As Americans spend the next two years debating who should be the next president of the United States, domestic issues are likely to take the forefront of media discussion. Should we establish a single-payer health care system? How should we address climate change? What should the US’s immigration policy look like?
But in each of these areas, the composition of Congress is likely to be more decisive in terms of the actual policy the next president enacts. However, there is one role the next president will play where the individual sitting in the Oval Office will make almost all of the important decisions: that of the commander-in-chief.
The presidency has become increasingly more powerful in determining the course of the foreign affairs of the country, particularly since Congress has stepped back from its traditional role of asserting war powers. Almost every day, the president is briefed on international threats and covert operations, and a massive overseas menu of life-or-death choices. As President Barack Obama showed, the modern White House can even engage in an extensive war of choice — as he did in Libya — without the consent of Congress.
Get our free emails
Thus, it is very important to examine the ideas, values and records of all of the candidates as they relate to foreign policy, because there is no arena of governance where the president exerts more power relative to Congress or the judiciary.
Although it is still early in the Democratic primary race and we still don’t know what the full roster looks like, early indicators such as polling of grassroots progressive organizations suggest that the US’s political left will coalesce behind two candidates: Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is likely to enter the race, and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who announced her intention to seek the party’s nomination on February 9.
In the area of domestic economic policy, Senators Warren and Sanders have much in common, but the former tends to focus on the regulatory state, while the latter focuses on direct government redistribution. This is a difference that is made clear by, for instance, Senator Sanders’s commitment to pursuing a single-payer health care system and Senator Warren’s position that is more focused on a range of cost-cutting measures.
While both Warren and Sanders believe the economic policy establishment to be mistaken, Warren wants to roll economic policy back to essentially the pre-Reagan years. Sanders, on the other hand, has believed the economy is unfairly tilted toward the wealthy virtually his entire life.
Like on economic policy, the two candidates both want to see a more left-wing approach to foreign policy, but they differ in their degree of radicalism. But by looking at their voting record, their staffing and their public leadership, it is clear that Sanders is offering a deeper critique of the US foreign policy order, whereas Warren has a far less radical vision that hews closer to the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal norms.
Two Foreign Policy Speeches
Late last year, both Warren and Sanders delivered foreign policy addresses to lay out their visions of the world. The two speeches demonstrate how the two view the foibles of US foreign policy.
For Warren, US foreign policy had basically been on the right track until the Reagan years, where international financial policies went off the rails:
There’s a story we tell as Americans, about how we built an international order — one based on democracy, human rights, and improving economic standards of living for everyone. It wasn’t perfect — we weren’t perfect — but our foreign policy benefited a lot of people around the world.
It’s a good story, with long roots. But in recent decades, something changed.
Beginning in the 1980s, Washington’s focus shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites, both here at home and around the world.
In Warren’s telling, US foreign policy went off track mostly because of financial policy errors. “Mistakes piled on mistakes. Reckless, endless wars in the Middle East. Trade deals rammed through with callous disregard for our working people,” she said. “Extraordinary expansion of risk in the global financial system. Why? Mostly to serve the interests of big corporations while ignoring the interests of American workers.” This fits the summary she offered at the end of the address: “We can build a foreign policy that works for all Americans, not just wealthy elites.”
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Warren’s foreign policy address was built off her vision of the problems with US domestic policy: that it simply tilts far too much toward the rich. That’s why she wants a policy that “works for all Americans, not just wealthy elites.” But it isn’t Americans who are gunned down by Israeli military units subsidized by the US taxpayer or blown to pieces by Saudi bombs provided by US defense firms. Moreover, while the wealthy do hold an incredible amount of power over how US foreign policy interacts with, for instance, global financial institutions, they aren’t the main reason the US has built an international assassination regime or maintains ties with a network of countries that abuse human rights.
It’s no wonder that Warren’s address seemed to gloss over the US’s complicity in human rights abuses in Latin America and the Middle East, and completely ignored its disastrous misadventures in Indochina. It also didn’t once mention one of the US’s greatest foreign policy errors, which is to subsidize the Israeli occupation and repression of the Palestinian people.
Sanders’s foreign policy speech, on the other hand, does not seek to simply impose the senator’s domestic policy view onto international affairs. He offers a more traditional left-wing condemnation of US foreign policy as often ignoring human rights in favor of short-term alliances. He takes aim at a number of right-leaning foreign leaders allied to the United States, from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. To Sanders, the problem isn’t just wealthy elites, an area he agrees with Warren on, but also authoritarianism that abandons commitments to human rights. Unlike Warren, he does not portray the biggest losers of US foreign policy as Americans; he indicates that there is a compelling case to be made for a global movement against authoritarianism and oligarchy that would benefit Americans and everyone else.
“We need to counter oligarchic authoritarianism with a strong global progressive movement that speaks to the needs of working people, that recognizes that many of the problems we are faced with are the product of a failed status quo,” he said in his address. “We need a movement that unites people all over the world who don’t just seek to return to a romanticized past, a past that did not work for so many, but who strive for something better.
Sanders Has Been More Willing to Stick His Neck Out on Foreign Policy
In interviews with Truthout, longtime foreign policy watchers who lobby lawmakers on Capitol Hill on peace-related issues described the difference between Sanders and Warren as the difference between a politician who is willing to step out first and take political risks versus a politician who has more slowly come around to a progressive critique of US foreign policy and then agreed to co-sponsor legislation on it.
Robert Naiman, the policy director of Just Foreign Policy (who is also on Truthout’s board of directors), pointed to the recent Yemen War Power Resolution as an example. The resolution, authored by Sanders, marked the first time the US Senate had ever used its authority to end US participation in a war. Although the resolution did not end the war because the GOP-controlled House did not follow suit, it marked a historic moment in congressional antiwar action.
Warren was an early co-sponsor of the bill, so it wasn’t like she had a fundamentally different position. But she wasn’t the person who got the ball rolling,” Naiman said. “They’ve both been [more] good than bad compared to others, but [Sanders] is the one who led at a time when nobody else was doing it.”
Paul Kawika Martin, the senior director for policy and political affairs at Peace Action, offered a similar take on Sanders’s leadership on Yemen. “He was early and was really willing to stick his neck out on that issue,” he said. “For Senator Warren, we have less of a track record for her, but she has slowly come to take some good votes and do some leadership items on foreign policy issues, specifically recently with the no-first-use bill.”
Since the 2016 election, Sanders has used his office as a platform to promote a fundamentally different kind of US foreign policy. He hired Foundation for Middle East Peace President Matt Duss (a former colleague of mine at the Center for American Progress) to lead his foreign policy operation, and since then, he has been a leader on human rights policy in a way that Warren has not. While Sanders tapped Duss, a known dissenter in the foreign policy community of Washington, DC, Warren chose to hire ex-Obama administration official Sasha Baker, a far more conventional pick. This has naturally led them to choose divergent paths on the most controversial foreign policy issues.
For instance, in June 2017, the Senate voted overwhelmingly for a package of sanctions aimed at North Korea, Russia and Iran. By bundling the sanctions together, Senate leadership made the political stakes high for voting for the legislation.
Just a week earlier, ISIS terrorists attacked the Iranian parliament, provoking worldwide sympathy. Sanders argued that these additional sanctions would undermine diplomatic efforts with Iran, and voted no. He was one of two senators to take that stand, joining Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul. Warren, on the other hand, voted yes — sending a message to Iran that anti-Iranian politics in the US Congress trumped solidarity in the face of ISIS terror.
Sanders’s and Warren’s Stances on Israel and Palestine
Although Sanders has always been on the left side of foreign policy debates, he has taken political risks in speaking out on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since his 2016 campaign. Standing on a New York debate stage, he angrily denounced former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unwillingness to sympathize with occupied Palestinians. Since then, he has spoken at conferences at the liberal Zionist pro-peace group J Street, urging opposition to the right-wing Netanyahu government. Although J Street opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it has found its footing as a mainstream DC-based group that is critical of the Israeli occupation.
Like J Street, Sanders has continued to support military aid to Israel and is critical of BDS. It is also unclear whether he would be willing to endorse a one-state solution to the conflict that would guarantee equal rights for all; however, he has gone further than any senator in openly musing about the possibility of the latter. “If Palestinians in the occupied territories are to be denied self-determination in a state of their own, will they receive full citizenship and equal rights in a single state?” he asked during his 2018 J Street speech. “These are very serious questions with significant implications for the United States’s broader regional partnerships and goals, for our interests and our values.”
Warren “has not spoken at a J Street event to date,” J Street Senior Vice President of Public Engagement Jessica Rosenblum told Truthout.
While Sanders is far from perfect, Warren, on the other hand, has only recently paid attention to the Middle East conflict and only in quiet ways. When Israeli units killed protesters along the border with Gaza, Sanders was outspoken in his outrage, and he didn’t have to be asked about it before loudly condemning the Israeli government. He went on to defend his position on national television.
Warren, on the other hand, was completely silent on the Israeli killing of Gaza’s protesters until I queried her office on the matter in April of 2018. “I am deeply concerned about the deaths and injuries in Gaza,” Warren said. “As additional protests are planned for the coming days, the Israel Defense Forces should exercise restraint and respect the rights of Palestinians to peacefully protest.”
To be clear, both Sanders and Warren stand out among the majority of the US Congress, who either said nothing about the killings of Gaza’s protesters, or who actively defended the Israeli military’s behavior. But Sanders approached the issue head-on — addressing it in unprompted statements, television appearances and as part of his speech at a J Street conference.
With that being said, Sanders has sometimes faced criticism from his left for his opposition to BDS and his unwillingness to go further on Israeli-Palestinian issues. In April 2017, Sanders joined all of his colleagues in signing a letter complaining that the United Nations has an anti-Israel agenda. When challenged on this by Al Jazeera’s Dena Takruri, Sanders simply deflected. “I didn’t write that letter. I signed on to that letter. It’s not a letter I would have written,” he said.
When Takruri pressed him on why he opposed BDS, he was similarly vague. “What, if not BDS, is left for Palestinians to do?” she asked.
Sanders replied, “What must be done is that the United States of America must have a Middle East policy which is even-handed, which does not simply supply endless amounts of money, of military support to Israel, but which treats both sides with respect and dignity, and does our best to bring them to the table.”
“While Sanders talks of being even-handed, he and others are moving in the opposite direction by signing up to the [American Israel Public Affairs Committee]-endorsed letter and opposing BDS,” journalist Michael Brown wrote at Electronic Intifada about the episode.
Sanders’s approach to Israel-Palestine is certainly flawed, but Warren’s is virtually nonexistent.
For instance, on the issue of Israeli killings of Palestinian protesters, Warren totally avoided the issue until I asked her press officer about it, effectively going along with the established consensus on the issue through her silence.
Drone Warfare and the Defense Budget
Warren made a name for herself by her principled and brilliant dissents against the Obama administration and the financial industry during the Great Recession. She was a well-deserved thorn in the side to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and top Obama Economic Adviser Larry Summers.
But she never exercised the same leadership against the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
In 2013, Senator Paul engaged in a long-talking filibuster of John Brennan’s CIA nomination to force a debate on Obama’s drone policies.
The filibuster marked the first time the administration was forced to publicly defend its policies in the face of congressional dissent; Brennan himself is one of the individuals who sold Obama on the merits of the targeted killing program, which has been criticized by human rights advocates for its legality and morality. (Sanders is mixed on the program, saying that it has “done some good things” but acknowledging its civilian toll.)
At the conclusion of Paul’s lonely filibuster, the Senate voted to confirm Brennan to the CIA role. Sanders voted against Brennan, one of only three Democratic caucus senators to do so. Warren supported him.
Warren has similarly chosen not to stick her neck out within her role as a member of the powerful Armed Services Committee. While she has been celebrated as a leader in the financial oversight realm for her fierce interrogations of administration officials and finance industry titans, she has not applied her same skill set to probing the overreaches of the defense budget.
In fact, she has to some extent done the opposite. Although both Sanders and Warren voted against the last massive defense budget, Warren supported the 2018 defense authorization bill while Sanders opposed it.
More recently, Warren has been talking about the need to look at the defense budget for cuts. But given that she is an expert on financial issues and has had a powerful seat on the Armed Services Committee, one has to wonder why she has avoided doing so as a senator.
As Politico noted in 2015, Warren’s identity “as a liberal warrior immune to the influence of Big Business hasn’t stopped her from pushing the interests of major defense contractors back home,” as she lobbied to preserve programs the military wanted to cut. Massachusetts-based Raytheon told Politico that it “has a positive relationship with [Senator] Warren, and we interact with her and her staff regularly.”
It is worth mentioning that despite his larger support for cutting the military budget, Sanders has also courted support for defense programs he believes create jobs in Vermont. He, for instance, has been a supporter for the F-35, a fighter jet plagued with cost overruns, because of his perception that its production will support Vermont jobs. Additionally, in 2016 he rivaled Clinton in terms of contributions from defense contractors, although this may reflect general strength among small donor contributors. As Politico noted at the time, “95 percent of his individual contributions from the defense industry came in amounts of $250 or less, while Clinton was more reliant on contributions of at least $1,000, including many from company managers.”
Warren Has Been Slow to Speak on Major Foreign Policy Issues
There is no doubt that Warren does have some liberal instincts about foreign policy; that’s part of why she has come around to more critical and progressive positions in recent years. For instance, in 2014 she defended Israel’s conduct during the brutal war in Gaza; as I mentioned earlier, she was willing to tell me last year that the Israeli government should exercise restraint in how it deals with Palestinian protesters.
But the president cannot view foreign policy as an afterthought. Doing so would put a president at risk of institutional capture. The foreign policy establishment in Washington, DC, can easily end up staffing the National Security Council, Pentagon and State Department of a president who does not take dissenting from the establishment seriously. Warren has, perhaps more than any other senator, zeroed in on the ways the economic policy community has failed, but has paid very little attention to the structural problems with US foreign policy.
Sanders, on the other hand, has used his Senate office to build out a powerful foreign affairs policy and messaging apparatus. It is no surprise, for instance, that only Sanders issued an unprompted statement warning against US intervention in Venezuela’s diplomatic and economic crisis, whereas Warren ignored the issue altogether until she was asked about it by a Bloomberg reporter. Her answer, unlike those she gives on domestic issues, lacked the specifics that one would expect from a politician with a deeper progressive critique of US imperialism.
“In Venezuela, so the first thing we start with is [Nicolás] Maduro is a dictator — he’s terrible, he’s caused terrible harm to his own people — but we have to be very careful about rattling a saber on military intervention,” she told Bloomberg. “You don’t rattle those sabers unless you’re pretty darn sure you can back it up. And [we] need to think about whether that’s the kind of path we want to follow in South America. I believe right now that our principal efforts should go towards supporting the Venezuelan people and not imposing policies that place even greater injury on them.”
She did not offer any specifics, which is odd given her background in finance. Venezuela’s crisis is heavily tied to unwise economic policy decisions made by Venezuela’s government that are compounded by US sanctions. This should have been an area where Warren speaks with expertise.
She similarly told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that she agreed with President Trump’s moves to withdraw some troops from Syria and Afghanistan, but she has rarely discussed those issues as a senator; Sanders meanwhile has been trying to end the war in Afghanistan since the beginning of Obama’s first term as president.
These incidents are simply the most recent reminders of the longtime difference in Sanders’s and Warren’s records: Where Sanders has repeatedly stuck out his neck and taken political risks in the foreign policy arena, Warren has rarely applied the fire that she reserves for economic reforms to the issues of US imperialism and support for repression overseas.