(CNSNews.com) – Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked during Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate about his views on despotic socialist regimes, but while he agreed Cuba was a “dictatorship” and called China’s president “an authoritarian leader,” he reserved the strongest language for the elected prime minister of a democratic U.S. ally, Israel.
Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described “democratic socialist,” came under attack for comments viewed as sympathetic towards the communist governments in Cuba and China, and Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista regime.
“You’ve praised the Chinese Communist Party for lifting more people out of extreme poverty than any other country,” said CBS News’ Margaret Brennan, one of the moderators in Charleston, S.C.
“You also have a track record of expressing sympathy for socialist governments in Cuba and in Nicaragua. Can Americans trust that a democratic socialist president will not give authoritarians a free pass?”
“I have opposed authoritarianism all over the world,” Sanders replied, describing China as “a real dictatorship” and adding that “of course you have a dictatorship in Cuba.”
Sanders said what he had said about Cuba aligned with what President Barack Obama had said – “that Cuba made progress on education.”
After some sniping from former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg – who charged that while Obama had been “opening diplomatic doors” to the Castro regime, Sanders had been “making excuses” for it – Sanders continued.
“Occasionally, it might be good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world, in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran,” he said. “And when dictatorships, whether it is the Chinese or the Cubans, do something good, you acknowledge that.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden pushed back on Sanders’ referencing of Obama. He said Obama had acknowledged that the Castro regime had increased life expectancy, “but he went on and condemned the dictatorship.”
Sanders responded that he had condemned authoritarianism, whether in Saudi Arabia or Cuba or Nicaragua.
“Authoritarianism of any stripe is bad,” he said. “But that is different than saying that governments occasionally do things that are good.”
Later, Sanders was asked about his criticism of Israeli policies, and his recent decision not to attend the upcoming annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference.
He said he was proud to be Jewish, and had lived in Israel for several months.
“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,” he said.
Move the embassy back?
Sanders and several other candidates were asked whether they, as president, would reverse President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s contested capital.
Sanders did not answer directly but said, without elaborating, that “that will come within the context of bringing nations together in the Mideast.”
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the U.S. should not have moved the embassy to Jerusalem without extracting concessions from Israel, but it was now a fait accompli.
“You can’t move the embassy back. We should not have done it without getting something from the Israeli government, but it was done and you’re going to have to leave it there,” he said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) weighed in on the Israeli-Palestinian issue but when asked specifically about the embassy, she replied, “It is not ours to do.”
“Would you move it back?” asked CBS News’ Major Garrett.
“It is not ours to do,” she repeated. “We should let the parties determine the capital—”
“It’s our embassy,” interjected Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
“We should let the parties determine the capital themselves,” Warren said.
Trump in late 2017 announced the decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv, and to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
When it took place the following year, the move came 19 years after a deadline set in U.S. legislation for the United States to take the step.
The bipartisan 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital required the president to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999. If the move didn’t take place, the State Department stood to lose half of the funds appropriated for its acquisition and maintenance of buildings abroad.
Instead, President Clinton and his successors relied on six-month national security waivers to avoid complying with the law.
Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar were not in the Senate when it passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act. Biden was, and he voted in favor. It passed the Senate 93-5, and the House by a 374-37 vote.
Ilhan Omar, Linda Sarsour Welcome Sen. Sanders Decision Not to Attend AIPAC Conference (Feb. 24, 2020)
Sanders: If Netanyahu Won’t Let Tlaib, Omar Visit, He Should Stop Taking US Aid (Aug. 16, 2019)
RJC: Sen. Sanders Appealing to ‘Energized’ Left Wing by Calling Israeli Gov’t ‘Racist’ (Apr. 23, 2019)