Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Hawks

A dove in the '80s, something more complicated since then


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The race for the Democratic nomination got a little livelier this week, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders officially launched his presidential campaign. Sanders' challenge to frontrunner Hillary Clinton has focused on economic issues, not foreign policy, but it's been generally understood that he isn't the hawk that she is. She voted for the Iraq war in 2002; he voted against it. She led the charge into Libya in 2011; he was more cautious. Also, he's a self-proclaimed socialist, a guy who visited Nicaragua in the middle of the contra war to take a meeting with the Sandinista president. Rightly or wrongly, socialists are usually presumed to be foes of U.S. foreign policy.

In Sanders' case, that presumption was correct when he was mayor of Burlington in the 1980s. When he ran for Congress in 1990, though, he started striking a different note. As David Broder put it in August of that year:

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Sanders did indeed win it. Once in office he voted against the first Gulf War, so you might be tempted to write off those comments as election-year rhetoric: the sort of stuff a radical might mouth to persuade voters he's more "reasonable" and "moderate" than they assumed. But he generally backed Bill Clinton's interventions against Saddam—he voted for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, for example. And he endorsed the Kosovo war in 1999, a position that prompted 25 frustrated antiwar activists to occupy his office in Burlington.

Even under George W. Bush, Sanders' foreign policy positions showed a mix of hawkish and dovish impulses. (Over at antiwar.com today, Justin Raimondo is excoriating the Vermonter for a variety of his votes in this period, such as his support for the Iran Freedom Support Act.) Sanders has continued that mix in the Obama years—he opposed arming and training anti-ISIS fighters, for instance, but supported airstrikes in the region.

That record is far less interventionist than Hillary Clinton's. But it is entirely possible that a head-to-head debate between Sanders and another potential Democratic candidate, Jim Webb, would reveal that Webb is now more of a dove than his socialist rival. That would be a remarkable result, given that Webb was working for Ronald Reagan's Department of Defense while Sanders was hanging out with the Sandinistas. But that was in the 1980s, and the '80s were a long time ago.