Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 March 2020

'President Bernie Sanders' will pose problems for Arab countries

In the unlikely event the Democratic Party contender beats Donald Trump in this year's election, his policies will not serve the US well, either domestically or abroad

Bernie Sanders commands the undying loyalty of approximately 25 per cent of the Democratic Party’s base voters. AFP
Bernie Sanders commands the undying loyalty of approximately 25 per cent of the Democratic Party’s base voters. AFP

Along with an apparently sound economy, Donald Trump's greatest advantage going into November's US presidential election will be his near-total grip on the Republican Party. Except for one senator – Mitt Romney of Utah, who voted to remove him from office at his impeachment trial – and one governor – Phil Scott of Vermont, who has endorsed one of his marginal rivals – Mr Trump indisputably dominates his party.

Regarding the Democratic Party, there are two competing narratives.

The first holds that, if you combine their aggregate numbers both during the 2018 midterms and the primaries thus far, Democratic centrists are emerging as the dominant force in the party. That would greatly distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans, who largely swung to the extreme right in the aftermath of Barack Obama's sweeping presidential and congressional victories in 2008.

The second narrative holds that the hard-left Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has himself already become the dominant figure due to his close second-place finish in Iowa and a narrow victory in New Hampshire. Whether or not he wins the nomination, some argue, Mr Sanders has already transformed the Democratic conversation.

We may have seen this film before.

Mr Sanders commands the undying loyalty of approximately 25 per cent of his party’s base voters. In hotly contested primaries, he faces a divided field of largely mainstream rivals. He is opposed by the party establishment. Indeed, he has never even been a formal member of the party. And he is noted for radical views formed in the 1980s, if not the 1970s.

Bernie Sanders is in some ways similar to Donald Trump with both politicians tending to appeal to the emotional and tribal sentiments of their base. AFP
Bernie Sanders is in some ways similar to Donald Trump with both politicians tending to appeal to the emotional and tribal sentiments of their base. AFP

If that sounds familiar, that is because it precisely describes Mr Trump's own position in the early stages of the Republican primaries four years ago.

Mr Sanders and Mr Trump share other characteristics.

Both are given to magical thinking and wild promises. Both have long histories of being suspicious of foreigners and trade. And both tend to appeal to the emotional and tribal sentiments of their base. These are not uniters, but rather finger-pointing and grievance-driven dividers – though one champions race and the other class.

There is another suggestive parallel in their mutual lack of transparency. Mr Trump has denied Americans the customary courtesy of releasing his tax returns though it is unclear exactly what he is hiding. Meanwhile, Mr Sanders has refused to divulge his health records, even though he is a 78-year-old man who in October returned to the campaign trail a few days after suffering a myocardial infarction, which damages and heart muscles, and mandates weeks of rest. Americans have no idea what his likely longevity might be.

Even without seeing his actual medical records, one might question whether his decision to resume campaigning was reckless in the extreme. It raises the issue of his overall judgment and perhaps a willingness to court disaster – even to his continued existence – in order to pursue political goals. The implications for the country are not reassuring.

Aside from sharing an attachment to Russia, Mr Trump and Mr Sanders are two of the more passionate proponents of the neo-isolationism that has gripped the imagination of the Democratic left as well as the Republican right, as typically defined by now-cliched diatribes against "endless wars".

Bernie Sanders says he wants to withdraw all US forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria by the end of his first term. AP Photo
Bernie Sanders says he wants to withdraw all US forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria by the end of his first term. AP Photo

This is crucial because, if he is elected, Mr Sanders' far-reaching policy goals on the economy and climate change, among other things, are very unlikely to pass even a Democratic-controlled Congress. However, foreign policy is an area in which presidents have wide – at times, almost unfettered – power.

Both Democrats and Republicans have, since the end of the Cold War – and particularly since the debacle of the 2003 invasion of Iraq – debated the usefulness of international engagement and leadership to ordinary Americans.

Mr Trump's impulse is to oppose such engagement but his evident desire to look tough to his base sometimes prompts him in a different direction. Mr Sanders shares the disengagement impulse, although he appears to have no attachment to macho posturing. Mr Trump leads a party that is deeply divided between isolationists and hawks, and he continuously tacks between the two. It is not clear that a Sanders-led Democratic Party will be similarly split.

A President Sanders could pose serious problems for Arab countries. He played a significant role in the extraordinary vote last April, eventually vetoed by Mr Trump, through which Congress sought to use the War Powers Act to end all US support for the Arab intervention in Yemen.

Palestinians protest in the West Bank against US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan in the West Bank. Bernie Sanders supports a two-state solution. Reuters
Palestinians protest in the West Bank against US President Donald Trump's Middle East peace plan in the West Bank. Bernie Sanders supports a two-state solution. Reuters

Mr Sanders says he wants to withdraw all US forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria by the end of his first term, and redirect spending away from international engagement, particularly military outlays, and towards domestic investments. He is likely to prioritise re-engaging with Iran by unilaterally lifting sanctions.

Under either Mr Trump or Mr Sanders, the US is likely to continue to withdraw from international leadership and especially the use of force.

Mr Sanders is popular among many Arab and Muslim Americans because he is perceived as a forthright critic of Israel. Compared to Mr Trump, he certainly is. And he is one of the few leading American politicians to suggest using aid to Israel as leverage on peace. But his essential position would return the US to a traditional two-state approach.

Mr Sanders has a long history of supporting far left-wing authoritarians, including the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Castro regime in Cuba, the now-defunct Soviet Union and others. His Democratic rivals have been circumspect on such issues, and Mr Trump – obviously delighted by the prospect of running against him and not a more formidable challenger – has kept his powder dry as well.

However, when and if Mr Trump and the Republican media machine unleash on Mr Sanders’ domestic and international views, the consequences could be devastating. Think Jeremy Corbyn – times 10 (under Mr Corbyn, Britain's Labour party last year suffered their worst parliamentary election defeat since 1935).

In a battle of fabulist demagogues, it would be foolish to bet against Mr Trump.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: March 3, 2020 06:06 PM

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