North Africa, West Asia

Could Middle East policy be Sanders' biggest strength against Trump for 2020?

What would a Sanders presidency mean for those who have long suffered due to American interventionism in the Middle East?

Carly A. Krakow
27 March 2019
Senator Bernie Sanders holds a presidential rally at Fort Mason in San Francisco, California, United States on March 24, 2019.
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Picture by Yichuan Cao/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Sanders’ policies regarding Yemen and Palestine position him as uniquely suited to combat Trump’s violent brand of exceptionalism, but what would a Sanders presidency mean for those who have long suffered due to American interventionism in the Middle East?

In the 2016 US presidential election, Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy, or alleged lack thereof, was portrayed as his Achilles heel. But a closer look at the Senator’s actions, specifically regarding the Middle East, reveals that Sanders’ views on foreign affairs are key to setting him apart from many of his Democratic competitors. This approach is exactly what is needed to position Sanders as the ideal candidate to take on Trump in 2020.

What could a Sanders presidency mean for Yemenis, Palestinians, and others who have long suffered due to foreign policies steered by American exceptionalism and interventionism?

Sanders’ views are definitely not centrist or American mainstream. But, as the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé put it during a question and answer session at the University of Cambridge in February 2017, they’re also not as radical as some would hope when it comes to countries in the Middle East. As Pappé said, “There’s something very sad in the fact that … 70 years after the Nakba [expulsion of Palestinians in 1948], [Sanders’ comments were] hailed by all of us … ‘Did you hear Bernie Sanders?… Palestinians are human beings?! An American candidate for American President says the Palestinians are human beings! Thank God I lived to see this moment!’”

Pappé has critiqued Sanders’ tendency to follow in the US liberal tradition of “Progressive Except On Palestine,” and suggests that Sanders may not reform the US-Israel relationship as drastically as many would hope. Sanders has stood up firmly for Palestinian human rights, but also has frustrated many advocates with his opposition to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS).

However, Sanders’ actions since the 2016 election, notably his recent resolution to end US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen (which has passed in the Senate, but must now make its way through the House) have given us more hope for his progressivism on Middle East policy than Professor Pappé’s 2017 depiction allows.

Many Arab American activists who support Palestinian rights have already announced their support for Bernie 2020, partly because of his leadership when it comes to condemning Israeli military brutality in Gaza. Sanders also opposed a bill to enable states to penalize businesses and individuals that boycott Israel, on the grounds that it would violate Americans’ First Amendment right to boycott—a constitutional right whether the subject of boycott is Israel, any other nation, or a business. Most recently Sanders signed on to a pledge to end the “forever wars” raging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Niger, Somalia, and Thailand.

Nevertheless, Pappé’s point about the American political context is well taken. Mainstream US politics, particularly regarding the Middle East above all else, has moved so far to the right that even the most middle of the road views that would be deemed centrist in many non-US contexts are pegged as radical or extreme socialist in the US.

Unquestioning support for Israel has been ingrained into large portions of the American electorate, an issue I encountered firsthand when campaigning for Sanders in 2016. Four days before the 2016 New York Democratic Primary, on a cloudy April afternoon, I stood in Union Square Park with a pile of “Bernie 2016” flyers in tow, canvassing commuters and others passing through the park, trying to convince them to vote for Senator Sanders for president. Many of the people my fellow volunteers and I encountered were enthusiastic (“We’re already with you!”), some were politely ambivalent or less politely skeptical (“But does he really have a chance?”), and others, such as a pair of high school students, were equal parts passionate and frustrated (“God, I wish I could just f*cking vote in this election”). Some, however, were not so cordial. After a brief lull in activity, a woman who looked to be in her 80s walked by my spot in the southeast corner of the park.

“Hi!”, I said. “Are you voting in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary?”

“Yes.”

“I would like to talk to you about why Bernie Sanders is the best candidate.”

“I can’t vote for him, because of Israel. Haven’t you heard what he said?!”

She looked at me with what I initially saw as cautious, or possibly even sympathetic, eyes. Eyes that suggested (patronizingly, but surely not maliciously) that a nice young person like me must simply not have heard the scandalous views Bernie was espousing concerning the Middle East. Otherwise, what was I doing there?

I replied. “I’m glad you bring that up. Senator Sanders’ stance regarding Israel is actually one of the key reasons I support him, and I think he’s the only candidate who has a vision that could bring peace to the region.” (Normally I avoid jargon along the lines of “bring peace to the Middle East,” but I was trying to meet my audience halfway and at least open a dialogue in the limited time available.)

“But he supports … supports … those Palestinians.”

“I know. I think his balanced vision is exactly what our country needs right now. A step forward.”

Poo-ey!”, she exclaimed. Her once hesitant eyes narrowed aggressively.

And then she spat at me.

Now, I would not want to over-dramatize the situation. She did not spit directly at my face, but she did spit in my direction. Most of the spit ended up on my right shoe, or on the ground.

Without going so far as to universalize an encounter with one very angry Manhattanite, the experience appears emblematic of much of the critique and skepticism Sanders faced in 2016. He is likely to confront attacks on his foreign policy approach again, though in a modified form this time around, given how Trump has altered the political climate and many Democrats have picked up Sanders’ formerly ‘too left’ policies. Foreign policy was an aspect of Sanders’ campaign that was attacked in 2016 not just by spitting park-goers, but by the media and the Democratic party, which had of course decided to support Hillary Clinton long before a democratic primary process was carried out.

Sanders’ progressive stances regarding foreign policy are exactly what we need, and he has made strategic efforts since 2016 to showcase his foreign policy abilities. In addition to the long overdue Senate resolution to end US support for the war in Yemen, he is the only Democratic candidate running so far who has lead the way to at least recognize Palestinian human rights and the Palestinian right to self-determination. Sanders spearheaded Medicare for All, once deemed an outrageous approach but now supported by all the Democratic frontrunners, a signature Sanders domestic project that has the potential to pull the US out of its low position in global healthcare rankings.

He would finally take desperately needed action on the climate crisis, and he seeks to bring the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement. Sanders also wants to go beyond the agreement, which he argues “goes nowhere near far enough,” a key issue given how Global South countries are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Stress on water resources in the Middle East will be worsened by climate change as well. Domestically, he is committed to addressing the numerous other environmental injustices plaguing millions of Americans, from lead poisoning water crises in places like Flint, Michigan to addressing air pollution.

Sanders has said he wants to undo the damage Trump has done with the Iran nuclear agreement, and he wants to end unconscionable human rights abuses being carried out against border crossers at the US-Mexico border.

It remains to be seen how much leeway a President Sanders would have to truly shift decades of destructive US policies towards the Middle East. After all, even an unprecedentedly progressive president cannot alone undo an entire history of neoconservatism or immediately dismantle structurally entrenched biases.

But Sanders’ actions with Yemen, and Israel and Palestine, suggest that he does offer more than mere promises, and is capable of avoiding the mistake of viewing Arab and Muslim countries as a monolithic bloc.

The Senate resolution on Yemen was written by Sanders and Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah. Seven Republican Senators supported the resolution. The resolution invoked the 1973 War Powers Act, established at the end of the Vietnam War to reaffirm Congress’ constitutional right to decide when the US can enter into war.

The brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 has raised the profile of Yemenis’ immense suffering, but the Saudi-led coalition has been waging war in Yemen since 2015. Khashoggi’s murder has emerged as an internationally condemnable red line from which the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is facing great difficulty walking back. It should not have taken the murder of a prominent Washington Post journalist, however, for the western media to finally begin to give Yemen the attention it requires.

Over 20 million Yemenis are food insecure and 7.4 million are starving. An estimated 85,000 children have already been killed by starvation. 10,000 people are newly diagnosed with cholera every week. Approximately 17.8 million people require assistance to access safe drinking water and sanitation. Attacks on civilians are rampant, including an August 2018 attack on a school bus, in which a US-made bomb killed 40 children.

Families are forced to choose between using whatever money they have left to save one starving child by taking him or her to a hospital, or using the same money to feed their other children.

Of all the Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders has the longest and strongest track record of challenging unjust abuses of power, such as in Yemen. He had made clear that he remains committed to this approach domestically, such as when speaking bluntly about the unjustified authority held by billionaires, demonstrated recently through his comments regarding former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s promise not to run for president only if a moderate Democrat is nominated. With signature Sanders sarcasm reserved for taking on the elite and the corrupt, he retorted, “Ohhh, isn’t that nice? Why is Howard Schultz on every television station? Why are you quoting Schultz? Because he’s a billionaire.”

While Trump protects his ally Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, actively denying the Prince’s role in the Khashoggi murder and threatening to veto congressional efforts to end US support for the brutalities in Yemen, Sanders had made clear that he will not be bought or intimidated by despots domestic or foreign.

Trump, of course, has a great affinity for cozying up to dictators. Remember the ‘handshake scandal’ when he wouldn’t shake Angela Merkel’s hand, but embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt? It is well known by now that Trump might as well post a sign on the Oval Office door: “For ‘privilege’ of a Trump handshake: must be male/human rights violator/destructive dictator. Women, democratically-elected leaders, and those with diplomacy skills need not apply!”.

The same man who destroyed the Iran nuclear deal is hell-bent on selling nuclear energy to the Saudis right now, according to a report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform. This of course raises concerns that Trump is enabling the production of Saudi nuclear weapons, but distinct from that concern, the fact that Trump is fixated on intensifying US economic embedment with Saudi Arabia is cause for alarm in and of itself.

Bernie Sanders is the candidate most likely to stand up to Saudi Arabia, deviating from the long status quo of delivering the Saudis a “blank check to continue violating human rights,” as Sanders puts it.

And of course Trump’s love affair with Benjamin Netanyahu, another right wing authoritarian ruler, is not news. Trump’s decisions to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, withdraw from institutions such as UNESCO and the UN Human Rights Council because of alleged anti-Israel bias, de-fund the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and close the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, DC have emboldened the Israeli right and correlate with uninhibited, potentially unprecedented illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank. Trump persists with dogged support for Netanyahu, even as the UN declares that war crimes were likely committed in Gaza in 2018 and it appears that Netanyahu will be indicted imminently on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

Of all the candidates, Sanders’ foreign policy most strongly counters Trump’s toxic, extreme brands of nationalism and exceptionalism both ideologically and in practice. Sanders’ record also most aggressively counters decades of violent US exceptionalism that long predates Trump, particularly regarding Israel and Palestine. As Sanders noted in his recent comments defending Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s critique of AIPAC, the highly influential pro-Israel lobbying group, we cannot “equate anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel.”

This does not mean that a Sanders presidency would enable activists to become any less vigilant when challenging problematic policies that extend far beyond the Oval Office, or that a Sanders White House would not need consistent pressure to do the complex and difficult work required to enact policies that sincerely consider the interests of civilians in places such as Yemen and Palestine. But Sanders, more than any of the other candidates, would give a leg up, policy-wise, to those committed to advocating for genuine respect of human rights in the Middle East and beyond.

For all those would-be spitters out there (whether literal spitters or just the metaphorical kind lurking antagonistically on Twitter) who question Sanders’ foreign policy chops, I implore you to look again.

There are other worthy competitors for the Democratic nomination in the race this time around, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren. But no one has the history or strength of record, or commitment to citizen-driven change, when it comes to defending justice like Sanders. No one else promises to take the lead on issues, rather than passively toe the line while waiting for shifts in collective party policy. (Warren has recently followed Sanders’ lead by condemning Israel’s use of deadly force in Gaza in 2018, but has so far avoided taking the lead with any further criticism of Israeli policies. Warren’s views on Gaza are a big shift from her historically pro-Israel stance, and may be more reflective of adaptation to a changing Democratic party than of a long-term commitment to Palestinian human rights. Warren’s economic approach, and self-positioning as a proponent of capitalism, reveal further distinctions between her and Sanders.)

Sanders is precisely the antidote to Trump that we need. Remember when Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton’s embrace of Henry Kissinger, and declared Kissinger “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country” for decisions that facilitated genocide in Cambodia? We can expect more of this boldness—defying injustice and challenging unlawful brutality that is far too often accepted as the status quo—from Bernie Sanders.

Overthrowing Trump needs to be the top priority for 2020. But if you’re just as concerned about undoing Trump’s damage when it comes to foreign policy as domestic, particularly regarding the Middle East, Bernie Sanders is the place to start. I look forward to rigorous debates on this point in the months ahead. Just, no spitting, please.

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