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National

Bernie Sanders Looks At Foreign Policy Through An Economic Lens

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's another potential flashpoint between the two candidates. Hillary Clinton's campaign released a statement today from 19 former diplomats and national security officials who say they are deeply troubled by what they see as Bernie Sanders' shallow grip on foreign policy. The Sanders campaign pushed back with its own statement signed by 20 foreign policy experts expressing confidence in the senator. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on what we know and don't know about Sanders' approach.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Any discussion of Bernie Sanders' foreign policy starts with the Iraq War. He was against it.

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BERNIE SANDERS: Ill-conceived military decisions such as the invasion of Iraq can wreak far-reaching devastation and destabilization over regions for decades.

HORSLEY: It's an easy way to put a dent in the foreign policy resume of Hillary Clinton who initially supported the war. And for a lot of observers, that's pretty much where discussion of Sanders' foreign policy ends. Elizabeth Saunders, who's a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's not something the Vermont senator spends a lot of time talking about.

ELIZABETH SAUNDERS: We just don't have much in the way of specifics or a long track record on foreign policy to really assess any other dimension of what he would do.

HORSLEY: In a speech at Georgetown last fall, Sanders made clear his main priorities are what happens in this country.

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SANDERS: I am not running for president to pursue reckless adventures abroad but to rebuild America's strength at home.

HORSLEY: When pressed on foreign policy, Sanders sometimes changes the subject, and he's clearly more comfortable talking economics. Critics see that as a diversionary tactic, or charitably, Saunders suggest it's just how Sanders sees the world.

SAUNDERS: Bernie Sanders' foreign policy views are shaped by the lens of the economy. He views most issues through the lens of economics and inequality.

HORSLEY: In that Georgetown speech, Sanders highlighted the link he sees between America's economic security and its national security.

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SANDERS: Nobody understood better than Franklin Delano Roosevelt the connection between American strength at home and our ability to defend America around the world.

HORSLEY: If Sanders tries to paint himself as a latter-day FDR, one of his foreign policy advisers, Lawrence Korb, suggests a less likely model. Korb, who was an assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration, sees Sanders in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower.

LAWRENCE KORB: His proudest accomplishment is the interstate highway system. He basically told the military, if we're not strong at home, we're not going to win this battle with the Soviet Union.

HORSLEY: Of course as the former supreme allied commander who defeated Hitler, Eisenhower had personal credibility on national security that Sanders may not. And even Eisenhower was criticized as weak on defense when he tried to rein in the growing military-industrial complex. Korb wrote an essay for Politico back in February headlined "Bernie Sanders Is More Serious On Foreign Policy Than You Think."

KORB: A lot of his critics said, well, you don't have a foreign policy; you know, you really are not up to the challenge of dealing with it. And I try to say, no, he has a serious foreign policy.

HORSLEY: Korb notes that Sanders believes in the cautious use of military power. While he voted against the Iraq War as well as the first Gulf War, he voted in favor of the Afghan War after the 9/11 attacks as well as NATO's 1990s intervention in the Balkans.

KORB: The Balkans worked because it was internationally sanctioned and there was a plan for what to do when we got rid of Milosevic.

HORSLEY: Like President Obama, Sanders prefers to operate overseas as part of an international coalition. Sanders says while the U.S. must pursue its fight against ISIS, Muslim countries should carry more of the load.

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SANDERS: Countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, countries of enormous wealth and resources have contributed far too little. That must change.

HORSLEY: Sanders told the New York Daily News he believes 100 percent in Israel's right to exist free from terrorist attacks, but he also said Israel must withdraw from what he calls illegal settlements and suggests the Israeli military was indiscriminate in its attacks on Gaza in 2014. Saunders of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks Sanders comes across in that interview as tentative, not sure of just how much he should say.

SAUNDERS: What we've learned from that is that Bernie Sanders has a more complicated understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict than is usually stated by a candidate for president.

HORSLEY: Sanders could be asked to expand on those answers during tonight's debate. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.