Jonathan Chait's Laughable Attempt to Take Down Bernie Sanders Over Nicaragua

Photo: Donna Light (AP)

Because vapidity never takes a day off, New York concern troll-at-large Jonathan Chait was at it again on Memorial Day with a piece on why, in a country that has essentially known nothing but perpetual war since World War II, Bernie Sanders’ pro-Sandinista stance in the 1980s is problematic.

Chait has three major qualms with Sanders in this arena based on Sanders’ recent interview with the New York Times, the primary one being that Sanders wasn’t sufficiently mealy-mouthed about the Nicaraguan Civil War and the American government’s attempts to overthrow Nicaragua’s socialist government and replace it with a right-wing militia. Chait writes:

During the 1980s, the Reagan administration was giving military aid to the Contras, a right-wing guerrilla insurgency attacking the Nicaraguan government. Most Democrats opposed aiding the Contras while still deploring the communist Nicaraguan government.

The Times shows that Sanders went well beyond mere opposition to funding the war. He wrote to Sandinista leaders that American news media had not “reflected fairly the goals and accomplishments of your administration.” On a visit to the country, he attended a Sandinista celebration at which the crowd chanted, “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die,” and complained that American reporters ignored “the truth” about Nicaragua’s government, telling a CBS reporter, “You are worms.”

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What Chait conspicuously leaves out in his history of the U.S. involvement in Nicaragua—which he frames as an American political issue without directly acknowledging that the Reagan administration committed crimes in giving aid to the Contras—is the long history of American involvement in Central and South America whenever a socialist government would come to power.

As Sanders noted in his interview with the Times last week, the 1980s were a decade removed from the CIA-backed military overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, two removed from the CIA-backed military coup in Brazil, and three removed from a CIA-backed military coup in Guatemala. In Nicaragua, the U.S. had backed the Somoza family dictatorships for four decades before the Carter administration changed course as the wheels were actively falling off.

So, yes, Nicaraguans had a fundamental right to be furious at the American government. Apparently, Sanders’ big crime was not brandishing an American flag and scolding them for their anger, and pointing out that the American media should challenge the Reagan administration line.

Sanders visited Nicagagua, by the way, in 1985. The anti-Sandinista side was a nun-murdering, authoritarian militia. There was no centrist third party waiting in the wings to take power as a compromise; Daniel Ortega had soundly defeated the closest thing to an opposition in the previous year’s first democratic election in Nicaragua in decades.

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1985 was also the year that the Iran-Contra scandal started; in other words, Sanders turned out to be right. During his interview with reporter Sydney Ember, Sanders said that his opinion on Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega had changed in the intervening decades, as Sanders said he was “very concerned about the anti-democratic policies of the Ortega government.” So essentially, the complaint here boils down to Sanders not being able to tell the future—a rich objection coming from, well, Jonathan Chait.

For Chait, however, being right is less important than The Way It’ll Play.

This is all highly relevant to his presidential campaign. It not only sheds light on his foreign-policy thinking but also illustrates the sorts of attacks Sanders would face in a general election, if nominated. Given that he identifies as a democratic socialist and promises radical change, his defensive comments about a communist regime would help Republicans paint him in the most extreme light.

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Republicans already paint Bernie Sanders in an extremist light. They will continue to do this regardless of what Sanders said then about Nicaragua or Cuba, or any other socialist government, because they do this to every Democrat. They painted Barack Obama, whose liberal presidency was the subject of a glowing Chait book, in an extremist light.

The Republicans can bring up their own most painful episode of Reagan’s presidency, and they probably will. Sanders can then counter with, “Well, I was right.” You know, the same line that Donald Trump used to great success during the Republican primaries in 2016, but actually true.

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Finally, Chait retreats back to a familiar complaint when the Times interview was published: that Sanders was mean and condescending to the reporter. “Is Sanders’s plan for dealing with attacks on these statements, if he’s nominated, to change the subject and lash out at the media?” Chait writes. “That doesn’t seem like a great plan.”

It’s a true mystery as to what Chait is basing that statement on, considering who the current president is and what he’s been doing since the day he announced his candidacy. And either way, Chait is criticizing Sanders for playing the same game most American politicians play when confronted with criticism.

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In Sanders’ case, however, the criticism doesn’t hold weight. When you’re someone who’s been active in American political life for decades and have been right about nearly every major question of American foreign policy in that time frame, you should repeat it, and often, even if it angers people who can never seem to get it right.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Ember’s last name.

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