Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland recently argued that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is “simply a much better speaker” and more engaging candidate than UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Undoubtedly, Sanders’ straight-talking message on the United States’ economic and health-care issues has won him many admirers. However, as Corbyn’s landslide victory showed, rousing speeches aren’t everything: 60 percent of party members elected Corbyn, giving him a mandate bigger than that of Tony Blair – a man renowned for his oratory skills.
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Despite lacking Sanders’ personal charm, Corbyn has gained much respect for reiterating his anti-establishment positions on pressing international issues. It is in this arena that Sanders may have something to learn from his fellow progressive upstart on the other side of the Atlantic. From his pronunciations on drones to his ambiguity on policy toward Israel-Palestine, Sanders has much to rethink and clarify.
In an interview last year with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Sanders responded on a question regarding drones that was eerily similar to the incumbent US president. When Todd asked what a Sanders counterterrorism policy would look like (drones or Special Forces), the senator replied, “all that and more.”
When pressed to elucidate, he responded:
Look, a drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what? … It’s terrible.
In November 2015, the leaked drone papers received by The Intercept revealed that an overwhelming majority of people killed in Afghanistan between May 2012 and September 2012 were unintended targets, a ratio of almost nine out of 10.
“There’s countless instances where I’ve come across intelligence that was faulty,” one source told The Intercept. This, he said, is a primary factor in the killing of civilians.
A consequence of such a policy is the rising anti-Americanism in countries facing US drone strikes. Writing in The Washington Post, journalist Sudarsan Raghavan describes how drones are playing an undeniable role in radicalizing local populations:
An unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population. The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants.
Moreover, for Sanders – who correctly identifies the disastrous policies of the United States in Cambodia and how its bombing campaign aided in the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – it is befuddling that on drones he is essentially promising more of the same.
Corbyn, on the other hand, has been consistently defiant in his opposition to drones. In October 2015, when ISIS member “Jihadi John” was killed in a Royal Air Force drone strike, Corbyn questioned the legality of the strike, causing an uproar in the media. He recently came under criticism by conservatives for flip-flopping on the issue when asked if he would order a strike if there was no way to capture the enemy. Corbyn’s hesitance was obvious, but he correctly pointed out how the question was based on an unlikely hypothetical situation and the answer would have to depend on the more specific evidence that was provided to him.
On the conflict in Palestine, Sanders’ record is somewhat mixed. During Israel’s assault in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Sanders voted in favor of a bill that defended the right of Israel to defend itself against terrorist attacks from Hamas. This, of course, made little sense, as it was Israel that was the powerful aggressor in the situation, brutalizing the population of Gaza for 51 days. When he was confronted on the issue, Sanders responded irritably, threatening to kick out the protesters.
To be fair to Sanders, and as per his official campaign website, he has called for the blockade of Gaza to end and has harshly criticized the building of settlements in the West Bank. Furthermore, journalist Rania Khalek writes that Sanders has no record of any substantial working relationship with the pro-Israel lobby. She notes that there is not one known instance of him delivering a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful lobby group working on behalf of Israel.
Khalek adds that the majority of young Democrats are not in favor of a hawkish US policy on Palestine. This is especially true of young people and the educated section of the Democratic Party. Khalek points to a survey from last year that shows among three-quarters of the Democratic elite, Israel is considered to have too much influence on US foreign policy. In light of such realities, it is unlikely that his base will abandon him.
Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the UK Labour leader is seen as a major ally of the Palestinian people, and came under heavy scrutiny for proposing to include Hamas and Hezbollah in peace talks and has called for an end to the selling of UK weapons to Israel. While the onslaught from pro-Israel groups and the mainstream media was relentless in accusing Corbyn of anti-Semitism, he refused to budge.
Sanders is likable for some of the reasons Freedland points out, but on foreign policy, he could use a few pointers from Corbyn. With a wave of anti-establishment sentiment engulfing both major US parties, the Vermont senator has a golden opportunity to shift the debate on many of the dubious foreign and military relationships the United States has maintained for decades – bolstering his own vision to create a more equal and just society at home.