There was very little of value on foreign policy in last night’s Democratic debate. That was unfortunate because Biden has many vulnerabilities on foreign policy that voters ought to know about, and it was also a waste of an opportunity to find out more about what both candidates propose to do in the future. What little time there was devoted to discussing foreign policy was squandered with Biden’s misrepresentations of Sanders’ record. The former vice president incredibly tried to make himself into a paragon of opposition to authoritarianism, and in the process he misrepresented a vote that Sanders cast against a 2017 sanctions bill that applied to both Russia and Iran. As Sanders said at the time, he did not object to the Russia sanctions, but saw a push for more Iran sanctions as a threat to the JCPOA. This was before the Trump administration had reneged on the deal. Zaid Jilani and Ryan Grim reported on the story then:
“On a day when Iran has been attacked by ISIS, by terrorism, now is not the time to go forward with legislation calling for sanctions against Iran,” Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said on the floor before the Senate did just that. “Let us be aware and cognizant that earlier today the people of Iran suffered a horrific terror attack in their capital, Tehran.”
Sanders was not alone in his opposition to the sanctions. When the sanctions bill was coming up for a vote, John Kerry warned that new Iran sanctions were a bad idea:
Former Secretary of State John Kerry says it would be dangerous to impose new sanctions on Iran so soon after the negotiation of an international nuclear deal.
Speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Kerry argued that new sanctions could be seen as a provocation by Iran.
“If we become super provocative in ways that show the Iranian people there has been no advantage to this, that there is no gain, and our bellicosity is pushing them into a corner, that’s dangerous and that could bring a very different result,” said Kerry, who led U.S. negotiations on the deal under former President Obama.
Sanders cited Kerry’s remarks in his speech on the Senate floor. Sanders’ opposition to the Iran sanctions portion of the bill was well understood and reported on at the time. Just as he said last night, Kerry agreed with and took the same position that he did on Iran sanctions. Biden could not be unaware of this when Kerry is one of his own top surrogates. When he launched the attack on Sanders last night he must have known he was deliberately misrepresenting Sanders’ position:
Joe Biden: Why did you vote not to sanction the Russians?
Bernie Sanders: You know why? Because I had every … you keep talking about Iran that was tied to Iran. Russia was in Iran. I think John Kerry indicated his support for what I did. That was undermining the Iranian agreement. That’s why.
Joe Biden: That’s not true.
Biden is the one not telling the truth here. Using this sanctions vote as a bludgeon against Sanders is an exceptionally cynical move even for someone like Biden. Sanders was one of only two senators to stand up against sanctions that potentially threatened the nuclear deal that Biden tries to take credit for now. As Aida Chavez explained in an article from earlier this year, Biden was conspicuously absent from the opposition to these sanctions in 2017:
Jeffrey Prescott, a former deputy national security adviser to Biden, co-authored an op-ed as the 2017 sanctions gained momentum saying that they gave “Iran an excuse to undermine the deal.” And another Obama administration veteran, former Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the nuclear deal, came out publicly calling the new sanctions “dangerous.” Yet Biden himself was nowhere to be found.
Sanders took the correct, unpopular position as he has done many other times, and nearly three years later Biden is trying to use the vote to paint Sanders as “weak” on authoritarianism when it actually proves that he was the strongest supporter of the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy achievement.
Sen. Sanders did take an opportunity to call attention to an important part of his own record that deserves wider acknowledgment:
I have led the effort against all forms of authoritarianism, including America’s so-called allies in the UAE and in Saudi Arabia. And in fact, as you may know, worked with conservative Republicans to utilize for the very first time the War Powers Act to get the United States out of the horrific war in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. That’s what I did. So my view is that in a world moving toward authoritarianism, the United States has got to be the leader where people all over the world look to us for guidance.
Once again, the contrast with Biden was implicit, but the message was unmistakable: while Sanders led to bring U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen to an end, Biden was part of the administration that initiated that indefensible policy. The former vice president wraps himself in the mantle of anti-authoritarianism today, but at many points in his long political career he has been only too happy to make excuses for authoritarian U.S. clients.
The exchange between Biden and Sanders over the sanctions vote was revealing and not at all flattering for Biden. It showed that Biden was willing to twist and misrepresent the record to paint a false picture of Sanders, and he was willing to attack Sanders for taking a position endorsed by former Obama administration officials. Then when he heard Sanders’ explanation for the vote, he dishonestly dismissed the senator’s legitimate reason for voting the way he did. That was hardly the only time that Biden made false claims during the debate. Most of the lies he told were about his own record, but in this case he was distorting Sanders to score cheap points. Sanders refrained from directly calling out Biden on his many lies and distortions. Whatever his reasons for doing that, it allowed Biden to get away with making a lot of false and outrageous statements.