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Foreign Policy, Sanders-Style: Backing Saudi Intervention


There’s an old joke about two elderly men at a Catskill resort. One complains: “The food here is horrible.” The other vigorously agrees: “Yeah, I know — and the portions are so damn small!”

Several writers have noted that Bernie Sanders has been scant in terms of his foreign policy — small portions.

But a thornier problem is that the little that he has articulated in terms of foreign policy — the foreign policy issue that he’s been most passionate about really — is extremely regressive and incredibly dangerous. That issue is the role of Saudi Arabia. Sanders has actually pushed for the repressive regime to engage in more intervention in the Mideast.

In discussing ISIS, Sanders invariably has talked about Saudi Arabia being the solution. It’s couched in language that seems somewhat critical, but the upshot is we need more Saudi influence and intervention in the region. In effect, more and bigger proxy wars, which have already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in Syria and could even further rip apart Iraq and Libya.

He’s said this repeatedly — and prominently. In February with Wolf Blitzer on CNN:

“This war is a battle for the soul of Islam and it’s going to have to be the Muslim countries who are stepping up. These are billionaire families all over that region. They’ve got to get their hands dirty. They’ve got to get their troops on the ground. They’ve got to win that war with our support. We cannot be leading the effort.”

What? Why should a U.S. progressive be calling for more intervention by the Saudi monarchy? Really, we want Saudi troops in Syria and Iraq and Libya and who knows where else? You’d think that perhaps someone like Sanders would say that we have to break our decades-long backing of the corrupt Saudi regime — but no, he wants to dramatically accelerate it.

Even worse, after the Saudis started bombing Yemen with U.S. government backing earlier this year, killing thousands and leading to what the UN is now calling a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and suffering that is “almost incomprehensible,” Sanders continued. In another interview again with Wolf Blitzer in May, Sanders did correctly note that as a result of the Iraq invasion, “we’ve destabilized the region, we’ve given rise to Al-Qaeda, ISIS.” But then he actually called for more intervention:

“What we need now, and this is not easy stuff, I think the President is trying, you need to bring together an international coalition, Wolf, led by the Muslim countries themselves! Saudi Arabia is the third largest military budget in the world they’re going to have to get their hands dirty in this fight. We should be supporting, but at the end of the day this is fight over what Islam is about, the soul of Islam, we should support those countries taking on ISIS.”

Progressives in the U.S. are supposed to look toward the Saudi monarchy to save the soul of Islam? The Saudis have pushed the teachings of the Wahabism sect and have been deforming Islam for decades. This actually helped give rise to ISIS and Al Qaeda. It’s a little like Bernie Sanders saying that the Koch Brothers need to get more involved in U.S. politics, they need to “get their hands dirty.”

But if your point is to build up the next stage of the U.S. government’s horrific role in the Mideast, it kind of makes sense. The U.S. government helped ensure the Saudis would dominate the Arabian Peninsula from the formation of the nation state of Saudi Arabia — a nation named after a family. In return, the Saudis had the U.S. take the lead in extracting oil there and favored investing funds from their oil wealth largely in the West over building up the region, what the activist scholar Eqbal Ahmed called separating the material wealth of the Mideast from the mass of the people of the region. Saudi Arabia buys U.S. weapons to further solidify the “relationship” and to ensure its military dominance.

The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies deformed the Arab uprisings, which transformed oppressive but basically secular and minimally populist regimes into failed states, giving rise to groups like ISIS and allowing Saudi Arabia to largely call the shots in the region. What has happened in the Mideast since the ouster of Mubarak and the so-called Arab uprisings is that the Saudis have been strengthened. Both the Tunisian and Yemeni dictators fled to Saudi Arabia. Mubarak himself was urged not to resign by the Saudis, and the Saudis are now the main backers of the military regime in Cairo.

Why is Sanders doing this? Is there a domestic constituency called “Americans for Saudi Domination of the Arab World”? Well, yes and no. It would obviously play well in the general public to say: “We’ve got to stop backing dictatorships like the Saudis. They behead people, they are tyrannical. They have a system of male guardianship. Why the hell are they an ally?”

But Sanders is unwilling to break with the U.S.-Saudi alliance that has done such damage to both the Arab people and the American people. Now, we have a full-fledged Israeli-Saudi alliance and it must be music to the ears of pro-Israeli journalists like Wolf Blitzer for Sanders to be calling for U.S. backing of further Saudi domination.

Some have argued that Sanders’ candidacy is very valuable — that win or lose, he’s putting the issue of income inequality front and center. But if the candidacy is to be lauded for raising issues of economic inequality, educate the public and galvanize around that that, it’s fair to ask how the candidacy is also deforming public discussion on other crucial issues. If the position of the most prominent “progressive” on the national stage is for more Saudi intervention, what does that do to public understanding of the Mideast and dialogue between people in the U.S. and in Muslim countries?

If the U.S. further subcontracts the Mideast to the Saudi regime, the setbacks and disappointments for peace and justice in the Mideast during the Obama years will be small potatoes in comparison. If the Mideast continues to deform, largely because of U.S. policies backing Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel, all the other things Sanders is talking about regarding economic inequality are arguably out the window. He himself has noted that “wars drain investment at home.”

Or does Sanders think it’s all good if he can set up a scheme whereby the Saudis pay the bills and use their own troops for Mideast wars that the U.S. government backs? Martin Luther King in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech referred to the wars taking funds from the war on poverty as a “demonic destructive suction tube.” But he also referred to just looking at the funding as a “facile” connection, listing several other, deeper, reasons based on other moral grounds for opposing war. But Sanders rarely touches on those other reasons. It’s as though we’ve learned nothing about blowback since 9/11.

Contrast Sanders’ call for an escalation in Saudi Arabia’s proxy wars with what insurgent Jeremy Corbyn — who’s campaign to lead the Labor Party in the UK has caught fire — is saying. He’s been challenging the British establishment about arming the Saudis: “Will the Minister assure me that the anti-corruption laws will apply to arms deals and to British arms exports? Will they involve forensic examination of any supposed corruption that has gone on between arms sales and regimes in other parts of the world rather than suspending Serious Fraud Office inquiries, as in the case of an investigation into the Al-Yamamah arms contract with Saudi Arabia?” See a section on Corbyn’s website on Saudi Arabia and video of his remarks at the House of Parliament just last month, with Corbyn relentlessly raising questions of human rights violations by the Saudi regime.

Instead of adopting Corbyn’s human rights perspective, Sanders has used Saudi Arabia’s massive military spending to argue that it should further dominate the region. Unexamined is how it got that way. Unexamined is the $60 billion arms deal between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that Obama signed off on in 2010. The BBC reports, Saudi “Prince Turki al-Faisal called for ‘a unified military force, a clear chain of command’ at a high level regional security conference in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.”

So Sanders and Saudi planners seem to be working toward the same ends, as though war by an autocratic state in a critical region can be expected to breed good outcomes. Sanders doesn’t seem to take money from Lockheed Martin — though he’s backed their F-35, slated to be based in Vermont — but his stance on Saudi Arabia must bring a smile to the faces of bigwigs there.

The Black Lives Matter movement has moved Sanders to “say the names” of Sandra Bland and others who are victims of police violence. Those striving for peace and justice around the world need to do the same regarding Sanders and U.S. foreign policy.

Sam Husseini is founder of the website

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