A week ago, the New York Times reported on Bernie Sanders’s 1980s-vintage foreign-policy stands, which at times crossed over from mere opposition to American policy to outright support for communist governments. Sanders initially refused to speak with the reporters, but after the article appeared, he called one of them and gave an extremely crusty interview. Now he has a video framing the issue, which he says is about “my opposition to war” and refusal to apologize for his opinions.
Any politician is going to frame issues selectively, but Sanders is presenting a spin on the controversy so selective it completely fails to convey any of the points relevant to the controversy.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration was giving military aid to the Contras, a right-wing guerrilla insurgency attacking the Nicaraguan government. Most Democrats opposed aiding the Contras while still deploring the communist Nicaraguan government.
The Times shows that Sanders went well beyond mere opposition to funding the war. He wrote to Sandinista leaders that American news media had not “reflected fairly the goals and accomplishments of your administration.” On a visit to the country, he attended a Sandinista celebration at which the crowd chanted, “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die,” and complained that American reporters ignored “the truth” about Nicaragua’s government, telling a CBS reporter, “You are worms.”
This is all highly relevant to his presidential campaign. It not only sheds light on his foreign-policy thinking but also illustrates the sorts of attacks Sanders would face in a general election, if nominated. Given that he identifies as a democratic socialist and promises radical change, his defensive comments about a communist regime would help Republicans paint him in the most extreme light.
In his post-publication interview, Sanders largely refused to explain these comments. Instead, he berated the reporter, Sydney Ember, with insinuations that she lacks a basic factual understanding of the issues.
Ember: In the top of our story, we talk about the rally you attended in Managua and a wire report at the time said that there were anti-American chants from the crowd.
Sanders: The United States at that time — I don’t know how much you know about this — was actively supporting the Contras to overthrow the government. So that there’s anti-American sentiment? I remember that, I remember that event very clearly.
Ember: You do recall hearing those chants? I think the wire report has them saying, “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die.”
Sanders: They were fighting against American — Huh huh — yes, what is your point?
Ember: I wanted to —
Sanders: Are you shocked to learn that there was anti-American sentiment?
Ember: My point was I wanted to know if you had heard that.
Sanders: I don’t remember, no. Of course there was anti-American sentiment there. This was a war being funded by the United States against the people of Nicaragua. People were being killed in that war.
Ember: Do you think if you had heard that directly, you would have stayed at the rally?
Sanders: I think Sydney, with all due respect, you don’t understand a word that I’m saying.
Ember is asking a pertinent factual question: Did Sanders hear the “Yankees will die” chant? His response to this question is to insist she is unaware of major historical events in the region, events she had just written a long New York Times story touching on and surely knew about.
Sanders again deflected questions about his praise for Ortega and accusing Ember of factual ignorance:
Ember: Do you believe you had an accurate view of President Ortega at the time? I’m wondering if you’re —
Sanders: This was not about Ortega. Do you understand? I don’t know if you do or not. Do you know that the United States overthrew the government of Chile way back? Do you happen to know that? Do you? I’m asking you a simple question.
Ember was questioning him aggressively. But she was not demanding he apologize. Nor was the questioning focused on his opposition to war, which most Democrats at the time shared. Is Sanders’s plan for dealing with attacks on these statements, if he’s nominated, to change the subject and lash out at the media? That doesn’t seem like a great plan.