The presidential candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has excited many liberals throughout the country, but there’s been very little analysis of his foreign policy positions. This past Sunday Sanders criticized Hillary Clinton for her support of the Iraq war, declaring, “On foreign policy, Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq … Not only I voted against, I helped lead the effort against what I knew would be a disaster.” Sanders assertion about Clinton is obviously true, but the difference between the two candidates on war is hardly substantial and his political closet is filled with as many skeletons. Notably he supported NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, a stance which caused one of his staffers to resign in protest.
In his resignation letter to Sanders, former staffer Jeremy Brecher explained the Clinton administartion’s position at the time. ”While it has refused to send ground forces into Kosovo, the U.S. has also opposed and continues to oppose all alternatives that would provide immediate protection for the people of Kosovo by putting non-or partially-NATO forces into Kosovo,” wrote Brecher, “...The refusal of the U.S. to endorse such proposals strongly supports the hypothesis that the goal of U.S. policy is not to save the Kosovars from ongoing destruction.”
Brecher’s note to Sanders closes with a set of rhetorical questions, “Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take? My answers led to my resignation.”
The attack on Kosovo is hardly the extent of Sanders’ hawkishness. While it’s true he voted against the Iraq War, he also voted in favor of authorizing funds for that war and the one in Afghanistan. More recently, he voted in favor of a $1 billion aid package for the coup government Ukraine and supported Israel’s assault on Gaza. At a town hall meeting he admitted that Israel may have “overreacted”, but blamed Hamas for the entire conflict. After a woman asked why he refused to condemn Israel’s actions, he told critics: “Excuse me! Shut up! You don’t have the microphone.”
Brecher’s entire letter to Sanders can be read below. The bombing of Kosovo killed between 489 and 528 civilians.
May 4, 1999
Congressman Bernie Sanders
2202 Rayburn Building
Washington, DC, 20515
This letter explains the matters of conscience that have led me to resign from your staff.
I believe that every individual must have some limit to what acts of military violence they are willing to participate in or support, regardless of either personal welfare or claims that it will lead to a greater good. Any individual who does not possess such a limit is vulnerable to committing or condoning abhorrent acts without even stopping to think about it.
Those who accept the necessity for such a limit do not necessarily agree regarding where it should be drawn. For absolute pacifists, war can never be justified. But even for non-pacifists, the criteria for supporting the use of military violence must be extremely stringent because the consequences are so great. Common sense dictates at least the following as minimal criteria:
The evil to be remedied must be serious.
The genuine purpose of the action must be to avert the evil, not to achieve some other purpose for which the evil serves as a pretext.
Less violent alternatives must be unavailable.
The violence used must have a high probability of in fact halting the evil.
The violence used must be minimized.
Let us evaluate current U.S. military action in Yugoslavia against each of these tests. Evil to be remedied:
We can agree that the evil to be remedied in this case -- specifically, the uprooting and massacre of the Kosovo Albanians -- is serious enough to justify military violence if such violence can ever be justified. However, the U.S. air war against Yugoslavia fails an ethical test on each of the other four criteria.
Purpose vs. pretext: The facts are incompatible with the hypothesis that U.S. policy is motivated by humanitarian concern for the people of Kosovo:
In the Dayton agreement, the U.S. gave Milosevic a free hand in Kosovo in exchange for a settlement in Bosnia.
The U.S. has consistently opposed sending ground forces into Kosovo, even as the destruction of the Kosovar people escalated. (While I do not personally support such an action, it would, in sharp contrast to current U.S. policy, provide at least some likelihood of halting the attacks on the Kosovo Albanians.)
According to the New York Times (4/18/99), the U.S. began bombing Yugoslavia with no consideration for the possible impact on the Albanian people of Kosovo. This was not for want of warning. On March 5, 1999, Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema met with President Clinton in the Oval Office and warned him that an air attack which failed to subdue Milosevic would result in 300,000 to 400,000 refugees passing into Albania and then to Italy. Nonetheless, “No one planned for the tactic of population expulsion that has been the currency of Balkan wars for more than a century.” (The New York Times, 4/18/99). If the goal of U.S. policy was humanitarian, surely planning for the welfare of these refugees would have been at least a modest concern.
Even now the attention paid to humanitarian aid to the Kosovo refugees is totally inadequate, and is trivial compared to the billions being spent to bomb Yugoslavia. According to the Washington Post (4/30/99), the spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency in Macedonia says, “We are on the brink of catastrophe.” Surely a genuine humanitarian concern for the Kosovars would be evidenced in massive emergency airlifts and a few billion dollars right now devoted to aiding the refugees.
While it has refused to send ground forces into Kosovo, the U.S. has also opposed and continues to oppose all alternatives that would provide immediate protection for the people of Kosovo by putting non-or partially-NATO forces into Kosovo. Such proposals have been made by Russia, by Milosevic himself, and by the delegations of the U.S. Congress and the Russian Duma who met recently with yourself as a participant. The refusal of the U.S. to endorse such proposals strongly supports the hypothesis that the goal of U.S. policy is not to save the Kosovars from ongoing destruction.
Less violent alternatives: On 4/27/99 I presented you with a memo laying out an alternative approach to current Administration policy. It stated, “The overriding objective of U.S. policy in Kosovo -- and of people of good will -- must be to halt the destruction of the Albanian people of Kosovo. . . The immediate goal of U.S. policy should be a ceasefire which halts Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians in exchange for a halt in NATO bombing.” It stated that to achieve this objective, the United States should “propose an immediate ceasefire, to continue as long as Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians cease. . . Initiate an immediate bombing pause. . . Convene the U.N. Security Council to propose action under U.N. auspices to extend and maintain the ceasefire. . . Assemble a peacekeeping force under U.N. authority to protect safe havens for those threatened with ethnic cleansing.” On 5/3/99 you endorsed a very similar peace plan proposed by delegations from the US Congress and the Russian Duma. You stated that “The goal now is to move as quickly as possible toward a ceasefire and toward negotiations.” In short, there is a less violent alternative to the present U.S. air war against Yugoslavia.
High probability of halting the evil: Current U.S. policy has virtually no probability of halting the displacement and killing of the Kosovo Albanians. As William Safire put it, “The war to make Kosovo safe for Kosovars is a war without an entrance strategy. By its unwillingness to enter Serbian territory to stop the killing at the start, NATO conceded defeat. The bombing is simply intended to coerce the Serbian leader to give up at the negotiating table all he has won on the killing field. He won’t.” (the New York Times, 5/3/99) The massive bombing of Yugoslavia is not a means of protecting the Kosovars but an alternative to doing so.
Minimizing the consequences of violence. “Collateral damage” is inevitable in bombing attacks on military targets. It must be weighed in any moral evaluation of bombing. But in this case we are seeing not just collateral damage but the deliberate selection of civilian targets, including residential neighborhoods, auto factories, broadcasting stations, and hydro-electric power plants. The New York Times characterized the latter as “The attack on what clearly appeared to be a civilian target.” (5/3/99) If these are acceptable targets, are there any targets that are unacceptable?
The House Resolution (S Con Res 21) of 4/29/99 which “authorizes the president of the United States to conduct military air operations and missile strikes in cooperation with the United States’ NATO allies against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” supports not only the current air war but also its unlimited escalation. It thereby authorizes the commission of war crimes, even of genocide. Indeed, the very day after that vote, the Pentagon announced that it would begin “area bombing,” which the Washington Post (4/30/99) characterized as “dropping unguided weapons from B-52 bombers in an imprecise technique that resulted in large-scale civilian casualties in World War II and the Vietnam War.”
It was your vote in support of this resolution that precipitated my decision that my conscience required me to resign from your staff. I have tried to ask myself questions that I believe each of us must ask ourselves:
Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take?
My answers led to my resignation.