Bernie Sanders delivered what was supposed to be a major foreign policy address on Wednesday at Westminster College in Fulton, MO, the location of Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech. His speech starts at the 24-minute mark and ends at the 1:19 mark.
The prepared remarks can be read here. First, here are the positive elements.
In 1953 the United States, on behalf of Western oil interests, supported the overthrow of Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, and the re-installation of the Shah of Iran, who led a corrupt, brutal and unpopular government. In 1979, the Shah was overthrown by revolutionaries led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Islamic Republic of Iran was created. What would Iran look like today if their democratic government had not been overthrown? What impact did that American-led coup have on the entire region? What consequences are we still living with today?
In 1973, the United States supported the coup against the democratically elected president of Chile Salvador Allende which was led by General Augusto Pinochet. The result was almost 20 years of authoritarian military rule and the disappearance and torture of thousands of Chileans – and the intensification of anti-Americanism in Latin America.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the logic of the Cold War led the United States to support murderous regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, which resulted in brutal and long-lasting civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
In Vietnam, based on a discredited “domino theory,” the United States replaced the French in intervening in a civil war, which resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese in support of a corrupt, repressive South Vietnamese government. We must never forget that over 58,000 thousand Americans also died in that war.
More recently, in Iraq, based on a similarly mistaken analysis of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States invaded and occupied a country in the heart of the Middle East. In doing so, we upended the regional order of the Middle East and unleashed forces across the region and the world that we’ll be dealing with for decades to come.
While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.
In general, it was a good speech except for two glaring omissions. One was that, unlike in his interview the previous day with The Intercept, this time he made no mention at all about Israel’s awful treatment of Palestinians and how the US is complicit in that crime. Sanders, like pretty much everyone in Congress, has always been reluctant to criticize Israel, seemingly preferring to not talk about it if he can avoid it, such being the strength of the Israel lobby. Maybe he had to say something in the interview because he was asked directly.
You can read a more extensive version of Mehdi Hasan’s interview with Sanders here where he was much more forthright.
One foreign policy issue, however, on which Sanders has attracted criticism from members of his own left-wing base is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some pro-Palestinian progressives have accused him of giving Israel a pass. In an interview in April, for example, Sanders dismissed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement; he also signed his name to a controversial letter attacking the U.N. for having an “anti-Israel agenda.”
Nonetheless, it is undeniable that in recent years the Vermont senator, who is Jewish and briefly lived on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s, has taken a more pro-Palestinian position on the conflict and, specifically, against the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “There comes a time when … we are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all of the time,” he told Clinton during a Democratic primary debate in April 2016.
These days, unlike other members of Congress, Sanders has no qualms about identifying, and decrying, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But does he accept that the United States is complicit in Israel’s occupation, through its military aid and arms sales? And does he also accept, therefore, that the occupation of the Palestinian territories will never end until the U.S. stops arming and funding the Jewish state?
“Certainly the United States is complicit, but it’s not to say … that Israel is the only party at fault,” he tells me. However, he adds, “in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations the United States has got to play a much more even-handed role. Clearly that is not the case right now.”
Would he, therefore, ever consider voting to reduce U.S. aid to Israel — worth at least $3bn per annum — or U.S. arms sales to the Israeli military?
“The U.S. funding plays a very important role, and I would love to see people in the Middle East sit down with the United States government and figure out how U.S. aid can bring people together, not just result in an arms war in that area. So I think there is extraordinary potential for the United States to help the Palestinian people rebuild Gaza and other areas. At the same time, demand that Israel, in their own interests in a way, work with other countries on environmental issues.” He then, finally, answers my question: “So the answer is yes.”
It is — by the depressingly low standard of modern U.S. politics — a remarkable and, dare I say it, radical response from Sanders. “Aid to Israel in Congress and the pro-Israel community has been sacrosanct,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted earlier this year, “and no president has seriously proposed cutting it since Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s.”
In his speech, Sanders also did not mention the US’s continuing destabilization of Venezuela, to the extent of supporting military coups against the government. The US is singling out that country for criticism for some of its recent anti-democratic moves but ignores the fact that other countries, such as Brazil and Egypt and a whole host of other countries, are doing much worse things and the US says nothing and even condones them. The US focuses on Venezuela because that country has had the temerity to defy the US and align itself with countries like Cuba.