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Why Bernie Sanders can't get even one foreign policy advisor

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One of the remarkable developments of the Democratic presidential primary is the conventional wisdom on foreign policy. Rather than treating Hillary Clinton as the hawk and Bernie Sanders as the dove — a dynamic that would hurt Clinton in the primary but help her in the general election — Clinton is considered across-the-board superior and Sanders more or less hopeless.

Whatever you think of their respective foreign policies, it's hard to deny that Sanders has largely ceded the issue to Clinton. He largely avoids foreign policy, and when he does discuss it he offers platitudes or bizarre and vague proposals. He thus opens himself up to criticism as dangerously disengaged while also abandoning a potentially useful line of attack that Clinton is too hawkish.

Sanders should have had a relatively easy time arguing that Clinton is to their party's right, as Barack Obama did to great success in 2008. Even with Clinton's substantial experience, he should've been able to make foreign policy a disputed issue in the primary. So why didn't he?

There is one potential factor that, while it doesn't explain everything, sure does help: Hillary Clinton has locked up much of Washington's foreign policy expert community, and no one wants to defect to team Sanders for fear of being shut out of a Clinton administration for the next year four to eight years. So Sanders, who was already not particularly inclined to focus on foreign policy, is left without a staff and thus adrift.

Consider this detail from Foreign Policy's John Hudson, who reported on the Clinton campaign's almost preposterously vast pool of "advisers," who've been recruited from every tier of Washington's Democratic foreign policy community and who produce "reams" of memos and policy papers that no one will ever read:

But free advice isn’t the only advantage to having a big foreign-policy team. One expert said the system helped ensure loyalty for Clinton by creating "the illusion of inclusion."

"Even though you’re one of hundreds, you feel like you’re part of the team," said one prominent think tank scholar.

It’s the type of dynamic that can make an outside expert think twice before tweeting a snarky reaction to a Clinton gaffe or offering a less-than-flattering quote to a reporter. The end goal for many experts is to parlay a stint on an advisory group into a plum job in a future Clinton administration.

The Clintons are notorious for rewarding loyalty and punishing perceived disloyalty — no matter how slight or how long ago. Even when Clinton was part of the Obama administration, her State Department shut out quite a few people who had supported Obama.

If you're a foreign policy professional, you remember that. And you see that a Clinton primary victory still looks likely. So if you think you might want a job in government anytime in the next four to eight years, especially a high-level job, siding with Clinton in the primary is the safe bet.

You can see hints of this in the way foreign policy experts responded when Politico's Michael Crowley called them up to ask if they'd advised the Sanders campaign, as it had claimed:

"Apparently I had a conversation with him last August," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Brookings Institution Middle East scholar, after checking her calendar upon hearing that her name was on a list of people the Sanders campaign said he had consulted in recent months. "My vague recollection is that it was about [the Islamic State] but I don't really remember any of the details." Wittes added that she backs Clinton.

"I don’t know how I got on Bernie Sanders’ list," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who says he spoke to Sanders once or twice about the Iran nuclear deal at Sanders’ request in mid-2015.

And here's how Larry Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense for a few years under Reagan, responded when he heard Sanders was name-checking him:

"I was asked to go over and speak with him just once, which I did," said Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Korb said the wide-ranging conversation "probably" occurred in December. ...

Korb told POLITICO on Friday that he met with Sanders at the senator's invitation, "just like I did with Rand Paul" and others. ... "I am not involved in [Sanders'] campaign or anybody's," Korb said.

When you see Sanders struggling to get even a single foreign policy expert to stand up for his campaign, his foreign policy starts to make more sense. Because the usual theories you hear for it never quite added up.

The first of those theories is that Sanders just doesn't care about the world — but Sanders was highly engaged in foreign policy earlier in his career. The second is that he has far-left views he needs to hide from voters — but this doesn't square with his best-known views, which are support for Israel and for the 1990s interventions in the Balkans.

But as best anyone can tell, Sanders does not have a single foreign policy staffer or adviser to his campaign. This has consequences, in both political and substantive policy terms.

This makes it very hard for Sanders to challenge Clinton on foreign policy, though she is to the party's right on some important issues. More than that, it opens him up to attack as unprepared. An issue that should be a strength for Sanders in the primary has become a weakness.

You would think Sanders, after weeks of criticism, would come up with some banal fill-in-the-blanks foreign policy proposals, or would criticize Clinton's hawkishness or at least her name-dropping Henry Kissinger.

All it would take is Sanders hiring one or two low-level foreign policy staffers to not just address his foreign policy weakness but also try to turn it into a strength versus Clinton. His failure to do even that seems at least partially a result of Clinton having cornered the market on foreign policy experts.

But this is not just about political positioning against Clinton. It also means Sanders is developing neither policy ideas nor a substantive grasp of the issues, which he would need to be competitive in the general election and, more importantly, to function as president.

I still think it is at least theoretically possible that Sanders, if he wins the nomination, could then recruit foreign policy staffers and advisers who would, at that point, feel freer to defect from Clinton. But the longer this is delayed, the less time Sanders will have to prepare for the general election or for the presidency itself.

Update: Mieke Eoyang, currently the VP for national security at Third Way and previously a foreign policy advisor to Sen. Ted Kennedy and others in Congress, sent a few tweets in response to this piece arguing that Sanders' problem goes back years. He never really bothered to establish a team on foreign policy, she says, so went into the campaign without anyone to call on for help.