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Bernie Sanders has a Winston Churchill problem

Win McNamee/Getty Images

"The world has seen many great leaders in history. Can you name two leaders, one American and one foreign, who would influence your foreign policy decisions?"

As primary debate questions go, that one is a gimme — the sort of thing that is so commonly asked it practically orders candidates to recite a prepared snippet of hagiography, in the manner of a beauty pageant contestant or a child competing for a school prize.

And, indeed, when that question was posed during last night's Democratic debate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders started strong. He selected Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the American leader who had influenced him, smoothly sidestepping the question of foreign policy and moving straight into praising the New Deal for reducing unemployment and FDR for uniting the country in the face of a great crisis — both points firmly on-message for the Sanders campaign.

But then it was time to select a foreign leader. There was a momentary pause, the slightest flicker of panic across Sanders's face as he cast about for an answer. I watched with eager curiosity, wondering whom he would pick. A deposed Cold War leftist like Chile's Salvador Allende? Or perhaps a freedom fighter like South Africa's Nelson Mandela?

Nope.

Winston Churchill's politics were not my politics. He was kind of a conservative guy in many respects. But nobody can deny that as a wartime leader, he rallied the British people when they stood virtually alone against the Nazi juggernaut and rallied them and eventually won an extraordinary victory.

To be sure, Churchill led Britain through its long, heroic, and ultimately successful fight against the Nazis. He did rally the British people during a time of national catastrophe, and mounted the effort to fight Hitler's gruesome fascism.

But that's not all he did. Any fair evaluation of Churchill's record as an influential leader in foreign policy must also consider his policies toward countries outside of Europe. His commitment to fighting tyranny in Europe doesn't look quite as principled when contrasted with his commitment to maintaining it elsewhere.

On its own, this gaffe isn't disqualifying. Sanders presumably thinks of Churchill as a friendly ally against fascism, and did not know that the British leader was also a chemical weapons enthusiast and unreconstructed racist who cut a swath of suffering and death across three continents.

But it is very worrying. Thus far, Sanders's foreign policy appears to be composed of one vote against the Iraq War and a handful of lessons from the early Cold War. That wouldn't be a problem if it were just an artifact of a campaign more focused on domestic issues than foreign ones. But Sanders's choice of Churchill as a "great leader" who has influenced his thinking on foreign policy suggests he's not doing much thinking on foreign policy at all. That is a big problem.

Churchill on the Indian famine that killed up to 3 million: "If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?"

In 1943, famine broke out in the Indian region of Bengal, precipitated by the Japanese occupation of Burma, which reduced the availability of rice. India was then a British colony and so was subject to British rule on matters of grain imports and exports, which meant it was at Churchill's mercy when it came to famine relief.

That mercy turned out to be limited. Churchill's government insisted that India continue exporting grain even as Bengal was collapsing into starvation, shipping out 260,000 tons of rice in the fiscal year 1942-'43. Grain imports that could have eased the devastation were diverted elsewhere, to feed Britain and create stockpiles that could be used to feed Europeans in the event they were liberated from Nazi rule.

Some historians contend that Churchill could not have done more to ease the starvation in Bengal because his options were limited by the harsh realities of World War II. But they are being far more charitable to Churchill than he ever was to the people of India. Time and time again, he dismissed their humanity with a grim, thuggish racism, mocking the plight of starving people and blaming them for their own destruction.

"I hate Indians," Churchill told his secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery. "They are a beastly people with a beastly religion." Amery accused Churchill of having a "Hitler-like attitude" toward Indians, but Churchill was unmoved.

When Amery and the British viceroy in India begged him to release more food to prevent mass starvation, Churchill responded with a telegram asking, "If food is so scarce, why hasn't Gandhi died yet?"

In Churchill's opinion, Indians were simply inferior, and their starvation was unimportant when compared with the plight of Europeans. "The starvation of anyway underfed Bengalis is less serious," he told Amery, "than that of sturdy Greeks."

He even seemed to view the catastrophic famine as a reasonable punishment for India's high birthrate, telling his war cabinet that the famine was Indians' own fault for "breeding like rabbits."

Approximately 3 million Indians died in the famine.

Churchill's "inspiring" foreign policy also included torture, chemical weapons, and violent oppression

Nor was the Indian famine some sort of wartime aberration from an otherwise reasonable record. In 1919, Churchill declared that he was "strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes," and enthusiastically supported its use against "Bolshies" in Russia.

(The British did use chemical weapons against Russia; the Guardian reports that "Bolshevik soldiers were seen fleeing in panic as the green chemical gas drifted towards them. Those caught in the cloud vomited blood, then collapsed unconscious.")

In the 1920s, as the British secretary of state for war, Churchill created the notorious "Black and Tans," in Ireland, a paramilitary militia that he recruited to maintain British control and suppress the IRA. That strategy backfired: The Black and Tans were so violent toward Irish civilians that they provoked popular anger and likely ended up increasing support for independence.

When Churchill returned as prime minister in postwar Britain, he presided over the brutal suppression of Kenya's anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion, in which Britain herded thousands of people into concentration camps that the Harvard historian Catherine Elkins has described as "Britain's gulags."

Although official British estimates were that 80,000 members of Kenya's Kikuyu ethnic group were detained, Elkins believes the true figures were closer to twice that — and that up to 100,000 Kikuyu died as a result. Those imprisoned in the camps were subjected to torture, including sexual violence like castration and rape.

Colonial records show that Churchill's government was well aware of what was happening but failed to stop it, even as it received reports of detainees being burned alive during interrogations.

Sanders presumably didn't know about Churchill's record — but that's not great, either

There is no reason to believe that Sanders was aware of Churchill's horrifying human rights record when he identified him as a hero. It seems most likely, particularly given that Sanders had just selected FDR as a great American leader, that Sanders had World War II on his mind and simply reached for a US ally who would play into his message about FDR's greatness.

But even if Sanders didn't actually intend to praise the trail of destruction and discrimination that Churchill carved through the 20th century, his ignorance is still concerning.

Sanders has been notably unwilling to engage seriously with foreign policy during his campaign. As I have written previously, his position is more about what America should be than about what actual policies it should pursue abroad. That is understandable for the campaign trail, and thus far it seems to have been quite effective.

But the implicit promise of that campaign style is that Sanders will be able to handle foreign policy when the time comes — that he is not incompetent in that area but merely focused on other things at present, and his ideals will ultimately carry him through.

His stated admiration of Churchill undermines that argument, because it suggests a very limited view of history and a worrying lack of understanding of how that history continues to shape the world today.

The legacy of colonialism is not a matter of the distant past, but rather an ongoing and in many cases hugely important issue in much of the world.

Countries such as Kenya and India are still dealing with the economic and political burdens of British rule. And so is the UK: In the past five years, the British government has been forced to pay millions of pounds in compensation to survivors of its Kenyan gulags, and thousands more cases still continue.

To be fair, Sanders was not alone last night in praising one of history's monsters: Clinton also defended her relationship with Henry Kissinger, who, Sanders rightly pointed out, has his own record of atrocities. Clinton's ongoing relationship with Kissinger is in many ways more worrying than Sanders's praise of a long-dead British prime minister.

But Clinton also has significant foreign policy experience and has given detailed information about her advisers and worldview, so her relationship with Kissinger is just one small part of her overall record. Sanders, by contrast, has offered so little information about his foreign policy beliefs that even small details like calling Churchill "great" end up taking on outsize importance.

Ironically, on the rare occasions Sanders has engaged substantively with foreign policy, he has rooted his arguments in history, citing the United States' role in overthrowing leftist governments like that of Allende in Chile and Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran as evidence of the folly of regime change.

Although limited, those discussions seemed to hint at a genuine worldview resting on a comprehensive understanding of world history. But Sanders's praise for Churchill suggests that might be a mirage — that his beliefs might just be leftover Cold War–era grievances masquerading as a doctrine.

It was just one offhand moment in one debate, and it would be unfair to write off Sanders based on that alone, but the dissonance with his stated ideals is still concerning, particularly how frequently vague he has been on foreign policy.

If Sanders wants to be a serious candidate for president, he is going to need to do better than that.

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