Sanders’s opposition to the war in Iraq, preferred trade status for China and the Saudi war in Yemen seem prescient to many voters today. But his history of making common cause with socialist authoritarian regimes dating back to the 1980s has some Democrats worried he would be vulnerable on these issues.
Sanders’s congressional record puts him at odds with the mainstream positions of the Democratic Party. Since being elected in 1990 — he served eight terms as a House member before becoming a senator — Sanders has consistently voted to limit U.S. military interventions abroad, opposed bills that take Israel’s side in the Middle East peace process and argued against sanctions on Iran.
In a September primary debate, Sanders came under criticism for not backing the U.S. policy supporting the overthrow of Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro in favor of interim president Juan Guaidó. Sanders called Maduro a “vicious tyrant” and rejected the comparison of “democratic socialism” in Venezuela to the milder form of socialism he supports. But, he said, “what must not happen is that the United States must not use military force and intervene again as it has done in the past in Latin America.”
Some Democrats say stances like this would pose a problem against Trump in the general election campaign. “One of the most useful attacks on Trump on foreign policy is he’s favored autocrats over our allies, and Sanders is not the best candidate to make that critique because he has also associated himself with autocrats,” said Democratic strategist Ben LaBolt, who served as national press secretary on the 2012 Obama-Biden campaign. “There’s a segment of voters out there who have seen nothing but chaos and want to see a return of America in its role in the world.”
The Sanders campaign dismisses such criticism as Beltway conventional wisdom. “I think it’s more that the Washington elite that wants a return to ‘normalcy,’” Sanders foreign policy adviser Matt Duss told me. “But most Americans understand that so-called ‘normalcy’ is what gave us the Iraq War. ‘Normalcy’ is what gave us the financial collapse. ‘Normalcy’ is what gave us Trump.”
Sanders’s record on foreign policy before he was in Congress hasn’t been much discussed in the 2020 cycle. Now that he’s near front-runner status, that’s sure to change as well.
A Democratic official associated with a rival campaign — and concerned that Sanders’s foreign policy record will be a liability in the general election — sent me a batch of documents from the Sanders archive at the University of Vermont about his foreign policy activity as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s.
One issue involves Sanders’s stance toward the former Soviet Union, a record that could undercut Democrats’ ability to criticize Trump for being too close to Russia today.
The documents from the Sanders archives include a letter from Soviet Embassy First Secretary Vadim Kuznetsov in March 1983, congratulating Sanders on his reelection as mayor and thanking Sanders for receiving him in Sanders’s office. Kuznetsov had been in Burlington to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament at the University of Vermont a few days earlier. Neither Sanders nor conference organizers appear to have read a 1976 Time magazine article that identified Kuznetsov as a member of a “Soviet intelligence squad” posing as diplomats to infiltrate U.S. politics.
In 1988, Sanders traveled to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon and forged a “sister city” cooperation program there. Many believe he gave a rosy depiction of conditions there just a few years before the communist system collapsed.
Another potential area of vulnerability concerns Sanders’s relationship with socialist governments in Latin America. In 1985, Sanders, as mayor of Burlington, traveled to Nicaragua to meet with then-President Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista movement, which was aligned with the Soviet-backed Cuban regime of Fidel Castro. The Sandinista government was accused of widespread human rights abuses. The Reagan administration supported the contras, who were also accused of widespread abuses.
According to a newly revealed document from the archive, when Burlington resident Edward Pike wrote to Sanders in November 1985 to complain about his support for the Ortega regime, Sanders responded by defending Ortega’s clampdown on human rights, blaming the United States for funding Ortega’s opposition and comparing Ortega’s actions to the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
In 1989, Sanders traveled to Cuba with his wife in hopes of meeting Castro, and came back defending elements of their communist system. He has remained consistent, opposing U.S. interventions in Latin America and defending socialist regimes in the region to this day.
The Sanders campaign says the candidate’s history is one of promoting democracy abroad and opposing regime change by the United States.
“I don’t think Americans in 2020 are really itching for an argument about U.S. policy in Latin America in the 1980s, but if anyone wants to come at Bernie over his opposition to Reagan’s support for right-wing death squads, we’ll have that fight,” Duss said. “Bernie has done the most to sound the alarm against growing authoritarianism, and how authoritarianism feeds off of corruption, inequality and oligarchy — not just of any of the candidates, but of any American leader period.”
Both Biden and Sanders have vulnerabilities on foreign policy, but Biden’s have already gotten the Trump treatment. If and when the president turns his media machine on Sanders’s record, all of this will be new and relevant for most Americans. If Sanders wins the primary, his foreign policy will be what Democrats are putting on the ballot in 2020. Primary voters should take that into account.