Did Bashar al-Assad win New Hampshire? Trump & Sanders Mideast Policies

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won big in New Hampshire on Tuesday. Caution is in order, since that state is demographically not very much like the rest of the United States, and both candidates are Northeasterners with advantages there. US journalism dreams of a presidential election campaign for 3 years of every four, then when they finally get their wish and there is an electoral contest, they are in an amazing hurry to declare it over after the first primary.

So what foreign policies did the good people of New Hampshire vote for? Trump has been called a populist, but on foreign trade I would argue that he is a throwback to mercantilism, desiring to use the power of the state to gain trade advantages. Sanders is a Social Democrat on the Scandinavian model, who sees himself as in the FDR tradition. Let’s look at some major issues and contrast the billionaire bully and the New New Dealer.


Trump :

In a way, Tuesday night was a good night for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

On Syria, Trump opposes overthrowing al-Assad, on the grounds that we can’t know what would take his place, and it might be worse (say, Daesh/ ISIL).

He also appears sanguine to let Vladimir Putin handle Syria. He said last November that he would cooperate with Putin in defeating Daesh (ISIL, ISIS). (The Obama administration may be in the process at the moment of coming around to this few and making its peace with a Russia-dominated Syria if that means the end of the civil war and of the refugee crisis.)

Trump’s campaign issued a statement thanking Putin for his own praise of Trump and saying:

“I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”

Trump has a sharp critique of China and US trade policies with China, which he accuses of stealing American jobs. But he appears to feel that the US and Russia are more complementary economically and is not as threatened by Moscow.

His creepy relationship with Putin puts me in mind of 19th century German Chancellor Bismarck’s secret treaties with the Tsars.


Sanders does not exactly agree with Trump about al-Assad, but he comes close. Sanders warns that an abrupt overthrow of the current Baath regime in Damascus could be destabilizing and says that Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) must be the priority. He takes a long view on moving al-Assad out:

“Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Qaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS.

So I think yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy, but before you do that you’ve got to think about what happens the day after. And in my view what we need to do is put together broad coalitions to understand that we’re not going to have a political vacuum filled by terrorists, that in fact we are going to move steadily and maybe slowly toward democratic societies. In terms of Assad, [he’s] a terrible dictator, but I think in Syria the primary focus now must be destroying ISIS and working over the years to get rid of Assad. That’s the secondary issue.”



Like the other GOP candidates, Trump opposes the UN Security Council deal with Iran on limiting its nuclear program to civilian purposes. But at least early in his campaign, he differed from his rivals in that he would not pledge to simply tear it up. Rather, he said, he would rigorously enforce it:

“I’ve heard a lot of people say, “We’re going to rip up the deal.” It’s very tough to do [that] … Because I’m a deal person. And when I make deals … I will police that deal. You know, I’ve taken over some bad contracts. I buy contracts where people screwed up, and they have bad contracts. But I’m really good at looking at a contract and finding things within a contract that, even if they’re bad, I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance. … And the problem is, by the time I got in there, they will have already received the $150 billion.”

Aside from bargaining harder with Iran, Trump does not say how his policy would be different from the present one. He doesn’t appear to have suggested using military force against it and his main knock on Tehran is that they got a better deal from Obama than they should have.


Sanders supports the Iran deal onto which President Obama signed, though he said it did not achieve everything he would like. His main reaction was to say that war should be the very last option. If Iran cheats on the deal, he says, he’ll respond with new sanctions first.



Trump doesn’t seem to have that much to say about Iraq proper. He has complained about Bush’s Iraq War and said he would have fired the former president (though his claims to have strongly opposed that war at the time appear exaggerated). He complains that Bush gave Iraq away to Iran, but does not have any practical suggestions in the aftermath.

With regard to Daesh, Trump says he would bomb the oil fields in the terrorist organization’s control. The Pentagon is already pursuing that strategy, which is more complicated than it sounds. Trump’s notion that oil wealth fuels Daesh is incorrect, since it has a long history and has thrived even when it did not have such resources.


Like Trump, Sanders does not seem to have an Iraq policy per se, though he really was opposed to the 2003 US invasion and occupation of that country.

With regard to Daesh, Sanders is reluctant for the US military to get directly involved in the region again.

Instead, he hopes a local coalition of Sunni Arab powers will form a coalition to take on Daesh. He put the onus on Saudi Arabia:

“Now if this is such a crisis to the region—Saudis have a big air force, you know. They have a lot of F-16s, why aren’t they involved? Why isn’t Kuwait involved?… We went to war to put the Kuwaiti government back. Where are they? Where are the billionaires in Qatar? If these guys in the region think that ISIS is such a great threat, they gotta put some skin in the game.”

Saudi Arabia has in fact done almost nothing against Daesh. Its efforts are being put into fighting a tribal rebellion in Yemen and into overthrowing Bashar al-Assad in Syria (a goal Sanders thinks should be much postponed).

Sanders has also sometimes talked about Jordan taking the lead, but that is ridiculous. Jordan is a small country of 6 million and can’t be deploying major military force in Iraq or Syria. It has engaged in some bombing raids alongside the US and that’s about all you can expect.

So both of these anti-Establishment candidates are relatively non-interverntionist. They are sanguine about Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. With regard to the Iran deal, both have said they would honor and police it, though Sanders endorses it while Trump denounces it. They differ on Daesh in Iraq, though both oppose a big new US infantry and army force in the region. Trump wants to bomb its oil fields and take away its petroleum. Sanders wants to have Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other Sunni regional powers form a coalition and take care of Daesh for the US. Neither plan is in the least practical.

One from the right, the other from the left, both Trump and Sanders can be seen on Middle East foreign policy as reactions against the Neoconservative militarism of the Bush era, which Obama has only partially rolled up. The actual Neoconservatives are clustered around JEB!, and Sheldon Adelson is backing Rubio. Neither showed well last night.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Bernie Sanders Victory Speech, New Hampshire Primary Feb. 9, 2016 [FULL]

18 Responses

  1. This does seem to be a year of upset and upheaval, and I have under-estimated the ability of Sanders to become the phenomenon he has now become.

    A small reason I still haven’t signed on to the phenomenon so far: in my imagination, the crucial moment in any presidency comes about on the afternoon of January 20th, when the new President is introduced to the national security/CIA leaders, who attempt to scare him into not challenging their power in any way. In my view, Obama failed this challenge and has been completely in their thrall; Hillary knows all these people already, on one hand she probably agrees with them already, on the other hand she may just be familiar enough to know how to fight back on various issues. Bernie, I could see him either misunderstanding their challenge, or getting in a pissing contest that hurts our (the progressive people) goals of significant reform in the longer term.* So that’s my fear in the situation.

    My intellect in the situation would be that great and middle powers tend to change their basic foreign policies slowly, even if their administrations are taken over by significantly new regimes. Their have been exceptions, such as the “reversal of alliances” in 1756, when the previous Austrian/Prussian alliance against France was switched for an Austrian/French alliance against Prussia, and the Hitler-Stalin alliance of 1939, but those situations occur when major nations are desperate for advantage. We still have a few years of upset and upheaval to go until such conditions are realized, IMHO, but I guess I’m ready to be surprised by revolutionary developments in my old age.

    *And Trump, of course would sign onto and urge the intensification of whatever the spymasters proposed.

    • Oh, the evidence is that the NSA etc. wait a couple of years to tell the president what they are actually up to.

    • One comment like this shows me that Informed Comment readers are AWAKE! The lack of foresight, or the delay in comprehension, or the “misunderstanding” is a fact of life. The staleness of outlook (Assad, Iran) is the big diverter from environment, not so much that dollars are diverted, since dollars can be “created” ex-nihilo (as the Obama admin continued to do all along with wars and drones at the same time…for some good actually). It’s that time, labor, and RESOURCES of a nation are diverted. So, a new third party would have to realize your description of this state of affairs.

      Re a challenge from Bern…more razor’s edge political chaos…but it’s OK with me. We gotta back him however.

      Agree with concluding remark.

  2. Seems a bit unfair to describe Trump’s relationship with Putin as ‘creepy’. Surely and aspiring president should try to have relationships with all foreign leaders, especially with Putin, who is in charge of the powerful Country that Russia is. I would have thought the relationship of the current and past administrations with terrorists in Syria (so called free Syrian army) and elsewhere on the globe as ‘creepy’ as well as criminal, at least in the eyes of the international community.

    • Seemed that way to me too. The only possibly creepy thing about it might be that Russia could do to us in some way what we did to Ukraine. I realize that the whole global economy is flagging, but someday BRICS might gain an edge, no matter how unglorious. No matter what he says about China, I wouldn’t trust Trump to understand (or reveal) what kind of TPP type deals (perhaps someday with Russia) might begin laying low the US in Latvia fashion. But no way now IMO should Russia be viewed as an aggressor.

  3. Interesting you chose Bernie rather than Hillary to critique. Hillary, who voted for the invasion of Iraq, is taking money from Haim Saban…link to truthdig.com which means she is definitely in the neocon camp. She could avoid the mistakes of Bush the Idiot if she listens to Bill Clinton who apprehended the first World Trade Center bombers by using the FBI rather than starting a needless war in the middle east.

    • I didn’t choose; the article is about the winners in NH. If she had won it would have been about her.

  4. Joe Harris

    Americans talk so simplistically about all this w/ so many dead. Not sure I see what else anyone can/should say. Beyond despairing.

  5. Agree with writer’s your description of a creepy relationship with Putin by Trump. Yes I agree with another writer how could you not bring up warmongering HRC to this foreign policy statement. But u brought up FDR, why not HRC? She is the danger here condoning apartheid in Israel and expansion of the right wing population there just for votes. She is responsible for the Lybia and Syria debacles when in the cabinet. She insists to punish Iran even after the nuclear agreement signed by 6/7 countries? For me this is a domestic campaign more than intl’ and the surprise here is that Sanders dominated in all demographic levels but the older Medicare people. I’m a Medicare person and I’m for Sanders. This is a Political Revolution that I believe you will realize next November Juan

  6. Unfortunate choice of words in calling Trump’s relationship with Putin “creepy.” Trump is a nut but his suggestion to work with Russia is wise. I wish Obama and other Russia haters – including journalists who seem to get perverse satisfaction in luridly describing Putin’s actions – would embrace this “creepy” approach.

  7. Bismarck’s alliance with the Czar was grounded in strategic logic, but ran against the attitudes of Germans, which is why Wilhelm II terminated it. I don’t think Trump would recognize strategic logic if it bit him on the ass. He likes Putin because Putin aspires towards dictatorship and is most of the way there. He has in no way denounced the many economic schemes the neocons have pursued against Russia like the BTC pipeline, which have driven Putin further into the arms of China which Trump so hates. Maybe it’s all just skin color with this racist bully.

  8. I don’t agree with using sanguine to describe Sanders position concerning Assad. I think resigned would be more appropriate.

  9. Bernie said the other day : they’ve thrown everything at me but the kitchen sink. wrong, THEY haven’t even begun to attack him. This has to be the oppositions dream. A Jew socialist to run against! I agree with practically everything Sanders says but cringe at the carnage that would ensue after his nomination.

    • I can predict what the Republicans will do. They will take some video of Sanders saying he is a socialist, combine with some video where he calls for a political revolution, maybe edit out the word political. Then they will show a video of Stalin, or some mobs overthrowing a government or similar and a voice will say, Bernie Sanders wants a socialist revolution. Is that what you want? If not vote for (fill in the bland with the GOP nominee). This will literally scare the bejeezus out of the yahoos that populate much of the country.

  10. Projessor Cole, I am wondering how the candidates compare with regard to Lybia, as this may be the next hot spot for intervention.

  11. My only issue issue with you, Juan, is the implicit assumption that we should take seriously anything Trump says. He says what he thinks will help him today, and he’ll say the exact opposite if he thinks that will help him tomorrow. Frankly, no one knows what the hell he will do, which is scariest of all.

    My gut (and his Iraq vote) suggest to me that Bernie has the best instincts on foreign policy, but he definitely needs to work on his chops.

  12. Relax, Vic Oldright. Republicans have done nothing to address their basic demographic problems except to make them worse. No amount of red-baiting is going to make African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latino-Americans vote for the white racist party instead.

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