Why Amo Bernie still falls short on Syria and Palestine

Why Amo Bernie still falls short on Syria and Palestine
Comment: While a Sanders presidency would be a major step up, there's still room for improvement in his foreign policy, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
11 Mar, 2020
The nominee is likely to be decided at the Democratic convention in July [Getty]
In the interests of full disclosure, I supported Bernie Sanders' campaign in 2016 and I remain equally enthusiastic for his candidacy four years later.

Though his campaign suffered setbacks in the last two Democratic primaries, it's seems clearer than ever that in this age of growing economic, racial, and climate injustice, the United States is in desperate need of a leader who has a half-century-long track record of waging a crusade against unfairness, discrimination, and inequality.

Sanders' policy prescriptions promise to address the near total control corporate America has over the political class, putting an end to the unfettered dominion a handful of billionaires have over laws, workers, and environment, while shifting the tax burden from the middle class to the rich in a way that will afford the country modern infrastructure and better health, education, and employment outcomes for all Americans.

While Sanders' domestic policies offer much to be excited about, there's an equal number of reasons to be less optimistic about what his potential presidency would mean for the execution of US foreign policy.

Disclaimer number two: the following critique of Sanders' foreign policy positions by no means suggests his use of presidential power and projection of American military might would be worse or equal to that of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Unlike President Donald Trump, it's inconceivable that Sanders would green light and sanctify Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories, veto bipartisan bills that call for an end of US support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen, or undermine long-standing and critical security partnerships with European and Asian allies.

That said, it's highly unlikely a US President Bernie Sanders would deliver the kind of progressive foreign policy a large share of Democratic voters or even a slim majority of the total American public hope for. The way in which Sanders' talks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers the first clue for what his presidency might look like for the Middle East.

Sanders' foreign policy is likely to be a continuation of that pursued by President Barack Obama

During the South Carolina Democratic debate, Sanders was asked about his decision to skip the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. He replied by declaring his pride of being Jewish and reminding the audience he once lived in Israel on a kibbutz, and calling the Benjamin Netanyahu led government "racist."

All good so far, but it's what he said next that typifies the manner in which Sanders addresses Palestinian human rights.

"I happen to believe that what our foreign policy in the Mideast should be about is absolutely protecting the independence and security of Israel. But you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people. We have got to have a policy that reaches out to the Palestinians," he told the audience.

Assuming for a moment he didn't intentionally outline an "Israel First" US foreign policy, Sanders finds it impossible to speak about Israeli war crimes and injustices against the Palestinian people without first prefacing his remarks with the propagandised pro-Israel talking point regarding "Israel having a right to defend itself."

It's alarming because international law does not grant an illegal occupier a right to self-defense. Instead, it grants the illegally occupied to use whatever means necessary to resist occupation.

Read more: Bernie Sanders releases Super Tuesday ad calling for Palestinian rights

This isn't the only time Sanders has framed the conflict in this way, having tweeted the following on 24 February:

"The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security. So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason I will not attend the conference."

Sanders could've easily made this accurate statement without prefacing Israel's "right to live in peace and security." For instance, no US government official prefaces condemnatory remarks regarding Russia's illegal occupation of eastern Ukraine with "Russia has a right to defend itself," so what explains Bernie's need to frame Israel's occupation and colonisation of the Palestinian territories in such unnecessary terms?

What these remarks suggest is a Sanders' foreign policy is likely to be a continuation of that pursued by President Barack Obama, one that will soothe the ears of those wishing for an end to Israel's violations of international law, but one that ultimately changes little on the ground. At the last debate, Sanders wouldn't even commit to moving the US embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem. 

Sanders might "change the mood music" in Washington, but would do little more than return US foreign policy to realignment with previous administrations.

The Vermont Senator's position towards the Assad regime and Russia's deliberate targeting of civilians in Idlib, and what is fast becoming the world's largest humanitarian catastrophe, where 3 million Syrians are at risk of being annihilated, gives pause for even greater concern. Sanders has shown a level of apathy and unwillingness to use military force that would make Obama or even Trump blush with embarrassment, in meekly calling for a UN-led ceasefire, seemingly oblivious to the fact that China and Russia's obstruction has resulted in eight long years of UN inaction.

Bernie's position towards the Assad regime and Russia's deliberate targeting of civilians in Idlib gives pause for even greater concern

There's only one measure the United States can implement that would guarantee a halt to Assad and Russian warplanes bombing homes, hospitals, food markets, mosques, and schools - and that's to target Assad regime air force runways, denying them the ability to carry out their deadly sorties.

Instead, Sanders policy towards the crisis is as opaque and callously indifferent as that of the last two administrations, offering only empty slogans regarding "restoring diplomacy" with Russia and Iran.

No doubt a Sanders presidency would be a vast improvement on the transactional, reckless and incoherent foreign policy of the Trump administration.

Israeli war crimes would no longer enjoy the US seal of approval. US involvement in the war in Yemen would stop, Iran would be encouraged to return to the negotiating table once more, and the country's reputation among allies as a stable and reliable partner would be restored.

Sanders supporters, like myself should hope for the best, and urge him to strive for better, while expecting only incremental steps towards a more progressive US foreign policy.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.