The Sanders camp’s “evolving position” is that the United States should keep its core alliances in Europe and Asia while withdrawing militarily from the Middle East, Daniel Nexon, a scholar of progressive foreign policy, told me.
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Duss said that Sanders would aim to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria “by the end of his first term,” and repeal Congress’s vague 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force. “We’ve watched as successive presidents have been maneuvered into staying and sending more troops, and we’re committed to avoiding that,” Duss told me. Of course, that’s also what Obama and Trump said before confronting the challenge of leaving dangerous vacuums and squandering U.S. influence in these conflict zones.
Duss contrasted his boss’s tactics and Trump’s, noting that Sanders would consult with allies and not announce changes to America’s overseas military presence “by tweet” or “treat the United States military as a paid mercenary force.” But he didn’t necessarily distinguish between their strategic objectives.
“There are real questions about the cost of maintaining these huge military presences in some of these places, so we’re definitely interested in thinking hard about whether we can reduce the number of troops in these places and still meet these [security] commitments we’ve made to these partners,” he said, when I asked about U.S. troops stationed in countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Germany. “Economically, it’s not really sustainable in the long term.”
Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman and national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, told me that he expected a Sanders administration to continue deploying military assets to protect the “freedom of the seas” in the Persian Gulf and waters surrounding China and to “maintain some [troop] presence” in the territory of Asian and European allies.
But when I asked about Sanders withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea in coordination with Seoul as part of a process to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, Khanna didn’t rule it out. And as for whether a President Sanders would retaliate militarily against Bashar al-Assad in Syria for using chemical weapons on civilians, as Trump did twice but Obama declined to do, Khanna said it was conceivable under the right conditions, but that Sanders “may think that it wouldn’t actually save lives. I think what he would focus on is, how do we get a cease-fire in Syria? How do we get regional partners to work towards a diplomatic solution that tries to end these civilian casualties?”
So what would it take for Sanders to resort to military action? His advisers say an imminent threat to Americans would prompt him to do so. He would also consider military intervention as a means of averting mass atrocities or addressing humanitarian crises abroad if it were blessed by Congress and a multinational coalition, and, as Duss put it, had “a realistic chance of making the situation better at an acceptable cost.” In practice, those would be high hurdles to clear. (“You don’t want to drone strike every brown country into the Stone Ages,” the comedian Hasan Minhaj recently inquired. “Yes, correct,” Sanders confirmed.)