Progressives cool on Biden foreign policy

Progressives cool on Biden foreign policy
© Greg Nash

Progressive Democrats are somewhat pessimistic about what defense and foreign policy would look like in a Joe BidenJoe BidenSenate Republicans face tough decision on replacing Ginsburg What Senate Republicans have said about election-year Supreme Court vacancies Biden says Ginsburg successor should be picked by candidate who wins on Nov. 3 MORE presidency.

Though not as outwardly apparent as on domestic policy, progressives say the Biden campaign has been engaging with them on defense and foreign policy. And the left feels it has notched some wins on the 2020 draft Democratic platform.

But progressives also question how much that will translate to actual changes on troop levels in the Middle East, the defense budget and other areas of importance to them.

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“I think that the party has made progress since 2016, and I also think that the Biden campaign is listening to progressives,” said Stephen Wertheim, deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, an anti-interventionist think tank.

“I don't want to make too much of a platform,” he added. “It's really all about what happens in an administration, including who's appointed to staff that administration.”

The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comments for this story, but advisers have previously talked about Biden soliciting a broad range of views on foreign policy, including from progressives.

“Given the scope of the challenges the next president will face, we’re actively soliciting input and advice from a wide range of experts, including many progressive leaders, to help us build out a foreign policy agenda that reflects Vice President Biden’s long-held values, and will help restore America’s leadership role in the world as we confront new threats like the coronavirus,” Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser for Biden’s campaign and former State Department official, said in a statement to progressive magazine The Nation last month.

After Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee over Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersKenosha will be a good bellwether in 2020 Biden's fiscal program: What is the likely market impact? McConnell accuses Democrats of sowing division by 'downplaying progress' on election security MORE (I-Vt.), Biden launched a “unity task force” with supporters from both camps in an effort to avoid a repeat of 2016’s schisms within the party.

The task force did not have groups working on defense and foreign policy, leading to questions about the level of engagement between Biden and progressive on those issues.

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But Matt Duss, Sanders’s foreign policy adviser, said there has been “a lot” of outreach from the Biden campaign to progressives.

“They understood that they needed to bring the left on board, and that required a serious engagement,” Duss said. “From my point of view, they did all that. And that's not to say that they've adopted all of the left’s priorities. Certainly not. There are some differences in views within the party. But I think they've definitely made a strong effort to engage with progressives, including on foreign policy.”

Progressives’ goal was to influence not just Biden, but the 2020 Democratic platform, Duss added.

In that regard, progressive are citing several wins, including the draft platform’s rejection of regime change, promise to end so-called forever wars in the Middle East, call to “rationalize” the defense budget, pledge to end support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen that started under the Obama administration and reference to climate change as a national security issue.

“I think getting these commitments on some of these priorities is an important first step,” Duss said. “The question that a lot of progressives had was, initially, ‘Okay, it's good that we're getting this outreach and having these conversations with the Biden campaign, but will they achieve anything?’ And I think having these commitments in the platform helps answer that question.”

Duss added that conversations are an “ongoing process” and that progressives will continue looking for more evidence of a concrete shift in areas like appointments to jobs in a Biden administration.

Coalitions of progressive groups also sent two letters to Biden earlier this year pushing him to adopt more progressive foreign policy stances.

The first, sent in May and signed by 51 groups, listed several policies, including repealing the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force, slashing the Pentagon budget by at least $200 billion annually, engaging with Iran and North Korea, supporting a “just” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and avoiding militarization of policies toward Russia and China.

Yasmine Taeb, senior policy counsel at Demand Progress, which organized the May letter, said three to four progressive groups have been holding six-week calls with the Biden campaign since the memo was sent.

Demand Progress was "heartened" to see several items from the letter in the Democratic platform, she said, but added that the organization is still looking for stronger commitments from Biden on congressional war powers.

"We are tired of endless wars and a destructive agenda of rampant militarization," Taeb said in a statement. "By committing to prioritize serious diplomatic engagement and respecting congressional war powers, our leaders can end the forever wars and deliver an agenda more aligned with our values."

The second letter, sent in July and signed by 31 groups, urged Biden to appoint people to his transition team and administration who “meet a set of basic principles to ensure the mistakes of the past are not recreated” and disqualify anyone who is connected to the Bush-era torture program, opposed the Iran nuclear deal and supports Israeli settlements, among other criteria.

“Without national security and foreign policy personnel who are willing to learn from the mistakes of the past and understand the need for change this moment presents, we fear our country — and the world — risk descending into climate and economic chaos fueled by further corruption and authoritarianism,” the groups wrote in the letter.

On troops in the Middle East, Biden has talked about drawing down, but has also said he would leave a small contingency of special forces in places such as Iraq in order to avoid an ISIS resurgence.

In an op-ed for Foreign Affairs earlier this year, Biden wrote that it “is past time to end the forever wars,” but also stressed that there “is a big difference between large-scale, open-ended deployments of tens of thousands of American combat troops, which must end, and using a few hundred Special Forces soldiers and intelligence assets to support local partners against a common enemy.”

Wertheim, at the Quincy Institute, wrote a commentary for the think tank tearing into Biden’s Foreign Affairs piece, saying “it looks like he will not only prolong the endless wars but also restore and revive the ideas that generated them in the first place.” Wertheim said he’s using that commentary for “markers” on what he’s looking for from the Biden campaign.

Meanwhile, defense budget analysts have said they expect the $700 billion-plus budget to stay relatively flat regardless of who wins in November.

“I have not seen a commitment to decrease the defense budget really significantly coming from the Biden campaign,” Weirtheim said.

One bright spot progressives cited was China. After initially worrying Biden was trying to “out-hawk” Trump on China, progressives say they have seen a shift.

“They've shifted their message a bit over the past few months precisely because I think they've understood from progressives and some others that that's not a productive way to engage in this question,” Duss said. “Trump would certainly like to make this about who's tougher on China, but I think the Biden team is making the right choice to keep this focused on Trump because the fact of the matter is Trump’s policy is just all over the place.”