Small Wars Journal

An Analysis of the Candidates on National Security and Defense Issues: Senator Bernie Sanders

Sun, 02/14/2016 - 5:46pm

An Analysis of the Candidates on National Security and Defense Issues: Senator Bernie Sanders

Gary Anderson

This is the first in a series of analyses of the candidates’ national security positions based primarily on information gleaned from their web sites.

Overall Evaluation. Senator Bernie Sanders is by far the weakest presidential candidate on national security matters from either party in the 2016 race. He makes no secret of his emphasis on domestic matters, and the section of his web site devoted to national security is little more than a hand wave. Sanders is a child of the sixties and his leftist roots show in his indifference to national defense. Most candidates agree with him in that he sees the use of force as the last option; but he is alarmingly vague on when or how he would ever use it.

Iraq and Afghanistan. Although he voted for the initial intervention in Afghanistan, Sanders is now in favor of withdrawing all American forces and insisting that the Afghans tend to their own internal security. He voted against the war in Iraq and feels that it was unjustified. In this, he is well within the mainstream of his party; thus, his views on Iraq and Afghanistan are not likely to hurt him in his quest for the party’s nomination.

Defeating the Islamic State. Senator Sanders may be on much weaker ground regarding the war against the Islamic State. Like most other candidates, Sanders desires to see an anti-ISIS coalition and clearly wants most of the members of that coalition doing the heavy lifting in defeating the jihadists. In this, he is not far removed from other candidates including Ted Cruz. However, where Cruz specifies the Kurds as the main effort in his coalition, Sanders has no specifics including who would sign on to a crusade that he would not lead. Sanders also favors closing Guantanamo.

Russia, China, Libya, and North Korea. Regarding all other crises that face the United States, Sanders rails against unilateral actions that would make the United States the global policeman and advocates diplomacy first. In reading his web site, one gets the impression that President Obama has been ignoring diplomacy for the past seven years, and that he (Sanders) will return the nation’s foreign policy to diplomatic sanity. There is no specific mention of Russia’s increasing belligerence, China’s actions in the South China Sea, Libyan collapse, or North Korea.

Iran. Senator Sanders clearly favors the Kerry-Obama nuclear deal with Iran although he describes it as not perfect. Here, he is in the main stream of his party and squarely opposed to most potential Republican opponents.

Counter-terrorism and Homeland Defense. Regarding homeland defense, Sanders is sufficiently squishy to please the progressive wing of this party. He disapproves of terrorists and believes that we must find some way to prevent Muslim youth from being radicalized. However, Senator Sanders is for closely supervising the National Security Agency in its attempts to pre-empt home grown terror. In this, he is again well within the mainstream of his party. Sanders is a true believer in climate change and wants to make this a national security priority for homeland defense no matter how many decades or centuries it takes to defeat the threat.

Pentagon Reform and the Size of the Military. Senator Sanders has made no specific proposals regarding Pentagon reform other than to make take the general position that he will clean up waste and get rid of Cold War programs that no longer fit the current security environment; he cites no concrete examples, nor does he specifically advocate reducing the size of the military. Sanders rails against defense contractors and repeats Eisenhower’s warning about the threat of the military-industrial complex. In these views he is well in line with the progressive base of his party, but not so far left that he will unduly alarm left-leaning independents. However, these views may not play well with “Blue Dog” southern Democrats.

The Democrat Primaries. Senator Sanders is probably relatively safe here on national security and defense. The Democratic primary debates are firmly mired in domestic and economic issues, and Mrs. Clinton is unlikely to bring the subject up as she is tied to President Obama’s questionable foreign policy and defense legacies; Benghazi and Syria are subjects Mrs. Clinton will want to avoid and Sanders will be smart to steer clear of them as well.

The General Election Campaign. Aside from how he will pay for the “free stuff” that he is promising the American people, national security will likely be a critical vulnerability for Senator Sanders should he upset Mrs. Clinton for the nomination. His best hope would be for fellow insurgent Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee. A national security debate between these two national defense featherweights would be a “pillow fight in a phone booth”. However, against virtually any other Republican opponent, Sanders will be in a great deal of trouble in addressing the general electorate on the subject of how he would keep the nation safe.