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Progressives like LA Progressive editor Dick Price have indicated many domestic reasons why progressives prefer Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton. A recent New York Times editorial also emphasizes his domestic stances but concedes that “Mrs. Clinton outflanks him on both knowledge and practice of foreign policy.” This essay, however, will argue that we voters should pay more attention to Sanders’ dovish approach to foreign policy, as contrasted to the more hawkish and belligerent positions of Clinton and Trump. As president, he would be less likely than Clinton or Trump to involve us in foreign entanglements that would cause more human and economic pain and divert attention and resources from important domestic problems.

Before making this case, however, it must be acknowledged that as a former secretary of state, Clinton has far more foreign-policy experience and knowledge than Sanders. Moreover, such experience is significant, but it does not necessarily make her more qualified.

Where Sanders has a great advantage over her is that he is less hawkish, less inclined to pursue foolish policies that are extremely costly, both in human lives and financially. In short, he exercises better judgment. Two prime examples come readily to mind where his stances have opposed Clinton’s: his opposition to NATO expansion and his voting, as a congressman in 2002, against authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq.

Where Bernie has a great advantage over Hillary is that he is less hawkish, less inclined to pursue foolish policies that are extremely costly, both in human lives and financially.

First, let’s examine the two candidates’ differences on NATO expansion. While Sanders has consistently opposed it, both Bill and Hillary Clinton have encouraged it. On the House floor in 1997 Congressman Sanders cited Lawrence Eagleburger, who briefly served the senior President Bush as secretary of state: “If we ever think of bringing the Baltic countries into NATO we ought to have our heads examined.” Sanders believed it would be unnecessarily provocative towards Russia to bring Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all former Soviet republics and bordering on Russia, into NATO. He also objected to the cost of such expansion for U.S. taxpayers. Nevertheless in 2004, with U.S. backing, the three Baltic countries joined the organization.

In 2008 Senator Clinton co-sponsored 2008-SR439, which encouraged NATO membership for two other former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia, and she continues to believe that NATO’s doors should remain open to that possibility. A Sanders web site makes it clear that he continues to think of such expansion as “an unnecessary provocation of Russia.” In a November 2015 speech at Georgetown University Sanders went even further, suggesting that to combat terrorism a new NATO-like organization be formed that would include Russia.

On the whole issue of NATO expansion, especially on the question of including former Soviet republics, various government officials and diplomats in both Republican and Democratic administrations have joined Eagleburger in questioning its wisdom.

Already back in the 1990s, the author of Truman’s Soviet Containment Policy and one of America’s most prestigious experts on Russia and diplomacy, George Kennan, declared NATO enlargement a "strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions."

More recently, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in his book Duty (2014): “Moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union [in 1991] to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching. . . . Were the Europeans, much less the Americans, willing to send their sons and daughters to defend Ukraine or Georgia? Hardly. So NATO expansion was a political act, not a carefully considered military commitment, thus undermining the purpose of the alliance and recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”

In May 2014, Jack Matlock, a former ambassador to Russia appointed by President Reagan, made this comment when asked about Putin’s concern with NATO expansion: “I think that is and has been Putin's main concern, and I think that's why he took Crimea. You know, one of the problems when we started expanding NATO in the way we did is that if we weren't prepared to stop at a certain point, which had to be Ukraine and, I would add, Georgia, this was going to create a very strong reaction from Russia, whoever the leader of Russia was. And I think it was quite irresponsible, the talk that we had in around 2007, 2008, of bringing Ukraine into NATO, and the fact that the Ukrainian governments were not willing to sort of pledge neutrality. . . . I think this has been probably the crucial issue.”

Also in 2014, Henry Kissinger (secretary of state under Nixon and Ford) wrote that “Ukraine should not join NATO,” and that “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.”

Thus, on the question of any future NATO expansion, these four former officials seem closer to Sanders’ position than that of Clinton. And three of them were appointed by Republican presidents and were considered more hawkish than dovish.

Wariness about NATO expansion to include some former Soviet republics does not preclude sympathy for them or a belief in their right to independence from any Russian imperialistic behavior. But such sympathy and the wisdom of including them in NATO are two different things. One U. S. scholar has asked how we would respond if Russia included Mexico and Canada in its alliance system.

Turning to the 2002 Joint Congressional Resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq, it is famously known that Hillary Clinton supported it. Running against her in the Democratic primaries in 2008, Barack Obama often pointed out that in contrast to Clinton in 2002 he had spoken out vigorously against invading Iraq. Although it is true that Obama was not yet in the U.S. Senate and that the resolution was more nuanced than critics of it sometimes acknowledged, nevertheless the different positions of Clinton and Obama on attacking Iraq indicate that Obama’s stance was the wiser one. Like Obama, Sanders in 2002 (then in the House of Representatives) also displayed more political wisdom than Clinton.

In his speech to his House colleagues, Sanders stated that “the question . . . is not whether we like Saddam Hussein or not. The question is whether he represents an imminent threat to the American people and whether a unilateral invasion of Iraq will do more harm than good.”

In his speech to his House colleagues, Sanders stated that “the question . . . is not whether we like Saddam Hussein or not. The question is whether he represents an imminent threat to the American people and whether a unilateral invasion of Iraq will do more harm than good.” Sanders also thought it was foolish “to go forward without the support of the United Nations and our major allies.” And he believed a war in Iraq would divert national attention away from “most pressing economic issues affecting the well-being of ordinary Americans.” In concluding, he provided five prescient reasons why he “opposed to giving the President a blank check to launch a unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq.”

  • “As a caring Nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause. War must be the last recourse in international relations, not the first.”
  • He was “deeply concerned about the precedent that a unilateral invasion of Iraqcould establish in terms of international law and the role of the United Nations.”
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  • As Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security adviser to President Bush, Sr. stated, “An attack on Iraqat this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.''
  • “At a time when this country has a $6 trillion national debt and a growing deficit, we should be clear that a war and a long-term American occupation of Iraqcould be extremely expensive.”
  • How about “unintended consequences” such as, “Who will govern Iraqwhen Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in . . . a civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority be exacerbated?”

In April 2016, Sanders’ comments about Clinton’s qualifications for the presidency aroused considerable controversy. “She may have the experience to be president of the United States. No one can argue that," he said, "But in terms of her judgment, something is clearly lacking.” If her continuing support for NATO expansion and her 2002 authorization vote for invading Iraq were the only cases of poor judgment, his statement might be more debatable, but in the realm of foreign policy the former secretary of state has time and again displayed an unwise hawkish bent.

In his just published Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power, Mark Landler states that “Clinton is much more hawkish than Obama” and that she “played the house hawk in Obama’s war cabinet.” (See a long adapted excerpt of book here.) In “A Hawk Named Hillary, Anatol Lieven, co-author of the valuable Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (2006), indicates why her hawkishness is so detrimental to U.S. interests. Another perceptive foreign-policy expert (and military historian), Andrew Bacevich, agrees that “Clinton is an unreconstructed hawk,” likely to repeat past U.S. foreign policy mistakes.

Bacevich also makes some relevant comments on Trump’s approach to other countries: “When it comes to foreign policy, his instincts are those of a nationalist. He is an America Firster, inclined to see the outside world as filled with scheming foreigners intent on taking advantage of the United States and sticking Americans with the tab.” (See here for Trump’s major speech on foreign policy.)

One of the scariest remarks Trump has made on foreign policy is his response about whom he would consult on foreign affairs: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things. I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”

The remark is scary because of the truth in conservative David Brooks’ observation that “he has no realistic policies, no advisers, no capacity to learn. His vast narcissism makes him a closed fortress. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know and he’s uninterested in finding out. He insults the office Abraham Lincoln once occupied by running for it with less preparation than most of us would undertake to buy a sofa.”

Is it any wonder that many foreign leaders have also expressed grave doubts about Trump’s adequacy for the position he now seeks?

A few months ago Bacevich thought that Sanders’ foreign policy positions were underdeveloped; and the senator’s answers to a New York Daily News interview in April were not fully satisfying. In general, it is true that he has not placed much emphasis on foreign policy. Yet if one looks at his official position and other statements on foreign issues, they are sound enough, much less hawkish than those of Clinton, and much more coherent and consistent than Trump’s. At times on specific issues, for example with his insistence on Palestinian rights (as well as legitimate Israeli security needs) and on climate change as a major national security threat, he is especially more perceptive than his rivals.

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Most recently Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, criticized the policies of both Trump and Clinton regarding other nations, and suggested that “as Sanders enters the final weeks of the campaign and heads to the Democratic convention,” he should develop more his foreign-policy ideas and “expand his challenge to the failed foreign policy of the establishment and add it to his indictment of our corrupted politics and rigged economy.”

Bacevich believes that Sanders could segue nicely from his usual emphasis on domestic matters to foreign policy issues by pointing out that “the misappropriation of resources for misguided wars produces economic and social distortions that contribute directly to inequality and injustice at home. Redressing the latter, he might argue, requires first ending the former. Providing the Pentagon with the wherewithal to keep America safe need not take precedence over providing Americans with health care, education and jobs paying a decent wage.”


Vanden Heuvel and Bacevich are both correct that it would be smart for Sanders to spell out his foreign policy thinking in more detail and link it to his domestic priorities. The old “guns-or butter” truism remains relevant: the more we spend on foreign wars and misguided interventions the less we have to spend on the priorities Sanders has emphasized such as fighting poverty, improving healthcare, and providing more educational opportunities. Sanders has the potential to develop a more creative and imaginative foreign policy than either Clinton or Trump. The month before the California primary is an opportune time to do so, as well as explain how it is tied to his proposed domestic policies and why it would benefit Americans more than his rivals’ ideas.

walter moss

Walter Moss

If by November Clinton and Trump end up being our only realistic choices, I’ll vote for Clinton. But I’ll continue to urge my fellow progressives to advocate a foreign policy much less hawkish than Hillary’s past one.

Walter Moss