Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) waits to speak at a press conference on February 24, 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Why is Sanders Taking Foreign Policy Advice from Someone Who Suggested Israel—Not Assad—Gassed Syrians?

The Democratic presidential hopeful set out to assuage doubts about his foreign policy expertise. Instead, he may have reinforced them.

by
Yair Rosenberg
February 24, 2016
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) waits to speak at a press conference on February 24, 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Today, Politico reported on the nascent coterie of foreign policy advisers that is slowly taking shape around Bernie Sanders, whose presidential campaign to date has focused almost entirely on domestic concerns. According to Politico, Sanders has hired Bill French, an analyst at the progressive National Security Network, as a full-time foreign policy staffer, and is receiving further counsel from the Center for American Progress’ Lawrence Korb, a former Obama 2008 campaign adviser.

The third and final person named in the report, however, is likely to raise some eyebrows: Lawrence Wilkerson. A former U.S. Army Colonel who became a Republican policy hand, Wilkerson eventually served as chief of staff to George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell. 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. (Wilkerson’s claim was unsurprisingly immediately picked up by Hezbollah’s anti-Semitic news outlet Al-Manar.)

The problem here is not that Sanders agrees with Wilkerson’s conspiracy theorizing. That seems highly unlikely. Rather, the issue is that this is what happens to people who don’t know much about a subject: they are easily taken in by cranks, and don’t know how to spot them. As Politico noted, the news that Sanders was assembling a team of advisers was meant to shore up support for the senator among those worried that he lacks foreign policy acumen. Ironically, the choice of Wilkerson may have instead reinforced those concerns.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.