On foreign policy, Bernie Sanders shines
Bernie Sanders is a strident ideologue with immovable convictions that defy conventional Democratic thinking and haven't changed in more than half a century. When it comes to foreign policy, however, he may be exactly what we need.
I am no fan of Sanders' domestic policy agenda, which shows an undue faith in the wisdom and competence of the federal government to reshape our economic lives. But his approach to international affairs indicates a humility and restraint that has long been absent from the halls of power.
Foreign policy is probably the most important consideration in choosing a president because it is the realm in which he or she exercises the greatest control. Though Sanders may champion "Medicare for All" and punitive wealth taxes, he can't bring them about without persuading Congress -- which is unlikely. If he decides to withdraw from Afghanistan or reenter the Iran nuclear deal, by contrast, no one will stop him.
Nevertheless, the Democratic contenders have spent little time discussing America's proper role in the world, and the people they're appealing to don't care. A September FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll of Democratic voters asked them to name the issues they regard as most important, and foreign policy came in 15th on the list.
Given Donald Trump's alienation of our traditional allies, embrace of our traditional foes and general disdain for our traditional formulas, a return to the old ways may sound sensible. But his approach has been erratic and irresponsible. And even Barack Obama showed the dangers of being too cautious in breaking with the past.
He did reject some bad ideas, such as sending lethal military aid to Ukraine and establishing a no-fly zone in Syria. But he continued the war in Afghanistan and greatly expanded the use of drone strikes in places like Somalia and Yemen, without congressional authorization.
Obama intervened in Libya, with consequences that he later admitted were "a mess." Though Obama mocked the "Washington playbook," he never threw it out. Most of the Democratic candidates sound as though they would generally follow his centrist example.
Sanders, it's safe to predict, would not. As a House member, he had the insight and nerve to vote against the Iraq War -- even as Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and John Edwards were voting for it.
He is hardly alone in favoring the revival of the nuclear deal with Iran, but other candidates are less committed than he is. Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg would reenter only on if Iran first resumes compliance with its obligations.
Not Sanders. He told the Council on Foreign Relations, "I would re-enter the agreement on day one of my presidency." Others support pulling combat troops out of Afghanistan but leaving some forces in place. Sanders says he would withdraw, period.