Sanders May Have Lost the Primary, But He’s Already Won Key Concessions on Foreign Policy

The Democratic primary may be over, but the Vermont senator has secured seats at the table where he’ll push for "the most progressive platform ever passed by the Democratic Party” – including on foreign policy.


Bernie Sanders has accepted he’s lost the war but, having won key battles, he’s the one negotiating the terms of his surrender.

The Vermont Independent senator turned Democratic presidential contender met with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton for two hours behind closed doors at a Washington hotel Tuesday night as the polls closed in the last primary of the Democratic nominating contest. A truce is taking shape between the former Senate colleagues, with Sanders and Clinton vowing in recent days to work together to defeat presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in November.

Still, Sanders came to the summit with a list of demands for reforming the Democratic Party, including a vow to push for “the most progressive platform ever passed” by the party. He’s already staked out positions well to the left of Clinton’s foreign policy on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the war against the Islamic State, setting the stage for potentially bitter fights.

Clinton has a well-documented record of pushing President Barack Obama to surge more troops into Afghanistan and launch a U.S.-led military intervention in Libya. And in many respects, Sanders has not forced her to substantially alter the relatively hawkish approach she’s demonstrated in her years in public office.

Still, he has succeeded — and even exceeded observers’ expectations – in forcing the Democratic Party to re-evaluate its long-held assumptions about the use of military force abroad. Clinton embodies many of those views, and Sanders won millions of votes by coming at her from the left and arguing for a less interventionist foreign policy.  

The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign declined to comment on what contributions Sanders may have made to the foreign policy debate during the Democratic primary. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs also did not respond to a request for comment.

Sanders’s campaign announced he will give a video address from Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, raising expectations that he will formally abandon his quest for the nomination — and yet, the email announcing the address was titled: “The political revolution continues.”

Sanders launched his campaign with a laser-sharp focus on domestic issues like universal health care and an expanded social welfare system. By the end, though, he had succeeded in putting Clinton on the defensive on issues like Libya’s unraveling, the ongoing carnage in Iraq, and international trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she came out against despite backing it countless times as Obama’s top diplomat.

While often deflecting questions on the specifics of his foreign policy, Sanders sought to undermine Clinton’s far deeper experience by questioning her judgment — a strategy Trump has already begun to emulate in his general election campaign.

And Sanders also forced concessions from the DNC that could have a lasting impact on the party far beyond its convention in Philadelphia in July. Due to Sanders’s undeniable success in mobilizing Democratic voters and bringing new ones — particularly young people — into the party, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave him five seats on the powerful committee charged with drafting the party’s platform. Clinton, who ultimately won 3 million more votes than her rival, received just one extra seat.

Even before the picks were named, Sanders’s national security advisors said he should’ve focused more on foreign policy, believing him to be more closely aligned with the Democratic base on the issue than Clinton. Several promised to push for a platform with more liberal foreign policy proposals than she has espoused, particularly in calling for more “evenhandedness” toward Palestinians in language about the long-stymied peace process.

Jim Zogby, a foreign policy advisor for Sanders who was named to the drafting committee, credited the Vermont senator for pushing Clinton to talk more about Palestinian rights and whether Israel had used disproportionate force in retaliatory strikes.

“Ending the taboo about discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a measured and balanced way was historic,” Zogby told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. He has said he will push for the word “occupation” to be included in the platform to describe the nearly five-decade Israeli presence in land Palestinians claim for a future state.

Zogby, founder of the Arab American Institute, has been part of the DNC’s executive body for a decade, including as co-chair of the resolutions committee and co-founder of its “Ethnic Caucus.” He’s hoping Sanders’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian issue will have a trickle-down effect on the party’s platform, leading to a “demilitarization of our foreign policy,” including avoiding nation-building and using force as a last resort.

When Foreign Policy noted that some of those critiques sound as if they could have come from Trump, Zogby pushed back: “Donald Trump may pick up a phrase here or there [from Sanders], but that is in no way, shape, or form the same thing.”

For one of her own picks on the drafting committee, Wasserman Schultz selected Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 authorization that serves as legal foundation for the “war on terror” — both Sanders and Clinton and Clinton voted yes. Lee told Foreign Policy Wednesday she’ll continue to withhold her endorsement, because neutrality will give her a better bargaining position “if we get stuck on some of the big issues.”

She’ll personally push for issues such as an updated authorization for the ISIS fight and auditing of the Pentagon, but allowed Israel-Palestine could potentially be one on which the committee gets stuck. Still, she added, “A very volatile debate is always good.”

In going after Clinton’s judgment on foreign policy, Sanders pulled from Obama’s successful 2008 playbook. Then Sen. Obama constantly hit the woman who would become his first secretary of state for her 2002 vote for the Iraq war, and won.

In the run-up to Clinton’s clinching of the nomination, Democratic leaders’ growing calls for Sanders to tone down his criticism reflected their fears that the judgment attack would hand Trump a ready-made response to questions about his own credibility.

And it has.

Rather than fade away with Sanders’s campaign, Trump has given the judgment attack a second life. In recent weeks, he has parroted Sanders’s language and even invoked his name, wielding the word “judgment” some half a dozen times in as many days in late May and early June.

Lee said of Sanders’s tactic, “I could question his judgment,” referring to his vote for the 2001 authorization. “But I’m not going to say that,” she laughed, “questioning another’s judgment is pushing it a little bit.” Still, she doesn’t think it will hurt Clinton in the general election, particularly against Trump who “has no foreign policy.”

She said Sanders did succeed in raising “an alternative vision on foreign policy: The fact that Democrats can be strong on national security and care about global peace, without continuing to use the military option as a first resort rather than the last.”

It remains too soon to tell how enthusiastically Sanders will campaign for Clinton and what else he would be willing to do to help defeat Trump. The senator continued to withhold his endorsement following Tuesday night’s meeting, though many outside observers believe he will eventually throw his support behind her.

Wasserman Schultz said in a statement timed with the meeting: “Now that our 2016 primaries are officially at their end, Democrats are ready to unify and take on both Trump and the Republican Party that he represents.”

Sanders has long accused Wasserman Schultz of being in the tank for Clinton and replacing her is one of his primary demands, though she insists she’s staying put.

Still, Briggs, the Sanders spokesman, told reporters earlier Tuesday that the senator will not drop out “today, or tomorrow, or the next day” and “plans to stay in this through the Democratic convention.”

Photo credit: MARK WILSON/Staff

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