A Closer Look at Sanders’ National Security Strategy

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

It’s time to take a closer look at the national security views of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

At a campaign rally in the Bronx on March 31, Sanders told a crowd of over 15 thousand, “We are determined that instead of spending trillions of dollars on a war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into, we are going to re-invest in the South Bronx and in communities all over this country.”

His statement drew a great cheer. But although he spoke for almost an hour, he did not mention defense spending again, nor any current or future threats to U.S. security. He did – as he regularly does – refer to his 2002 vote against the war in Iraq and that his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, voted for it.

The bulk of his speech, as with most of his campaign rhetoric, stressed his basic themes of Wall Street corruption, a rigged U.S. economy, a broken criminal justice system, the income of the upper one percent of Americans, universal health care for everyone, and free education at public colleges and universities.

Sanders’ general views on defense and national security can be found on his campaign web site with some additional information added during his many appearances on news shows and during debates.

His congressional record shows he opposed the first Gulf War but supported use of force in the Balkans and after 9/11. He has voted for and against Pentagon spending bills, regularly calling for reductions. During last February’s Democratic debate, he said of the Defense Department what many other candidates without direct connection to the Armed Services or Appropriation Committees say when calling for budget cuts: “I have a feeling you’re going to find a lot of cost overruns there and a lot of waste and duplicative activities.”  But he offered no specifics.

 Given he is seeking to be not only President but also Commander-in-Chief, two specific issues are worth reviewing.

Start with leadership when it comes to international security efforts.

On his campaign website, Sanders is quoted as saying: “The United States should be part of an international coalition, led and sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves [emphasis added]. That is the only way to defeat ISIS [the Islamic State] and to begin the process of creating the conditions for a lasting peace in the region.”

In short, the U.S. when it come to ISIS, should turn leadership of any coalition building over to others, although be part of it. Republicans could quickly characterize that as “leading from behind,” which it would be.

Secretary Clinton has forcefully taken a different position. Last November at the Council on Foreign Relations, she discussed, “The struggle against radical jihadism that is bigger than any one group, whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIS or some other network.” She then added with great emphasis, “This is a worldwide fight, and American must lead it.”

Last month on MSNBC, she stated, “If we’re going to defeat ISIS, which is a very high priority for us, for our partners in Europe and the Middle East, especially Israel and others, we have to form coalitions with predominantly Muslim nations. I know how hard it is to form a coalition. I formed the coalition that imposed the sanctions on Iran, got Russia and China and others to be part of it.”

Meanwhile, Sanders seem to have modified his view on coalitions.

On March 21, in an MSNBC interview, he said, “I think we need to focus on building coalitions. Yes, ISIS must be destroyed, but it should be destroyed by a coalition of Muslim nations on the ground with the support of the United States and the other major powers in the air and in training the troops there.”

Six days later, on ABC’s This Week, Sanders said that “in general, I support what President Obama is doing…putting together the kind of coalition that we need. The Muslim troops have got to do the hard work. The United States should have special forces there. We should be there for air support and air attacks; we should be training the troops.”

He appears to support Obama taking the lead in pulling together the coalition as long as local forces “do the hard work.” And notice, he apparently approves U.S. special forces on the ground, apparently training local forces and acting as forward air controllers on the ground for U.S. and coalition aircraft.

But Sanders added to this modified position, “Of course I am opposed to the United States getting involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”

Define perpetual. On March 29, Sanders said on CNN, “I believe that if we’re smart, if we do a good job in training the Iraqi army and the Muslim nations, they [ISIS] can be destroyed in a year or two. That certainly is the goal.” The question for Sanders is what does he really see as the U.S. role in such situations, particularly if after two years that goal in Iraq is not reached? What would he do?

And does Sanders see himself, someone who applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, as taking the lead in forming international coalitions to fight against some other proven aggressor, assuming diplomacy has not worked?

“While force must always be an option, war must be a last resort, not the first option,” is the statement on his website which he has often repeated.

There is also Sanders’ position on intelligence gathering to meet the terrorist threat at home or abroad. His website describes “the threat is real, and he [Sanders] will aggressively pursue those who would do us harm,” but we “must not trade away our constitutional rights and civil liberties for the illusion of security.”

During a March 27 CNN interview, Sanders said, “Obviously, you want to prevent those [terrorist] attacks before they take place.” But he added, “I think we know who ISIS is. We know those people who are planning against our European allies and against ourselves, and we have got to do everything we can to destroy them.”

The Sanders website says “we must rein in the National Security Agency and end the bulk collection of phone records, internet history, and email data of virtually all Americans.”

How you bridge that gap between “doing everything we can to destroy” those terrorists planning attacks and reining in the NSA is a dilemma that Sanders does not directly deal with, but a future president would have to.

Sanders voted against the Patriot Act in 2001, its reauthorization in 2011 and the Freedom Act that passed in 2015, arguing the latter still allowed NSA “too much access” to information on millions of Americans. 

During the Democratic presidential debate in October 2015, when asked about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who distributed over 50 thousand classified NSA documents to reporters, Sanders said, “I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.” He added that while Snowden broke the law and should face some penalty, “I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is sentenced.”

In a March 29 CNN interview, Sanders said, “We do have to improve our intelligence capabilities. We do have to make sure that federal, state, and local law enforcement is much better coordinated in preventing these types of [terrorist] attacks,” referring to San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels.

But he raised concerns about “millions of people…having their e-mails or their websites surveyed when the vast majority of them have nothing to do with terrorism,” echoing the mistaken narrative of “Big Brother watching” created by Snowden and others.

Sanders had only a question: “So how you balance in a free society, the civil liberties and the constitutional rights of our people, while on the other hand, going after terrorists. That is the balance that we’ve got to establish.”

President Obama and the Congress have established the balance that now exists. It will be up to the next president to maintain or change it. 

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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