Top Advisor Says Sanders Missed Opportunity on Foreign Policy

Even as they admit to fighting a losing ​electoral​ battle, Sanders’s top security advisors aim to pull the Democratic Party back to the left of Clinton’s hawkishness.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Monday, April 25, 2016. Sanders said he's lost Democratic presidential nominating contests to Hillary Clinton in states with high levels of income inequality, an issue he's centered his campaign on, because not enough low-income people go to the polls. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Monday, April 25, 2016. Sanders said he's lost Democratic presidential nominating contests to Hillary Clinton in states with high levels of income inequality, an issue he's centered his campaign on, because not enough low-income people go to the polls. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images


This story has been updated.

For months, Sen. Bernie Sanders was pushed to name his presidential campaign’s national security advisors for insight on how the Democratic candidate — who himself was surprised by his upstart success — would conduct foreign policy as commander in chief.

The campaign only recently identified a handful of advisors and began to trot them out as the Vermont senator’s path to the nomination looks near a dead end. The echoes of “too little, too late” have left even a top advisor to Sanders to lament that his candidate missed an opportunity on foreign policy.

“If you ask a national security expert: Should the campaign have been talking about national security more? They’re going to say yes,” said Joseph Cirincione, a senior Sanders advisor and president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy and conflict resolution. “I think Sen. Sanders should have talked more, and earlier, about his national security vision.”

“There are many reasons why people like Hillary Clinton, and her foreign policy isn’t one of them,” Cirincione said. “Democratic voters are much more attracted to Bernie Sanders’s vision of how the United States should conduct its affairs in the world.”

Cirincione allowed that foreign policy and national security issues rarely decide primary or national elections, and said it was Sanders’s crusade against economic inequality that gave him a surge of support and ability to turn out huge crowds, particularly among young voters.

“I can’t argue with that logic,” Cirincione said. “I simply believe he would’ve been well served talking more about national security.”

It’s a grim moment for the Sanders camp. Coming off a sizable loss last week in New York, where Sanders hoped his Brooklyn roots and big spending would deliver an upset to rival and front-runner Hillary Clinton, some in the Democratic Party’s establishment are increasingly pressuring the Vermont socialist to drop out (a notion he last month called “absurd.”) He also trailed in all five states that voted Tuesday — Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — with 384 Democratic delegates at stake. He ultimately lost four of five, but pulled out a victory in Rhode Island. 

Election observers and Clinton supporters among the Democratic Party elders argue it is all but mathematically impossible for Sanders to reach the required 2,382 delegates for the nomination; he trailed Clinton by 752 before Tuesday’s votes. Instead, they say, he should help unite Democrats, and focus now on the likely Republican opponent. Regardless of whether GOP front-runner Donald Trump or his closest competitor, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, wins the Republican nomination — and Trump swept all five states Tuesday — either would represent a tectonic shift in American foreign policy from President Barack Obama, a Democrat. At the least, Democratic leaders have said, Sanders should tone down his criticism after growing bitterness between the party’s two 2016 candidates spilled out in unprecedented pugnacity on the debate stage in New York.

Yet Sanders has shown few signs of doing so, despite his long odds. That raises the question of what he — and his campaign’s advisors — hope to achieve, particularly on foreign policy, an issue that has not been his focus but is at the foundation of the former secretary of state’s platform.

Sanders’s foreign policy advisors say it’s now becoming a battle for influence – one that’s ramping up ahead of the convention in July. His aides are looking to leverage his clout into a key role in drafting the party platform in Philadelphia, pushing for a more restrained Democratic foreign policy after Obama leaves office even as Clinton, the likely nominee, promises a more robust national security strategy.

Sanders advisor Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, described the Vermont senator’s approach to the use of military force as “strategic restraint” — more closely aligned, he said, to the popular president’s policies than Clinton’s. Korb said that restraint was the primary reason he joined Obama’s team and not Clinton’s when they both ran for president in 2008 – though Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s close advisor and later, the Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told him he’d never get a job.

The Clinton campaign has pushed back against the argument Sanders is closer to Obama on foreign policy than Clinton. “President Obama tapped Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state after their heated primary because he trusted her judgment to help chart our foreign policy,” Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Lehrich told Foreign Policy. “For four years, she was proud to serve closely with him as America’s top diplomat and a partner in developing his foreign policy.”

Still, polls show a sizable portion of Sanders supporters won’t vote for Clinton if she ultimately wins the nomination — roughly one in four, according to an April McClatchy-Marist poll — which could become a point of concern for Clinton supporters and Democratic Party leadership. Several of Sanders’s foreign policy team — many of whom, granted, are long retired or ensconced in academia — assured Foreign Policy they aren’t looking to join Clinton’s campaign or the next administration should Sanders lose.

Cirincione believes Democratic voters and even Sanders’s campaign will merge behind Clinton’s likely candidacy.

“There is no question that the two camps will unite … in the end it’s about winning the presidency,” Cirincione said. “If this is Trump and Clinton, are Sanders people going to sit this out? I don’t think so. If it’s Trump — no way.”

Another surrogate named by Sanders’s campaign as a top foreign policy advisor may prove one of the most important to influencing the conversation. James Zogby, co-founder and president of the Arab American Institute, is a member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee, and will attend the convention as a super delegate pledged to Sanders.

Zogby said he’d had a few discussions with Sanders by the time the senator dropped his name on “Meet the Press” in February, but had yet to became a formal advisor. He was appreciative of the mention: “When you’re Arab-American in Washington and you do Middle East work, a lot of people talk to you but not a lot of people will admit it.”

Zogby was Jesse Jackson’s deputy campaign manager in the 1984 presidential election, when he also stayed in the race until the convention in order to influence the conversation. This year will be Zogby’s ninth convention.

“What Bernie has done is open a debate on vital issues, from campaign finance to income inequality to use of force in foreign affairs to the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” Zogby told Foreign Policy. “That conversation is not going to end — it’s not ‘pull up your tent and walk away’ because you’re 200 or 300 delegates short. Now there’s a platform to fight over the direction of the country.”

He criticized the same Washington Democratic-consensus that Obama recently bristled against in a lengthy interview with The Atlantic, and said Sanders’s team has a number of experts “who should be listened to more and aren’t listened to enough.”

But even Cirincione said it’s worth asking how Sanders is going to influence the Democratic Party platform if he’s not the nominee. He cautioned Democratic leadership against underestimating support for Sanders’s message.

“I really think the Democratic Party would be making a serious mistake if they did not listen to the foreign policy views presented by Sanders, who represents the majority of the Democratic Party on these issues,” he said, “not Hillary Clinton.”

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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