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2020 Presidential Candidates’ National Security Credentials: Bernie Sanders

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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security

(Second in a series of profiles of Democratic Party presidential candidates)

So far in the 2020 presidential campaign, national security has been relegated to second-tier status. That has been the case since the end of the Cold War. Each aspirant for the White House since then has campaigned on a domestic policy platform. But, once elected, he was forced by circumstance to address a variety of foreign policy challenges.

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Now whoever is elected in 2020 will no doubt be dealing with global issues.

As the presidential election campaign moves forward, we have begun a series of articles assessing the credentials and polices of the Democratic candidates. This week we will examine the national security vision of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The Credentials of Senator Bernie Sanders

Sanders is listed as an independent, caucuses with the Democrats and labels himself a Democratic Socialist. He has been in the Senate since 2007, after 16 years in the House of Representatives. Before that he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

Currently Sanders serves on the Senate committees on environmental and public works; energy and natural resources; health, education, labor and pensions; budget; and veterans affairs. He has no committee assignments involving national security.

Of all the candidates running for president, Sanders is the primary advocate of a progressive national security strategy: He wants to build “a global democratic movement to counter authoritarianism.” He also advocates an international movement that focuses on the United States, working through the United Nations, to strengthen “democracy, egalitarianism, economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”

The Challenges of Working through the United Nations

Critics say his strategy of working through the UN would be problematic because Russia and China have veto power as two of the five permanent Security Council members. A veto by any one of the five could kill whatever a Sanders administration would try to pursue.

How would he then implement his polices? Would he go outside the United Nations, something he criticized the Bush and Trump administrations of doing?

This new movement articulated by Sanders would focus his administration on working through the various international institutions by which law, not might, would make right.

Opponents of this progressive approach to national security question how Sanders would deal with China and its repeated violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules regarding the theft of intellectual property, forced technology transfer, and currency manipulation. These are conditions that Beijing agreed to adhere to but hasn’t. Moreover, the WTO has failed to punish China since it joined the organization in 2001.

Sanders believes that many of the world’s problems are the byproduct of decades of an economic status quo. His administration would recalibrate our economic policy to assist ordinary people in the United States and around the globe.

Sanders Pushes Climate Change as a National Security Strategy

The other issues that Sanders advocates are the fight to reverse climate change, which would be the center of his national security strategy, also substantially reduce America’s defense spending and reallocate those resources to fighting poverty.

Sanders’ critics wonder how Russia, China and Iran would respond to America substantially reducing its defense posture again. The U.S. reduced military spending during the Obama presidency and those three nations exploited the void left by the United States.

In June, Sanders published an op-ed in Foreign Affairs that outlined his global vision. “My administration will not make critical foreign-policy decisions like this one via tweet, as our current president does. We will work closely with our partners and allies to design a serious diplomatic and political strategy to stabilize the region, promote more effective and accountable governance, and ensure that threats do not re-emerge after we leave.”

Sanders continues that “The war on terror has come with huge opportunity costs as well—things we haven’t been able to do because we were mired in costly overseas conflicts. Competitors like China and Russia have exploited our forever wars to expand their economic and political influence around the world.”

Sanders Agrees with Democratic Rivals to End Our Endless Wars

The main argument for most of the Democratic contenders for president is to end the endless wars throughout the Middle East. Sanders’ campaign website highlights that very fact.

The question remains what would a Sanders’ counterterrorism strategy look like or how would a President Sanders deal with an aggressive Russia and China? By removing U.S. forces from the Middle East — especially in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — how would that not replicate President Obama’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Iraq? That decision eventually led to the rise of ISIS.

Like Other Democratic Challengers, Sanders Is Vague on Details

But Sanders, like the rest of the Democratic candidates, has been vague on the details. He has stated that he wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement and begin a dialogue with Tehran on that issue and a host of others.

Critics wonder if a Sanders administration rejoins the Iran nuclear agreement would that mean he will lift all of the Trump administration’s sanctions on Tehran?  If this is the case, how would Sanders prevent Iran from utilizing its new revenue stream to fund its proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen?

Sanders’ opponents point out this is exactly what transpired after the Iran nuclear agreement was signed.

There are other related national security issues that he has either not addressed or been vague about their details. Like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sanders’ campaign website devotes attention to domestic policy, but scant information on national security.

Sanders so far has not mentioned how he would respond to these challenges. Perhaps he will be forced to do so in the next Democratic debate set for September 12 in Houston, Texas.

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