Bernie Sanders' speech outlining his Middle East policy Monday was like a breath of fresh air compared to GOP candidates who have advocated for massive carpet bombing, torture and killing of civilians; overt violations of the Geneva conventions which they openly flout.
Sanders provided a good blueprint by emphasizing the need for coalition building and diplomacy in ending the Syrian conflict and for regional players to step up and for continued dialogue and support of the nuclear agreement with Iran. Sanders also promoted a balanced position in the Israeli-Palestine conflict which acknowledges Israel's security concerns while condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and excessive military displays like the 2014 Operation Protective Edge that killed 1,500 Gazan civilians.
Sanders stressed that military options should be the last and not first option for the United States, and that the United States should not play the role of world policeman, echoing a position adopted by Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern many years ago that was unfortunately never followed.
The Clinton campaign and media pundits have unfairly criticized Sanders for his supposed inexperience in foreign affairs. In fact, from his days opposing the Vietnam War, Sanders has often adopted sensible positions like opposing the 1991 Persian Gulf War and 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the debates, he aptly criticized Henry Kissinger, who has been connected to some of the worst foreign policy decisions of the last half century including the massive carpet bombing of Cambodia, 1973 Chilean coup and Iraq War.
In embracing the same worldview as Kissinger, Hilary Clinton by contrast has promoted disastrous policies that have lessened rather than enhanced American security. As Secretary of State, Clinton for example backed a coup in Honduras in 2009 that led to a major humanitarian crisis and was a major figure in the Obama administration advocating for the illegal 2011 war with Libya that has destabilized that country.
While Monday's speech struck the right tone, Sanders in my opinion could go further in advocating for progressive transformation. First and foremost, he should call for the elimination of drone strikes and assassination as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The United States as a country has always purported to stand for the rule of law as a marker of its civility. Even in the darkest days of World War II, the government eschewed assassinating Nazi leaders, but instead worked at the end of the war to prosecute them through the Nuremberg trials, earning the respect of the world community.
From their inception in 2004, the drone strikes have inflamed Arab opinion against the United States. In an all too typical occurrence detailed by Andrew Cockburn in his outstanding book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech Assassins, drone operators in Las Vegas mistook a group of Afghans saying a morning prayer on a February morning in 2010 for Taliban and ordered their incineration, killing twenty three people including two toddlers and severely wounding three more children. An army investigation found the crew's conduct to have been "almost juvenile in their desire to engage the targets," though ultimately blamed the special operations command for failing to supervise the operation.
This incident epitomized UN Rapporteur Philip Alston's concern about the advent of a "play-station mentality" where trigger-happy pilots thousands of miles away play the hand of god targeting people they know nothing about, except what they see from images on their computer screens.
At various points, the CIA has considered military aged males part of a large gathering or had contacts with militants to be legitimate targets. A joint study by Stanford University and NYU quoted the director of a charitable organization as stating that "an entire region [Waziristan] is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies....kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings or anything that involves gathering in groups."
These comments exemplify the stark human consequences of the drone strikes, which have been little considered in most public policy debates to this point. Sanders can fill the lacunae by using the moral stature he has gained from his campaign to denounce the drone strikes and call for their elimination as synonymous with his desire to end America's role as world policeman.
Once he does that Sanders can in turn address other morally repugnant aspects of U.S. Middle East policy his opponent has been instrumental in promoting. These include the indefinite perpetuation of the war in Afghanistan, record arms sales to the Saudi dictatorship and extensive use of private military contractors like DynCorp and Academi (Blackwater) to sustain military interventions that have long ago lost their moral purpose.