If the first debate between the Democratic presidential candidates revealed anything about Senator Bernie Sanders, it was his glaring lack of command of foreign policy issues. His continual retreat to a lone talking point about his vote against the Iraq War, the same talking point he's used since he announced his campaign in May, speaks to a deeply problematic inexperience with American foreign policy. Here's why that's so important.
Not since the Cold War has the United States experienced so many challenges to its interests abroad. The American invasion, occupation, and failed reconstruction of Iraq upset the balance of power in the Middle East, and left a power vacuum in its wake that an incomprehensible web of parties are vying to fill. American-led air campaigns have stalled the growth of ISIL, but certainly not reversed it. Efforts to turn the tide in Syria by arming "moderate" militias have failed dramatically. These issues are further complicated by the fact that the United States' historically unshakable relationship with Israel, its closest ally in the region, has cooled over disagreements with respect to Iran.
But America's problems stretch far beyond the Middle East. The danger of violent extremism is a spectre that looms over practically every continent. In Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to test the stamina of Barack Obama's commitment to protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine by covertly arming violent separatists. Regional tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea are getting worse, not better. And former Senator Jim Webb was not wrong in suggesting Chinese cyber-terrorism may present the most dangerous long-term threat to American national security. The list goes on.
The Obama administration has secured important foreign policy victories, most notably the recent nuclear agreement with Iran. But these diplomatic victories underscore an Obama foreign policy whose emphasis on diplomacy over use of force has largely failed to remedy the problems undermining the international order. Indeed, the legacy of the Obama foreign policy will likely be one of uncertainty and instability.
Thus far, Bernie Sanders has given us no reason to believe his presidency would be different, or that he would succeed where Obama has failed. Because his speeches exclusively focus on domestic issues, the "War and Peace" section of his website is the only place to turn for content, and the results are not promising. Though long-winded, the page fails to communicate a clear vision of a Sanders presidency outside of "force always as a last resort," which certainly isn't bad, but isn't exactly an original or revolutionary idea either.
In a 2014 interview, when Ed Schultz asked Sanders about how best to deal with ISIL, Sanders said, "I would prefer to deal with a complicated issue in a measured way: serious international discussions about how we proceed, but force, force should be the last option we use."
Sorry, I lied. The interview was actually about Russia, not ISIL, but you wouldn't have known that from the quote -- it's vague and lacks a nuanced understanding of the issue. In fact, "ISIL" could have been replaced by anything -- China, Iran, North Korea -- and it wouldn't have been a misrepresentation of Sanders' views.
Again, this is not to suggest that "acting multilaterally," "consulting our allies," and "engaging in discussion" are necessarily bad ideas, but the extent to which Sanders uses them as if he's filling in the blanks in a mad lib reflects a very shallow understanding of American foreign policy. When Sanders does express support for a specific policy, it is always for a policy the Obama administration is already pursuing, never an original idea.
Sanders is running on a domestically oriented platform centered on economic inequality, so it's no surprise his discussion of foreign policy on the campaign trail has been limited to Iraq. But you'd have to be kidding yourself to think the grand overhauls of American banking, education, and health care Sanders lauds in his speeches would make it through a Republican-controlled legislature. Any reforms a President Sanders would pursue would have to be extremely watered-down versions of what he preaches on the stump, which washes away any competitive advantage he would have over a President Clinton or Biden on domestic issues.
The realm the next president will exercise the most individual influence over will undoubtedly be foreign policy. This is a realm that demands strong, decisive leadership and a firm command of the issues, especially now. This is not a realm Sanders has any business influencing.