Meet the adviser shaping foreign policy for Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is taking stronger positions on foreign policy compared to his White House bid four years ago, a shift that is largely credited to a top adviser hired after the 2016 campaign.
Matt Duss is the first person to hold the title of foreign policy adviser to Sanders. He was hired in 2017 in response to criticism that Sanders’s first presidential bid failed to lay out a comprehensive global agenda.
In the 2020 race, Duss has been seen as the driving force behind Sanders becoming more vocal on issues he cares about — most recently praising the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for instituting a literacy program and publicly calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a racist.
And much like Sanders, Duss has a reputation for operating outside the regular Democratic circles.
“I took a somewhat critical stance toward the establishment, toward the conventional wisdom,” Duss said in a phone interview with The Hill about his reputation as a Washington outsider. “I think that’s something I share with my boss.”
The 47-year-old, who grew up the son of evangelical aid workers and earned a master’s degree with a focus on the Middle East, is outspoken on Twitter and courts a public profile that few foreign policy advisers embrace.
His positions on Israel — in part condemning settlements as an impediment to peace and calling for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip — make him a target among the right-wing, while simultaneously frustrating Democrats who see him as critical of U.S. support for the country.
Duss said criticisms and charges that he’s a controversial figure are engineered to silence debate on the topic.
“It’s a way of trying to delegitimize someone without having to actually take on their arguments,” he told The Hill. “But it’s also a way of frightening others away from agreeing.”
Lara Friedman, who took over from Duss as president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, described Duss as operating from a deep place of empathy in his views on foreign policy.
“For people who are only able to have compassion for one side, whatever side they are coming from, I think someone like Matt is going to be challenging,” she said. “And I hope they are challenged by it.”
One former Senate colleague described Duss as knowledgeable and respectful in policy debates, despite disagreeing with his positions at times.
“I respect Matt, although I might not always agree with him. I think many in the national security world would say that,” the former colleague said. “He is well-versed in the issues and can make a very compelling case, and in that sense commands the respect of his colleagues.”
Duss first gained prominence in Washington while working at the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank founded in 2003 by John Podesta, a longtime political operative who later became campaign chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 White House bid.
At CAP, Duss wrote prolifically on Middle East issues, advocating for U.S. negotiations with Iran and engaging with political Islam in Egypt and Tunisia. Those stances put him at odds with established foreign policy thinking in Washington, especially since CAP was considered influential with the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
His articles condemning the Israeli occupation and likening the Gaza Strip blockade to the segregationist American South made him a target of the pro-Israel community that advocates for the permanency of West Bank settlement blocs and has denounced rocket attacks from Hamas.
Between 2011 and 2013, Duss and some of his CAP colleagues were the subject of articles in Politico, the Washington Free Beacon and The Jerusalem Post that focused on criticism of their writings, particularly their positions on Iran and Israel and a debate over whether the term “Israel-firsters” amounts to anti-Semitism and charges of dual loyalty. The term “Israel-firster” was used in a tweet in 2011 by CAP-blogger Zaid Jilani. It was later deleted after widespread condemnation and an apology was issued.
Neera Tanden, president of CAP, declined to speak about Duss when reached for comment by The Hill. Duss left the think tank in 2014 and became president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Three years later, he joined Sanders’s staff as foreign policy adviser.
Duss is credited with helping the Vermont independent develop a clearer focus on foreign policy, stating it more publicly and more often.
“But I think part of what we’re doing is — what’s a foreign policy vision look like that’s based on the principles and values and ideals that Bernie has talked about for a very long time,” Duss said of how he’s helped Sanders shape his foreign policy platform.
“[Duss] is known as a leader in progressive thinking when it came to Middle East policy. And it makes a lot of sense for a senator like Sen. Sanders, at that point, to turn to someone like Matt,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, a left-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington.
“He served as an echo chamber, a megaphone, allowing the senator to develop his voice and express himself on those issues in a way he hadn’t had the capacity before,” Ben-Ami added.
But that new level of expression has led to both praise and condemnation for Sanders.
The Democratic candidate quickly found himself at the center of a firestorm among Cuban Americans — many of whom live in Florida, which could be a key battleground state in the 2020 presidential race — after suggesting Castro’s authoritarian regime had some redeeming qualities.
Sanders also drew condemnation from Democrats, Israeli officials and American Jewish rabbis for remarks about the pro-Israel advocacy group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying it provides a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.”
“That tweet is the Matt Duss answer,” said one Jewish Democratic operative. “It’s not that Bernie doesn’t believe it, but the thing about senior, influential and smart staffers is that they help the boss explore their own ideology a little more and push it a little bit in one direction or the other.”
Sanders’s foreign policy vision is largely presented as an extension of the principles and values he holds as a self-described democratic socialist.
As part of his platform, Sanders advocates a foreign policy calling for more restraint in military force and drawing down its presence abroad, with budgets redistributed toward more engagement with allies.
“He certainly believes there is a role for the military; there are cases where he wouldn’t hesitate to use military force,” Duss said. “He has a much more restrained view of the role of the military, but it’s coupled with a much more robust and better resourced diplomatic, political, humanitarian and economic engagement with the world.”
The biggest legislative achievement for Duss and Sanders came in March 2019 with passage of the war powers resolution that ordered the end of U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Lawmakers failed to garner enough support to override President Trump’s veto of the measure.
“I give Matt an extraordinary amount of credit on Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told the progressive magazine The Nation last year.
Duss went on a media blitz ahead of the war powers vote, promoting the progressive foreign policy platform he helped shape for his boss and granting interviews to The Nation and Business Insider. In April, he was featured alongside Sanders in a New Yorker profile on the senator’s larger focus on world affairs.
“It is somewhat of an anomaly to have a profile about a staffer,” said a former Senate colleague. “We as staff, our role is to be quietly in the background and to not necessarily have our own public profile.”
The Nation delved into Duss’s upbringing in a religious, middle-class household in the New York suburbs. His parents took the family to southeast Asia for a year to assist refugees, a formative experience that the 11-year-old Duss related back to his grandparents’ experience emigrating from Soviet Ukraine.
Friedman, of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said Sanders and Duss likely work well together because their values align.
“Matt knows who he is,” Friedman said. “He comes at everything from a deeply principled position. … You don’t meet a whole lot of people who come from that perspective doing policy.”
–This report was updated at 8:55 a.m.