A Response to Riad Azar on Sanders' Foreign Policy

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I find it odd that my friend and fellow New Politics board member Riad Azar should center his criticism of Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy on Sanders’ supposed “irresponsible” “isolationism.” 

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It seems to me that a critique of Bernie’s foreign policy should begin by criticizing him for voting for the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution that paved the way for U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, and for refusing to unequivocally condemn Israel’s shameful 2014 war on the people of Gaza. These positions might or might not be sufficient to preclude support for Bernie if he or someone like him ran as an independent — to my mind that would depend on the overall dynamic and trajectory of the campaign — but in any case they represent Bernie’s deep failure to consistently break with U.S. global imperialism and Israeli repression, and should form the central part of a critical assessment of his foreign policy stance.

Riad writes, “Pulling out of the Middle East and leaving the ‘Muslim nations,’ as Sanders calls them, to go through their own version of the European Reformation is as irresponsible as it is inaccurate. Even if the United States were to completely withdraw from the Muslim world, US support for sub-imperialist powers in the Muslim world is enough to make us responsible for what happens there in the future. In other words, one cannot plan to withdraw from the region while continuing support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Pakistan, and hold the belief that the support of these nations does not amount to interference.”

What is Riad driving at here? Of course progressives should demand that the U.S. embrace a consistent, democratic, non-militaristic foreign policy committed to social justice everywhere, and that it stop supporting Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan in the face of their violent anti-democratic actions. But does Riad think it would be a negative development if American popular opinion, crystallized by anti-war activists, were to succeed in pressuring Washington to end its military interventions in the Middle East if the underlying imperial nature of U.S. foreign policy has not yet been successfully dismantled? Riad seems to imply it would be meaningless, and perhaps dangerous, when he writes “Retraction from the Muslim world without a critique and reevaluation of these relationships and alliances is useless.” This is a strange sort of purism, suggesting that if the left doesn’t gain an immediate total, comprehensive victory against U.S. empire, its success in forcing Washington to retreat from specific military ventures should not be supported and celebrated. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: whenever we succeed in forcing the U.S. not to intervene militarily in one country or another, it removes one (though certainly not the only) major obstacle to the emergence and victory of grassroots democratic movements in those countries, and it strengthens the anti-war movement here at home for future and broader domestic and foreign policy battles.

So yes, Bernie should be criticized for his failure to advocate a fundamentally new U.S. foreign policy, but he shouldn’t be condemned as an irresponsible isolationist for the steps he has taken to oppose US military intervention, such as his opposition to the war on Iraq.

*Joanne Landy is Co-Director of the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and a member of the New Politics editorial board.

About Author
Joanne Landy

JOANNE LANDY is the former Executive Director of the New York Metro Chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program and a member of the New Politics editorial board. DR. OLIVER FEIN, M.D. is a practicing general internist, and Professor of Clinical Medicine and Clinical Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College. He is also the Chair of the NY Metro Chapter of PNHP and President-Elect of National PNHP.

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4 comments on “A Response to Riad Azar on Sanders' Foreign Policy
  1. Jason A. Schulman says:

    Just for the record

    Simply for accuracy’s sake…

    Though I can’t find his statement online anymore, below is Sanders’ full statement on Israel and Gaza from his Senate site, probably written last year: “Sen. Sanders is deeply troubled by the outbreak of violence in Gaza. It is extraordinarily depressing that year after year, decade after decade, the wars and killing continue without any apparent progress toward the creation of a permanent peace. While the summer of 2014 was a particularly contentious time in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Sen. Sanders’ hope is that the United States will, in the future, help play a leading role in creating a permanent two-state solution. To achieve that outcome the U.S. must work with the international community to support a settlement that respects the legitimate claims and grievances of both sides, lifts the blockade of Gaza, resolves the borders of the West Bank, and allows both the Israeli and Palestinian people to live in peace.

    The bottom line is that Israel must have the right to exist in peace and security, just as the Palestinians must have the right to a homeland in which they and they alone control their political system and their economy.

    Sanders believes the Israeli attacks that killed hundreds of innocent people – including many women and children – in bombings of civilian neighborhoods and UN controlled schools, hospitals, and refugee camps were disproportionate, and the widespread killing of civilians is completely unacceptable. Israel’s actions took an enormous human toll, and appeared to strengthen support for Hamas and may well be sowing the seeds for even more hatred, war and destruction in future years.

    The U.S. can and must play a more constructive role in promoting diplomatic efforts to achieve a lasting peace in Gaza. Sen. Sanders believes the ceasefire agreement that was reached is an important step in the right direction. He believes strict adherence, by all sides, to the tenets of international humanitarian law is necessary in order to avoid the escalation of this conflict.”

    Purely FYI.

  2. Michael Eisenscher says:

    Debating Bernie's foreign policy

    I appear to have been introduced to this debate mid-stream, so I apologize if someone has already made this observation.

    Bernie Sanders has a foreign policy record. It includes early opposition to the Iraq War and a number of other progressive votes, as well as some that could not be considered progressive. But a record is not a policy.

    My criticism is that Bernie Sanders has yet to enunciate his foreign policy positions. He simply does not talk about it, and when pressed – for example by Bill Maher on the US military role in Iraq and Syria – he speaks only about the need for the US to partner with other Muslim nations, who should take the lead, in fighting ISIS.

    He has yet to speak about the country’s militarized foreign policy, military spending, Pentagon waste (he voted to support the F-35 boondoggle because some part of it is built in VT), 1000 foreign military bases, Afghanistan, the use of drones, nuclear arms modernization and any number of other critical foreign policy issues.

    The president is the nation’s top foreign policy architect and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. A presidential candidate who fails to explain his/her position on critical foreign policy challenges is like a bird with one wing. It will not soar.

    That’s why USLAW launched a petition (prior to Sander’s declaration of candidacy) to all “progressive” politicians (not just candidates) – “Real progressives talk about militarism, war and military spending!” Whatever your opinion of Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy record, if you think he ought to speak out about the foreign policy he’d pursue if elected, sign the petition and get others to sign. http://diy.rootsaction.org/petitions/real-progressives-talk-about-militarism-war-and-military-spending

    • Joanne Landy says:

      I've signed the USLAW petition.

      Thanks, Michael. The USLAW petition is an important one, and I’ve signed

  3. Joanne Landy says:

    Bernie's equivocation on Gaza

    Before I wrote my comment on Riad’s piece, I looked again at the video with Bernie’s comments at a meeting with his constitutents, which is at http://www.bustle.com/articles/79871-bernie-sanders-stance-on-israel-has-caused-some-tension-for-him-in-the-past . When challenged by an audience member about the murderous war on Gaza, Sanders allowed as how Israel had “over-reacted” and was wrong to have bombed UN facilities, but, he quickly added “On the other hand” Hamas was firing rockets from populated areas — skipping over Israel’s longtime criminal, brutal treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank that led Palestinians to take such measures.

    You will notice that the Sanders statement you quote above still doesn’t condemn the Israeli occupation,and seems to equate the transgressions of “all sides” in the conflict (even though he admits that in the specific 2014 conflict Israel’s response was “disproportionate,”), calling on them all to adhere “to the tenets of international humanitarian law.” I’m sure you would agree that this stance doesn’t capture the moral reality.