Let’s Talk About Bernie Sanders and the Middle East

by Derek Davison

Foreign policy has taken a backseat to domestic issues in the Democratic primary thus far. There are two explanations for this. One is that the Democratic base simply doesn’t see foreign policy—apart from “terrorism,” which at least has a foreign policy component to it—as a key issue. The other is that neither of the party’s two realistic contenders (in other words, let’s leave Martin O’Malley out of this) has much to gain from any kind of detailed scrutiny of their own policies and records.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as Eli Clifton pointed out in this blog several days ago, is a hawk. Although she often touts her foreign policy experience in general terms and has been increasingly comfortable attacking Senator Bernie Sanders from the right on foreign policy issues in recent weeks, her overall foreign policy views are substantially to the right of the average Democratic primary voter. This stance will do little to hurt her (and may even help) in the general election against a Republican nominee who will surely be more hawkish. But for now, at a time when she can’t afford to alienate any potential primary voters, she has little to gain from a thorough foreign policy debate.

For Sanders, the issue is more straightforward. Foreign policy simply isn’t an area in which he’s particularly comfortable. Nor has he paid much attention to the matter until his candidacy really began to gain at the polls. When he comments on foreign policy at all, Sanders often steers the discussion to topics like inequality, which he frequently discusses in a domestic context, or to questions of judgment rather than specific policies. He has, for example, cited Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq (Sanders, then in the House, voted against the authorization) as an example of her poor judgment (the same issue that played such a large role in Clinton’s 2008 primary loss to Barack Obama). He has even gone so far as to compare her to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Clinton’s usual response to this attack—that then-President-elect Obama obviously trusted her judgment enough to ask her to become his secretary of state—is somewhat blunted by an examination of her record in that office, which includes a disastrous intervention in Libya, a failed surge in Afghanistan, the now-defunct “reset” with Russia, and a muddled (at best) response to the Arab Spring.

The issue of judgment is entirely fair and may even be the key foreign policy factor for voters to weigh, given that a president will inevitably be expected to react to events that were unforeseen during his or her campaign. But it is troubling that so little attention has been paid to the issue of foreign policy, and that so little is known about what both of these candidates plan to do should they become president. This is particularly so for Sanders, whose limited foreign policy record doesn’t even give us much from which to extrapolate. Foreign policy is important, obviously, but it’s also one of the few areas where a Democratic president will be able to actually accomplish anything, in the face of a Congress that will likely be at least partly controlled by a resistant Republican Party.

With all that in mind, then, what can we make of Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy positions, particularly with respect to the Middle East? Let’s examine his views on six major issues: Israel-Palestine, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and climate change.


In contrast to his consistent left-wing views on many issues of domestic importance, Sanders’s positions on Israel-Palestine have evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) from heterodox support for an independent Palestinian state to a far more politically mainstream, generally pro-Israel stance. In 1988, when Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he called for the United States to use its influence to “demand that these countries sit down and talk about a reasonable settlement which will guarantee Israel’s sovereignty, which must be guaranteed, but will begin to deal with the rights of Palestinian refugees.” In 1991, then-Congressman Sanders voted in favor of withholding tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to Israel unless it agreed to stop settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza.

Indeed, Politico reported earlier this week that due to Sanders’s past support for an independent Palestinian state, his past criticism of Israel, and some of his recent remarks on Iran (see below), “Sanders is still not considered an ally by Washington’s pro-Israel community.” In 2014, Sanders was one of only 21 senators who refused to co-sponsor a lopsided Senate resolution that condemned Hamas’s role in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war while saying nothing about the massive Palestinian suffering caused by Israeli bombing. Certainly compared to Clinton, whose ties to pro-Israel mega-donor Haim Saban are well known, Sanders is not a favorite of the AIPAC crowd.

However, Sanders has never strayed all that far from the traditional American policy of support for a two-state solution, and in recent years his criticism of Israel seems to have been muted. His 2014 vote notwithstanding, Sanders defended, even in the face of hostile constituents, its incredibly destructive bombing campaign. Recently, in October, the Sanders campaign removed a pro-Palestinian student activist group from one of its rallies, although it later apologized for having done so. Sanders’s more moderate recent views on Israel, although probably not costing him much support, are probably out of step with those of his mostly young supporters given that polls show that American support for Israel is lowest among young people.

The Islamic State

On the one foreign policy issue that Democratic voters care about, Sanders has offered little that differs from Clinton or the Obama administration. He opposes the direct engagement of U.S. ground troops to fight IS, but then again so do Clinton and Obama (although Obama’s deployment of special operations forces arguably contradicts his words). Instead, like Clinton, Sanders has argued that a regional coalition, with American support, must confront IS. In a speech in November, Sanders laid out this philosophy:

“A new and strong coalition of Western powers, Muslim nations, and countries like Russia must come together in a strongly coordinated way to combat ISIS, to seal the borders that fighters are currently flowing across, to share counter-terrorism intelligence, to turn off the spigot of terrorist financing, and to end support for exporting radical ideologies,” the Vermont senator said Thursday during an address at Georgetown University.

Sanders pointed specifically to counties like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – “countries of enormous wealth and resources” – to join the coalition.

“Wealthy and powerful Muslim nations in the region can no longer sit on the sidelines and expect the United States to do their work for them,” he added. “As we develop a strongly coordinated effort, we need a commitment from these countries that the fight against ISIS takes precedence over the religious and ideological differences that hamper the kind of cooperation that we desperately need.”

One can take issue with some of the details in Sanders’s speech. For example, the “turn[ing] off the spigot of terrorist financing” is more relevant to fighting a network like al-Qaeda than a state-like entity such as IS, which derives a large portion of its financing from “taxing” (or, more accurately, extorting) money from the people living in the territories it controls. But what really sticks out here is that Sanders isn’t really offering anything new or any plans to achieve what the Obama administration hasn’t. Washington has been trying to build a regional coalition, but the disparate elements that would need to come together for such a coalition to really succeed—Turkey; the Kurds; Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies; Iran; the various factions fighting the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan civil wars; Iraq’s sectarian militias and its Shi?a-dominated government; Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and so on—are too focused on fighting each other to worry about fighting IS. How would President Sanders overcome those challenges? It’s not clear—though, to be fair, it’s not clear how any American president could.


With all due respect to the chaos and suffering caused by the ongoing civil wars in Yemen and Libya—both of which IS is exploiting—Syria’s civil war has been far more critical to the group’s rise. Negotiating an end to that war is not only a humanitarian imperative but essential to the mission of weakening and ultimately eliminating IS as a threat. A President Sanders would indeed approach this conflict somewhat differently from a President Clinton. In the past several weeks, Clinton has suggested on multiple occasions that the United States and its coalition partners should institute a no-fly zone over Syria, a policy that, if enacted, would put the U.S. at risk of a military confrontation with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Russian patrons. Sanders opposes the idea of a no-fly zone, as does President Obama and the Pentagon. They argue that imposing a no-fly zone would be risky and require large numbers of those ground troops that Clinton doesn’t want to involve.

Apart from the dispute over the no-fly zone, however, Sanders hasn’t said much about what he would do to try to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable divide between Syrian rebels (backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states) and Assad (backed by Iran and Russia) over Syria’s (and specifically Assad’s) political future. Absent some kind of breakthrough on that front, negotiating an end to the war will be all but impossible. Again, it’s not entirely clear what any president could actually do in this regard.


The contrast between Clinton and Sanders is a bit starker on Iran. Sanders has argued that “what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran.” This is virtually the same sentiment that President Obama has expressed on a number of occasions. Sanders did not call for opening an embassy in Tehran tomorrow. Literally, he said “Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should.” But that didn’t stop the Clinton campaign from distorting his remarks in precisely that way in order to attack his supposed “naivety.” Clinton made virtually the same argument, in a similarly misleading way, about Barack Obama’s naivety during the 2008 primary, and yet Clinton now counts the nuclear deal, a fruit of Obama’s willingness to negotiate even with “enemies,” as a diplomatic success.

During a debate in November, Sanders did say that “the Muslim nations in the region—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan—all of these nations, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty, their boots on the ground. They are going to have to take on ISIS.” This could be construed as a call for more Iranian involvement in Syria, even though Iran and the U.S.—to say nothing of Iran and the Saudis or Turkey—are on opposite sides when it comes to Assad’s future. But the context makes it pretty clear that this was just a restatement of his (very vague) “coalition” program to combat IS, not (despite the Clinton campaign’s spin) a comment in favor of Iran’s current role in Syria.

Saudi Arabia

Sanders, perhaps reflecting an uncertainty about the nuances of Middle Eastern regional politics, has spoken frequently of the need for countries like Saudi Arabia to get more involved in Syria and in the anti-IS fight. But as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp writes, the Saudis, and their fellow Gulf states, have arguably done too much on both fronts, aiding some of the most extreme elements within the Syrian rebellion and helping to create the chaos on which IS thrives. Asking these countries to “put some skin in the game,” as Sanders has done, misses the point entirely. They have been putting skin in the game—and that’s part of the problem. To be fair, Sanders has pointed out that “we have concerns about Saudi Arabia,” but that may be the understatement of the campaign.

In general, Sanders appears to have an odd soft spot for Middle Eastern autocrats that contrasts with his message of leftist populism. Also in that November debate, he referred to Jordan’s King Abdullah as “one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place.” Abdullah is an absolute monarch who, although not as repressive as, say, the Saudi regime, has been cited by international NGOs for suppressing freedom of expression within Jordan. Sanders’s affection for Abdullah is not as disconcerting as many Republicans’ love for Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but it’s still a bit troubling.

Climate Change

The impact of climate change on issues like food prices and migration is one of the contributing factors behind Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, upheavals that in hindsight have caused far more instability and suffering than they’ve alleviated. Further rises in food prices and the onset of water shortages will likely contribute to more instability in the decades to come. Sanders has been explicit in acknowledging the link between climate change and national security. But sheer voter indifference has meant that neither his campaign nor Clinton’s has spent a great deal of time on the issue.

Photo of Bernie Sanders by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. Anyone who thinks that American political corruption began with Citizens United isn’t paying attention – or doesn’t know American political history. One only has to look at Washington’s blind support for Israel since the Six-Day War, and the American public’s blind support of Washington’s blind support to know that there is no one in the entire country with passable presidential credentials who has a clue how to deal with the Middle East. Historically, what America has done so well is hand billions of dollars in “foreign aid,” together with lots of war toys, to Israel each year in support of its illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine, while slapping ever more sanctions on Iran for . . . for what? Supporting Palestine’s cause instead of Israel’s and building an imaginary nuclear bomb? A President Saunders could be braindead and not do worse than virtually all his predecessors vis-à-vis the Middle East.

  2. regarding Syria, the author was remiss to include the US’s role in arming Syrian militants. Like Saudi Arabia, it’s NOT the case that Obama has done too little.

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