The Candidates on Foreign Policy
“No army on earth can match the electric idea of liberty. We must once more harness that power and rally the free world to meet the challenges we face today.” — Vice President Joseph Biden
At a Glance
Vice President. Thirty-six years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, twelve as Chairman or ranking member. During his time in office, Biden has met with hundreds of world leaders and traveled to dozens of trouble spots across the globe. No candidate can compete with Joe Biden’s depth of experience. But for pro-peace voters concerned about endless U.S. military interventions, Biden’s experience — backing some of the most harmful foreign policies of the last half century — is as much a liability as an asset.
Biden first ran for Senate in 1972 as a dove, calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam. Since then, he’s mixed pro-peace votes such as his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War, with supporting U.S. military interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden’s track record reflects the foreign policy establishment’s faith in U.S. military interventions while periodically working to trim the sails of some of the excesses of that approach. In fact, Biden, alongside the Clintons and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, are key architects of “liberal internationalism.” The “liberal internationalists” support international cooperation and institutions while still grounding their policies in American exceptionalism and U.S. military might. Much of the foreign policy problems facing the U.S. today can be traced to these policies: the eastward expansion of NATO, the Iraq war, a outsized Pentagon budget, and a morphing war on terrorism.
Biden played a unique and critical role in the fateful decision to go to war in Iraq, the decision that most embodies the period of endless wars the country is in. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he held hearings that only heard from witnesses that supported the false narratives about Iraq’s WMDs or ties to al Qaeda. Biden himself at the time said that weapons of mass destruction “must be dislodged from Saddam, or Saddam must be dislodged from power,” and that “if we wait for the danger from Saddam to become clear, it could be too late.” He also went on major talk shows to point to the hearings as proof of WMDs and to proclaim on Meet the Press, “We have no choice but to eliminate the threat. This is a guy who’s an extreme danger to the world.”
In the White House, Biden sometimes took up Obama’s left flank opposite more hawkish voices like Hillary Clinton. He opposed a troop surge in Afghanistan while promoting a “counterterrorism plus” approach based on drone strikes and special forces, he opposed the Libya intervention, and he opposed arming the Syrian rebels. Other times, Biden took the more hawkish position. He encouraged Obama to bomb Syria after Assad was accused of using chemical weapons there, and encouraging Obama to send lethal aid to Ukraine after the Russuan annexation of Crimea. In both cases Obama said no. You can find his thoughts, comments, and plans on issues of war and peace below.
Ending Endless Wars
- In July Biden gave a speech pledging to “end the forever wars” and “bring the vast majority of troops home” from the middle east wars.
- Bringing most of the troops home obviously leaves the door open to a residual force that would as Biden put it “narrowly focus our mission to defeat al Qaeda and ISIS” in the region. This seems like a new articulation of the approach Biden has long supported in Afghanistan based on drone strikes, special forces and airpower, an approach he advocated as Vice President calling it “counterrorism plus”.
- Biden says he will not “hesitate to protect the American people, including when necessary, by using force.” He praises “the strongest military in the world” and commits to ensure “it stays that way”.
- Biden has said he will end the U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s tragic war.
- About Venezuela, Biden has said “I was among the first Democratic foreign policy voices to recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and to call for Maduro to resign. Maduro has used dialogue in the past as a tactic to delay action and concentrate power, so the U.S. should maintain sanctions pressure until negotiations produce results.”
- In a speech in January 2017, Biden said “In a world possessed of nuclear technology, the effective minimum number of bombs is small. Even one can cause hideous damage. With that knowledge—over the course of decades—we negotiated agreements to reduce and control the world’s supply of nuclear weapons.”
- At the same speech at the end of the Obama administration, Biden signaled support for a No First Use (NFU) policy for nuclear weapons saying: “Given our non-nuclear capabilities and the nature of today’s threats—it’s hard to envision a plausible scenario in which the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States would be necessary. Or make sense. President Obama and I are confident we can deter—and defend ourselves and our Allies against—non-nuclear threats through other means.”
- Biden told a voter at a campaign event, that he opposed the Trump administration’s plans to develop low-yield, “more usable” nuclear weapons.
- In 2007, amidst talk of war with Iran during the Geroge W. Bush administration, Biden warned the administration about going to war with Iran without Congressional approval: “I want it on the record, and I want to make it clear,” Biden said. “If he does, I will move to impeach him.”
- Biden supports returning to the Iran deal “if Iran comes back into compliance”. He goes on to say he would “work with our allies to strengthen and extend it while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s destabilizing activities which we are allowed to do and we had partners to do with us.
- Biden was one of the Obama administration’s most important advocates for the Iran nuclear deal. He was responsible for selling the deal to wary Democrats in Congress as well as more hawkish members of the Jewish community.
Pentagon Spending & Diplomatic Funding
- Biden has called for rebuilding the State Department noting the vacancies under the Trump administration.
- When President Trump met with Kim in June, Biden blasted the move in a campaign statement, “Diplomacy is important, but diplomacy requires a strategy, a process and competent leadership to develop. We still don’t have a single commitment from North Korea. Not one missile or nuclear weapon has been destroyed, not one inspector is on the ground. If anything, the situation has gotten worse. North Korea has continued to churn out fissile material and is no longer an isolated pariah on the world stage.”
- After Biden accused president Trump of embracing “tyrants like [Vladimir] Putin and Kim Jong-un”, the Korean Central News Agency went off in a statement the way only the North Korean government can: “What he uttered is just sophism of an imbecile bereft of elementary quality as a human being, let alone a politician. He has been accused even within the Democratic Party,… for his vulgar acts and words about women. [H]e is self-praising himself as being the most popular presidential candidate. This is enough to make a cat laugh.” These statements reveal resentment over the Obama administration’s sanctions policies as well as perhaps an attempt to curry favor with Trump.
- Biden’s campaign has said that he “would not move the American embassy back to Tel Aviv” But that he would “re-open our consulate in East Jerusalem to engage the Palestinians.. and also return the United States to the effort of encouraging a two-state solution — the only way to truly guarantee Israel’s long-term security as a Jewish and democratic state and meet the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians for a state of their own.”
- Biden has criticized the notion of being “even-handed” with Israel and the Palestinaians saying: “In my 34-year career, I have never wavered from the notion that the only time progress has ever been made in the Middle East is when the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel. So the idea of being an ‘honest broker’ is not, as some of my Democratic colleagues call for, the answer. It is being the smart broker, it is being the smart partner.”
- In July, Biden said “sustaining our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security regardless of how much you may disagree with this present leader. It is essential.”
- Biden has opposed settlements and raised concerns about the occupation, “I think occupation is a real problem, a significant problem. I think the settlements are unnecessary. The only answer is a two-state solution, number one. Number two: the Palestinians have to step up to stop the hate. So, it’s a two-way street.”
“A sensible and effective foreign policy recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world. Every person on this planet shares a common humanity. We all want our children to grow up healthy, to have a good education, have decent jobs, drink clean water and breathe clean air, and to live in peace. That’s what being human is about.” — Senator Bernard Sanders
At a Glance
Mayor Bernie Sanders, from his office in Burlington Vermont in the mid-80s, worked to oppose the imperialist interventions of the Reagan era. He visited Nicaragua and spoke out against U.S. intervention as well as championing a city referendum opposing U.S. support for the brutal military regime in El Salvador. In May of this year, after the New York Times wrote an article detailing his anti-imperialist beginnings that some pundits tarred as a gotcha “anti-American baiting” “hit piece,” Sanders told the Times, “I plead guilty to, throughout my adult life, doing everything I can to prevent war and destruction.”
Sanders has been an outspoken critic of U.S. intervention throughout his political career. He was vigorous and prescient in his opposition to the Iraq war. He correctly predicted the precedent the war set for other interventions in the Middle East, the astronomical costs, and the “unintended consequences” in terms of civil war and destabilization. Sanders also saw the importance of not antagonizing Russia by expending NATO eastward, “Since the Cold War is over,” Sanders asked on the floor of Congress in 1997, “why are we militarily provoking Russia?” Much of the current tensions with Russia can be tied to this ill-fated decision.
However, Sanders has not always voted against U.S. interventions. He supported the U.S. bombing operation in Kosovo and voted for the 2001 Authorization of Use of Military Force after the 9/11 attacks (as did every member of Congress other than Barabra Lee.) Sanders also co-sponsored a Senate resolution that urged “the United Nations Security Council to take such further action as may be necessary to protect civilians in Libya from attack, including the possible imposition of a no-fly zone.” After the Libya intervention began Sanders was less sanguine, telling FOX news “Everybody understands Gadhafi is a thug and murderer. We want to see him go, but I think in the midst of two wars, I’m not quite sure we need a third war, and I hope the president tells us that our troops will be leaving there, that our military action in Libya will be ending very, very shortly.”
Sanders ran a campaign in 2016, very much focused on domestic issues, but he did work to open up debates about regime change wars including in Libya, and on what he called Israel’s disproportionate attacks on Gaza in 2014 and the need for a more “even-handed” U.S. policy on Israel and the Palestinian terrotories. You could see the beginnings of Sanders staking out a more progressive worldview on foreign policy.
But in his 2020 campaign Sanders has outlined a bold new foreign policy vision. He speaks to foreign policy issues arguably more than any other candidate with the exception of his fellow opponent of change wars Tulsi Gabbard. He has gone directly after the militarist habits of the U.S. attacking “mindset” that “military force is decisive in a way that diplomacy is not.” Returning to his anti-interventionist roots, in a major foreign policy speech at Westminster College, he laid out the history of disastrous U.S. interventions that prove that it is a myth that “a “benevolent global hegemony” is the goal of our foreign policy.” He instead calls for “global engagement based on partnership, rather than dominance” based on international cooperation and international institutions like the U.N.
Ending Endless War
- Sanders has made “ending endless wars” the centerpiece of his foreign policy platform. In a Foreign Affairs article outlining this platform, Sanders wrote “But just to end our military interventions in these places is not enough. We need to rethink the militaristic approach that has undermined the United States’ moral authority, caused allies to question our ability to lead, drained our tax coffers, and corroded our own democracy. We must never again engage in torture or indefinite detention, and we must limit the use of drone strikes that too often result in high numbers of civilian casualties, boosting the very terrorist organizations that we aim to defeat. And we must seriously reinvest in diplomacy and development aid, both of which have been allowed to atrophy under the current administration.”
- Sen. Sanders spearheaded the campaign to pass S.J.Res. 7, legislation directing the president to withdraw U.S. military support for the war in Yemen, and has spoken out repeatedly on the floor of Congress and in the media in support of ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. This legislation passed in both chambers of Congress, marking the first time Congress has successfully sent legislation invoking the War Powers Act to the president’s desk, and advancing the broader goal of Congress reclaiming its constitutional authority over war. President Trump vetoed the legislation. Despite failing to become law, efforts to pass this legislation have significantly increased public scrutiny of the war in Yemen. These efforts have also made a difference for civilians on the ground in Yemen by pressuring the Saudi-led coalition and helping negotiators secure ceasefire agreements that reduce violence and increase access to humanitarian aid.
- Sanders has consistently called for troops to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan including during the Bush and Obama administrations.
- Sanders has opposed military intervention in Venezuela saying that “the United States has got to work with the international community to make sure that there is a free and fair election in Venezuela.” Sanders has been harshly critical of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s policies but pointedly declined to call Maduro a dictator. Sanders also refused to recognize Juan Guiadó, who is backed by the Trump administration, as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Sanders also points to the long U.S. history of intervention in Latin America as a cautionary tale. Sen. Sanders has cosponsored S.J.Res. 11, legislation to block funding for military action against Venezuela without congressional approval.
- When asked if he would be “capable of using nuclear weapons in defense of the country,” Sanders response was rightly indignant: “The real question is: How the hell do we get rid of these nuclear weapons that are threatening the entire planet? And I would be aggressive in doing that…Right now, we have a president who wants to spend more and more money on the military and more money on nuclear weapons…I want to see us be aggressive in bringing the world together again to figure out how we can substantially not only reduce military spending worldwide, but how we can reduce the ongoing and long-term threat of nuclear weapons.”
- Sanders has campaigned against a possible war with Iran consistently writing and appearing on TV to feature his opposition to war with Iran. Sanders has said: “Let me be very clear, I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran which would be far worse than disastrous war with Iraq.”
- Sanders has consistently supported the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and has said he will reenter the agreement if elected president as long as Iran continues adhering to the terms of the agreement.
Pentagon Spending & Diplomatic Funding
- Sanders kicked off his campaign at a rally where he called for reinvesting Pentagon spending in human needs: “Today, we say to the military-industrial-complex that we will not continue to spend $700 billion a year on the military — more than the next 10 nations combined,” the White House hopeful told the crowd. “We’re going to invest in affordable housing, we’re going to invest in public education, we’re going to invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure — not more nuclear weapons and never-ending wars.”
- In 2001, after 9/11, Sanders supported a 50 percent cut for the Pentagon.
- Sanders has been by far the candidate most willing to actually vote against Pentagon spending; he has only voted for 3 out of 19 military spending bills since 2013.
- Sanders been willing to bend on military issues when they impact Vermont, drawing criticism for complaining about the high cost of the F-35 fighter jet while supporting basing the F-35 in his home state.
- After the widely-panned Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim, Sanders said: “Even though the Hanoi summit failed, the United States should continue diplomatic efforts with North Korea, and support the people of South Korea as they seek to end the conflict with the North.” Sanders has been one of the few democrats to keep advocating for diplomatic progress instead of just trying to score political points when Trump’s erratic approach to diplomacy inevitably stumbles.”
- Sanders has echoed the peace community’s call for a lasting peace agreement saying, “ A peace agreement is the best path for American security, and for the security of the region.”
- In August, Sanders broached using US aid to Israel to push for better Israeli policies saying: “The United States government gives a whole lot of money to Israel, and I think we can leverage that money to end some of the racism that we have recently seen in Israel.”
- Despite being willing to take pro-peace stands on Israel Sanders calls himself a “defender of Israel.” He has strongly opposed the BDS movement (while opposing efforts to decriminalize it) and has said there is “absolutely” anti-semitism in the BDS movement. He has signed on pro-Israeli government letters in Congress such as a 2017 letter to the UN secretary General accusing the UN of using its “privileged platform to advance an anti-Israel agenda”.
- Sanders has called Israel’s use of force in the 2014 war in Gaza “disproportionate” and “indiscriminate.”
- Speaking about the shootings of protesters in Gaza in 2018, Sanders said “Innocent people are being killed. Those are terrible actions. Instead of applauding Israel for its actions, Israel should be condemned.”
- Sanders has acknowledged that the U.S. is complcit with the occupation of the Palestinian terrirtories, and that the U.S. is to quick to take the Israeli side, saying, “Certainly the United States is complicit, but it’s not to say … that Israel is the only party at fault … in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role. Clearly that is not the case right now.”
- Sanders coauthored a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asking the U.S. to “do more to alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” The letter calls for funds to rebuild Gaza, ease the blockade, and restore US funds to UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).