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My Turn: Bernie Sanders is not a plausible commander-in-chief

For the Monitor
Last modified: 1/31/2016 12:33:08 AM
We are headed for a national security election.

After a year that brought us the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, last fall’s bloody killing spree in that same city and the San Bernardino attacks, 29 percent of Americans cite terrorism as their top concern, a number that has risen by a factor of three in a year; an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll puts the number at 40 percent. About half as many say the economy is the No. 1 issue.

What’s more, it is impossible to predict what the next 10 months will look like. ISIS today is under real pressure. Its grip on the land it controls is loosening as Kurds in Syria and Iraq and the Iraqi army make slow inroads, supported by the U.S.-led coalition’s punishing air strikes. To maintain the impression among followers and potential recruits that it is damaging its enemies, the priority on “out of area” attacks like the ones in Paris and San Bernardino has gone up dramatically.

I have spent a good part of my adult life working in the government on these issues. I served as director for counterterrorism on the White House’s National Security Council staff in the late 1990s; in January 2000, I warned on the op-ed page of the New York Times that Osama bin Laden sought to carry out unprecedented catastrophic terror attacks against the United States, a theme I repeated in many venues over the next 18 months. From 2009 to 2012, I served as the coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department.

Although I am somewhat more optimistic than many about the trajectory of our fight against ISIS, I still fear that a national security election could be a disaster for our country if Democrats have the wrong candidate. The reason is simple: Sen. Bernie Sanders is not a plausible commander-in-chief. He has focused his campaign almost entirely on domestic issues, and he does not have the experience or understanding to win such an election.

Like most Democrats – and all of Sanders’s supporters – I agree with him that the outstanding issues of the day are inequality and our troubled political system, even if I don’t share his optimism about the prospects for revolutionary change in these areas. The Sanders supporters’ passion for their candidate is impressive. But it is time to consider the likely consequences of a Sanders candidacy in the emerging political environment.

Sen. Sanders has presented no plan for defeating ISIS, a group whose perceived success is galvanizing extremists from our West Coast to Europe to Indonesia. He has argued for Iranian troops to take on more of the fight against ISIS, and he appears not to grasp the fact that tension between Sunnis and Shia Muslims is a key driver of ISIS’s popularity. A greater role for Iran – which supports Hezbollah and is itself the world’s premier sponsor of terrorism – in the fight in Iraq and Syria would only elicit more money, more recruits and more support for ISIS from disgruntled Sunnis.

Sanders would be shellacked in a presidential election. Republicans historically are seen as having the edge on national security issues (polls give them roughly a 12 percent margin now), and while that may seem bizarre given the profound mess left behind by the George W. Bush administration, Democrats need to put their best foreign policy candidate forward.

The safe choice

Sanders supporters need to think hard about what lies ahead. There is no question these are challenging issues and challenging times. But I strongly believe that Hillary Clinton is the candidate best equipped to keep our country safe – and she will also make progress on redressing inequality and fixing our politics.

My conviction comes from working alongside her for nearly four years at the State Department. I saw close-up how she collaborated with the rest of the administration’s national security team to cripple al-Qaida. I know how deftly she managed one of the most difficult – but, for counterterrorism, essential – relationships we have with Pakistan after such events as our unilateral mission to kill bin Laden.

And I was astonished at how effectively she handled the delicate diplomacy – including with the Muslim-majority countries that need to be at the forefront of our efforts to defeat ISIS – required to create the institutional architecture for dealing with terrorism in this century by establishing the Global Counterterrorism Forum as a central body for helping other countries build their capabilities to defeat terrorists.

On the basis of those experiences, I know that a President Clinton will have the skills and insight to deal with the evolving terrorist threat. For example, she has the personal relationships in the Middle East and understands the thinking of our Arab partners, who are on the sidelines now in the struggle against extremism. She – alone among the current presidential aspirants – understands how to move them to action.

Indeed, if you look back over history, no non-incumbent candidate for the presidency has had more foreign policy experience in more than half a century. Alone among all of the current contenders, she understands how to use the tools of counterterrorism to conduct a campaign that will cut ISIS down to size without sending U.S. ground troops to the region on a combat mission.

She also knows and can explain how such a deployment – which several Republican candidates support – would dangerously undermine our own interests.

Secretary Clinton is the only candidate in the field who can blunt the efforts of the demagogues who advocate killing terrorists’ families (Trump), claim they will make the desert glow through carpet-bombing (Cruz) or claim we’re in World War III (Christie).

Thus far, she is one who has fully appreciated that the anti-Muslim sentiment rampant in the Republican Party threatens to alienate those people we most need on our side to combat extremism: ordinary Muslim citizens, who are most likely to know when others in their community are becoming radicalized.

To win the White House in November, the Democratic nominee will need to demonstrate the ability to handle all parts of the job – presidents can’t just pick and choose their issues. We need more than a campaign finance reform president or a health care president.

To those who believe that Sen. Sanders understands what ails America economically and politically, yes, this is an electability argument. There is nothing wrong with that – advocates of change must be practical politicians. What’s more, anyone who really wants more fairness in our economy and more reform in our politics must consider whether we should gamble it all on the proposition that a majority of voters will be won over by Sanders’s exclusively domestic policy message.

It will be a tragedy if the nation misses a chance for progress in these areas – and, if we wind up with leaders who pursue, as some of the Republicans advocate, another round of fighting in the Middle East, with all its disastrous consequences.

(Ambassador Daniel Benjamin served as coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. He is now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.)


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