by Ali Gharib
David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times, spends a lot of time writing on matters of foreign policy and national security. That includes covering the election—a big Washington story, if not the biggest—through the lens of how the candidates match up against each other on exactly these subjects, foreign policy and national security. A recent article Sanger wrote exactly along these lines—examining Bernie Sanders’s apparent discomfort with foreign policy—caught my eye, and not in a good way. Instead, the article was notable for taking an attack Hillary Clinton’s campaign had made against Sanders and reporting it as fact.
The issue involved Sanders’s remarks in a recent debate about warming relations with Iran. Here’s the pertinent section of the article, which ran in Tuesday’s print edition of the Times:
When Mr. Sanders did wade recently into a pressing international topic—arguing that the United States should embrace Iran and move to full diplomatic relations—he had to walk it back almost immediately, saying he was talking about a long-term goal. Iran is still on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism; Mrs. Clinton and her staff seized on the statement to suggest that he was a rookie when it came to the nuances of dealing with authoritarian regimes.
I followed this flap closely—I wrote about it for The Nation—and Sanger’s rendition seems to get it wrong. Here’s the problem: on exactly the narrow point Sanger teased out here, Clinton’s attack was a distortion. Sanger has recreated that distortion almost exactly, even reproducing the exact same terminology the Clinton camp exploited.
Let’s unpack this and let the candidates and their campaigns’ words speak for themselves. Here’s the whole Sanders debate answer that set off this whole row in the first place (with my emphasis):
I think what we have got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran, understanding that Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with. Their support for terrorism and the anti-American rhetoric that we’re hearing from some of their leadership is something that is not acceptable.
On the other hand, the fact that we managed to reach an agreement, something that I very strongly supported, that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and that we did that without going to war, and that I believe we’re seeing a thaw in our relationships with Iran is a very positive step.
So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes. Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has got to be, as we have done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.
Next came Clinton’s attacks; a multi-pronged effort that included Clinton calling the Vermont socialist out in speeches, a statement from pro-Clinton national security experts, a video ad, and a conference call between the Clinton campaign and reporters. Some of these attacks presented Sanders’s argument as if he were saying that we should normalize relations with Iran right now. Here, for example, is Jake Sullivan, a former State official and a Clinton foreign policy adviser, in the aforementioned web video, with my emphasis:
Normal relations with Iran right now? President Obama doesn’t support that idea. Secretary Clinton doesn’t support that idea. And it’s not at all clear why it is that Sen. Sanders is suggesting it.
The problem here, of course, is that it’s not at all clear that Sanders was suggesting it, or that he supports that idea right now either! Sanders did not say that we should “move to full diplomatic relations” right now, as Sullivan’s attack might lead you to believe. But Sanger’s re-cap has bought into this completely.
The Clinton attacks brought with them a flurry of news coverage, including a piece in the Times by Amy Chozick, with contributed reporting from Jason Horowitz and—you guessed it—David Sanger. The Times article, however, repeated the Sullivan attack without pointing out the obvious distortion of Sanders’s initial remarks, in which he made more than clear that re-establishing normal diplomatic relations was definitively not something he was advocating for right now. Does it get more clear than “No, I don’t think we should”?
What It Means to Walk It Back
Next, we have Sanger’s assertion, in his latest article on the subject, that Sanders argued for diplomatic relations and “had to walk it back almost immediately, saying he was talking about a long-term goal.” As I said, I followed this closely, and I’m not sure where it came from. Maybe Sanger was referring to the actual debate answer, where Sanders said, “I think what we have got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran,” then five sentences later qualified it by saying precisely that it wasn’t something that should be done right now. I suppose that could, in a very pedantic way, qualify as walking it back “almost immediately.” But I suspect Sanger is actually referring to the interview Sanders did with the Times in the Chozick article that Sanger himself worked on—with the tip-off being Sanger’s reference to the “long-term goal” in his new entry into the debate.
In the late-January Chozick piece, here’s how the Sanders interview was presented:
In a phone interview on Thursday, Mr. Sanders said the Clinton campaign was taking his words out of context, saying that he meant that normalization with Iran was a worthy “goal,” but not something that should happen right away.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m not going to say it is going to happen in 10 years, I don’t know, it depends,” Mr. Sanders said. “Obviously, I have very, very serious concerns about the behavior of Iran in many areas — in their support of terrorism, etc.”
But he said that just as the United States had reached a point where it was comfortable normalizing relations with Cuba, normalization with Iran was “something I hope we can achieve.”
The problem here, of course, is that no part of this is a walk-back. It’s not even a clarification; this was Sanders simply repeating, in sometimes but not entirely different wording, exactly what he’d said. In fact, the vocabulary is almost exactly the same—”I’m not saying it’s going to happen tomorrow” versus “Can I tell you that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should”—except for the addition of the quoted word “goal.” Even the Cuba comparison remained consistent.
Where, pray tell, is the walk-back? Let me answer that for you: it arises from taking the Clinton camp’s distorted reading of what Sanders said at the debate and starting your brief history of the flap from there.
And He’s Right
I agree that Sanders’s policies and platform are thin on foreign policy and, indeed, that this lack of depth has informed some bad Sanders answers even on Iran—again, I’ve made these criticisms. But on this narrow issue of moving toward closer relations with Iran, Sanders is not wrong. And I’m not alone in thinking this: Peter Beinart, for example, a mainstream liberal commentator on matters of foreign and Middle East policy, has made basically the same argument (going farther than me in defending even more of Sanders’s positions). From a progressive perspective, Sanders is right: it’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we should be moving towards normalizing relations with the Iranians. It seems absurd, at this point, that we haven’t: we struck a major international nuclear agreement with Iran, our foreign ministers ring each other up on the phone, and we are constantly trying to lure Iran into talks on regional issues.
It’s troublesome not only that Sanger would repeat distorted Clinton camp attacks as fact but also that he would regard the actual point Sanders was making as a mistake that had to be walked back. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for casting aside the pretenses of “objective” journalism, but if the Times itself is going to claim the mantle it ought to at least act like it cares about the notion.) There are plenty of ways to be critical of foreign policy ideas Sanders has had. But the attack Sanger has repeated here isn’t one of them. Instead, it’s parlaying a dishonest Clinton campaign talking point into a fact as a means of establishing Sanders’s lack of credibility.
It’s only because I followed this particular issue—the debate about normalizing relations with Iran—that I noted the discrepancy between Sanger’s account and reality. The affair now has me doubting everything I read from Sanger on the issue of the campaign. The Times should regard my lack of trust as a serious problem, and it should take steps to regain my confidence by issuing a correction here. Bogus facts like the ones Sanger has presented here can’t be allowed to stand.
Image courtesy of ABC News via Flickr.