How President Bernie Sanders would handle foreign policy


Bernie Sanders on war and trade. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, has a special “War and Peace” section on his official website, detailing his views on issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. Bernie Sanders, the contender for the Democratic presidential nomination … doesn’t.

The campaign website,, offers visitors access to the iconoclastic candidate’s thoughts on Income and Wealth Inequality, Getting Big Money Out of Politics, Creating Decent-Paying Jobs, Racial Justice, A Living Wage, Real Family Values, Climate Change and Environment, and Reforming Wall Street. But there’s no tab for Syria, the Islamic State, a rising China or strained relations with Russia.

It’s not that Bernie is hiding his record. When he rolled out his campaign in April, Sanders took a question about where he disagreed with Hillary Clinton. “I voted against the war in Iraq. And not only did I vote against it,” Sanders emphasized, “I helped lead the effort” to defeat the resolution authorizing the use of military force to topple Saddam Hussein. Clinton, of course, lost the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination in part because she voted for the war. (Her website includes a section on what she views as her chief accomplishments as secretary of state.)

The omission aligns Sanders with most voters, who are telling pollsters that their top concerns are the economy and health care, not foreign policy.

“If he’s going to win this nomination, it’s not going to be on the strength of his foreign policy views. They’re not distinctive enough, even though he is to the left of Hillary Clinton on some of these issues,” explained Matt Dickinson, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. “That’s not what’s capturing the attention of the base of the Democratic Party.”

When it comes to a Sanders presidency, Dickinson said, the biggest foreign policy question to ask him is: “Who are you going to listen to on foreign policy? How will your organize your foreign policy process?” In other words, how and with whom will you take control of the government’s vast foreign policy and national security apparatus?

The Sanders campaign did not immediately return a request for comment. But a sitting senator’s record on foreign policy is an open book of speeches and votes. So here is where he stands on a range of important foreign policy issues.

On the whole, Sanders is an anti-interventionist. He voted in favor of authorizing the war in Afghanistan but against both wars in Iraq (1991 and 2002). He criticized Obama’s 2011 war in Libya. But he voted in favor of giving President Bill Clinton the authority to carry out airstrikes against Serbian targets in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Iran deal

Sanders, who pointedly skipped Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial March speech to Congress opposing the agreement, supports the deal.

“I’m not going to tell that you this is a perfect agreement. And every agreement can be better,” Sanders told CBS News in early August. But “the alternative, the alternative of not reaching an agreement, you know what it is? It’s war. Do we really want another war, a war with Iran, an asymmetrical warfare that will take place all over this world, threatening American troops?”

Trans-Pacific Partnership

Obama regards completion of the TPP negotiations as a top second-term priority. Sanders has come out strongly against the pending agreement. Clinton has previously praised the effort, but has refused to take a clear position as candidate — drawing fire from Sanders.

“Which side are you on? Are you on the side of working people who would suffer as a result of this disastrous trade agreement and seeing their jobs go to China or Mexico? Or are you on the side of corporate America and pharmaceuticals?” Sanders asked of Clinton in a CNN appearance.

And he has not hesitated to criticize Bill Clinton’s record on trade, including in this interview with Yahoo News.

Islamic State

Sanders opposed Obama’s request for an authorization to use military force against the extremist group also known as ISIL, arguing that it did not set clear-enough limits on the use of U.S. ground troops. The senator has backed air strikes against ISIL but has repeatedly demanded that regional powers like Saudi Arabia take a bigger role in the military campaign.

“I’ll be damned if kids in the state of Vermont — or taxpayers in the state of Vermont — have to defend the royal Saudi family, which is worth hundreds of billions of dollars,” Sanders said in September 2014.

He has also voted against arming Syrian rebels caught between ISIL and government troops loyal to strongman Bashar Assad.


Sanders, like fellow Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, strongly supports Obama’s moves to normalize relations with Cuba.

Middle East peace

Sanders supports a two-state solution.

“The bottom line is that Israel must have the right to exist in peace and security, just as the Palestinians must have the right to a homeland in which they and they alone control their political system and their economy,” his Senate site says.


Sanders has described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a bully and backed tough economic sanctions to punish Moscow for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region.

But the senator has also warned against steps that might escalate the conflict.

“The entire world has got to stand up to Putin,” he said in 2014.

The picture that emerges is less that of a firebrand antiwar radical than a pragmatic liberal who regards military force as a second choice in almost any situation — but a choice that sometimes must be made.