Why Isn't Bernie Sanders's Superior Foreign-Policy Judgment a Decisive Edge?

The Vermont senator seems far less likely to start a war of choice as president, but that doesn’t seem to count for much in the Democratic primary.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Bernie Sanders has exhibited much better foreign-policy judgment than Hillary Clinton. Yet for some reason, that’s made little difference so far in the Democratic primary race.

Kevin Drum captures this dynamic for Mother Jones. Comparing Hillary Clinton and Sanders, he observes that their much ballyhooed differences on guns are negligible, that their approaches to health care will be similar once political constraints are factored in, and that “the same is true on nearly every other domestic issue. Bernie is off to Hillary's left—either genuinely or rhetorically—but in office they'd both be constrained to the same place.”

That’s basically correct, regulating Wall Street aside.

He adds:

The one place where they have real differences and those differences might matter is national security. But for reasons of their own, neither of them really wants to talk much about that. Hillary doesn't want to highlight her relative hawkishness in a Democratic primary and Bernie doesn't really want to highlight what his dovishness would mean in practice.

For Drum, it all adds up to a vote for Hillary Clinton. He speculates that she’s a bit more electable than her opponent and a bit more likely to broker effective deals with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. “There have been a million noxious compromises along the way, but that's how politics works in the real world. Plus I'd love to see a woman in the White House,” he concludes. “I like Bernie. I like what he says. If I believed he could do all the stuff he talks about, he'd have my vote. But I don’t.”

What baffles me about that analysis is why foreign policy is treated like an afterthought that doesn’t factor in the larger calculus. It’s true that neither Sanders nor Clinton focuses on it in their rhetoric, but that doesn’t make the subject unimportant.

Sanders may be unlikely to get a single-payer health-care bill through Congress. But there is every reason to believe that the Vermonter would be much less hawkish than his opponent, exactly as he says. And that difference is orders of magnitude more important than the domestic-policy fights that Democrats are having.

Let’s quickly review the consequences of the Iraq War that Hillary Clinton favored:

  • The rise of ISIS.
  • Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.
  • Roughly 4,500 dead American soldiers.
  • Tens of thousands of Americans wounded.
  • $6 trillion in costs.

Here’s what Sanders said when he presciently opposed that same war:

Mr. Speaker, in the brief time I have, let me give five reasons why I am opposed to giving the President a blank check to launch a unilateral invasion and occupation of Iraq and why I will vote against this resolution.

One, I have not heard any estimates of how many young American men and women might die in such a war or how many tens of thousands of women and children in Iraq might also be killed. As a caring Nation, we should do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause. War must be the last recourse in international relations, not the first. Second, I am deeply concerned about the precedent that a unilateral invasion of Iraq could establish in terms of international law and the role of the United Nations. If President Bush believes that the U.S. can go to war at any time against any nation, what moral or legal objection could our government raise if another country chose to do the same thing?

Third, the United States is now involved in a very difficult war against international terrorism as we learned tragically on September 11. We are opposed by Osama bin Laden and religious fanatics who are prepared to engage in a kind of warfare that we have never experienced before. I agree with Brent Scowcroft, Republican former National Security Advisor for President George Bush, Sr., who stated, “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.”

Fourth, at a time when this country has a $6 trillion national debt and a growing deficit, we should be clear that a war and a long-term American occupation ofIraq could be extremely expensive.

Fifth, I am concerned about the problems of so-called unintended consequences. Who will govern Iraq when Saddam Hussein is removed and what role will the U.S. play in ensuing a civil war that could develop in that country? Will moderate governments in the region who have large Islamic fundamentalist populations be overthrown and replaced by extremists? Will the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority be exacerbated? And these are just a few of the questions that remain unanswered.

This isn’t hard. Sanders has much better foreign-policy judgment than Hillary Clinton. You could hardly make up a more stark illustration. They were on different sides of the most consequential and disastrous war since Vietnam. Yet this difference is dismissed as if it amounts to no more than an afterthought in most comparisons.

Perhaps this would make sense if Clinton was no longer a hawk.

But after seeing that her instincts were wrong on Iraq and watching the catastrophic consequences, Clinton lobbied President Obama to help orchestrate a regime change in Libya. Predictably, that country is in chaos too. Just this week, we learned that American troops are preparing to launch an offensive against ISIS there. Even so, Clinton shows no sign of being any less hawkish due to her misjudgments.

There is just no evidence that she learned from her mistakes.

Hawkish Democrats should vote for Clinton. Democrats who think she’s better than all the Republicans and that Bernie Sanders is unelectable should vote for her, too.

But if you’re like Kevin Drum, an Iraq War skeptic, and you might be open to voting for Sanders if only you believed that his differences with Clinton would amount to much in the real world, I don’t understand the breezy dismissal of foreign-policy differences.

Another dumb war of choice is much more likely with Clinton in the White House.