Late in NBC's Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders said something that struck a lot of foreign policy observers as very strange:
We should learn from King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place. And what Abdullah said is this is a war within Islam, and that Muslim troops should be on the ground with our support and the support of other major countries. That is how we destroy ISIS, not with American troops in perpetual warfare.
King Abdullah's Jordan, while a US ally against ISIS, has played a limited role in the military campaign in Iraq and Syria. It's responsible for only a fraction of the airstrikes against the group, and (contrary to what you might think from Sanders's comment) has no significant role on the ground.
Abdullah also sits atop an absolute, hereditary monarchy with limited tolerance for dissent — an odd choice for someone to hold up as a "hero."
"Freedom of expression is restricted by numerous laws that criminalize defamation, the denigration of government, and the incitement of sectarian strife," Freedom House said in a 2015 report on Jordan. "Traditional and online journalists have been arrested for criticizing the king, exposing corruption, and violating a vague requirement in the Press and Publications Law mandating media objectivity."
That wasn't the only time during Sunday's debate that Sanders positioned working with Arab dictatorships as the key to the anti-ISIS fight:
Our job is to train and provide military support for Muslim countries in the area who are prepared to take on ISIS. And one point I want to make here that is not made often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar, the largest, wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game, and not just ask the United States to do it.
If anything, the problem is the opposite of what Sanders describes: Saudi Arabia and Qatar have arguably put too much "skin in the game," supporting extremist and extremist-allied rebel groups that only worsened the sectarianization of the conflict. It's something the US pressured them heavily to stop doing.
Sanders seems to be taking a very rosy view of US partnerships with Arab authoritarian states in the fight against ISIS. This puts him of a like mind with, of all people, Ted Cruz — who has becoming the leading spokesperson in the GOP for cozying up to Arab autocrats.
Bernie Sanders sounding an awful lot like Ted Cruz right now on Arab authoritarians.— Daniel Drezner (@dandrezner) January 18, 2016