Daniel Larison

Sanders’ Peaceful Foreign Policy

Uri Friedman has written an interesting and mostly fair profile of Bernie Sanders focused on the senator’s foreign policy views. One part that struck me as odd and potentially misleading was this familiar refrain about Sanders and Venezuela:

He’s so scarred by U.S. aggression in Latin America that he now opposes the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw its recognition of authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, even though the move hasn’t involved military force.

It is strange to frame Sanders’ position on Venezuela this way, because there is a much more straightforward explanation for why someone in 2020 would object to the U.S. trying to overthrow a foreign government. Presumably Sanders believes that seeking regime change in Venezuela is the wrong thing for the U.S. to be doing, and I imagine that he thinks the way that the U.S. is going about it is bad for Venezuela, too. The economic war that the U.S. is currently waging against Venezuela is exacerbating an already severe humanitarian crisis. The policy is much more than “withdrawing” recognition from Maduro. It is a coercive effort to try to force Maduro from power. At the moment, it is a failed effort that is also doing harm to the civilian population. A policy can be interventionist and coercive without the use of force, and trying to force political change in another country is wrong no matter what kind of coercion is employed. This is one of the things that Sanders appears to understand, and that is why it is encouraging that he took an early stand against the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy when many of the other candidates and most elected Democrats said nothing or endorsed regime change. The question to ask isn’t why Sanders rejects regime change after the debacles in Iraq and Libya, but why so many of his colleagues and opponents don’t.

The description of Sanders’ views on the use of force is definitely worth reading:

So what would it take for Sanders to resort to military action? His advisers say an imminent threat to Americans would prompt him to do so. He would also consider military intervention as a means of averting mass atrocities or addressing humanitarian crises abroad if it were blessed by Congress and a multinational coalition, and, as Duss put it, had “a realistic chance of making the situation better at an acceptable cost.” In practice, those would be high hurdles to clear [bold mine-DL]. (“You don’t want to drone strike every brown country into the Stone Ages,” the comedian Hasan Minhaj recently inquired. “Yes, correct,” Sanders confirmed.)

Khanna added that Sanders might still be willing to take out terrorist leaders under a new and and more restrictive authorization of military force. But that wouldn’t apply to targeting state actors such as Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was recently killed on Trump’s orders. “You cannot go around saying, ‘You’re a bad guy; we’re going to assassinate you,’” Sanders explained during last week’s Democratic debate.

The senator has also vowed to get congressional authorization for any new military conflicts. If he honors that promise, it would effectively make U.S. military interventions highly unlikely during his presidency.

Sanders’ debate answer on Soleimani was excellent, and it deserves a brief comment. He objected to the assassination on principle. As he put it:

You cannot go around saying you’re a bad guy, we’re going to assassinate you, and then you’re going to have, if that happens, you’re opening the door to international anarchy that every government in the world will then be subjected to attacks and assassination.

Assassinating foreign officials invites both retaliation against ours and imitation by other governments. When the most powerful government in the world disregards both domestic and international law to kill a foreign official, that encourages others to ignore the law as well. In short, Sanders rejects lawless aggression against other states.

It is very good that Sanders is committing to having a very high standard for taking military action. The hurdles should be very high, because our government should only resort to using force when all other options have been exhausted, and the U.S. should go to war only when Congress approves it. If the case for intervention is so weak that it wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny, the intervention is guaranteed to be the wrong thing to do. If there isn’t a reasonable expectation that military action will produce fewer evils than it prevents, then that war is unjust and shouldn’t happen. It is refreshing to hear this from a leading presidential candidate, and it is even more encouraging that it is coming from someone who clearly means it. It is a sign of how warped our foreign policy debate is after decades of warfare that Sanders’ sane and responsible position seems radical.

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