Sanders town hall faults Trump on Iran, Middle East

WASHINGTON — At a discussion hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders Monday night, foreign policy experts slammed President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and critiqued his administration's approach to relations in the Middle East.

It was a more barebones event than his previous two town halls. Sanders sat in the middle of his four guests, their chairs arranged around a coffee table. Two navy banners that read "Breaking the Deal" framed the stage.

Sanders, who was criticized during his 2016 presidential campaign for a dearth of foreign policy experience, moderated the panel of four experts in an hour-long conversation that focused on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

"I think that in American politics there is not the full degree of understanding in terms of what the implications of foreign policy are," Sanders said.

While issues like health care and education feel immediate to Americans, United States foreign policy "often seems a little bit distant," he said.

However, Sanders contended, the amount the country spends on the military makes overseas relations with other countries directly pertinent to domestic issues.

"That brings the issue of foreign policy kind of back home in terms of our national priorities," he said.

Through the discussion, Sanders steered the conversation from the Iran nuclear deal to Saudi Arabia to Israeli-Palestinian relations. The panel was streamed live online, and presented with news organizations including The Guardian, NowThis, and other left-leaning outlets.

The event attracted a smaller audience than his previous two town halls. Some 600,000 tuned in online, according to Sanders' staff, less than half of the 1.7 million viewership of his last event on economic inequality in March.

About 160 people attended in person, braving a fierce string of thunderstorms and a tornado warning to get there.

While Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal drew a range of reactions from lawmakers, the members of Sanders' panel were all critical of his decision.

Suzanne DiMaggio, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said the Trump administration withdrew from the deal with no clear alternative plan for U.S. involvement in the region.

The move, she said, also puts European countries that were involved in the deal in a tough situation. Trump vowed to impose sanctions on foreign companies that do business with Iran. She said that European countries also have a closer proximity to the region, so face more direct threats.

"This was an attack on our European allies' sovereignty on their economic relationship with Iran, but also on their national security," DiMaggio said.

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which aims to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, calledTrump's decision to withdraw from the agreement "by far the most destructive act of his presidency."

He and, like Rob Malley of the International Crisis Group, said withdrawing from the Iran agreement could set the stage for an escalation to an armed conflict.

Cirincione asserted that American policy in the Middle East is in "free fall."

"We have no clear plan, we're losing friends, losing influence, losing allies," Cirincione said. "This could get very dangerous."

Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, argued against a perception among some that the administration has been "chaotic" in its policymaking. American foreign policy in the Middle East, she said, is being shaped under the current administration by advisers in Trump's inner circle who have been consistent in their positions since the campaign.

"There's been remarkable coherence to their policy in the Middle East," she said.

Friedman said there has been a trend toward more conservative politics in Israel that parallels arcs playing out in other countries, including the United States.

"You really have an alliance of illiberalism here," she said.


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