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Bernie Sanders drops hints of foreign policy platform

Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders greeted supporters at the Labor Day Parade on September 7.

By Kathie Obradovich Des Moines Register Political Columnist 

Senator Bernie Sanders, seeking the Democratic nomination for president, says his campaign website’s silence on foreign policy and national defense is due to growing pains.

Sanders apologized during an Sept. 3 meeting with Des Moines Register reporters and editors, when asked about the omission of a key policy area from his campaign materials.

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“One of the problems that we are having, in Iowa politically and around the country, is our support is growing faster than our political infrastructure. We are hiring people every day trying to keep up with the support that we are getting and our website reflects that as well,” he said.

Sanders said he plans a major foreign policy speech, although he did not say when that would be, and promised to talk more about foreign policy on the campaign trail.

He did drop a few bread crumbs. While he speaks passionately about the toll of war on American veterans and on the treasury, he isn’t entirely opposed to using military force. He voted against both wars against Iraq, and says history has proved him correct in terms of the destabilization of the region.

“So I think maybe that says something about judgment,” he said. “I looked at the same facts that everybody else looked at, and you had most of Congress and you had a lot of the media saying, you know, we had to get into this war. I did not believe that. I believe history will record that I was right.”

However, he voted in favor of war against Afghanistan. “It seemed to me you had a war criminal in Osama bin Laden who had committed an atrocity against the United States. He had to be held accountable. The Taliban refused to release him,” Sanders said, and so he thought the war was appropriate.

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He also voted in favor of the United States joining the NATO military action in Kosovo in 1999 “in order to minimize, or at least slow down, ethnic cleansing in that region,” he said.

Many Americans saw the Kosovo conflict as a humanitarian mission, but critics raised concerns about mission creep and the lack of a direct threat to the United States or its allies. Some of the same concerns were heard last year when President Obama decided to engage with airstrikes against ISIS in Syria after initially resisting involvement in that country’s civil war.

Sanders said he believes ISIS is a “barbaric organization” that must be defeated. But, he added, “I believe it cannot just be the United States of America alone that does these things. We have a whole world saying, hey, let America do it.”

He said he would build coalitions, and called out Saudi Arabia for not doing more to combat the ISIS threat on its border. “Saudi Arabia is a country run by a very wealthy, billionaire family that it turns out has the third largest military budget in the world,” he said, and yet it wants the United States to send ground troops against ISIS, supported by American taxpayers.

“Well, sorry. I think the United States, along with the UK, France, other countries have got to be supportive, but I would like and expect to see the effort being led by countries in the region,” he said. They are “going to have to get over their problems and fight for the soul of Islam.”

Saudi Arabia is, in fact, moving toward greater involvement against ISIS, if the recent announcement of a pending $1 billion arms deal is any indication.

Coalition building is always preferable to unilateral action. But it takes time and money to build coalitions and it could be argued that faster and more aggressive US action against ISIS back in 2013 might have saved lives and dollars. Today, there’s a frightening probability that ISIS and its sympathizers will strike in the United States if it cannot be defeated in the Middle East. Sanders needs to be clear under what circumstances he would be willing to authorize unilateral action if other countries fail to stand up with the United States.

That’s not a criticism of Sanders, unless he fails to follow through on his promise to clarify his positions on foreign policy. Most other presidential candidates have offered piecemeal foreign policy outlines based more on hindsight and situational reactions than a vision of America’s role in the world.

Sanders has made his mark in this campaign on domestic and economic policy. But there won’t be any point in even talking about his massive domestic programs if the United States becomes embroiled in another war precipitated by a 9/11 style attack. The war on income inequality is one to be fought during a time of peace.

Kathie Obradovich is The Des Moines Register’s political columnist. This column was first published
in The Des Moines Register and is part of an exchange with The Boston Globe intended to give readers an expanded view of the early presidential nomination process She can be reached at kobradov@dmreg.com
Follow her on Twitter @KObradovich.