On Foreign Policy, Sanders May disappoint Devotees

Sanders doesn’t have the usual coterie of policy advisers who attach themselves to serious national candidates like pilot fish on a whale. Evan Vucci/AP

Updated | Ray Takeyh was amused last spring when he got a call from Bernie Sanders. After all, the Iran-born scholar is one of the foreign policy establishment's leading hawks on Tehran. And Sanders—well, everybody knew the self-described socialist stood for everything Takeyh and other neo-conservatives opposed, starting with the nuclear deal with Iran.

Or at least they thought he did.

In a Friday interview with Newsweek, Takeyh said it was "kind of commendable" that Sanders, whose outlier campaign was then gaining surprising traction against Hillary Clinton, would reach out to him "in a city where people talk only to those they agree with."

"I thought that was interesting," he said.

"He told me that when he deals with a complex set of issues, he wants to hear from all perspectives," Takeyh said. Like other foreign policy experts the candidate would consult with privately last year—his office refused to disclose any until Friday, when it released a list of a dozen names—Takeyh said Sanders listened closely, took notes and revealed little or nothing of his own views during their talk.

"He knew that I was critical of the Iran nuclear-diplomacy negotiations…and he kind of wanted to see why and what I thought about it," Takeyh recalled. "I listed my objections. He didn't engage with me on them affirmatively or otherwise—he didn't say I agree with you or I disagree with you—he just listened and asked me some technical questions: How many centrifuges are here and there? And that was really the extent of the conversation we had."

Another pillar of the Washington establishment, a former senior Pentagon official in the Ronald Reagan administration, got the same treatment. Sanders asked for his views on "nuclear modernization, ISIS, defense spending, those kind of issues," and took close notes as they talked, said the former official, who asked not to be named because his current position forbids him to advise candidates.

The thing that struck him was that "there was just two other people in the room" when they met, neither of whom had a foreign policy background. That was definitely odd: At this point in a successful campaign, presidential candidates are traditionally flanked by at least a couple advisers with thick resumes, who in turn create a tangled web of ex-generals, former national security officials and think-tank scholars to lend the campaign an aura of grand expertise.

Sanders has none—zero—on the eve of primaries that may well put him on track to the White House in this most unusual and volatile campaign season. Even his lone named "senior foreign policy adviser," Caryn Compton, who doubles as his Senate legislative director, has no foreign policy credentials. Before coming to work for Sanders in 2013, she spent two years as legislative director for Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat. Compton, who holds a doctorate law degree from the Catholic University of America, did not respond to a request for an interview. Sanders's spokesman ignored repeated entreaties from Newsweek to make her available.

What's also notable about Sanders's limited list of foreign policy consults is the lack of any input even from expected quarters on the political left. While the likes of Michael Walzer, a Princeton University professor who has expounded theories about "just war," and Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, have gotten calls from the candidate, foreign policy specialists at such liberal-left redoubts as the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) are still waiting for their phones to ring.

Arianna Jones, left, and Sarah Ford work under a wall laying out some of Bernie Sanders campaign issues, at the Des Moines headquarters of the Sanders campaign in Iowa, January 29. Brian C. Frank/Reuters

"I have no idea who Bernie is listening to on security and foreign affairs," says Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at IPS, whose latest book sees little real difference between the counterterrorism policies of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Likewise, the leftist icon Noam Chomsky tells Newsweek he has "no idea who his advisers are, or who he is close to."

Norman Solomon, a prominent left-wing activist, charged last summer that Sanders's few public pronouncements on foreign policy were "scarcely different than President Obama's current stance...and hardly distinguish him from his rivals for the nomination." Sanders, he added, "is standing behind the Syria policies of...Obama, who has declined to order no-fly zone actions."

Many of his devotees might also be surprised to learn that while Sanders denounces wasteful military spending, he's backed the F-35 joint strike force warplane, whose monster cost overruns have earned it the moniker, "The jet that ate the Pentagon." Assigning a squadron of them to the Vermont Air National Guard (one of many state-based units that rotate in and out of the Middle East) could "maintain hundreds of jobs here in Vermont," he has said.

And maybe that's why Sanders doesn't want to say much more about national security issues than that he opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, because it would rattle his progressive followers. Rather than campaign for a new "organization like NATO" to battle ISIS, he sticks with his guaranteed applause lines about big banks and economic fairness.

Indeed, Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction.org, which is "dedicated to...defunding endless wars," among other left-liberal menu items, argued last summer: "Perhaps Sanders prefers to bypass such issues because addressing them in any depth might split his growing base of supporters, who have been drawn to his fervent economic populism."

Perhaps. But in the end, assembling rosters of impressive-looking mainstays adds up little more than window dressing, says a leading Washington national security expert who's worked closely with past Democratic Party presidential candidates.

"They're not an essential commodity; they're a list compiled by successful candidates," said the expert, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about the Sanders campaign. "Most advisers will never even meet the candidate," she said. "They may go to some grip-and-grin events but they will never actually talk to the candidate."

"But it's part of the evolutionary process," she continued. "At some point the candidate has to get a team that he or she says they meet with, whether they meet with them or not." Many candidates, like Obama and Clinton before Sanders, actually have little interest in foreign policy and "act like they're eating contaminated baby food" during an unavoidable session with a top-tier foreign policy figure.

But such figures serve an important function for a successful candidate nevertheless, she adds. "You want to keep everybody happy. You don't want them writing op-ed pieces [that might be critical of] your candidate. You get them to 'contribute their ideas' and then you circulate their papers around the group to keep them all content."

Madeleine Albright, as a future secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration, was a maestro at keeping campaign "advisers" purring, the expert said.

"One adviser gave her a 60-page, single-spaced paper on the chemical weapons convention," a treaty eventually signed in 1993. "She asked him to give her his home number, 'so the candidate can reach you over the weekend.'" Of course the call never came, but the adviser was thrilled.

"Bernie Sanders is not playing the game," the expert noted, "but it's not like he's missing out on crucial information." The problem, she said, is that Sanders has demonstrated that "he's definitely a loner." And in the end, nobody wants a loner in the White House.