What is Missing in the Democratic Debate on Foreign Policy

During the last Democratic debate in Wisconsin, Bernie Sanders brought up an issue he has mentioned before in the context of Hillary Clinton’s vote on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq.

Now I think an area in kind of a vague way, or not so vague, where Secretary Clinton and I disagree is the area of regime change.

He went on to talk about the U.S. military intervention in Libya, noting that the overthrow of Gaddafi resulted in chaos in that country. But then he made an interesting historical reference.

But this is nothing new. This has gone on 50 or 60 years where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh back in 1953. Nobody knows who Mossadegh was, democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. The result of that, you had the Iranian Revolution coming in, and that is where we are today. Unintended consequences.

In the context of the Republican Party’s commitment to military adventurism in the Middle East, a reference to the disastrous results of our involvement in the 1953 Iranian coup is always welcome. But what I found startling was that Sanders equated the history of our government’s involvement in those kinds of interventions with the situations in Libya and Syria. In Iran, as well as all over Central and South America, the United States was a mostly covert partner in propping up or installing dictators whenever the people of a country rose up in support of democracy. That is the exact opposite of what happened in Libya and Syria.

In past debates, Clinton has used the opportunity to clarify that the United States joined NATO in the military intervention in Libya – not necessarily to overthrow Gaddafi – but because he was broadcasting his intention to slaughter the rebels in Benghazi. That is actually the opposite of the kind of regime change in which this country engaged in the past.

It also seems as if Sanders has completely forgotten the role that Clinton played as Secretary of State during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned on Sunday that removing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt too hastily could threaten the country’s transition to democracy.

Her remarks were the Obama administration’s most explicit sign yet of its growing emphasis on averting instability in Egypt, even at the expense of the key demand from the Egyptian protest movement: Mr. Mubarak’s immediate removal.

As the saying goes, I’m old enough to remember that most of the progressive community was in an uproar against this move on the part of Clinton and the Obama administration. And yet, there she was doing exactly what Sanders is talking about…avoiding involvement in regime change because it destabilizes the situation and leads to unintended consequences.

I am the first one to applaud the fact that, with the end of the Cold War, this country seems to have finally stopped meddling in the affairs of other countries as a way to thwart the will of the people. But we need to think about what – if anything – our role should be when those people rise up against dictators and are threatened with the genocide of Gaddafi and/or the brutality of Assad’s civil war.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.