Faulting Sanders for Lacking Experts

Frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who has the backing of nearly the entire Democratic foreign policy establishment, taunts Bernie Sanders about his lack of a similar roster, but ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says what’s more important is the judgment of the potential president.

By Paul R. Pillar

Bernie Sanders has become a primary focus of a common quadrennial subject for foreign policy wonks and presidential campaign watchers: the “teams” of advisers who affiliate with different campaigns. Ostensibly these advisers provide their respective candidates with wisdom and expertise that are inputs to coherent positions that the candidate takes on relevant issues during the campaign and, if their candidate wins, to coherent and sound policies while in office.

Sanders has drawn criticism for being thin on foreign policy advisers. It is a news item when he finally takes steps to assemble a foreign policy “team.” Contrasts are drawn with the army of foreign policy advisers, numbering in the hundreds, who are listed as affiliated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders’s campaign may warrant criticism for thinness on foreign policy, but not on any scale measured by the number of advisers who have been signed up. Rather, it is a matter of relatively small attention to foreign policy in the candidate’s own speeches in contrast to his heavy emphasis on the primarily domestic economic matters that he has made into his leitmotif.

This relative inattention may be a matter of discomfort to many who like much of what they hear from Sanders on those domestic issues but realize that foreign policy is a very large and important part of any presidency. The situation may also discomfort those who expect that a Sanders foreign policy probably would be more to their liking (or at least less objectionable) than what any of the other candidates in either party would be apt to offer but would like to hear more from Sanders to be confident about that.

The American Conservative magazine, in a report card that grades all seven remaining major party presidential candidates according to how much their stated positions indicate they would follow a foreign policy of “realism and restraint,” gives Sanders a higher overall grade (a B) than any of the other six.

The teams or armies of advisers have more to do with other games being played than with helping a candidate to espouse wise policies on the campaign trail or to formulate wise policies while in office. For one thing, short-term politics nearly always trumps wisdom, as indicated by, among much other evidence, flip-flops that nominees execute between primary season, when they are appealing to a party base, and the general election campaign, when they seek support from a broader electorate.

Moreover, it is hard to believe that, for example, any one of those hundreds of individuals on the Clinton campaign’s advisory roster can realistically hope to have much influence on what comes out of the candidate’s mouth in a debate.

The main game being played with all of those advisory rosters is the game of getting appointed to desirable jobs in the next administration. Although the rosters do include some old hands who are no longer on the make, the campaign advisory relationship has become the single most used channel for obtaining a senior executive branch job.

Aspiring job-seekers have to exercise their political prediction skills in trying to determine which horse will win the race and thus to which horse they should hitch their wagon. Campaigns have been known to take advantage of this situation by telling potential advisers that if they do not sign up with the campaign early, well before the party’s nominee has been determined, they can forget about thumbing through the Plum Book and getting an appointment in any administration led by that candidate.

So who gets placed in senior policy-making jobs is in large part a matter of election predictions and luck, as well as personal maneuvering and connections. This is all an awful way to staff a government. Most other advanced democracies do not staff their governments that way. Most of them, after an election results in a change in political control from one party to another, have a far smaller turnover of policy-makers at the top, with a professional bureaucracy already in place to execute their policies; that is part of what a truly professional bureaucracy does.

Meanwhile an advantage to a campaign of having a large roster of purported advisers is that a large number of people who write op-eds and otherwise participate in public discourse will be restrained about anything that could be interpreted as criticism of the candidate. Good for the candidate; not so good for free-wheeling and uninhibited public discourse about the issues.

Some concerns that have been expressed about the thin foreign policy advisory roster of Sanders, that this raises doubts about the ability to staff a Sanders administration and to hit the ground running once in office, are ill-founded. Whoever is the next president, he or she will be supported by foreign policy teams that are large, experienced, and well positioned to implement the new president’s chosen policies. Those teams have names such as the Department of State and Department of Defense.

It does behoove us, as a caveat to all of the above, to glance at those rosters of campaign advisers to catch any patterns that may constitute a warning flag about the direction the aspiring president would take. This is especially true if there are patterns of signing up people associated with directions of the past that are known failures.

Observers have noticed, for example, the strong pattern of Marco Rubio’s foreign policy advisers being associated with past neoconservative policies, including the disastrous Iraq War. In this case the candidate’s own statements seem to be going in the same direction as those advisers’ predilections, a fact possibly related to Rubio’s stick-to-the-talking-points campaign style that Chris Christie so ruthlessly highlighted. The American Conservative‘s report card on realism and restraint gives Rubio the lowest marks of any candidate: straight Fs.

Apart from such warning flags, it is appropriate for American voters to focus much more, as nearly all voters will, on the candidate rather than the advisers. Even the tiny sliver of the electorate who might care about who will be appointed assistant secretary of state or NSC senior director for some critical region would have a hard time gaming out that consideration as a reason for supporting one candidate rather than another.

The post-election maneuvering for appointments involves too many non-substantive variables for the outcome to be predictable. Implied debts to donors may also have as much to do with some aspects of an administration’s foreign policy as the past positions of senior appointees. Intelligently choosing a presidential candidate, even if the chooser focuses narrowly on some aspect of foreign policy, is still far from an exact science and involves not only declared positions on issues of most concern but also the demonstrated judgment, temperament, and experience of the candidate.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

19 comments for “Faulting Sanders for Lacking Experts

  1. jimbo
    March 1, 2016 at 02:14

    I too support Bernie but I will happily vote for Hillary if Bernie loses the primary. Hillary knows foreign policy. If she’s botched up a few t forays consider that she will know now how to get newer ones right. I mean, Hillary has already had a lot of foreign policy experience and if, as they say, one learns from failures Hillary must be very well educated by now. And she is a proud person. She will want to do a good job as President. That is what I believe that and so should everyone else. And she ain’t dumb, that’s for sure. Trust me, Hillary will be a fine President. (Go Bernie!)

  2. Abe
    February 29, 2016 at 17:11

    Leveraging whatever moral authority he wields as a Jewish “progressive” Senator, Bernie could “go Trump” and strike back at the neocons, making his candidacy a referendum on the Zionist power configuration’s influence in American foreign policy.

    Of course, Bernie will be crucified by the mainstream media. But that’s already happening.

    If Bernie had the testicular fortitude to “go Trump”, using the media attention to go on the offensive, he could make some very powerful statements about U.S. foreign policy and media influence in politics, and either rally and win big in the upcoming primaries or, at least, go out in a blaze.

    The immolation of the Sanders campaign could be a flash point for a potent new “progressive” movement that abandons the political dead end that the Democratic Party has become.

    My guess is that the Dems will keep Bernie on life support until April to prevent such an outcome.

    We’ll see whether or not Bernie retires with an also-ran pat on the back and his balls in jar, if that hasn’t been the plan all along http://www.blackagendareport.com/bernie-sanders-sheepdog-4-hillary

  3. Joe Tedesky
    February 29, 2016 at 16:32

    For those who are voting for Hillary simply because she is a woman, consider this; History will not represent Hillary as a struggling woman who deserved the U.S. Presidency, as much as she will be viewed as being a well funded special interest candidate, who was nothing more than entitled aristocrat who slide into the job of becoming America’s Commander in Chief. Her resume would look that way also. She was a Goldwater girl who grew up to become First Lady of Arkansas, then First Lady to a U.S. President, then a transplanted New York Senator, then a less than qualified Secretary of State. World history already is proving just how bad she was at running the State Department. I would seem to think that Hillary would only demean the Feminist Movement, not elevate it as it should be elevated. There are plenty smart and great women to rally around, so why her? Because it’s Hillary’s turn!

  4. Hillary
    February 29, 2016 at 14:34

    First Iraq and later the Libya decision show Hillary as a avid neocon.


  5. Joe Tedesky
    February 29, 2016 at 12:20

    At this stage of the 2016 presidential campaign I am taking it one day at a time. Rather than thinking into the general election, it would be advisable to keep it simple, and just worry about the primary. I will admit I am a Bernie supporter, but even if I weren’t, I would never vote for Madam Hillary. The rally cry should be, anybody but the Clintons. If you are a life long Democrate ask yourself when was the last time the Clintons did anything Democrate. They are the best example of the wolf in sheeps clothing, by far. Whether the issue concerns itself with trade, or minority matters, the Bill and Hillary implementations have been awful for the average working American. People in government such as Hillary only know how to abuse our men and women in uniform. It should also be brought up how their (Clintons) quest for empire depletes our national treasure to the point it hurts our social security recipients, and destroys other domestic programs meant to help Americans in their time of need, Iran this weekend just voted in a more western favorable government, are we Americans going to answer this Iranian good news with a crowning of Queen Hillary?

    • Bill Bodden
      February 29, 2016 at 13:21

      I would never vote for Madam Hillary.

      Ditto. I’ll take a gamble on the loose cannon if there is any chance of the Clintons getting back in the White House.

  6. February 29, 2016 at 10:48

    Great news!

    Haaretz is reporting today that Israelis are alarmed that Sanders is consulting with anti-neocon Col. Lawrence Wilkerson.


    Headline: Bernie Sanders Consults With Foreign Policy Expert Who Called Israel ‘Predatory’ and ‘Detrimental’ to U.S.

    • Abe
      February 29, 2016 at 14:29

      A February 24 article by Michael Crowley, Politico’s senior foreign affairs correspondent, mentioned that Sanders had “reached out to at least one former member of George W. Bush’s administration” — Lawrence Wilkerson, retired United States Army Colonel and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell.

      Crowley noted that Wilkerson had “helped prepare Powell’s famous United Nations speech accusing Iraq of hiding a weapons of mass destruction program, but became a hero on the left after turning against the Iraq War and saying in 2005 that he had unwittingly ‘participated in a hoax’ against the American people and the world. He has also said that Vice President Dick Cheney should be ‘in jail for war crimes’ and that some Republicans, including John McCain were ‘bordering on being traitors’ for their opposition to President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal”.

      Sanders’ outreach to Wilkerson was bound to raise the hackles of the neocons who had championed the Iraq War.

      A principal neocon propaganda organ, Tablet Magazine, has attacked Sanders for consulting Wilkerson:


      Tablet Magazine, the stridently pro-Israel online journal of Nextbook press, is a project financed by venture philanthropist Mem Bernstein, a Director of the pugnaciously neoconservative Tikvah Fund.

      Tikvah Fund is a philanthropic foundation “committed to supporting the intellectual, religious, and political leaders of the Jewish people and the Jewish State”. It co-opts scholars and scholarship under a direct neoconservative interest.

      In Israel, the Tikvah Fund is the primary financial backing for the Shalem Center, a right-wing think tank in Israel which itself is the sponsor of the neocon Jewish journal Azure.

      Arch neocons William Kristol and Elliott Abrams serve on the Board of Directors of the Tikvah Fund along with Bernstein.

      Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet and the editor of “Israel’s Documented Story,” the English-language blog of Israel’s National Archives, found it ominous that Wilkerson had Sanders’ ear.

      Rosenberg wrote: “Disillusioned by the Iraq War, he later remade himself as a sharp critic of American foreign policy, slowly sliding to the extremes of the political discourse–which is how he came to insinuate that Israel was gassing Syrians to frame their dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

      “In March 2013, after Western intelligence officials had confirmed that Assad had used chemical weapons on his own people, Wilkerson went on TV to alternately cast suspicion on the victims and the Jewish state. In an interview with Current TV, Wilkerson told host Cenk Uygur: ‘This could’ve been an Israeli false flag operation, it could’ve been an opposition in Syria … or it could’ve been an actual use by Bashar Assad.’ In other words, the Syrian rebels might have gassed themselves to place blame on Assad, or Israel might have.

      “While journalist Seymour Hersh has claimed that the rebels carried out these attacks (and been widely debunked), neither he nor anyone else has ever suggested that Israel had anything to do with them. Only cranks–or worse–would insinuate that the Jewish state was somehow responsible for such an atrocity.”

      Rosenburg’s insistence that claims of rebel responsibility for the chemical attacks near Damascus had been “widely debunked” was supported with a link to the December 2013 article, “Sy Hersh’s Chemical Misfire” written by Eliot Higgins.

      Higgins, aka Brown Moses, is a fake “citizen investigative journalist” based in the UK.

      Higgins’ accusations of Syrian government responsibility for the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack were proven false, but almost led to war.

      Richard Lloyd and Theodore Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology criticized Higgins: “although he has been widely quoted as an expert in the American mainstream media, [he] has changed his facts every time new technical information has challenged his conclusion that the Syrian government must have been responsible for the sarin attack. In addition, the claims that Higgins makes that are correct are all derived from our findings, which have been transmitted to him in numerous exchanges.”

      Despite the fact that Higgins’ accusations have repeatedly been proven false, he continues to be frequently cited, often without proper source attribution, by media, organizations and governments.

      The pro-Israel neocons are attacking Jewish-American Senator and Presidential candidate using the work of notorious deception operative: Eliot Higgins.

    • Abe
      February 29, 2016 at 15:54

      The 29 February article in Haaretz directly refers to the 24 February “recent article in Tablet Magazine”.

      Haaretz states that the Tablet Magazine article “put supporters of Israel on edge after it quoted Wilkerson suggesting in the past that chemical attacks attributed to Syrian leader Assad in 2013 might have been the work of the Israeli military.”

      From the Times of Israel to David Horowitz’ Frontpage Magazine to the New York Times, pro-Israel media are circulating the charge. Wilkerson is derided as a “truther” and a “crank” for daring to speculate that Holy Israel might be involved in mayhem.

      The neocons are desperate to make “supporters of Israel” anxious about Sanders.

  7. Brian
    February 29, 2016 at 02:22

    American foreign policy since the second world war can be summed up in four words. Stupidly violent and violently stupid. No matter whos giving the advice this looks set in stone.

  8. Abbybwood
    February 29, 2016 at 02:21

    The fact that arch Neocon, Robert Kagan, endorsed Hillary Clinton in The New York Times, says it all.

    • Jay
      February 29, 2016 at 18:23

      In the WaPost, not NYT.

    • jo6pac
      February 29, 2016 at 18:30

      My thought also with experts like rk who needs brains.

    • March 6, 2016 at 11:45

      Mr. Paul Pillar, Yes, Bernie Sanders has a “truely different message” which makes him living evidence and proof of the adage :“good guys always finish last.” à la Ron Paul.

      He may not be a loser, but he will never be a winner. If he even began to look like one, he would be Wellstoned.

      He is tolerated by the Zionists and AIPAC Lobbyists who make the decisions and selections in US politics and that is why you never hear the “whole truth” from him, and why he remains, alive, kicking, and “visible evidence” that the “American” electoral process is a “free and open and democratic opportunity for one and all.”

      I have a sneaking, dirty suspicion/prediction that AIPAC Lobbyists are going to run Hillary as Presidential Candidate on the Democratic ticket, and that they will stack the deck so that she will win, simply to demonstrate to the American public and, especially to the rest of the politicians in the arena, that they have the powers to elect anyone they damned well want to the office…. (Caligula sent his horse Incitatus named a Citizen of Rome, and appointed Consul and Member of the Senate to demonstrate the absolute nature of his power in Rome) for, anyone who could get that warmongering superficial, ambitious women into that office, after the Obama debacle, must have the powers of God!

      On the other hand, the handlers are going viciously after the GOP front runner to steer clear of a Trump vs Hillary showdown. If nothing he will embarrass the shit out of her and them. It will be a sight to behold.

      Obama? He has not been as docile, compliant and cooperative as they expected him to be when they cut the deal with him. He will become a post-facto political non-entity like Jimmy Carter, whom they have also long pretty well demolished, or at least, decapitated, as a voice of reason in the political arena.

      We will never see a free and honest man in office anywhere in America until the entire election campaign funding program has been reformed to get BIG MONEY out of the arena.

      Nor Israeli money buying elections and politicians in Washington, DC.

      Kill the powers of lobbyists on capitol Hill!

      Don’t give up your day job to do it, they own you and your country!

      Have a good day.

    • March 6, 2016 at 12:20

      Exactly Abbybwood!

      A Hillary win will be a bonanza for the Lobbyists… à la Tony Blair.

      They have her secured deep in their pockets. She will finish the job for them.

  9. Airbrush2020
    February 29, 2016 at 00:59

    My question would be…why is Hillary Clinton “popular” within the foreign policy expert forums? Do they regard her as a good leader from her days in the State Department? If yes, that is something the public needs to hear (as it builds leadership credibility). If they thought she was a bad or weak leader during her State Department days, the public should hear that as well (because it raises leadership concerns).

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