Is Foreign Policy Bernie’s Winning Issue?

Palestinians live in an apartheid state controlled by a far-right government. Since that far right government is Israel, American politicians rarely call out the abuse.

But during last week’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders said it is “no longer enough” for Democrats to be pro-Israel, and that America needs to recognize the sovereignty and dignity of the Palestinian people. Major party candidates hardly ever express pro-Palenstinian sentiment, making it a big moment in American politics.

And it was also a big moment for Sanders. Once again, the Vermont Independent Senator showed that foreign policy has become his strength.

Sanders’ detractors in 2016 pointed to foreign policy as the senator’s weak point. It seemed like he shifted any discussion of foreign affairs back to domestic issues. Compared to his primary opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his resume was light on international diplomacy. Critics attacked him for breaking from the Democratic Party line on national security.

Sanders took the attacks to heart, bolstering his foreign policy bonafides early in his 2020 run. That could make a big difference as the Democratic field has shifted closer toward Sanders’ messaging on healthcare and income inequality. New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie argued in March that foreign policy is the Vermont senator’s best chance to stand out from the field. Among the Democratic candidates, he’s been the most vocal opponent of the U.S.’s illegal war in Yemen that’s left thousands dead and millions sick and starving. He’s called out America’s historically destructive presence in Latin America, specifically in aiding regime change. And he was the first Democratic candidate to call Bolivian president Evo Morales’ ouster a coup.

With Sanders at the top of the 2020 Democratic field, a progressive American foreign policy isn’t just relevant but realistic. As Daniel Bessner wrote for Jacobin, Sanders is the only Democrat running “who has absorbed the sobering lessons of U.S. empire”—namely that American imperialism is destructive, no matter how benevolent and exceptional our media makes it seem. That’s a distinguishing characteristic in a political environment dominated by consensus belief in “the Blob.” Kamala Harris, for example, intends to “end the wars” in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq by “consulting generals and ambassadors”—the exact kind of calculated speech you’d expect from an establishment-type candidate. Tulsi Gabbard, meanwhile, has touted an anti-war foreign policy agenda but has a startling history of anti-Islamism and support for far right world leaders. Even Elizabeth Warren, the only other frontrunning Democrat whose foreign policy rhetoric remotely resembles Sanders’, said on Thursday that she thinks more people should join the U.S. military.

What separates Sanders, Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic, is “his willingness to cross red lines that have long defined the boundaries of acceptable opinion.” American foreign policy is historically hawkish, regardless of the president’s party—anyone who strays from U.S. military imperialism is labeled radical. But opposition to America’s foreign wars remains high and non-interventionism is so popular even Donald Trump ran on it. Sanders’ progressive foreign policy is only considered radical because he is considered radical. In reality, it’s an exemplification of his campaign, which has already shifted discussion on topics like healthcare, wealth inequality, social justice and grassroots fundraising. Foreign policy is Sanders’ latest and perhaps biggest opportunity to separate himself from other Democratic candidates.

In fairness, none of the Democratic candidates are explicitly running on interventionism. Nobody wants to drag the U.S. into another foreign war. But only one candidate is starting once-taboo conversations and touting a truly progressive foreign policy—and he knows it.