President Sanders: Convener in Chief

The senator advocates a foreign policy that rejects traditional American leadership and would perpetuate 'endless wars'

Sen. Bernie Sanders / Getty
June 27, 2019

In November 2015, hours before a Democratic presidential debate, a top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) got into a heated dispute with executives at CBS, which hosted the debate. Mark Longabaugh, a strategist for Sanders, was furious because, one day after the Islamic State killed 130 people in coordinated terrorist attacks across Paris, CBS decided to increase the debate's emphasis on foreign policy and national security. "You are trying to turn this into a foreign policy debate," Longabaugh told the executives, according to a staffer who spoke to Yahoo News. "That's not what any of us agreed to. How can you change the terms of the debate, you know, on the day of the debate? That's not right." Longabaugh had reason to be worried. His boss could speak at length about the "insatiable greed" of the "millionaires and billionaires," but was woefully ignorant of, and disinterested in, foreign policy, apparently not realizing that the job description of president includes handling international issues and serving as commander in chief of the military.

Three and a half years later, however, with Sanders set to take the stage on Thursday for the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election cycle, the senator's team has less reason to fret. This time, Sanders has made foreign policy a principal focus. As I wrote in April:

Since losing the Democratic primary [in 2016], Sanders hired his first Senate foreign-policy adviser (and now has a team of advisers), led the legislative push to end American support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, and delivered two major speeches on foreign policy—one in 2017, the other last year. Now that Sanders is again running for president, it seems that, with each new week, another magazine is publishing an essay on how his "progressive" foreign policy would revolutionize America's role in the world.

And now Sanders has penned his own essay, titled "Ending America's Endless War: We Must Stop Giving Terrorists Exactly What They Want," on his "revolutionary" vision. Writing in Foreign Affairs this week, Sanders argues that the "war on terror" since 9/11 has become an endless, failed, and "wasteful" war. More broadly, Sanders adds, American foreign policy has been based on "a logic that privileges military tools over diplomatic ones, aggressive unilateralism over multilateral engagement, and acquiescence to our undemocratic partners over the pursuit of core interests alongside democratic allies who truly share our values." To counter this logic, Sanders writes that the United States needs "a foreign policy that focuses on core [interests], clarifies our commitment to democratic values both at home and abroad, and privileges diplomacy and working collectively with allies to address shared security concerns." These points sound defensible on the surface, but a quick look below reveals just how rash, flawed, and paradoxical Sanders's ideas really are.

Other voices, especially on the political left, have also criticized American foreign policy and called for similar remedies. But Sanders goes further, advocating a vision of America's role in the world that is dangerous. "The time has come to envision a new form of American engagement: one in which the United States leads not in war-making but in bringing people together to find shared solutions to our shared concerns," Sanders writes. "American power should be measured not by our ability to blow things up, but by our ability to build on our common humanity, harnessing our technology and enormous wealth to create a better life for all people." Of course American foreign policy should involve much more than military power, and yes, these two sentences are vague and should not be treated as Sanders's formal doctrine. That being said, these ideas resemble comments that Sanders's foreign-policy adviser, Matt Duss, made in an interview in February. Sanders "sees the U.S. as a kind of global facilitator by virtue of our enormous economic, diplomatic power," Duss told Business Insider. "The U.S. has the ability to bring parties, states, and people around tables to address common challenges that really no other country has."

"That doesn't mean that the U.S. needs to run to the head of every parade or be in charge of everything—certainly not," Duss continued. "But the U.S. does have a role to play in facilitating multilateral cooperation, conversation, and innovation."

As I wrote in February, Sanders's goal is to "render the United States the host of international tea parties where leaders discuss high-minded issues at self-aggrandizing forums." And these leaders would gather at a round table, each with an equal say, not at a rectangular one with America at the head. Indeed, under this model, all the Americans do is help invite the guests, set the table, and moderate the discussion. The United States is not actually doing anything in the world; it is a convener, nothing more, and does not even try to protect its own interests, instead protecting some abstract notion of the collective good. The implications of eschewing military power are grave, including the destructive effect it would have on American diplomacy. Moreover, Sanders fails to realize that American power, especially military might, has done unmatched good "to create a better life for all people." Again, me in February:


Sanders's worldview is built on a false premise. The historical record is undeniable: American power has done more to spread freedom and prosperity throughout the world than any force in human history. The military has liberated countless individuals and provided the stability for the modern economy to work. A world in which the United States is less active and powerful would be much darker, much further away from the egalitarian vision that Sanders seeks.

Put into action, Sanders's ideas would actually perpetuate, rather than end, America's "endless wars" in the broader Middle East. Sanders would simply withdraw from all of Washington's military engagements in the war on terror and seek cooperation without having leverage, failing to realize that the enemy has a say in when the fighting stops. "Just to end our military interventions in these places is not enough," he writes.

Take the war in Afghanistan, now in its 18th year. "Withdrawing from Afghanistan is something we must do," Sanders writes. "We will work closely with our partners and allies to design a serious diplomatic and political strategy to stabilize the region, promote more effective and accountable governance, and ensure that threats do not re-emerge after we leave." The idea, it seems, is simply to withdraw troops and implement vague, empty notions about diplomacy and cooperation. Such a policy would fail—miserably. Sanders does not seem to appreciate that the Taliban is a supremacist, totalitarian organization that seeks complete domination of Afghanistan as an Islamic state—there is a reason why the Taliban calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, not the Taliban. Furthermore, the group continues a close alliance with al Qaeda to this day. Indeed, Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, has sworn allegiance to the Taliban's emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. Both men view Afghanistan as the cornerstone of a future caliphate, one no less barbaric than that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. American policymakers and the American people understand the need to combat ISIS, but for some reason are less threatened by the goals of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Withdrawing American soldiers would be a recipe for another caliphate, one that managed to kill nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001. The Taliban, moreover, has made unmistakably clear that it will not work at all with the Afghan government or civil society.

Americans can argue that we should not be in Afghanistan, but they need to be honest about the costs of withdrawal. Sanders does not seem to have considered the true implications of these costs, which would only cause the endless war to continue, even if the Americans take a break from it for a while.

It is telling that former President Barack Obama, who came to the White House with a similar view of foreign policy as Sanders, ended up deploying more soldiers to Afghanistan, launching another military intervention in Iraq, toppling a regime in Libya, and, to use Eliot Cohen's words, conducting "the most extensive campaign of assassination in the history of war [meaning drone strikes]." Even Obama recognized that the naïve, idealistic, and egalitarian worldview of progressivism had to make some way—though not nearly enough—for American military power. Would a President Bernie Sanders come to the same conclusion? Hopefully the country will never find out.