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Bernie Sanders Criticizes U.S. Relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel at Democratic Debate

StoryNovember 21, 2019
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Image Credit: MSNBC

Ten Democratic candidates took the stage in Atlanta, Georgia, Wednesday for the party’s fifth presidential debate, co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post. Toward the end of the evening, Senator Bernie Sanders criticized former Vice President Joe Biden’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and laid out his foreign policy vision, including strong criticism of traditional U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. “It is no longer good enough for us to be pro-Israel — I am pro-Israel — but we must treat the Palestinians with the dignity they deserve,” he said. We speak with Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She says the Democratic Party is undergoing a major shift on foreign policy. “There’s a growing recognition among the candidates that … the discourse has changed dramatically across the board on the Middle East,” she says.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to turn to foreign policy right now. This is Senator Bernie Sanders speaking about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I think I may have been the first person up here to make it clear that Saudi Arabia not only murdered Khashoggi, but this is a brutal dictatorship which does everything it can to crush democracy, treats women as third-class citizens. And when we rethink our American foreign policy, what we have got to know is that Saudi Arabia is not a reliable ally. We have got to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia together in a room, under American leadership, and say, “We are sick and tired of us spending huge amounts of money and human resources because of your conflicts.”

And by the way, the same thing goes with Israel and the Palestinians. It is no longer good enough for us simply to be pro-Israel — I am pro-Israel — but we must treat the Palestinian people, as well, with the respect and dignity that they deserve. What is going on in Gaza right now, where youth unemployment is 70 or 80%, is unsustainable. So we need to be rethinking who our allies are around the world, work with the United Nations, and not continue to support brutal dictatorships.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Senator Bernie Sanders at last night’s presidential primary debate. Phyllis Bennis is with us, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, has written a number of books, including Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Phyllis, your response to the foreign policy section of the debate? It wasn’t that long, but it took in a lot of issues. And it looks like Bernie Sanders dared to talk about Israel-Palestine.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Bernie Sanders was indeed the only one who talked directly about Israel-Palestine. What I think was interesting, there was some good news and bad news, in a sense, if we look at the foreign policy debate overall. The good news is other that there’s starting to be — other than Bernie Sanders and, to some degree, Elizabeth Warren, there is not a lot yet, but there’s a growing recognition among the candidates that the base of the Democratic Party, the discourse has changed, dramatically, across the board on the Middle East, so that questions of recognizing that Saudi Arabia is not our trusted ally against terrorism or something, but is a brutal dictatorship, is now a widespread view, even from the centrist sector of the Democratic Party. People like Klobuchar and Biden both said that.

What’s missing — and this is where we get into the problematic part — what’s missing from this shift is that there’s not a lot of discussion about what would that mean. Bernie Sanders’ comments about Saudi Arabia and the need for diplomacy between — bringing together, as he put it — Saudi Arabia and Iran was the one very specific and very innovative notion of replacing war and threat of war with diplomacy. But there’s not a lot of that kind of discussion about how would this happen.

In the past, Elizabeth Warren has, very importantly, given a number on the question of how much money would you cut from the military budget. In her proposal around Medicare for All, she proposed cutting $80 billion from the military budget, which is huge. No other candidate, and virtually no one else in Congress, has given those kinds of specific numbers yet about what they would be willing to cut to pay for big, bold new proposals like the Green New Deal, like Medicare for All. In this debate, when there was discussion about the Green New Deal, discussion about healthcare, it didn’t come up in connection. We didn’t see that intersectional relationship between one of the places we can get money is from the military budget. There was a very extensive discussion from Elizabeth Warren about the $800 billion, which is a very important figure that she has put forward on a number of occasions, in terms of the wealth tax and how that could be used for healthcare.

The same thing is true, across the board, for other candidates on the question of cutting the military budget. In fact, in June, when the Poor People’s Campaign convened a candidates’ forum, there were nine members of the pool of candidates who were there, including all the major candidates, and seven of the nine were asked, “Would you cut the military budget?” Every single one said yes. The other two were not — were not asked, just by chance. One of those two, ironically, was Bernie Sanders, who has perhaps most consistently talked about cutting the military budget.

But the problem was the questions. The questions from the journalists asking the questions didn’t include, “You’ve all said you would cut the military budget. Now the question has to be: How much?” My colleagues at the National Priorities Project have put together the numbers, where these cuts can come from. We could cut $66 billion just by ending the Pentagon’s war slush fund. We could cut $112 billion by cutting just 75% of the 800 overseas military bases. So there’s a way to do this. There’s a way to do this and to make it real. And that’s what we’re not hearing yet from the candidates. They’re recognizing that the discourse is changing and they have to catch up, but they haven’t caught up sufficiently. They’re not listening to the movements. They’re not listening even to the polls, in which people in the Democratic Party and more broadly are all calling for cutting the military budget.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to bring in a person who wasn’t standing on the stage in Atlanta last night, but clearly there, every step of the way, and that’s Barack Obama, former president. I want to talk about his comments last week at a fundraising event. He said, quote, “Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality … The average American doesn’t think that we have to completely tear down the system and remake it. … I don’t think we should be deluded into thinking that the resistance to certain approaches to things is simply because voters haven’t heard a bold enough proposal and if they hear something as bold as possible then immediately that’s going to activate them.” Ryan Grim, the significance of — he basically was saying that the party — he was warning the party about going too left.

RYAN GRIM: Right. And because the Democratic Party — and by that, I also mean kind of the base of it, the voters — have refused to kind of reckon with the Obama administration in an honest way, he remains able to kind of dictate the direction of the conversation. Nobody on stage is willing to come after Obama specifically. And, you know, it not only allows Biden to tie himself to his record, but it allows Obama to make these interventions. If you noticed in the debate last night, even Tulsi Gabbard, who is more willing than probably anybody on that stage to specifically come after the Democratic Party, said that a Kamala Harris administration would just be an extension of a Bush-Clinton-Trump foreign policy. And she very specifically flinched at putting Obama into that category, even though, I suspect, she believes that he belonged there. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan, we want to give Rashad the last word, Ryan. You just have 10 seconds.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah, the quick thing is, I was in the room when that happened. Most of the people in the room were donors. Obama also said one other thing that I think all of us have to remember, is that he wished he had put more money into state infrastructure to actually get other people elected. Obama was very good at electing himself.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there.

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