Forty-five years after Congress passed the War Powers Resolution over Richard Nixon’s veto, the Senate finally invoked its power to end a war. This past December, 56 senators voted to cut off all US support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific military campaign in Yemen, which began in the final years of the Obama administration, sharply escalated under Donald Trump, and has led to the deaths of an estimated 85,000 children due to starvation.
The morning of the vote, Bernie Sanders addressed his Senate colleagues next to a photo of an emaciated Yemeni child and urged them to pass the resolution, which he’d introduced along with co-sponsors Mike Lee, a Republican, and Chris Murphy, a Democrat. “We have been providing the bombs the Saudi-led coalition is using, refueling their planes before they drop those bombs, and assisting with intelligence,” Sanders said. “In too many cases, our weapons are being used to kill civilians.”
As the Vermont senator spoke, a 6-foot-5, bespectacled bear of a man sat quietly beside him. Matt Duss, 46, has recently become one of the most significant figures reshaping progressive foreign policy in the Trump era. Since February 2017, when Sanders hired him as his foreign-policy adviser, Duss has played a key role in advancing the Yemen resolution and has deeply informed Sanders’s growing emphasis on international affairs.
“I give Matt an extraordinary amount of credit on Yemen,” says Representative Ro Khanna, who introduced the joint resolution in the House. “He’s the principal reason that Sanders took this huge risk in introducing the War Powers Resolution in the Senate and agreeing to [support] what we had introduced in the House.”
Sanders is reportedly about to announce a second presidential run, and attention is already turning to his foreign-policy views. In his 2016 campaign, Sanders’s primary focus was on domestic economic issues, and many critics regarded him as a lightweight on foreign policy. This time around, Sanders has won over skeptics in the foreign-policy establishment with substantive speeches in 2017 and 2018, laying out a comprehensive vision for America’s role in the world. Beyond wanting to end or prevent wars in the Middle East, Sanders has also linked the global rise of authoritarian populism to wealth inequality, and has called for an international progressive movement to combat authoritarian leaders and kleptocrats from Russia to Brazil. And while Duss doesn’t want to take credit for what he says are his boss’s deeply held views, he has had a hand in all of this.
Duss is now gaining prominence at a pivotal moment for progressive foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, leading Democrats have broadly subscribed to the liberal-internationalist doctrine, with its emphasis on free-trade pacts, military coalitions to overthrow dictators and prevent atrocities, and, since 9/11, ruthless prosecution of the War on Terror; any differences with their Republican colleagues have often been more of degree than kind. Foreign-policy critics on the left, meanwhile, have generally been relegated to academia and the alternative media, and have focused mainly on challenging the excesses of empire, not on articulating a more positive and ambitious global vision.
More than most policy-makers, Duss is a product of that left-leaning tradition. His ascension was in many ways made possible by the political earthquake of 2016—not just Trump’s election, but the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the enduring influence of Sanders, and the emergence of a new generation of progressives who have grown up amid endless wars.
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