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Why I'm not writing off Bernie Sanders on foreign policy

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

In the hallowed halls where America's conventional wisdom is made, from the media to think tanks to academia, from those on the left to those on the right, there is a point of consensus on the Democratic presidential primary so widely and deeply held that it is rarely, if ever, questioned: Hillary Clinton is the serious foreign policy candidate, whereas Bernie Sanders has neither interest in nor any apparent aptitude for one of the more important roles he would play as president.

The issue is not over whose foreign policy is better, but rather over the fact that Sanders appears to have no foreign policy at all. He has no direct experience, no major policy proposals, not even, as best anyone can tell, a single foreign policy staffer or adviser. When asked about foreign policy, he tends to change the subject or merely argue for maintaining Obama administration policies.

Based the conventional wisdom, you would be forced to conclude that Sanders is just moments from hiring a bunch of Vermont ski bums as foreign policy advisers, and will shortly announce his secret plan to provide universal health care to ISIS.

It's not just establishment beltway centrists who are worrying. Ali Gharib, writing in the Nation, in an article criticizing Clinton's attacks on Sanders over foreign policy and drawing parallels between Clinton and Republicans, nonetheless acknowledged that Sanders's "lack of depth about the specifics of global affairs has long been on display." He asked, "Who, for example, are Sanders’s foreign policy advisers? I pay some attention to these things, and I have no idea."

It is true that Sanders has ducked and avoided what are conventionally considered even the bare minimum requirements for proving competence on foreign policy. But I can't bring myself to buy into the consensus that he is therefore incompetent and unprepared to run US foreign policy.

Rather, it seems to me that the process by which we demand a candidate prove his or her foreign policy credentials is sort of artificial and silly, that Sanders has made a debatable but at least potentially rational tactical decision to sidestep that process, and that this really only tells us so much about how a Sanders administration would conduct foreign policy.

In other words: I am not prepared to write off Sanders on foreign policy, and I don't think my peers in the media or elsewhere should write him off yet either.

The foreign policy ritual and why it really exists

Scott Walker

Scott Walker (Richard Ellis/Getty)

There's a certain ritual that presidential candidates are supposed to follow on foreign policy, and Sanders's decision to skip it makes a lot more sense when you see how this ritual works and the actual purpose it serves.

This ritual typically has three steps:

  1. The candidate hires a few foreign policy staffers who are considered credible and experienced by the Washington foreign policy community.
  2. The candidate meets with foreign policy graybeards within his or her party. While substantially meaningless, the meetings signal that the candidate has the implicit support of trusted elites.
  3. The candidate issues vague foreign policy proposals, or perhaps gives a vague foreign policy speech, reiterating his or her party's conventional wisdom on a big issue or two.

You will immediately notice that this process, every step of the way, is not aimed at appealing to voters or at addressing the high-polling issues of the day, but rather is almost exclusively for the benefit of party and media elites. Average voters do not have strong views over which think tank should influence policy or which academics' views are most relevant to the nation's foreign policy challenges.

That's because the foreign policy campaign ritual isn't really for voters at all — at least not directly. Rather, it's meant to solve a problem: Foreign policy is really important, and party and media elites care about it tremendously, but it's difficult to predict how a candidate will conduct it in office.

There's a polite fiction that candidates dream up policies all on their own, drawing solely on personal experience and gut instinct. But that's just a campaign mirage. In fact, they tend to draw on longstanding party doctrine and on the career professionals who staff our vast foreign policy institutions. And in any case, much of foreign policy is about reacting to unforeseen crises, and you can't give a speech announcing how you would respond to every possible hypothetical.

So the ritual above is meant to signal to party and media elites that the candidate will uphold establishment consensus, will listen to the foreign policy expert class, and will empower grown-up foreign policy professionals to conduct policy in a way that elites would consider generally responsible and correct.

The party and media elites, in return, tell voters and each other that the candidate is competent to run American foreign policy. And so the ritual is worthwhile, at least for candidates who are eager for elite establishment support, which brings access to donors, endorsements, and the like.

Scott Walker, for example, went through this routine in his failed bid for the GOP nomination. When he was criticized as naive and incapable on foreign policy, he put himself through a highly publicized crash course on foreign policy, the meat of which was a single two-hour "tutorial" with a few former Bush officials plus a few meetings with conservative think tankers. A few months later he gave a speech echoing hawkish conventional wisdom, and was embraced by elites as sufficiently "boned up" on foreign policy.

I am skeptical that Walker, by holding a few lunch meetings in fancy hotels and giving a speech that he could've ad-libbed from Bush administration press releases, suddenly went from incapable to capable on foreign policy. But that's actually okay, because competence was never the point. His performance was intended to send the appropriate signals to elites, not to demonstrate that he'd developed expertise in global affairs overnight.

Which brings us back to Bernie Sanders. Sanders is running a pretty unusual campaign in that he is not seeking the support of party and establishment elites, and is in fact explicitly running as opposed to them. And the Democratic Party establishment has made clear that it is actively hostile to his candidacy.

Sanders thus has no real reason to put himself through a Scott Walker–style foreign policy proving ritual. The point of the ritual is to attract elite support. He's not interested in elite support. So what's the point?

Sanders has political incentives to avoid foreign policy

Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images

(Chris Usher/CBS via Getty Images)

Maybe it really is the case that Sanders is so unprepared on foreign policy, or that his ideas on the subject are so beyond the pale, that he has avoided the subject for fear of exposing his unsuitability to the American people.

But it seems likelier to me that Sanders's campaign looked at the polling that showed Democratic voters do not particularly care about foreign policy, looked at their long-shot primary campaign against Clinton, and decided to put everything on more favorable domestic issues.

Any investment in building out or discussing foreign policy would have taken away from domestic policy, and that would have made his candidacy more unlikely. Party elites care about foreign policy, but at present Democratic primary voters do not. And it is both tactically sound and within Sanders's ideological mission to speak directly to voters and not to party elites.

Sanders is also wise to avoid trying to staff up on foreign policy, or attract big-name "advisers," while the primary is ongoing. Many potential recruits might say no, not wanting to alienate Clinton while her candidacy still looks more likely, and Sanders would risk embarrassing stories about his failure to recruit anyone.

Another data point here is that when pressed on foreign policy, for example during debates, Sanders tends to articulate some vague version of the status quo, or promise some easy solution (his "Muslim troops on the ground" to fight ISIS) that allows him to change the subject. This suggests his detachment from foreign policy is not because he secretly harbors Trump-of-the-left extremist ideas, but rather that he just doesn't much want to focus on it.

And, indeed, here we are with Sanders having effectively tied Clinton in the Iowa caucus. It's always easy to overestimate the strategic brilliance of campaigns during their best moments, but it looks like Sanders's choices have been broadly correct.

The real vetting will happen if Sanders gets to the general election

If Sanders actually wins the primary and goes on to the general, the calculus here would change. He would need some degree of establishment support to run a national campaign, which would require going through the motions on foreign policy.

Even if Sanders decided to forgo establishment support, he would still face a national electorate that is much more concerned with foreign policy and terrorism than are the electorates he faced in the Democratic primary.

Republican voters are especially focused on those issues, meaning any GOP candidate would emphasize them heavily to try to draw out base support. Sanders would find himself talking lots of foreign policy whether he wanted to or not, and at some point he would have to prove competence to the voters.

At that point, if Sanders wants a chance at the presidency, he will have to tick the boxes on foreign policy. He'll have to hire the staffers and make the speeches and articulate the policies.

That will be the vetting process, and it is very likely to yield highly predictable results whereby Sanders hires respected foreign policy staffers for his campaign, recruits big-name Democratic foreign policy veterans as "advisers," and gives a speech that sounds like bold new ideas but on inspection will turn out to largely promise the status quo.

The result would be a promise to go into office with an agenda that broadly continues Obama's foreign policy, and with a foreign policy bureaucracy staffed by well-respected veterans of the Obama and Clinton administrations. This is typically what candidates with little foreign policy experience do, and there's no reason that Sanders wouldn't do it as well.

So while it is theoretically possible that Sanders could have an ultra-top-secret extremist or bizarre foreign policy agenda, there is no reason to assume that simply because he refused to engage in the elites-appeasing campaign ritual we normally demand of candidates.

For now, during the primary, I am not prepared to write off Bernie Sanders as hopeless on foreign policy just because he has not yet gone through the necessary campaign rituals. And neither should you.