While Sanders may not necessarily be of the school of thought which holds that “small is beautiful”, he has also expressed a preference for the Scandinavian countries as models of social welfare states. The main plank on which he is running is the promise that he will work towards the reduction of glaring and still growing class inequalities, champion the rights of the working class, and arrest the decline of the middle class. In speech after speech, and in his declared “Agenda for America: 12 Steps Forward”, he has highlighted his plan to have the minimum federal wage increased from $7.25 an hour which he rightly describes as “starvation wage” to a “livable wage”, strengthen the hands of trade unions, introduce gender pay equity, make collage affordable to all, and “take on Wall Street”. Sanders argues, quite reasonably, that a majority of Americans agree share his aspirations, but he must know that agreement on these objectives does not correspond with agreement on the precise measures that might be taken to make his agenda a reality. “Our country belongs to all our people and not just a handful of billionaires”, he told an audience in Minneapolis in late May, and around the same time, and while deploring the “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in the US” at a press meeting, he called for a “political revolution in this country.“ Even elements of this rhetoric are shared by others, such as those activists who instigated Occupy Wall Street and the subsequent Occupy movement. Where Sanders has certainly gone beyond other politicians, and almost certainly the great majority of Americans, is in in his analysis of the undeclared class warfare that the “wealthiest and most powerful people” in the country have been waging “against working families, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country. The billionaires of America are on the warpath. They want more and more and more.” On conservative late-night TV shows, and elsewhere in the US, all of this is evidence writ large of Sanders’ “communist” credentials.
If domestic policy appears to be Sanders’ main strength, notwithstanding his ambivalence on the issue of gun control, he is hardly exceptional among American presidential candidates. One of the stories that was widely circulated at the time of George W. Bush’s successful campaign for the first of his two terms as President stated that at that time he did not hold a US passport: apparently the only two countries he had ever visited were Canada and Mexico, both of which are countries that Americans were long accustomed to treating as their own backyard. That the story is most likely apocryphal is less interesting than what it suggests about the insularity of American politicians and their ignorance about the rest of the world. But many Americans, even as they recognize and applaud the unique place that the US continues to occupy in global politics and the world economy, maintain that a candidate’s foreign policy credentials are much less important than the candidate’s ability to speak to the American people about issues—the availability of jobs, stagnant wages, the future of Social Security, immigration reform—that appear to be more central to their well-being and the prosperity of American families and communities. If Sanders’ foreign policy prescriptions have shortcomings, it is not clear that these would be much of a liability for him.
Nevertheless, it is important to probe briefly Sanders’ positions on US foreign policy, more particularly since they might help reveal whether there is anything that marks him as someone who might help dim the long-burning flame of American hubris or even distinguishes him from the incumbent in his grasp of geopolitics. Two examples will suffice. On the vexed question of the “Iran Deal”, which Republicans, with unstinting support from the state of Israel and American Zionists, attempted to scuttle with one of the most relentless political campaigns in recent memory, Sanders came out in full support of President Obama. He has described the deal as a victory “for diplomacy over saber-rattling”, and more generally his agreement with Obama’s disposition to negotiate political solutions is signified by his remark that “diplomatic relations, even with adversarial countries, are integral to long term security.”
Considering that the American political landscape is extremely permissive of individuals such as the former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who unambiguously called for the bombing of Iran in the New York Times, Sanders may at least be applauded for his reasoned views and his faith in diplomacy. In April 2015, however, Sanders affirmed a view that is the bedrock of American politics with respect to its long-time nemesis in the Middle East: “It is imperative that Iran not get a nuclear weapon.” One can understand that to advocate a position even remotely at odds with this view is to banish oneself into political oblivion in the US. While Sanders obviously supports nuclear nonproliferation, he has not called for universal nuclear disarmament. The supposition here, which Sanders shares with everyone else across the American political spectrum, is that a so-called “rogue state” must be denied the nuclear option, though evidently one must not have any qualms about the US, the only state to have deployed the atomic bomb, continuing to exercise a role as the world’s supreme guardian. Not only that, Sanders’ policy on Iran offers no acknowledgement of the catastrophic role played by the US in instigating the 1953 coup that led to the removal of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh. The implication here is obvious: unless one is simply going to swallow the received opinion in the US, which holds that the Ayattolahs are fanatics who do not follow the language of reason, and that Iran took a terrible turn with the Islamic Revolution, then it becomes imperative to understand that the origins of the present hostility between the two nations are based in neo-colonial designs by the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1950s to topple an established government that was inimical to the Anglo-American oil industries and critical of capitalism’s obliviousness to social welfare policies.
Thus far, as we have seen, Sanders’ foreign policy is unexceptionally predictable, scarcely signaling any departure from staid assumptions about American exceptionalism. Liberals point out that he was opposed to the invasion and then occupation of Iraq, but this measure of sanity on his part says little about Sanders and much more about the jingoism and lunacy that are pervasive in the American public sphere. His supporters at freethebern.org allege that his Jewish identity has not predisposed him towards favoring Israel in the conflict with Palestinians. Sanders is described as advocating a two-state solution that would permit Israel security and furnish Palestinians with their own state, though on the specifics of such a state which, as some critics have noted, would be an exceedingly truncated piece of land with no lifeline of its own, he has had nothing to say. He was admittedly the first person in the US Senate to announce his boycott of Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of the US Congress, itself a brazen attack on President Obama, and Sanders is also one of twelve US senators who refused to lend their signatures to a letter from 88 Senators, backed by the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), which warned the Palestinian leadership from undertaking any unilateral actions regarding Israel at the United Nations. If all of this suggests that Sanders may be inclined to jettison American policy towards Israel, it is worthwhile noting that the July 2014 passage in the US Senate by “unanimous consent” of Senate Resolution 498, which essentially furnished Israel with a free hand to pound and terrorize Gaza, an attack of brute force which led to more than 2000 Palestinian fatalities, shows the enormous difficult that any elected American official might have in daring to stand up to Israel. Bernie Sanders has never been an exception in this respect and there is absolutely nothing to warrant a belief to the contrary.
Sanders’ record over a lifetime points, as nothing else, to the abysmal failure of imagination that is at the heart of American politics and the constraints of a well-oiled system that brooks no significant dissent. If he sounds “radical” to many Americans, it is again no reflection on his politics but rather a commentary on the degree to which the US is an outlier with respect to the social norms which define much of the civilized world, whether the matter under consideration be restraints on gun ownership, incarceration as an institutionalized form of racial discrimination, or restraints on the national security state. It may be admirable that, much like Obama in the run-up to his campaign for the presidency in 2007-08, Sanders is relying upon tens of thousands of individual donors to finance his campaign rather than the handouts of the very rich and super Political Action Committees. But once we are past this sentimental populism, which even forbids us to ask why the American elections cannot be managed with state funds allocated in equal part to each candidate, difficult questions remain. Sanders’ foreign policy shows that the system will permit some degree of tinkering but no substantive critique is at all possible. Sanders might refuse to cower before the bully who leads Israel, but he can well afford to do so; taking a militant, or at least principled, stand on the extraordinary and pernicious influence that is exercised by AIPAC in American politics is well-nigh impossible.
Part III to follow