wars for the Billionaire Class.
That provides a framework to answer all or at least most of the questions. Will Bernie support US wars, following Obama’s lead into troop surges (Afghanistan), regime change (Libya), and drone wars (across at least seven countries), or will Sanders privilege diplomacy instead? What will US allies think of a Sanders presidency? How will he do as commander in chief? What about this seeming lack of foreign-policy advisers—is anyone left in the Democratic Party mainstream foreign-policy stables now that Hillary has finished vacuuming up virtually every wannabe White House expert around? And if not, who else is out there?
Coming out against wars that benefit the US and global 1 percent provides a whole new 21st-century way of understanding both President Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the military-industrial complex and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s warning about the deadly triplets of militarism, racism, and extreme materialism.
No Wars for the Billionaire Class means standing up to the overarching influence of the arms-producing companies, especially their overpaid CEOs (perhaps recalling an earlier era of US history, when war profiteering was actually deemed illegal as well as immoral). It requires saying no to dictators who want to buy more expensive weapons, no matter how close their alliance with the United States. It means facing down the oil industry and its demand for US military protection—often including military occupation of other countries—of its pipelines, oilfields, and other facilities abroad. It means challenging the too-frequent Pentagon role in building bases and deploying troops and bombers to protect the far-flung interests of US and global corporations and further enrich the already super-rich. It means reversing the diversion of more than 54 cents of every discretionary federal dollar away from jobs, education, and healthcare to fund the military.
It is already obvious that Clinton’s much-touted experience bears little relationship to those principles. While Obama bears full responsibility for the militarization of foreign policy and the failed wars on his watch, there is no question that Clinton served as cheerleader for the most hawkish positions that some in the White House, including the president himself, acceded to only reluctantly. Trying to pivot away from Sanders’s debate statement that she bore major responsibility for today’s violence and chaos in Libya, Clinton claimed, accurately, that he too, had voted for the US/NATO bombing campaign. But she went on to claim, not so accurately, that the UN resolution she had helped craft to justify the attack on Libya made it all somehow benign; she ignored the fact that the only reason key Security Council countries, including Russia, China, and South Africa, accepted the resolution was because it was specifically limited to protecting civilians—it did not authorize regime change. South Africa’s foreign ministry even apologized later for having made the mistake of supporting the resolution.
The Sanders Doctrine would recognize that fighting terrorism requires a wide range of strategies that aim to change conditions on the ground in people’s lives, so that brutal terror organizations are more and more isolated and weakened, instead of growing bigger and more empowered. It would reassert and act on President Obama’s frequent statement that “there is no military solution.” The Sanders Doctrine would acknowledge that we have been “at war” with terrorism for 15 years and yet terrorism is thriving, while people and cities and societies are crushed in that war. And it would go beyond rhetoric to craft an entirely different approach to fighting global terror. A Sanders Doctrine would move away from militarism to concentrate on diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and economic pressure.
The strategies of a Sanders Doctrine would reject the drone wars, airstrikes, Special Forces’s attacks, and other military efforts that have failed to end terrorism, and have instead had the effect of driving more people into the arms of ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations. The Sanders Doctrine would move away from militarism to concentrate on the difficult, less dramatic campaigns that privilege diplomacy, negotiations, humanitarian assistance, economic pressure—those things would come first, not as an afterthought. And they would all be based on the same starting point that every aspiring doctor learns on her first day of medical school: the Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm.
So what are the specific positions that would make up such a new democratic—small “d”—foreign policy? Here are just a few examples of what a Sanders Doctrine might look like:
* On military aid to Israel and Egypt: Sanders once said, “I have a problem with appropriating $2 billion to Egypt and $3 billion to Israel. Let’s take care of some of the problems we have at home first.” He should reaffirm that, making clear that foreign aid is an important part of US policy, and should remain so. But Israel is a wealthy country. And the entire $3.1 billion we send to Israel every year—anticipated to go up to $4 billion a year beginning in 2018—goes directly to its military, already by far the most powerful in the region. About half the aid to Egypt goes to its military also. Congress rightly restricted military aid after the 2012 coup, supposedly so that it could be sent only after Egypt made explicit steps toward democratization. That hasn’t happened—in fact government repression has significantly intensified—so it’s outrageous that the current administration still decided to release F-16s, Harpoon missiles, and Abrams tanks to the Egyptian military. A Sanders administration would recognize that four and a half billion dollars worth of military aid could be used much better at home for healthcare, jobs, education, and more. Plus, we could give some additional aid to poor countries that really need our help with some of their social crises.
* On relations with Iran: The nuclear deal with Iran is a great example of the power of diplomacy, and a huge victory of diplomacy over war. Sanders should reaffirm how crucial it is that we remain engaged with Tehran to insure that the terms of the deal are implemented on all sides. Indeed, we should be trying to expand the narrow terms of the deal to a broader understanding with Iran where we share common interests in the region—such as ending the war in Syria, ending instability in Iraq, and beyond. I think Sanders believes that Tehran recognizes that Iran’s own interests should lead to easing tensions with the United States, indeed with the West as a whole. And he certainly knows that any military action against Iran would threaten an incredibly dangerous, rapidly escalating war across the region and beyond. The only ones who would benefit from such action would be the CEOs of the arms manufacturers and the oil industry. A Sanders administration would work to avoid that, instead engaging in the tougher, slower, less telegenic—but ultimately more fruitful—work of diplomacy to achieve our goals.
* on US obligations toward Syrian refugees: We should begin by recognizing how our policies—especially our 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq—helped create the current crisis. There is certainly a regional refugee crisis—with two and a half million Syrian refugees in Turkey, one in four people of the entire population of Lebanon now a Syrian refugee, hundreds dying every month trying to get from Turkey to Greece. But we don’t have a refugee crisis here at home—we have a racism crisis, a xenophobia crisis.
We are a huge and wealthy country, with space and money and compassion. The overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees, despite their dire conditions, do not want to leave the region; they want to stay close enough so they can go home as soon as possible. But many do need permanent resettlement. We should begin by offering to take in 100,000 of them; that’s the number being cited by key refugee support agencies. We should also never abandon our humanitarian and international law obligations—including full funding for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other international bodies supporting refugees. A Sanders Doctrine would recognize that since the United States possesses 28 percent of the world’s wealth, we should be paying at least 28 percent of what the UN needs to care for the world’s refugees. Some of our tax money now designated for waging wars should be used to support refugees, which will actually make us safer than continuing our failed war policies.
* on what to do about ISIS: We need to begin by recognizing that US military strategies—air strikes and drone assassinations, ground troops and Special Forces, more arms and more training of rebels—aren’t working. Using war against terrorism has failed, and we need to respond differently. That can start by acknowledging why ISIS is so powerful in the first place.
ISIS is well armed. We and our allies must stop flooding the region with arms; many of them wind up in extremists’s hands. Many of the Syrian “moderates” we supply are overrun by (or their fighters defect to) ISIS, Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise (the Nusra Front), or other not-so-moderate militias. And when Iraqi army generals abandon their troops, those soldiers in turn abandon their US-provided weapons and flee when faced with even small numbers of ISIS fighters. Whether these weapons are deployed by extremists or by the supposedly “moderate” governments or militias we support, the result is more and more violence against civilians. We must end our policy of ignoring the violations of human rights and international law committed with our weapons and by our allies. only when we stop providing weapons to our regional allies, who are arming the whole range of opposition forces from the Free Syrian Army to the most extreme Islamists, including ISIS, will we have the credibility to press Iran and Russia to end their arming of the Syrian regime.
ISIS also has a good military leadership. In Iraq, Sunni Baathist generals who were kicked out of their positions in the military after the United States invaded are now providing training, strategy, and military leadership to ISIS-allied militias and ISIS itself. Many of them reject religious extremism, and would be unlikely to continue their support for ISIS if they believed a new, truly inclusive government in Baghdad would give them some chance of recovering their lost jobs, prestige, and dignity. We must press our Iraqi-government allies to make serious changes and abandon the current sectarianism, to convince those former military leaders that there is a place for them in a new and different Iraq.
ISIS draws additional strength from the support it receives from Sunni civilians and tribal leaders in Iraq—the very people President Obama says he wants to “persuade” to break with ISIS. But these people are loyal to ISIS because, first during the US invasion and especially in the years of the US-backed Shia-controlled sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki, they suffered grievously. They were demonized, attacked, and dispossessed by the government in Baghdad, and many of those attacks continue today. As a result, many of them see ISIS not as a horrifyingly violent terror group but as the only available protector of Sunni interests. That’s why Sunni militias are willing to fight alongside ISIS against the government in Baghdad.
Ending the support that ISIS relies on from tribal leaders, military figures and ordinary Sunnis requires local mobilization; it can’t be imposed by US intervention. We need to acknowledge the limitations of our role. There are, however, many things that we can do to help end the violence spreading across the Middle East. We must work harder to end funding sources of ISIS. We should crack down on our allies’s financial support for extremist factions, including Al Qaeda and ISIS. Most analysts agree that a major part of ISIS funding comes from Saudi Arabia; whether it comes from official or unofficial sources, the kingdom certainly has enough control over its population to end the practice. Pressure must also be brought to bear on oil companies and oil traders, especially Turkish middlemen, who traffic in ISIS oil. Bombing oil-truck convoys creates environmental as well as human disasters; we should instead follow the model of the successful campaigns against the purchase of “blood diamonds” from Africa. ISIS would suffer a substantial blow if it could not find buyers for its oil.
* on changing relations with Cuba: We should work to end the trade embargo immediately and move toward full normalization of relations. The embargo hasn’t worked to change the nature of the Cuban government, and it has prevented our own people from being able to travel to Cuba and engage with ordinary Cubans about how we govern our countries, about culture and agriculture and environmental issues. We could probably learn some things from Cuba, like how it manages every year to have better outcomes than we do, in fact the best in the Western Hemisphere, in areas like overall literacy, basic healthcare, infant mortality.
And while we’re talking about Cuba, a Sanders Doctrine would use whatever methods are available (including executive action if congressional approval is still impossible) to close the US prison at Guantánamo Bay and to open discussions with Cuba over return of Guantánamo to Cuban sovereignty.
* on the new global “free trade” treaties: US leadership in negotiating and advocating passage of the Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and other corporate-privileging trade deals has made passage of these agreements far more likely. A Sanders Doctrine would recognize the danger of such deals, particularly in the way they empower corporate “rights” even over national sovereignty of countries around the world, and would immediately end its support and pull out of the negotiations. “Free trade” agreements would be replaced by “fair trade” agreements based on protection of workers, the environment, indigenous communities, and democracy.
* on negotiations with opponents: A Sanders Doctrine would recognize that former President Jimmy Carter was right in his willingness to meet with any world leader, any time, any place. It would make good on the principle that talking is always better than fighting—and that US democracy should abandon the notion that simply talking to a leader we disagree with—even one we adamantly oppose because of human rights violations or other issues—somehow represents a reward. Learning from former senator George Mitchell’s statements after his work on the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland, if we are serious about diplomacy, everyone has to be at the table. That goes for world leaders as much as everyone else. A Sanders Doctrine would operate with the understanding that if we exclude someone from the discussion, we’re giving them permission to ignore or violate whatever agreement we reach with those few people who are present—and that guarantees failure. Sanders-style diplomacy would aim for success, such as what we got in the Iran deal, not failure.
These and other foreign-policy components would constitute a coherent Sanders Doctrine and allow a Sanders presidency to truly challenge the billionaire class, not only at home but around the world.
Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ New Internationalism Project, is the author of Understanding ISIS and the New Global War on Terror: A Primer.