Meet Matt Duss: the Foreign Policy Brain Behind Bernie Sanders

Presidents are judged as much on their foreign policy as their domestic strategy, but US Democratic candidates have mostly focused on the latter. Until the Feb. 25 South Carolina debate, Democratic presidential candidates have largely escaped questioning in regard to how their administrations would change America’s stance on global affairs. Now, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has opened the door to a critical discussion on issues ranging from Cuba to Israel and the US projection of military power across the world.

Trump’s Foreign Policy Fiascos

Sanders’ campaign – like those of his opponents – has rolled out policy proposal after policy proposal for the US domestically. Sanders has declared he would push for universal healthcare and free university tuition and child care, all funded by Washington. Sanders has also promised to rollback all of President Donald Trump’s executive orders on day one of his administration. But Trump has arguably had just as large an effect on America’s foreign policy as he has on its domestic policies.

Trump has entangled the US in trade spats and imperiled decades-old alliances. He’s given more support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, encouraged dictators like Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and assassinated Iran’s highest ranking military leader, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. 

How would Sanders’ administration differ from Trump’s? In short – as with domestic issues – it would be close to the opposite. The Democratic candidate gave the news media a slew of sound bites last week that made clearer his vision for Washington’s foreign policy. 

Enter Matt Duss

Sanders’ chief foreign-policy advisor Matt Duss is credited with articulating the candidate’s views, according to a Foreign Policy report by Robbie Gramer.

Duss is uncharacteristically active on Twitter, unlike other campaign advisors. When Sanders commented that former Cuban leader Fidel Castro was not entirely bad for Cuba, Duss hit back at critics the comment inspired.

“Lots of outrage over positive comments about Cuba’s education system from the ‘MBS is a bold reformer’ crowd,” Duss said, referencing the hypocrisy of supporting a corrupt Saudi prince, but not Castro. 

When former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak passed away, Duss had more words for critics of Sanders’ complement of Castro.

“As the DC establishment gins up outrage over some complimentary words about Cuban literacy programs, a timely reminder that they backed this dictator for decades, and continue to back his even worse successor.”

Duss is the face of Sanders’ foreign policy and his fiercest defender against backlash generated from Sanders’ controversial statements. The advisor has been with candidate’s team since 2017 and has had plenty of time to craft positions on key issues.

Rethinking the US-Israel Relationship

Through Duss, Sanders can take firm stances that have previously been considered a sort of taboo in American politics. The most glaring example is Sanders’ position on Israel. The Middle Eastern state has – since its creation after World War II – been a top partner on America’s list of allies. 

The US has always backed the state, both politically and militarily. Critics of the unquestionable support for Israel are often labeled as anti-Semitic, one of the harshest insults in American politics. For decades, the idea of speaking out against Israel has been simply unthinkable and considered a political non-starter. 

Sanders – with the help of Duss – has changed that. A Jew himself, Sanders lost half of his family in the Holocaust. Consequently, he is in a unique position that affords him near-immunity from anti-Semitic labeling.

“Like segregation in the American South, the siege of Gaza (and the entire Israeli occupation, for that matter) is a moral abomination that should be intolerable to anyone claiming progressive values,” Duss wrote in 2010. 

Whereas Trump has given Netanyahu all the space he needs to expel Palestinians from settlements and annex more land, American foreign policy under Sanders would look quite different. A peace plan proposed by Trump and widely-condemned as being one-sided toward Israel, would be scrapped entirely, for starters. 

Sanders, who previously lived in Israel for a few months, said he would consider moving the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. 

“But what I happen to believe is that right now, sadly, tragically, in Israel, through Bibi Netanyahu, you have a reactionary racist who is now running that country,” Sanders said. 

To be clear, the senator supports Israeli independence and protecting the American ally. However, he takes a more holistic view of the situation in calling for equality between Israelis and Palestinians and protection of human rights.

Diplomatic Solutions Over Military Force

Duss and Sanders were key to pushing a war powers resolution through the US Senate to restrict American support for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Yemen Civil War. Critically, Duss engaged Republicans behind the scenes to generate bipartisan support to limit Trump’s power. 

Duss was “very professional and great to work with” and “always willing to keep the bipartisan channels of communication open,” according to a Republican aide in Senate.

Sanders largely favors a diplomatic rather than military approach to tackling international disputes. Unlike Trump, Sanders pledged to seek congressional approval for any new military conflicts. After Trump decided to assassinate Soleimani, Sanders rebuked the action. 

“You cannot go around saying, ‘You’re a bad guy; we’re going to assassinate you,’” Sanders said.

Duss has also said Sanders would also withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, within his first term. Those promises echo former President Barack Obama and Trump, both of whom found themselves unable to accomplish the feat. 

Duss also alluded to downscaling the number of US bases spread across the world, including those with US allies.

“There are real questions about the cost of maintaining these huge military presences in some of these places, so we’re definitely interested in thinking hard about whether we can reduce the number of troops in these places and still meet these [security] commitments we’ve made to these partners,” he said, “Economically, it’s not really sustainable in the long term.”

Duss, and therefore by extension, opposed Trump’s quickness to apply sanctions. The international community has largely-blamed Trump’s restoration of sanctions on Iran as a reason for Tehran’s nuclear escalation.

“We have just been using these sanction tools all over the place. I would say even abusing them,” Duss said. “Sanctions are an important tool, but we need to take a hard look at where and how we use those tools and not just keep piling them on in ways that ultimately don’t advance policy goals.”

A Sanders presidency would obviously be drastically different than Trump’s. However, most of what the American voter has heard has revolved around his domestic goals. Duss aims to change that by being more vocal in communicating Sanders’ foreign policy vision.