Bernie Sanders Determined to Be Heard on Foreign Policy

PHOTO: Bernie Sanders reacts at the CBS News Democratic Presidential debate at Drake University, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines.PlayChris Usher/Getty Images
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During a whopping 32-minute interview Tuesday, Yahoo’s Katie Couric asked Bernie Sanders simply, "What about those who say you’re not that strong on foreign policy?"

The Vermont senator scoffed. "Oh, really? Well, compared to whom?" he said with a little guttural gruff.

"Many of the serious problems we face in the Gulf region and the Middle East are, in fact, attributable to the war in Iraq that we never should have gotten into. And it is not only that I voted against it - and Secretary Clinton voted for it - I helped lead the opposition against it."

Such a response, in a nutshell, is the crux of Sanders’ argument for why he is fit to be commander in chief, and he’s sticking to it.

Terrorists attacked Paris Friday almost exactly 24 hours before the second Democratic Party debate, which was mostly perceived as bad news for Sanders and his candidacy. How could Vietnam-era conscientious objector, campaigning on issues of income and wealth inequality at home, run with a former secretary of state?

In bars and spin rooms surrounding the Iowa debate, operatives from rival campaigns pushed the same narrative. After all, on the trail, during his large addresses to people across the country, Sanders barely touches on issues abroad.

So, it would have been easy for the independent Sanders, 74, to shy away from this topic, his perceived weakness, in the days after the head-to-head debate in Iowa. But he has done the opposite.

The bellicose rhetoric from Republicans on the other side has offered the progressive an excuse to hit the airwaves, opening himself up to interviews focused on foreign policy. Unlikely a coincidence, after the Clinton campaign announced she would speak on foreign policy later today, the Sanders campaign advised that he would address his vision for responding to ISIS as a part of a major speech he has scheduled at Georgetown University in Washington this afternoon.

The thrust of Sanders’s strategy for ISIS has, so far, centered on coalition building. The United States, he argues, needs to work with countries that may not be natural or easy allies, such as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

"We should be working with the Russians and with others in a coordinated effort to destroy ISIS and not everyone doing it alone," he said during the Yahoo interview.

Still, Sanders concedes that expanding cooperation with partners like these remains a challenge. “This coalition is a tough one to bring together, because you have Saudi Arabia, which hates Iran; you’ve got Russia, which obviously has a lot of differences of opinion with the United States,” he told Couric.

A senior strategist for the Sanders campaign, Tad Devine, put it this way to reporters recently: "Bernie Sanders believes that the burden of defending this world should not be shouldered just by America."

Sanders other central argument, which conveniently doubles as an attack on Clinton’s record, is that the United States should never have gone into Iraq to begin with, and should now steadfastly oppose putting boots on the ground in the region. Sanders often tells crowds to go back and look at what he said in 2002 leading up to the vote. “Sadly,” he adds, much of what he predicted has come to pass.

"I want to be smart. I don’t want to see young men and women coming home in caskets. I don’t want to see us spending trillions of dollars on a war,” he told Couric. “I want to see the entire world coming together and I want to see the Muslim nations on the ground.”

Without offering many specifics, Sanders stuck unapologetically to his message: that troops from nations in Gulf region should be the ones to fight against ISIS with help and support from the United States and other nations.

During the address this afternoon, Sanders may continue to defend President Obama. He told PBS’ Gwen Ifill this week that he thought the Obama administration has taken positive steps forward, and he defended Secretary of State John Kerry as having been “effective” in trying to bring countries together to solve the unrest in the region.

But backing the administration might make it harder for him to distinguish himself from Clinton, or even take swings at her.

Sanders said during his Yahoo interview, primarily in reference to Republicans and the decisions by President George W. Bush, "We should all take a deep breath and understand that our history in that region has not been particularly effective."

Since Clinton has been front and center of the nation’s foreign policy for almost a decade, it will be interesting to see whether Sanders chooses to turn those attacks on her.

Either way, he will undoubtedly respond aggressively today to the recent declarations from Republican governors and presidential candidates that the United States should not be accepting Syrian refugees. During the PBS interview, he said passionately, “If we turn our backs on those people, you know, I think almost in a way we will be destroying what this country is supposed to be about."