Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sanders on foreign policy: basically fine

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I haven't seen anyone do for Sanders on foreign policy what Mike Konczal and Peter Eavis did for him on the banks - so here, I just want to point out three instances where supposedly inadequate answers he gave in his Daily News interview were perfectly fine. This is not to say that I necessarily agree with all of them, but they certainly demonstrate the competence and fluency in foreign policy that one would reasonably expect; when he's wrong, he's wrong for the exact same reasons that Clinton is wrong, which is why you won't hear any of her apologists correcting him from the left.

Sanders: I'm just telling you that I happen to believe...anybody help me out here, because I don't remember the figures, but my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza. Does that sound right? 
Daily News: I think it's probably high, but we can look at that. 
Sanders: I don't have it in my number...but I think it's over 10,000... 
Daily News: Okay, while we were sitting here, I double-checked the facts. It's the miracle of the iPhone. My recollection was correct. It was about 2,300, I believe, killed, and 10,000 wounded.
Sanders' substantive argument here is that "the attacks against Gaza were indiscriminate and that a lot of innocent people were killed who should not have been killed." This conclusion is directly at odds with Clinton's refusal to acknowledge those deaths, and it also happens to be correct. That he got there by on-the-spot conflating the dead with the injured does zero to undermine his reasoning, which merely needs to maintain that the violence was unnecessary and disproportionate.

Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the U.S. military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he's got the right policy there? 
Sanders: I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is that drones are a modern weapon. When used effectively, when taking out ISIS or terrorist leaders, that's pretty impressive. When bombing wedding parties of innocent people and killing dozens of them, that is, needless to say, not effective and enormously counterproductive. So whatever the mechanism, whoever is in control of that policy, it has to be refined so that we are killing the people we want to kill and not innocent collateral damage.

Sanders has correctly identified the central problem of drone warfare as laid out by essentially every major figure out there, from Rand Paul to Barack Obama to Noam Chomsky. The best solution is obviously to end US military interventions altogether, but as long as you are blowing up terrorists, the basic challenge is to avoid killing civilians while you're doing it.

This kind of problem doesn't have some kind of correct, abstract / acontextual solution: it depends just as much on the political circumstances of the moment, of what you can get through Congress or get away with unilaterally, as it does on all of the organizational and operation considerations that determine military policy. Coming into this with some set answer based on whatever whitepaper you commissioned and memorized a few weeks before would if anything be misleading about the fluidity of the politics at play, and would suggest precisely the sort of intellectual and analytical rigidity that one must avoid when approaching such problems. What Sanders needed to demonstrate here is that he is thinking about this the right way and has in mind the fundamental considerations that most Americans do.

Here, he makes a point of demonstrating sympathy for the victims and concern about the problem of blowback, two major priorities that most on the left share and that most of his opponents lack. Clinton, for example, has explicitly said "numbers about potential civilian casualties I take with a somewhat big grain of salt because there has [sic] been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties." While her supporters may be impressed by her detailed fluency in studies that downplay the human cost of drone warfare, many Americans (and many drone victims, for that matter) may not be.

Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander? 
Sanders: Imprison him. 
Daily News: Where? 
Sanders: Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot. I suppose, somewhere near the locale where that person was captured. The best location where that individual would be safely secured in a way that we can get information out of him. 

Again, Sanders is being asked a question with an answer that is utterly contingent on particular circumstances, including the nationality, of the terrorist; the location and circumstances of her capture, and the particular treaties and diplomatic relationships in play; and the various political constraints and considerations of the moment. Sanders hasn't thought about it precisely because this is not even necessarily a Presidential-level decision, and certainly not one you would lay out beforehand; it is very close to asking Sanders where the SOCOM commander should visit three years into his term.

The actual problem here is that the interviewer is playing coy with too-general phrasing; what he is really asking, as he later admits ("Yeah"), is "do [you] believe that terrorists could be safely imprisoned in the United States". And Sanders' response to this substantive question is specific and direct: "the answer is yes". This, incidentally, is the standard Democratic position endorsed by both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Note that these three answers don't just demonstrate that Sanders has the competence and expertise in foreign policy that his critics say he lacks; they also happen to be better than Clinton's position in two cases, and identical to it in the third. Moreover, they demonstrate a sharp and insightful analytical disposition that hones in on fundamental considerations and points of disagreement that is quite at odds with Clinton's tendency to get lost in completely frivolous technocratic trivia - one that, if it's more than a show and is actually influencing her judgment, appears to routinely make her miss the forest for the trees.