After Pushing Democrats Left, Bernie Sanders Takes on Foreign Policy
Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy address is a major step forward in the effort to challenge the corporate, militarist influences behind U.S. foreign policy, says Roots Action’s Norman Solomon
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. For a while now, Senator Bernie Sanders has face calls to bring his sweeping progressive message to foreign policy. Well on Thursday, Sanders delivered a major speech on that topic.
BERNIE SANDERS: This planet will not be secure or peaceful when so few have so much and so many have so little. And when we advance day after day into an oligarchic form of society where a small number of extraordinarily powerful and wealthy special interest exert enormous influence over the economic and political life of this country and the entire world. So, when we talk about foreign policy and our belief in democracy at the very top of our list of concerns is the need to revitalize American democracy to ensure that governmental decisions reflect the interest of a majority of our people and not just the few, whether that few is Wall Street, the military industrial complex or the fossil fuel industry. We cannot convincingly promote democracy abroad if we do not live it vigorously here at home.
AARON MATÉ: Joining me now is Norman Solomon, an author and a co-founder of RootsAction.org. During the primary, RootsAction wants to petition urging Sanders to speak out on militarism and corporate power. Welcome, Norman!
NORMAN SOLOMON: Hi, Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Hi. Did Sanders speak out yesterday sufficiently in your view on what you wanted him to talk about, militarism and corporate power?
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well it’s a huge step forward in terms of his public statements on foreign policy and war. I think it is probably the best speech by a US senator in a long time on that subject, which speaks badly for the US Senate as a whole, to put it mildly, but it’s real progress for Bernie Sanders. During his presidential campaign, he was so great on economic class issues. He became very forthright in denouncing racism, institutional bias against people of color. He was so eloquent on the basic fault line of corporate capitalism as it dominates so much of personal and social life in such destructive ways. And yet, he was so reticent to really take on the military-industrial complex. It was very fitting that in his speech on Thursday he used that phrase attributing to ties and how we’re going ahead to hammer on it.
I think if we look in retrospect at the Bernie Sanders of the 2016 presidential campaign, if he had challenged Wall Street to the so limited extent to which he was willing to criticize the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, we would have heard stuff from Bernie like, “Well, you know, Wall Street has its excesses and it’s counter-productive sometimes, and I have some concerns about it and there’s some bad decisions that have been made on Wall Street.” That was sort of the tenor of his presidential campaign vis-a-vis US militarism. I think it’s great that in his speech he has gone and deep. That’s real progress not only for Bernie Sanders but also his capacity to educate people.
Aaron, that’s something else that I want to be sure I mention. During his presidential campaign or 2015 and last year, Bernie was a tremendous force for educating the younger generation, every generation about what corporate power means; how destructive it is; how the oligarchy, and he wasn’t afraid to use that word; how the oligarchy is sitting on the windpipe of the first amendment and of democracy. And he really foreclosed to a very large extent his willingness to educate the American people about US militarism. And so I hope that his speech now is not just a one-off, but is the beginning of his amplitude around these issues ongoing.
AARON MATÉ: You mentioned the word “counter-productive,” and I actually want to go to an example of Sanders saying that during his speech. He’s talking about US foreign policy decisions like the Iraq war and this was what he said.
BERNIE SANDERS: “… in Iraq based on a similarly mistaken analysis of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. The United States invaded and occupied the country in the heart of the Middle East. In doing so, we up ended the regional order of the Middle East and unleashed forces across the region and the world that we will be dealing with for decades to come. Now these are just a few examples, just a few, of American foreign policy and interventionism, which proved to be counter-productive.”
AARON MATÉ: So that’s Bernie Sanders. Norman, his words there talking about Iraq as being counter-productive. I mentioned this in a segment yesterday, which is that I’m always surprise when even people as principled as Bernie Sanders can use a word like “counter-productive” when it comes to something like the Iraq war, which if we’re being honest, was simply just a crime. There was no basis for it. There was no mistaken analysis. It was based on lies. But it’s hard for people in issues of foreign policy, even people who are staunch progressives to take a hard line stance, a principled stance when it comes to foreign policy abroad. I want to know your thoughts on that.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well. politicians even the best of them and on the national stage, Bernie is pretty much the best, still are trying always to think about their audience and what they’re willing or apt to to hear and absorb. I think it’s the role of progressives across the board to be willing and able to speak those truths that when we look at a war that is mass murder and totally unjustified; in another context, Bernie used the phrase mass murder to condemn war in a generic sense, that we don’t need to say well and also was counter-productive. I mean it’s wrong to base a war on lies and slaughter people, whether it’s “counter-productive” or not.
I think that many US politicians, particularly of the liberal band will say that a policy is counter-productive and they’ll stop there, and that’s all they’ll say, which is a moral argument and then there’s a dispute about whether it was productive or not, and the slaughter of people and based this on falsehoods is not even dealt with. I think in this case, if you put Bernie’s statements in context of his speech that closed to an hour, he did make profound moral arguments as well. It doesn’t concern me all that much compared to the way politicians usually just talk about productivity and leave it there.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Speaking of what distinguishes Bernie Sanders from other politicians, in his address he was critical of US support for the Saudi war on Yemen. And in interview with The Intercept that was published today, Sanders came out and said, “I don’t consider Saudi Arabia to be an ally.” He was harshly critical of Saudi Arabia going against a very entrenched Washington orthodoxy when it comes to that kingdom in the Persian Gulf.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I’m very pleased and very encouraged that Bernie is now so outspoken against the Saudi-US alliance, against really the slaughter on just such a horrific scale that the US backed Saudi war in Yemen is engaged in. I have to feel a little bit rye about it because just about exactly two years ago when RootsAction, as you mentioned in the intro, launched a petition urging the then early Bernie campaign to denounce militarism in the spirit of Martin Luther King, he was saying in his early public statements as a presidential candidate that the US should insist that Saudi Arabia “get its hands dirty”.
In RootsAction’s outreach and in public statements that I and others with RootsAction were making at the time, two years ago, we emphasized that this was a terrible statement for Bernie to be making. And he said it repeatedly in the summer and fall of 2015. that Saudi Arabia should get its hands dirty, which was way of saying it isn’t just up to the US to be killing in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia needs to be willing to step up to the plate and massacre people on a large scale as well. It was just a terrible, one of the worst things Bernie said in his entire campaign. And he stopped saying it.
By the middle of the presidential race, Bernie just no longer said that Saudi Arabia should get its hands dirty. I don’t know how much, if any, role the RootsAction petition had in encouraging him to no longer say that, but I would draw a parallel to his overall trajectory as a past and perhaps future presidential candidate. Bernie’s campaign for president initially was not really tuned in or addressing the issues of institutional racism, of police violence, of matters that Black Lives Matter as a movement were addressing, and when Bernie was confronted and challenged around that, he shifted, he changed, he listened. He was respectful. He did what almost all other national politicians, including Hillary Clinton have refused to do when confronted with grassroots progressive movements about their shortcomings.
Bernie listened and he changed. He became much more forthright and outspoken against all forms of racism in our society. I’d like to think that while unfortunately, it didn’t take very much during 2016 campaign, that the very strong anti-war, anti-militarism sentiment, even if it isn’t manifested really strongly all that often coherently as a movement that the sentiment and understanding that is so widespread in this country, and not only among progressives but libertarians, against US militarism that Bernie is incorporating that sentiment, that widespread feeling in this country, which he clearly has some affinity for, into his wide and stump speech, if you will.
I couldn’t help, Aaron, but think as I watched Bernie’s what I think could be a historic speech on Thursday at Missouri, what would have happened if during his presidential campaign, Bernie had widened his messages beyond the denunciations of corporate power, and oligarchy and the lack of action on climate change. What if he had educated the public against US militarism to the extent that he did against corporate tower? I think it would have been, for one thing, quite possibly stronger result for his campaign, and also would have profoundly changed the consciousness among millions of young people and others that we have now today. So, there’s some catch-up work to do, and I’m glad to see he’s jumping into the job.
AARON MATÉ: Norman, there very well could be an empirical basis for your analysis there. A few months ago on The Real News, we covered a study that got a little bit of attention, but not very much, showing that in the US during the general election, there was a correlation between communities that suffered the highest rate of military sacrifice, military casualties, people who died in overseas wars, and their support for Donald Trump, who painted himself during the campaign with his rhetoric as being anti-intervention, criticizing both Democrats and Republicans for the Iraq war and painting himself as someone who was going to curve that, which of course, he hasn’t. But that at least was his rhetorical device. What you’re saying there, I think, has a solid basis in at least this one dataset that we’ve seen so far.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes. That study, I think, was very important and indicated that if the casualty levels of US soldiers had been even a bit lower in three of those what turned out to be swing states that swung for Trump; we were talking about Michigan as I recall, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, then Hillary Clinton may well have won the elections. As a matter of fact, the two professors who did the study said flatly that she would have won if those casualty rates had been lower. In other words, the elitism that causes the Beltway Pundits and the people in Congress, Democrat National Committee and so forth, the elitism that makes it easy for them to collide by the desk, the injuries, the mourning, the grief, the PTSD, the trauma that war has caused in lower-income communities, blue-collar communities, it’s very easy for them to make light of that or just say, “Well the national interest is to go and continue these wars.”
Bernie knocked that sort of elitism when it came to their callousness towards the victims of economic inequality. I think it’s so important that we look at the reality on the ground and build progressive movements, including electoral campaigns, from the bottom up tuned in to real people and their real lives, not this sort of punditocracy nonsense that we keep getting and that almost all of Democrats in Congress seem attuned to.
AARON MATÉ Norman, finally, it speaks to who Bernie Sanders is that he was moved in his positions by these grassroots movement, grassroots pressure that you’ve been a part of. But I’m wondering, as we wrap, your thoughts on why it took that to move him in the first place.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, around militarism issues, if that’s what you’re referring to, I think that Bernie, and it was sort of an open secret or at least a wide understanding in Washington and elsewhere, he really hadn’t been that interested in foreign policy during the 1990s and the first decade and a half at least of this century. He came out of the left as Mayor Burlington, as he mentioned previously in his speech about one sister city relationship with Russia, but he also was engaged in relationships with people in Nicaragua. He was a solid progressive. He wasn’t rhetorical about it, but he understood that US imperial actions around the world were hypocritical, destructive and unconscionable.
When he though went to Congress and then out of the House into the Senate, it became pretty evident that he was into the class issues: trade, minimum wage, economic inequality. And of course, he has been unparalleled in his ability to forthrightly tackle and articulate those issues. And he really set aside militarism as a major concern, and there was very little of that. As a matter of fact, in his presidential campaign and a lot of what we were saying at the RootsAction material and petitions and are blessed 100,000s of our supporters and members was that Martin Luther King denounce what he called the “madness of militarism”, and that Bernie was missing an opportunity to connect in a way that his speech on Thursday did connect corporate power and militarism, and the huge budgets going to destruction through the Pentagon while people at home are suffering and around the world suffering from lack of healthcare, education, housing and all the rest of it.
So, as to why he didn’t address all that forthrightly in his presidential campaign, I think that there was a decision he made to focus on “economic issues.” It was a missed opportunity, but as somebody who has run for office myself, I know it can be very difficult to prioritize, so I think it was a mistake on his part. It’s overwhelming to run a campaign. I think it was a historic missed opportunity, but past is prologue. When he can give full voice to what Dr. King was saying about that madness of militarism it will help to elevate the discourse nationally, and help the relationship between social movements and what Bernie Sanders is doing.
AARON MATÉ: Norman Solomon, author and co-founder of RootsAction.org. Norman, thank you.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.