Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Says He Understands There Are Unintended Consequences in Foreign Policy. Does He?

Confused about role of trade in improving relations, open to being a world policeman.



Bernie Sanders finally found his spine on foreign policy, engaging Hillary Clinton on her consistent support for regime change and her embrace of war criminals of the American foreign policy establishment like Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The foreign policy portion of last night's debate started the way such portions of the debate usually do on both sides—by pointing out how much worse the other side is. That strategy works to limit introspection on U.S. foreign policy and to take attention away from the flaws and vagueness of the candidates' own foreign policy platforms.

After providing the boilerplate answer about ISIS (the U.S. should lead a coalition against it, recruit fighters on the ground, and also use the terrorist group as a pretext for increasing controls on the Internet), Hillary Clinton pivoted to the post-9/11 "do something, say something" campaign in New York City, claiming the use of civilians as part time human intelligence in the homeland was an important counter-terrorism strategy, and that information from Muslims, in particular, was useful. That was the opening to turn the conversation to Donald Trump, who she claimed "insults" their religion.

Sanders didn't follow up on the Trump bash, instead turning the debate toward judgement. "What a president of the United States has got to do, Sanders began, "is to, A, make certain that we keep our people safe."

This, of course, is the ill-informed conceit out of which many of the worst policies in the war on terror come from. Mass surveillance, infiltration of American Muslim communities, extrajudicial killings, unauthorized wars, and indefinite detentions all flow out of the idea that the president's first job is to keep people safe. The policies would be untenable if the president's job was rightly understood as keeping Americans free.

Nevertheless, Sanders was able to maintain a relatively substantive critique of Clinton's foreign policy. He pointed out that Clinton's actions as secretary of state in supporting the U.S. intervention in Libya led to the power vacuum in which ISIS and other terrorist groups now operate, promising that if he were president he would "look very carefully about unintended consequences." (Clinton pointed out that Sanders, too, had been a supporter of regime change before—referring to a yes vote on the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998.)

But it's not just Sanders' inability to consider the unintended consequences of his economic policies that ought to draw skepticism to that promise. Later on in his answer, Sanders adopted the same blind spots on unintended consequences as the rest of the American foreign policy establishment, endorsing an increase of troop levels in NATO countries adjacent to the Russian borderlands in response to Russia's aggressive actions in "Crimea and in Ukraine." Here a reflection on unintended consequences on how U.S.-Russia relations arrived at where they are was absent.

It got worse when Sanders, a supporter of the nuclear deal with Iran, turned his attention to that country. While he mentioned the 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh as one of the main factors contributing to the 1979 Islamic revolution, there was no reflection on how U.S. policy toward Iran today might also benefit hardliners the most.

Sanders expressed his wish that one day the U.S. and Iran could normalize relations, and that being "aggressive" about Iran's role in supporting "international terrorism" was critical to that. The channeling of Ron Paul (who mentioned Mossadegh a number of times in the 2008 and 2012 Republican primary debates), then, was momentary. Major unintended consequences result from the U.S. trying to act like the policeman of the world. That's what unilaterally taking on the responsibility of deciding what is international terrorism and what the response should be effectively is. Understanding that unintended consequences are real is important, but not sufficient in limiting those consequences. Many Democrats have been sold on the idea that Republican foreign policy is "blood thirsty." Rhetoric about making sand glow doesn't help. But underneath that surface, the key foreign policy principles on both sides are the same, and involve keeping the U.S. at a default interventionist setting for all the world's problems.

Unsurprisingly, Sanders also missed the role of free trade in improving situations in foreign countries, thus creating the space for improving relations. While he rightly attacked Henry Kissinger for his role in the Vietnam conflict, including its expansion into Cambodia, he also criticized Kissinger for beginning the process of normalizing relations with China, "the terrible, authoritarian, Communist dictatorship [Kissinger] warned us about" during the Vietnam war.

Yet Richard Nixon's trip to China was instrumental in encouraging the country to "join the international community." Nixon met with Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator responsible for millions of deaths. The path over the next forty years was not straight, but the opportunity for more trade with the rest of the world did open China up, lifting millions of people out of poverty and helping to create a real middle class in China, one whose rise has driven a lot of the global economy this century. For Sanders, (like for Donald Trump) trade is a zero sum game. China wins, the U.S. loses. But what happened to China since Nixon's trip and, for that matter, what happened in Vietnam after the U.S. ended the war and eventually moved toward normalizing relations illustrates the power of trade to benefit all. Americans are better off than they were in the 1970s, and so are people in China and Vietnam. Friendly trade was a far more effective liberator than wars could be.

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  1. Okay, those of you who have been watching politics for a while, how does the rhetoric in this Dem race match up to that used in previous elections? Are they more or less harsh on each other than usual? About the same? Will they have any trouble reconciling once Bernie loses (he technically isn’t a Democrat!)?

    1. They’ve both embraced progressivism and socialism, just in varying degrees.

      1. Which means they are both the same kind of soulless, sociopathic, unclean things. Whose hearts pump not blood, like yours or mine, but a black bile. As dark as their hearts.

    2. Clinton is going pretty hard negative, probably along similar lines to how negative she went on Obama (which backfired). She has moved to the left on domestic policy because of Sanders. But I’d say she’s being nasty enough that they will indeed have trouble reconciling. She is willing to burn the party down so she can be president.

      1. She is willing to burn the party down so she can be president.

        After eight years of Barry’s narcissistic disregard for the Democrats in Congress, is there even much of a party left to burn down at this point?

        1. I’m hoping these people destroy their party for the foreseeable future. I also hope that this election cycle breaks the GOP establishment as well. So maybe Sanders and Trump will be of some real value. Many then if Bloomberg runs as an indpependent, hilarity will ensue.

      2. I’m getting the same feeling. The Bernie supporters seem to hate Clinton more and more each day. But, the specter of a Trump/Cruz presidency may still be able to convince them to vote for her.

        1. For the one’s who vote sure. They certainly won’t be voting for the Republican candidate. But a more likely outcome is that the Bernie youth vote stays home.

          1. Yeah, honestly i don’t think anything that happens on the right will affect bernie or hillary voters. The right could literally put up a Stalin/Pol Pot ticket and it would be 6 of one half a dozen of the other to them. The right will never court those votes. Even if we had say a Rand Paul / Gary Johnson ticket, they would still claim “!!!!!11!!1111 Right wing fascist bible thumping redneck nut jobs!”.

  2. Does trade improve international relations, or do good international relations improve trade?


    1. International trade is one subset of all international relations. Trade improves along with the other aspects of the whole relationship.

    2. I’d argue that when trade is occurring, enough people have a vested interest in keeping the “official” relationships happy, and so the governments make nice. Our relationship with Saudi Arabia seems to be an example of this – there are many reasons we should be officially unhappy with them, but the amount of trade between the countries keeps the governments making kissy faces in public.

      1. There isn’t a whole lot of trade happening between us and the Sauds. They (indirectly) give us oil and we give them jets and cars — that’s pretty much it. Our relationship with them is based more on trying to find a regional partner with some weight ever since Iran went the way of the mullah.

        And counterpoint to the trade = less war: WWI

        1. Saudi Arabia’s biggest export market is Japan. Someone who we have a great deal of trade with and a close alliance with.

        2. As bad as Saudi Arabia is, the governe,nt that replaces it will likely be far worse.

    3. If businesses would only trade internationally if their respective states were on good relations, embargoes would be unnecessary/self-enforcing.

    4. ISIS just wants trading partners to buy guns and IED’s and explosives and swords and bags to store heads and such. But since we refuse to be friendly and sell them that stuff on credit with no money down and easy terms, they are forced to go elsewhere. So that’s why they hate us.

      1. No, they hate us because we aren’t willing to sit down and have an open conversation with them.

        /Prog derp

        1. Yes, if we just cowered and gave into everything they want the. They will like us.

          /more prog derp

  3. While there is some legitimacy to the unintended consequences argument, I think a lot of times its proponents get off the rails. The argument is a little narcissistic in that it assumes everyone’s actions stem inevitably from our own. But, they don’t. Other countries have leaders with agency just as much as we do. Sometimes they hate us, not for our freedom, not because of any of our past infractions, but because our goals and interests conflict with theirs. In some cases, the very “soft power” that we have urged on us to focus on actually serves as a threat to the leadership of some societies.

    I agree that it makes a lot of sense to scale back the level of interventionism from today’s all-war-all-the-time political class consensus. But, it would be really nice to have a libertarian view on foreign policy that didn’t sound like a college dorm room bull session.

    1. But, it would be really nice to have a libertarian view on foreign policy that didn’t sound like a college dorm room bull session.

      From the outfit that regularly publishes Sheldon Richman? Good luck with that.

    2. But, it would be really nice to have a libertarian view on foreign policy that didn’t sound like a college dorm room bull session.

      Such as?

      1. Michael Young?

        1. Swiss Servator?

      2. Such as an acknowledgement that nations are, more often than not, motivated by real interests and that sometimes those interests are in conflict?

        1. Ah, so rather than the dorm room, you would prefer the polisci textbook that no one bothers to read.

          1. Well, maybe if people had bothered to read it, they wouldn’t say dumb things like “America has nothing to worry about a nuclear armed Iran.”.

            1. But America doesn’t have anything to worry about from a nuclear armed Iran. There’s no way for Iran to create enough weapons-grade material to wipe out the US. Even if they managed to make a bomb and deploy it, everyone knows that Iran would be a glass parking lot within hours of a nuclear attack, including the people in Tehran.

              1. “But America doesn’t have anything to worry about from a nuclear armed Iran. “

                because Hugh is very sophisticated, and the straits of hormuz could be closed tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter at all.

                1. No, the sophisticated position is to very grimly stroke one’s beard and talk about how its all very grown up and complex because nations have interests, which apparently include getting bombed into oblivion for nuking the world’s military superpower or invaded en masse for disrupting world trade? Thanks for the super-fascinating lecture, professor. I think I’ll go back to my dorm room and jerk off to cat videos on youtube.

                  1. ….or invaded en masse for disrupting world trade?

                    Who the fuck do you think is going to invade them when they have nukes?! And how the fuck is it you think that the nuclear arms race in the Middle East that would result from Iran getting the bomb would not be a problem for the U.S.?

                    Now, you can say the resulting problems aren’t worth our blood and treasure. That they’re manageable. And I could probably respect that. But, its stupid shit like the stuff you’re spouting that sounds like a dormroom bull session.

                  2. “Thanks for the super-fascinating lecture, professor.”

                    You said America has nothing to be concerned about with a nuclear iran.

                    I pointed out the most-obvious thing America is concerned about.

                    Hugh then grabs his toys and runs to his room crying “no fair”

                  3. Cat videos…

                    *shifts nervously

                2. it wouldn’t matter at all.

                  To us, pretty much not. We have more than enough oil domestically to make up for any shortfall from an importation disruption. OPEC’s worry, not ours.

                  1. “We have more than enough oil domestically to make up for any shortfall from an importation disruption. “

                    if you want to pretend america has no interests outside its own borders, go right ahead.

                    1. Put another way –

                      if you think giving a messianic theocracy (*one openly hostile to its own neighbors as well as most of the West) the power to shut down one of the most significant engines of global commerce, “doesn’t matter”…

                      … i think maybe you shouldn’t be pretending to care about “consequences”

                  2. OPEC’s worry, not ours.

                    Well, that, ignore the implications to our trading partners. And the resulting global economic downturn. And of course the rise in international tensions as countries seek to shift their problems onto each other.

                    But, no, no implications for us.

                    1. “, no implications for us.”

                      As per my below point –

                      the non-tervenshunists mindset is that avoiding “moral culpability” is somehow the same as there being “no problems” at all.

                      “”As long as it isn’t our fault!!” they say. All the milk in the world can be spilt and they will smugly assert their wisdom in staying ‘uninvolved’, no matter how costly their ‘moral’ posture.

                    2. Look, I’m probably a hell of a lot interventionist than the status quo. I might be willing to entertain an argument that a nuclear Iran could be dealt with. And I certainly have some pretty serious qualms about committing our treasure and the blood of our youth to fight some foreign adventure unless it’s absolutely necessary. And I’m not going to say we have moral responsibility for other countries’ actions. But, it bothers me that so many libertarians, the traditionally rational ones in politics, seem willing to substitute narrative for thought on this one issue.

                    3. “I’m probably a hell of a lot [less?] interventionist than the status quo”

                      *(assuming that’s what you meant)

                      as am I.

                      Libertarians maintain a juvenile anti-intellectualism in foreign affairs that mimics Liberal’s views on economics. Suddenly, ‘incentives don’t matter’ and complex-systems are waved aside in favor of ego-boosting moralizing.

                    4. Agreed. The head-in-sand posture of some libertarians does smack of the proggies similar pose with regard to the economy. As long as it’s not possible to blame America directly for whatever bad shit happens, we win, cuz feelz.

                    5. My concern over a nuclear iran has less to do with us, and more to do with Israel. Whether you support Israel or not, they don’t deserve to be turned into a glass sheet.

              2. I hate to break the news to you, but a nuclear armed Iran, even if it was the bestest ally America ever had would be dangerous.

                Why did we stop the Taiwanese and S. Korean nuclear programs?

                Because in Taiwan’s case they would have had a 30 second decision window to “use it or lose it.”

                Radar gets a false positive of attack: 30 seconds…choose to launch or no launch.

                And once they launch, its not so hot for the rest of the world.

                And this is a case where Iran isn’t even aiming weapons at us!

                This is why the USA convinced Taiwan to stop its bomb program, even though I would personally trust them with the bomb, and it would safeguard their democracy.

                I’m also not so sure about your claims about having enough material: even one or two bombs would kill millions. Its not all about “existential” threats you know. That’s just a sound bite used to justify not using force. (sometimes a justifiable soundbite.)

                1. Taiwan is probably 30 minutes from a bomb. We did give (sell?) them enough plutonium for 1,000 bombs.

                  1. Maybe, but to his point, they aren’t 30 seconds from a Nuclear War.

              3. This is a incredibly naive statement.

              4. So you’re ok with them only wiping out a few cities then?

              5. I’m sure the several hundred thousand people that would die in NY or LA or (pick a large urban center) would totally be OK with being dead despite them not being able to “wipe out the entire US”.

      3. Hitler?

        1. Super Hitler! Like regular Hitler, but six inches taller, and he rides a flying motorcycle with big iron swastikas on it.

    3. “While there is some legitimacy to the unintended consequences argument, I think a lot of times its proponents get off the rails”

      There are unintended consequences of “inaction” as well.

      the argument hinges on the idea of moral-culpability for all subsequent conditions whenever a given nation makes ANY sort of choice. *Including* things like reacting to open-provocation / threats.

      See = Israel, and the endless retardation of people like Sheldon Richman.

      Pretending all consequences are the responsibility of a single party in international relations is juvenile. Yes, everyone would prefer there be no hostility. pretending that hostile parties vanish when uncle sam stops being so darn defensive is moronic.

      IR is a dance where everything you do is relative to the posture of your peers. Just because you decide to be ‘neutral’ doesn’t mean others will, or they wont exploit your pose to their own advantage.

      China is our #1 trading partner. Our navy is currently doing a silly dance with them in the South China sea. Trade does not neutralize all potential conflict.

      1. “IR is a dance where everything you do is relative to the posture of your peers. Just because you decide to be ‘neutral’ doesn’t mean others will, or they wont exploit your pose to their own advantage.”

        E.g. Obama’s Russian “re-set”.

        1. There is neutral, and then “neutral” neutral.

          Obama has been trying to get us to be neutralish in the ME.

          It might be a good idea. But it might go tits up, too.

      2. Nice jerry curls, Gilmore.

  4. When Bernie started in on 1953 and Mossadegh, I immediately cackled, “He’s gone all Sheldon on us!” I was waiting for the Israel connection. Maybe next debate.

    1. The world is in trouble cuz JOoOOOOozzzz!


      1. Question: is Sheldon a closet progressive?

        1. No closet is that big.

      2. You’re late for temple, hebrew.

    2. It should be noted that we also deposed the first Shah in WW II.

      Nobody ever claims Iranians hate us for that.

      We also occupied them (the Allies.)

      That’s never brought up.

      Just 1953.

  5. here was no reflection on how U.S. policy toward Iran today might also benefit hardliners the most.

    Oh you mean like paving their way to a nuclear bomb, throwing $100B their way, and being overly deferential to Iranian interests? Glad we see eye to eye on this one!

  6. Bernie Sanders Says He Understands There are Unintended Consequences in Foreign Policy. Does He?

    Being that Bernie has shown that he knows nothing about anything, I’m gonna say no.

  7. OT: why do liberals who claim to care for everyone and claim to be inclusive…in my experience they are really condescending, elitist, kind of look down on everyone else. As if they were superior due to their ideology and everyone else is brain-dead. They really like to rip on white “uneducated” people who vote republican. I saw some things from guys like Paul Krugman and then was reading another thing where the DOJ said cons/libertarians are bigger threats than ISIS. They get really angry when you don’t go along with them. Anyone else notice this?

    It is almost as if those who have to say they are something are the complete opposite!

    1. “where the DOJ said cons/libertarians are bigger threats than ISIS”

      IW – “No, they hate us because we aren’t willing to sit down and have an open conversation with them.” /Prog derp

      Whereas you can’t reason with conservatives nor crazy libertarians. /Prog derp2

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  9. Politics and voting are a pretty pointless exercise, so fuck it: I wanna see the shit storm with the crazy old man running the show.

    Or, maybe even Bernie Sanders.

    1. “maybe even Bernie Sanders.”

      I hate to rain on Reason’s brief bern-feeling bromance, but this pose has a shelf-life of less than a month.

      He’s not winning the nomination. so what’s the point?

      1. “what’s the point?”

        *(i realize now that i forgot my own point above re: “Ego-boosting moralizing… never mind the consequences!”)

        1. well, i think a vote for bernie in the primaries is a good thing, because Hillary is worse.

          i think in the general election that formula changes, if but a little.

          1. I think it’s kinda weird that people go game theory with their vote.

            1. Especially since no one else actually knows who you voted for and after the election no one will care if you lie about it either.

              1. I’m a grad-student libertarian. Progz definitely care who you vote for if it’s not for Team Blue.

                1. “You know, I used to think Nancy was alright, but did you notice her car? There’s No bumper sticker on it. Neither Bernie nor Hillary!”

          2. It changes a lot. I should think Obama’s recent murder of Scalia highlights this.

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  11. Sanders doesn’t understand the unintended consequences of anything as far as I can tell.

  12. Was the mess in Libya unforeseen, or did Hillary and Co. simply not care. Her emails show what the real motive for intervention there was – not stopping a “dictator”, but stopping his plans for the Gold Dinar, which would have threatened the dominance of the U.S. dollar in the international oil trade. No candidate in either party seems willing to discuss that.

    1. Interesting: link?

      1. Try

        The email apparently refers specifically to the Dinar replacing the CFA (West African/Central African) Franc (CFA), but I know Gaddafi had talked about it replacing the dollar for use in pricing its oil.

  13. Sanders’ view that trade is a zero sum game demonstrates why he will be an economic disaster in national office: he views trade as bad for workers, and so seeks to cement the status of oligopolists in the name of the worker. The resulting lack of competition makes everyone worse off — a receding tide beaches all ships — and brings to mind The Donald’s latest policy recommendations.

    The Democrats have produced two candidates that, aside from regional accents and facial hair, are supremely similar to those of the Republicans… offering strong evidence for Hotelling’s theory: that all politicians will converge to a “middle” whence they are indistinguishable.

  14. Foreign Policy always has unintended consequences.

    Don’t Reason writers study history?

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  19. Zero Sum Game: you win, I lose
    Dim Sum Game: you get some, they get some, and dim sum.

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