Question for Bernie: Whatever Happened to Your Mayoral Foreign Policy?

01/07/2016 05:24 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2017

Since he began his long-shot bid for the presidency, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has spoken of the need for a veritable "political revolution." In earlier articles, I have suggested that Sanders could sharpen or deepen the meaning of his revolution, and in some ways Bernie has run a pretty conventional tactical campaign thus far. Nevertheless, on the domestic front at least the independent senator has staked out a much more combative position on Wall Street and wealth inequality than many others within the Democratic Party.

In light of such feistiness, why has Bernie the democratic socialist failed to articulate a more electrifying or ground-breaking message on foreign policy? Sanders' reticence to formulate a "political revolution" in this area is even more perplexing in light of the Senator's earlier career in Vermont. As the Guardian has noted, "the irony is that, back in the 80s when Sanders was starting his political career as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, foreign policy played an outsized role in his small town mayoralty."

From Grenada to El Salvador to Nicaragua

During the 1980s, many on the U.S. left circuit were up in arms over Ronald Reagan's policies in Central America and the president's Contra war in Nicaragua. Jumping on the bandwagon, Bernie personally traveled to Nicaragua and became the highest ranking U.S. official to meet with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Frenetically charging around Managua, Sanders declared "I am trying to stop a war. I am trying to stop a war." Speaking with the media, Sanders thundered "time and time again these interventions in Latin and Central America have been for the benefit of large corporations... And you say, 'Gee, whiz --should foreign policy be made for the benefit of large corporations that want to exploit the people of Latin and Central America?"

Bernie's mission hardly came as a surprise, however: just the previous summer, he had presided over a local meeting in Burlington to protest Reagan's invasion of Grenada. In addition, Sanders opposed Washington's policies in Guatemala and El Salvador. Indeed, during his years as mayor, Burlington issued a host of resolutions calling for an end to U.S. aid to El Salvador. Though some locals applauded Bernie's foreign policy, others were less than impressed. At one point, after Sanders gave a speech about El Salvador, an alderman declared "El Salvador, El Salvador -- what about El Burlington?"

In Nicaragua, Sanders established a sister-city program between Burlington and Puerto Cabezas. Addressing residents in the Nicaraguan town, Bernie spoke ironically about Reagan's foreign policy. In a video, he remarked "We're strong, you're weak -- and you're going to do it our way, or we're going to kill you! A very profound, civilized remark." Bernie even raised money in support of the Sandinista government, which earned him the nickname "Sanders-nista."

"Sanders-nista is Nowhere to Be Found"

Given Bernie's zealousness and drive to advance a strong anti-imperialist agenda in the 1980s, it's a little perverse that the presidential candidate has moved such ideas into the shadows as a presidential candidate. If anything, Bernie has a lot more power to bring these issues into the limelight now than he did before as mayor of a tiny town in rural Vermont. What accounts for the ironic switch?

The Guardian notes that as recently as September, Sanders still didn't have a foreign policy page on his campaign web site. At long last, days before the first democratic debate, Bernie rushed out a press release titled "Sanders foreign policy experience." The contents, however, centered exclusively on Bernie's congressional vote not to go to war in Iraq, without offering any other policy-making proscriptions. In the debates themselves, Bernie seems eager to shift the focus away from foreign affairs and return to his common refrain of the "billionaire class" and income inequality. On foreign policy, the Guardian concludes, "Sanders-nista is nowhere to be found."

Foreign Policy is "Castor Oil"?

The New York Observer has a slightly more cynical take on Sanders' political evolution. Bernie doesn't focus on foreign affairs, notes one columnist, "because he has little to gain by doing so." The piece quotes Joe Trippi, an old campaign hand from Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, who declares "everything I'm looking at says domestic policy is what's driving his surge. He fares better the more he talks about domestic economics and, in fact, the groups he has to try to win over are more focused with economics than domestics."

Trippi claims that white progressives are most concerned with foreign policy, and "they are already in Sanders' corner." Therefore, if Bernie wants to expand his voter base and attract blacks and Latinos he must eschew foreign policy because such groups are more interested in immigration and civil rights. The Observer goes on to quote Gil Troy, a presidential historian, who remarks "foreign policy is the castor oil of a campaign. You drink it and show you're a good boy and show you've got balanced nutrition. It's not what's going to win votes."

Sliding Backward

Aside from being just plain condescending if not downright insulting, is there any real veracity in the notion that blacks and Latinos don't care about foreign policy? Even if there were some truth in such suggestions, it doesn't mean that Bernie shouldn't develop a true "political revolution" when it comes to foreign affairs. What would such a "revolutionary" foreign policy look like?

As a socialist, Sanders is certainly aware of his own movement's long-time commitment to leftist movements abroad and the need to build up international alliances. Bizarrely, however, Bernie seems to have run away from his earlier dalliances with a vengeance, choosing instead to ally himself with a certain nationalist segment of the U.S. labor movement which is more concerned with "American jobs" than anything else.

To be sure, we're no longer in the heady days of Reagan's Contra wars in Nicaragua and the populist left in power has recently burnt itself out in countries ranging from Argentina to Venezuela and Ecuador. Nevertheless, Latin America still has arguably the most organized political left of any region on the globe, including a diverse array of social movements. If he were ever elected to the White House, Bernie would have to deal with heads of state, yet there's no rule in U.S. presidential politics stating that candidates can't talk about vibrant social forces on the ground.

What's more, Bernie has been pretty silent about the Kurds, who have launched a revolution along secular, anarchist and feminist lines in the northern cantons of Syria known as Rojava. Presumably, Sanders would agree with many facets of the Kurdish struggle, yet the Vermont Senator seems reluctant to touch upon this topic. Bernie's failure to mention the Kurdish revolution in the debates represents a tactical mistake and a missed opportunity to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton, the ultimate foreign policy insider.

Perhaps it is time for Bernie's followers, the "Sanderistas," to start pressuring their candidate to come up with a more convincing narrative on international affairs. Devising a "revolutionary" foreign policy need not be a "vote loser" or somehow akin to "swallowing castor oil." The American electorate is tired of the establishment media's foreign policy pundits --- it is up to Bernie Sanders to figure out a way of engaging the voting public and to prove that international cohesion along shared progressive and leftist lines is still relevant to this presidential race.