Bernie Sanders is certainly good news for American politics. His unexpected success has compelled other Democratic candidates to adopt more progressive stances, and has put issues like inequality and accountability at the centre of the political debate.
Sanders’ campaign has attracted many young people, and has been entirely financed by private, small donations. His 12 Steps for America include, among other things, fighting climate change, creating worker cooperatives, strengthening labour unions, adopting a more progressive taxation system, instituting free healthcare for all, and regulating the financial system.
Hillary Clinton, his direct adversary, has had to slightly shift to the left of the political spectrum to avoid Sanders monopolizing those issues that are clearly important for the American public.
Clinton’s credibility, however, is seriously undermined by the fact that her campaign is financed by the same corporations and financial groups she claims to be willing to tax more and regulate, and by the record of her career. Sanders’ economic reforms, if implemented, would represent a drastic change in the U.S., where, since Reagan took office in 1981, Republican and Democratic Presidents have all promoted neoliberal economic policies, with only insignificant differences between them.
Even if Bernie Sanders will not be elected President, his campaign can already be considered a success: he has put important questions on the table, encouraged many disillusioned people to mobilize again, and created a potential popular base of a progressive social movement; these elements can be considered as steps towards a more long-term process of change.
There is, however, one area in which Bernie Sanders seems to be more in line with the other Democratic candidates: foreign policy.
At first sight, Sanders’ general approach to foreign policy seems reasonable: on his website it is stated that “war must be a last resort”, that the U.S. “cannot and should not be policeman of the world” and “must move away from policies that favor unilateral military action and preemptive war”.
Sanders opposed the first Gulf War of 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, while he supported “the use of force in Afghanistan to hunt down the terrorists who attacked us” in 2001 and NATO’s military intervention during the Yugoslav Wars.
However, when put to the test for the first time after the recent Paris attacks, Sanders commented that he supports “targeted U.S. military efforts to protect U.S. citizens” against ISIS, and, more importantly, he approves for U.S. support for Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which he believes should “get their hands dirty and get their troops on the ground.”
U.S.-Saudi relations are of particular importance; calling into question this well-established alliance is not only an ethical question, but also an issue of U.S.’ credibility when combating terrorism.
While there was nothing to be expected from Bush, and while the Obama administration has proved to be a big disappointment in matters of foreign policy, Sanders has to take a clear stand on this matter if he really wants to break with the past administrations’ foreign policy.
The terrible effects of Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, also with the use of illegal deadly cluster bombs, the funding of ISIS through private donations of people close to the royal family, the spread of Wahhabism throughout the world, including Western countries, and the country’s appalling human rights record, are all things that are well known.
Nevertheless, no American President has ever called into question U.S.’ close ties with the Saudi petromonarchy started in 1945, when Roosvelt and Saudi King Abdul Aziz met and reached an agreement “centered around U.S. support and military training for Saudi Arabia, in return for oil and political support in the region.” The economic and political ties between the two countries has been, since then, very strong.
If Bernie Sanders wants to mark a sharp break from the foreign policy of past administrations, he has to firmly condemn the bigger, institutionalized Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States that have ambiguous attitudes towards terrorism.
Also, Sanders’ discourse lacks a firm rejection of America’s imperialist agenda and of its self-appointed role of supervisor of global affairs. For the moment, a paradigm shift has not taken place in the realm of foreign policy.
© Tommaso Segantini