By James A. Kidney
If Sen. Bernie Sanders is still realistically in contention after Tuesday’s big primaries in Illinois, Ohio and Missouri, he will have to start showing the voters how serious he is about important matters beyond economic inequality. Most notably, he will have to pay attention to foreign policy.
Sec. Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic support from African-American voters assures her victory in the Florida primary and likely in North Carolina. Though polls show her ahead of Sanders in every Tuesday primary, some of the polls have poor reputations and Sanders’ surprise showing in Michigan makes even more reputable polls suspect — at least until Wednesday.
But assuming Sanders at least roughly divides the delegates with Clinton, he will remain a formidable candidate. One hopes that will drive Clinton further to the left economically and cause her to focus her rhetoric more on the economic divide than on Pollyannish sentiments about bringing us all together. There is little reason to believe that a Republican Congress will be less truculent with a Clinton (or Sanders) administration than it was with President Obama.
But Sanders has the bigger strategic and tactical problem: Making people believe he actually could handle the job of president. Most folks, except the harshest Hillary haters, can see the former First Lady in the top job, even if they don’t like the idea.
Bernie is much more of a blank slate, especially when the issue is foreign policy. About all he has claimed in that area so far is that he voted against the Iraq war 13 years ago. That is insufficient.
It is a dangerous world, though not as dangerous to Americans as the Republicans would have you believe. There are pretty good arguments that Obama’s policies have been too cautious and that diminished U.S. leadership has left a vacuum which other nations — Russia, China, the Saudis and Iran, for example — are using to their advantage. Alternatively, many favor Obama’s cautious approach to foreign commitment. Sanders seems to fall into the latter category, while Clinton, despite her wholesale embrace of Obama, has a more hawkish history.
We know almost nothing about how Sanders would handle day-to-day diplomacy or an international crisis. He has no known foreign policy advisors. He has no history of participation in debate while in Congress on significant foreign policy issues, other than going to war in Iraq. As The New York Times stated in an editorial on March 11, “The truth is, foreign policy will very likely dominate the next administration, as it has dominated much of the Obama presidency.”
While Sanders cannot in a few weeks of campaigning acquire actual experience to match Clinton’s, he could demonstrate a responsible interest in better defining his foreign policy preferences. A significant directional signal would be to identify one or more Washington “experts” on foreign policy as advisors. He could even consult with former world leaders and experts in other countries for an informed view.
Such actions not only would benefit Sanders’ knowledge of world hot spots, but would demonstrate a serious awareness of what is necessary to be an actual president of the United States and not merely the economic policy planner in chief.