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Understanding Bernie Sanders' Foreign Policy Approach

Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Afghanistan in 2011 as part of a delegation.
Getty Images/NATO
Sen. Bernie Sanders visited Afghanistan in 2011 as part of a delegation.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has focused much of his presidential campaign on economic issues. He describes income inequality as the great economic and political issue of our time.

Less has been written about Sanders' approach to foreign policy. Here's a quick summary:

1. He was against the Iraq War (but he is not a pacifist)

Sanders has highlighted his opposition to the war in Iraq throughout the campaign as a way to draw a distinction with his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

"I don't think you are qualified if you have voted for the disastrous war in Iraq," he told supporters in Philadelphia last week.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Sanders also opposed the first Gulf War. But as cautious as he is about sending U.S. forces into combat, Sanders has not always opposed military intervention.

He supported the invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And he voted in favor of NATO bombing during the war in the Balkans.

"The Balkans worked because it was internationally sanctioned and there was a plan for what to do when we got rid of [Slobodan] Milosevic," said Sanders foreign policy adviser Lawrence Korb.

2. He sees foreign policy through an economic lens

When talking about foreign policy, Sanders often injects an economic note. This might be seen as a diversion — a way of changing the subject to more familiar ground. Or it could simply be a sign that Sanders' views on many subjects are colored by an overriding concern with economic well-being.

"Bernie Sanders' foreign policy views are shaped by the lens of the economy," said Elizabeth Saunders, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He views most issues through the lens of economics and inequality."

"I am not running for president to pursue reckless adventures abroad, but to rebuild America's strength at home," Sanders told an audience at Georgetown University last November. "Nobody understood better than Franklin Delano Roosevelt the connection between American strength at home and our ability to defend America around the world."

In Sanders' view, poverty and income inequality undermine America's status as a superpower. And while he agrees the battle against ISIS must be waged, he argues wealthy Muslim nations should play a larger role.

"Countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the [United Arab Emirates], countries of enormous wealth and resources, have contributed far too little in the fight against ISIS," Sanders said. "That must change."

3. He's like Ike

Foreign policy adviser Korb sees Sanders following in the footsteps of an earlier president: Dwight Eisenhower. The Midwestern military hero might seem an unlikely role model for the Brooklyn-born Democratic socialist. But Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, notes Eisenhower, like Sanders, was wary of the growing military-industrial complex. He knew that every federal dollar spent on guns was a dollar that couldn't be devoted to butter, or other domestic needs.

"His proudest accomplishment is the interstate highway system," Korb said of Eisenhower. "He basically told the military these are the things we have to do to be strong at home. And if we're not strong at home, we're not going to win this battle with the Soviet Union."

4. He's not that much like Ike

President Obama once shrugged off a similar comparison, noting that as supreme Allied commander in World War II, Eisenhower had credibility on national security issues that Obama himself did not. (Even Eisenhower was not immune to criticism that he was weak on defense. Remember John F. Kennedy's accusations of an alleged "missile gap.") Sanders has already faced questions about his command of international issues and would surely face more if he were elected.

"A lot of his critics said, 'Well, you don't have a foreign policy. You don't talk about it. So you're really not up to the challenge of dealing with it,' " Korb acknowledged. "I try to say, 'No, he has a serious foreign policy.' "

Sanders arguably talked more about foreign policy during the 1980s, when as mayor of liberal Burlington, Vt., he was a fierce critic of Ronald Reagan's policies in Central America.

"One of the things we're trying to do in Burlington is do away with this gap between what happens ... in Washington regarding Nicaragua and what happens here in local government," Sanders said in 1985, introducing a speech by Noam Chomsky. "We have the belief here that local government is everything that affects human life."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.