He's not absolutely awful on foreign policy

February 19, 2016

In News

Bernie Sanders versus the Pentagon

The Vermont senator’s past support for drastic military cuts may help in the primary but hurt in the general election.


In 1995, he introduced a bill to terminate America’s nuclear weapons program. As late as 2002, he supported a 50 percent cut for the Pentagon. And he says corrupt defense contractors are to blame for “massive fraud” and a “bloated military budget.”

Since he arrived in Congress, Bernie Sanders has been a fierce crusader against Pentagon spending, calling for defense cuts that few Democrats have been willing to support. Should he defeat Hillary Clinton, analysts say, he will likely be the biggest critic of the Pentagon to win a major party nomination since World War II.

“He fits in that category of very liberal members of the U.S. Senate that have consistently attacked the Pentagon time and time again because they want the money to go to the entitlement side, even at a time when the world is more unstable and more dangerous,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general who served as Democratic staff director on the Senate Armed Services Committee in the 1980s.

That position might benefit Sanders with liberal primary voters. But Democrats focused on national security fear it could be a liability in a general election among moderate voters more worried about terrorism and growing aggression from Russia and China. Some suggested that, if nominated, Sanders would struggle to win support and endorsements from Democratic-leaning retired military officials.


“Voters are going to have enormous doubts about his ability to be resolute and to use the military when necessary to defuse threats to our safety,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a longtime advocate of muscular Democratic defense policies. Marshall, who favors Hillary Clinton over Sanders, noted that during the George W. Bush era, Democrats succeeded in closing a persistent deficit with Republicans on the question of whom voters trust to oversee the U.S. military.

Sanders has not proposed even a rough military spending figure, but he has said he would take “a hard look” at defense. When asked in last week’s Democratic debate to name an area of government he’d be willing to cut, Sanders cited the Pentagon: “I have the feeling you’re going to find a lot of cost overruns there and a lot of waste and duplicative activities,” he said.

Sanders’ defenders say the notion that the Pentagon’s $573 billion budget is filled with waste is hardly radical and insist that his tough line on military spending will appeal to voters of all stripes.

“This is why people are so attracted to Sanders — because he’s telling it like it is,” said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan whom Sanders recently named as a possible secretary of defense. Korb said billions of savings are achievable at a Pentagon that has what he called “a management problem.”

Korb, now at the Center for American Progress, is not a Sanders adviser and says he has not endorsed either Democratic candidate — though he recently wrote an essay defending the Vermont senator’s foreign policy views at POLITICO’s invitation. Sanders campaign spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

A Democratic nominee backing deep Pentagon cuts would mark a sharp departure from the party’s effort to embrace the military in the 1990s and 2000s — a position partly motivated by fear of being labeled “weak” on defense by Republicans.

Over the past 20 years, Democratic nominees — including Barack Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore — have repeatedly backed more money for the Pentagon. Even Michael Dukakis, though he identified specific cuts, didn’t propose reducing overall military spending. In 1992, Bill Clinton supported “peace dividend” savings after the fall of the Soviet Union. But so did his GOP rival, George H.W. Bush.

The last Democrat to propose deep cuts in Pentagon spending was the party’s 1972 nominee, George McGovern, who campaigned on a nearly 10 percent reduction to its budget. McGovern’s defeat in a historic landslide prompted deep soul-searching within the Democratic Party and kindled a new movement of pro-defense Democrats.

Hillary Clinton has not proposed a defense budget herself, though she has long supported a strong U.S. military. In September, she said she supports an independent commission to identify cuts to specific programs that even military leaders call unnecessary but are sustained by Congress.

Sanders allies have accused Clinton of being a tool of defense contractors, noting that many of her campaign’s foreign policy advisers have financial ties to the contracting world. One Sanders aide recently vented in an email to POLITICO about attacks on Sanders from Clinton’s “defense contractor mouthpieces.”

Sanders has suggested that overcharging by greedy contractors is largely to blame for the size of the Pentagon budget. In a September interview with Bloomberg, Sanders said that “every major defense contractor has either reached a settlement with the U.S. government because of allegations of fraud or have been convicted of fraud.” Experts said fraud is a serious problem at the Pentagon, but that even a major crackdown is unlikely to yield savings that would have a real impact on the federal budget.

During his early years in Congress, Sanders advocated dramatic reductions to the military. In 1995, he introduced a bill that would “provide for the termination of nuclear weapons activities.” The bill sought to bar any funding for nuclear arms, “except to the extent necessary to terminate such activities in an orderly manner.” The measure went nowhere.

In speeches on the House floor, Sanders repeatedly denounced the size of the U.S. military budget, which he proposed slashing dramatically.

“I know you’re hoping and praying that maybe we’ll have another war, maybe somebody will rise up, but it ain’t happening!” Sanders railed in a 1991 House floor speech, soon after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Sanders singled out missile defense programs and the B-2 stealth bomber as unnecessary.

As late as 2002, his campaign website declared that “the defense budget should be cut by 50 percent over the next five years.”

Sanders has tempered that rhetoric of late. “We need a strong military, it is a dangerous world,” he told Iowa voters last February, adding that he saw room for “judicious cuts.”

When the Senate voted 91-3 in November to approve a new increase in Pentagon spending, Sanders was one of just three senators to vote against it. (He was joined by Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.) “I have very serious concerns about our nation’s bloated military budget and the misplaced national priorities this bill reflects,” he said in a statement at the time.

And he supports a measure in Congress that would make major unilateral cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal — cutting nuclear submarines, closing weapons facilities and trimming programs to extend the life span of nuclear weapons — and save an estimated $100 billion in nuclear spending over 10 years.

Sanders backs growing calls in Congress to audit the Pentagon — a position shared by one of his GOP rivals, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Cruz, like every other GOP candidate, supports a bigger military budget — reflecting a consensus in the GOP for “rebuild[ing] our military,” as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio puts it. (Republicans tend not to focus on their role in the budget sequestration process, which imposed cuts in the growth of Pentagon spending in recent years.)

If he were to win the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders would almost certainly face harsh attacks from his GOP opponent over military spending. One question is whether he can mount an effective defense that would persuade moderate voters less inclined than liberal Democrats to shrink the Pentagon.

Democratic candidates routinely line up endorsements from retired military officers, noted Mark Cancian, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But Sanders, he said, “indicates no interest in doing that — and I don’t think he’d be able to get too many people up on the stage with him in any case.”

“He may be popular with college students, but I guarantee you he would not be popular with the military,” added Punaro, who runs a Virginia consulting firm. He added that he is not registered with either party and does not support any presidential candidate.

For now, Sanders — who has yet to deliver a speech dedicated to national security — is concerned less about a possible general election than winning his primary duel with Clinton. And in that context, his views about the military may be an asset.

Cancian recently gamed out how the Pentagon budget would look if Sanders consigned it to 1.3 percent of gross domestic product — the level spent by Scandinavian countries whose societies Sanders often cites with approval. That would require “radically” slashing the defense budget by more than half, cutting the active Army from 475,000 soldiers to 250,000 and dramatically reducing the U.S. Navy presence in the Pacific.

After publishing his analysis, Cancian braced for complaints from Sanders fans that his thought experiment had exaggerated Sanders’ true position and that the socialist senator could not possibly support such massive defense cuts.

He heard something very different instead. “A lot of Sanders supporters were saying, ‘This would be great — but the special interests would never let him do it,’” Cancian said. “It certainly resonated with his supporters.”