Election 2020

Bernie’s Outsider on the Inside

Bernie Sanders wants to reinvent progressive foreign policy. Here’s the man he hopes will make that happen.

Matt Duss (center) attends the Netroots Nation progressive bloggers conference in Las Vegas on July 24, 2010.
Matt Duss (center) attends the Netroots Nation progressive bloggers conference in Las Vegas on July 24, 2010. Isaac Brekken

Matt Duss (center) attends the Netroots Nation progressive bloggers conference in Las Vegas on July 24, 2010. Isaac Brekken

This is one in a series of profiles of the people advising the 2020 Democratic field on foreign policy.

When Bernie Sanders said in a CBS interview last Sunday that it was “unfair to simply say everything” was bad in Cuba under Fidel Castro, it sparked outcry in Washington and the battleground state of Florida. A traditional Democratic presidential campaign might have backtracked and done damage control.

Instead, the Vermont senator doubled down at a fiery Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Tuesday night, parrying blows from other Democratic presidential contenders as he defended Cuban literacy programs while rebuking Castro’s authoritarianism. As Sanders sticks to his guns, he’s backed up by his chief foreign-policy advisor, Matt Duss, who has very publicly used the controversy to point out the hypocrisy and moral blinders in the rest of the foreign-policy establishment. 

“Lots of outrage over positive comments about Cuba’s education system from the ‘MBS is a bold reformer’ crowd,” Duss tweeted on Tuesday before the debate, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence believes orchestrated the murder of a Washington Post columnist critical of the government. A day later, after former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak died, Duss tweeted: “As the DC establishment gins up outrage over some complimentary words about Cuban literacy programs, a timely reminder that they backed this dictator for decades, and continue to back his even worse successor.”

With the presidential primaries in full swing, Democratic foreign-policy pros are clamoring to join different campaigns they hope can oust President Donald Trump from office. Some contenders, including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden, have hundreds of influential former senior officials and experts in their camp carefully crafting memos and talking points and policy positions for their candidate. 

For Sanders, much of that work falls to Duss. Most advisors carefully avoid the public spotlight, leaving the bulk of public messaging to the phalanx of campaign spokespeople crowding the race. But Duss, a relative anomaly among campaign aides, remains a feisty Twitter presence, willing to publicly spar with any of Sanders’s critics over foreign policy. 

The former journalist and think tank blogger joined Sanders’s Senate team in 2017, shortly after Trump’s surprising journey to the White House jolted Washington’s establishment and threw into questions decades of bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. Now, he has emerged from inside-the-Beltway obscurity to become one of the most influential advisors to the Democratic front-runner—and along the way has helped Sanders craft a substantive foreign-policy platform from the ground up.

If Sanders is a household name across the country, Duss has cultivated his own reputation among Washington insiders as a foil to the Democratic old guard. He personifies a small but increasingly vocal group of experts on the left who are challenging their own party’s foreign-policy orthodoxies, including heavy defense spending, staunch support for Israel, long-standing U.S. ties with autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and expansive free trade agreements.

In calling for the creation of a new foreign-policy consensus that would buck those orthodoxies, Duss doesnt just take aim at Democrats—but also at Trump. Despite the presidents reputation as a wrecking ball to the establishment, he has in many ways simply espoused a throatier version of longtime U.S. foreign-policy positions, from securitizing immigration to overhyping the global war on terrorism to siding with autocrats.

“One of the most dangerous ideas in this city is that Donald Trump is a break from the status quo, rather than a product of the status quo,” Duss said Wednesday at the Foreign Policy-Quincy Institute Forum in Washington.

Foreign policy doesn’t dominate presidential elections and certainly isn’t the most important issue in the internecine primary season. But Sanders—currently leading a crowded field that includes Biden, Buttigieg, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—needs to show voters he can respond to questions and attacks on foreign policy that arise during the campaign. After his comments on Cuba, all his primary rivals zeroed in on what appeared to be a vulnerable flank for Sanders, especially at Tuesday’s South Carolina debate.

That’s where Duss comes in, furnishing Sanders with research, talking points, and advice on the hot-button issues that arise in the marathon of debates and town halls. 

“During the primaries, its rare that foreign policy is a top issue, but it can become a top issue very quickly in moments of crisis,” Duss said. “I think those moments of crisis are where a candidates principles and values and ideas really come into play.”

Most foreign-policy advisors cut their teeth in government or academia for decades. Working for a candidate who spurns the establishment, Duss fittingly is an exception, despite his years working in Washington. 

“He’s the outsider on the inside,” said Sarah Margon, a former colleague of Duss’s and director of foreign-policy advocacy at the Open Society Foundations.

Duss, born in a small town north of New York City, grew up in a close-knit evangelical community. His father’s family was one of millions displaced by World War II and the subsequent Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe; they emigrated to the United States when his father was 2. 

“We’re a family of refugees. … That’s always been part of my understanding of where we came from,” he recounted to the Nation last year, which published a lengthy profile on him.

Music, not foreign policy, was one of Duss’s biggest life passions—until the 9/11 attacks galvanized in him a sense of wanting to do more on U.S. politics and policy toward the Middle East. He earned an undergraduate degree at 31 and a master’s degree at 34 in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Washington. Once he moved back east to Washington, D.C., he began writing prolifically on foreign-policy issues for left-leaning outlets, including the American Prospect. In 2008, he joined the Center for American Progress (CAP), where he would spend the next six years researching, editing, and writing on foreign policy, including for CAP’s blog, ThinkProgress. While at CAP, Duss was “consistently trying to move things to the left,” said Margon, who previously worked with Duss at the think tank. (He hasn’t abandoned his passion for music though, as he and his colleagues attest.)

In his writings, he targeted parts of the left as much as the right, especially the neoconservative movement, over U.S. foreign policy, particularly when it came to the Middle East. Alongside articles rebuking prominent Republican hawks like John Bolton were articles attacking Democratic luminaries, including Sen. Bob Menendez—now the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—for pushing sanctions against Iran. 

He was an outspoken critic of U.S. policy toward Israel, Washington’s closest democratic ally in the Middle East, and became a central figure in an heated internal debate among Democratic ranks over Israel—a rift that continues to this day. 

“Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values,” he wrote in one 2010 article.

He left CAP in 2014 to head the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), a small nonprofit based in Washington that focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His positions earned him charges of anti-Semitism from right-wing media outlets and even a Republican congressman, who in 2015 falsely accused Duss’s family members of anti-Semitism for their past remarks on Israel—a move one Duss’s colleagues  sharply rebuked as a “sleazy ad hominem attack.” The attacks didn’t deter Duss. 

“He’s a gentle giant with a spine of steel,” joked Margon, alluding to Duss’s stocky 6-foot-5-inch frame. 

Trump has clearly positioned himself as staunchly pro-Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and unveiling a Middle East peace plan with no Palestinian buy-in—policies that could earn him sorely needed votes in battleground states like Florida. Democrats, in contrast, are still wrestling with how Israel fits into their foreign-policy platform. Sanders, like his foreign-policy advisor, has punched through political taboos in Washington, referring to Israel as an “occupying power” and labeling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “racist.” 

In the primaries, Sanders’s opponents have latched on to his stance on Israel, and his comments on Cuba, to attack the front-runner, arguing that he leans too far left to win a general election against Trump.

“I don’t want, as a Democrat, to be explaining why our nominee is encouraging people to look on the bright side of the Castro regime when we’re going into the election for our lives,” Buttigieg said at a CNN town hall on Monday. 

Sanders refused to back down on his praise for Castro’s literacy program, though he condemned the Cuban leader’s authoritarian rule, or his past sympathies for the socialist regime in Nicaragua. 

“Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy. And that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran—and when dictatorships, whether it’s the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that,” Sanders said at Tuesday’s debate.

In many ways, Sanders’s 2020 campaign strikes the same tone as in 2016, where he lost the nomination to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But many progressive experts agree he has added more substance to his foreign-policy platform, which was an Achilles’s heel in his 2016 contest against Clinton. “If you ask a national security expert: Should the campaign have been talking about national security more? They’re going to say yes,” Joseph Cirincione, a senior Sanders advisor and president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focused on conflict and nuclear weapons issues, told Foreign Policy in 2016. “I think Sen. Sanders should have talked more, and earlier, about his national security vision.”

If Sanders seems more serious about foreign policy now, some experts and congressional aides say it’s thanks in no small part to Duss, who joined his Senate staff shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Duss himself shies away from claiming credit, saying Sanders already had clear foreign-policy priorities for decades. “Adding some heft and detail to [Sanders’s] foreign-policy vision was not difficult because we’re building on a set of very clearly defined principles,” Duss said.

Some of Duss’s former colleagues were surprised by his decision to go to Capitol Hill after spending so many years criticizing the establishment from the outside. “It struck me as an interesting move because I think of Matt as an incredibly thoughtful policy person, but I didn’t think of him as a ‘get into politics and foreign-policy making’ person,” said Lara Friedman, a friend and former colleague who now runs FMEP.

Since 2017, Sanders has become one of the most prominent voices in the Senate on congressional war powers authority and ending U.S. military support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, where a yearslong civil war has plunged the country into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Sanders teamed up with an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans to advance a resolution that would roll back the president’s authority to engage in military conflicts without prior congressional approval. Duss played a key behind-the-scenes role in passing the resolution; even in the hyperpartisan atmosphere of Washington, he was “very professional and great to work with” and “always willing to keep the bipartisan channels of communication open,” one Senate Republican aide told Foreign Policy

Some lawmakers who voted against the resolution saw it as a dangerous constraint on a president’s ability to swiftly respond to national security threats; Trump ultimately vetoed it. But Sanders and other backers saw it as an important legislative victory, exercising a congressional muscle that hadn’t been flexed in generations and helping to push the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Houthi rebels to the negotiating table.

The war powers resolution “played a very positive role with regard to the Saudi and Emirati coalition, making clear that they had lost the support of Congress and that they needed to make some changes and move more forcefully toward a diplomatic resolution,” Duss said.

For his former colleagues, the war powers resolution also underscored how Duss wasn’t just trying to fight the proverbial Washington blob but to work with them to make changes.He didn’t agree with the Washington establishment on many foreign-policy issues, but he still built ties with many of them when there was the opportunity or a need,” Margon said.

With an eye on the Oval Office, Sanders and his team, including Duss, are now fleshing out details on his platform with an eye toward the general election. Top national security issues include North Korea, Venezuela, and extricating the United States from costly conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

On North Korea, Sanders set himself apart from Democrats by praising Trump for opening a dialogue with Kim Jong Un on denuclearization talks. Sanders has said he would be open to more of that continued engagement with North Korea—but only after there was genuine groundwork for progress, rather than what he has called an empty photo-op.

Sanders has also broken with Democrats in rebuking Trump’s decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela, after leftist strongman Nicolás Maduro extended his grab for power. Duss said a Sanders administration would seek to enlist allies to help work out a diplomatic solution—unlike the Trump administration, which has ramped up economic pressure on the Maduro regime and even broached a U.S. invasion to oust him.

“The Trump administration policy has actually made the situation worse,” Duss said. A Sanders administration would seek to “facilitate real talks” between the opposition and the Maduro government with an eye toward securing free and fair elections, he said. “The focus here should be on supporting the right of Venezuelans to determine their own future.”

In dealing with both North Korea and Venezuela—as well as Iran, Cuba, Russia, and a host of other countries—the Trump administration has vastly expanded the use of U.S. financial and economic sanctions, leveraging America’s dominant financial position in the world to strong-arm friends and foes alike. Sanders, Duss said, is reevaluating America’s knee-jerk use of the financial weapon. 

“We have just been using these sanction tools all over the place. I would say even abusing them,” Duss said. “Sanctions are an important tool, but we need to take a hard look at where and how we use those tools and not just keep piling them on in ways that ultimately dont advance policy goals.”

Whether it’s on Israel, Venezuela, North Korea, or the broader role of the United States as the world’s military and financial policeman, the Sanders approach to foreign policy represents a break with decades of Democratic orthodoxy. A Sanders win in the primaries would prompt the same kind of tectonic shift for Democrats that Trump’s victory ushered in for Republicans. 

And even if Sanders loses, many experts agree he has already tugged the party to the left on issues such as health care and education—and, perhaps, foreign policy. Regardless of whether Sanders ultimately lands the Democratic nomination, the progressive push on foreign policy will likely live on—and the party can in part thank, or blame, Duss for that.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer