Foreign policy has rarely come up in this cycle of Democratic primary debates. But after Donald Trump brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran last week, it’s sure to play a larger role in Tuesday’s debate.
Some commentators have suggested that the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s retaliatory missile strike put Democrats in a “bind,” forcing them to both condemn Soleimani and Iran while expressing concern about Trump’s unnecessary escalation of violence. Others claim that the incident has drawn a “sharp line” between moderate and progressive candidates. But the differences between the candidates’ responses are more rhetorical than substantive.
While Bernie Sanders (and, OK, fine, Andrew Yang too) unequivocally condemned Trump’s “dangerous escalation,” other candidates, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer, first condemned Soleimani and noted that he had the blood of American service members on his hands, then condemned Trump’s dangerous escalation.
This doesn’t mean that Sanders is sympathetic to leaders of Iran, as he’s made clear in subsequent interviews. Nor do these stances mean the others agree with Trump’s approach. Biden has said he believes “the seeds of this crisis were planted by Trump himself” when he pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement. Buttigieg took some flak from the right for tweeting that those killed on the Ukrainian jet shot down by the Iranian military were “caught in the middle” of the U.S.-Iran crisis.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, was attacked for a supposed flip-flop when she called Soleimani a “murderer” immediately after the strike then issued a more Sanders-like message condemning Trump as a “reckless president” the next day. In fact, there was no contradiction: Soleimani can be a murderer and killing him can be reckless.
Michael Bloomberg, the candidate who came closest to defending the strike on Soleimani and tediously attacked Sanders for calling it an “assassination,” won’t be onstage on Tuesday. Neither will Tulsi Gabbard, the supposedly anti-war Assad apologist.
There’s not likely to be that much substantive disagreement at the debate itself, even if some candidates include more throat clearing about what a bad guy Soleimani was than others. All will likely condemn Trump for withdrawing from the nuclear deal, needlessly bringing the country to the brink of war, failing to disclose the intelligence behind the strike, and showing a general contempt for congressional oversight. All are likely to call for a return to diplomacy and turning the page on the era of “endless wars.” Rather than their positions, the candidates are more likely to try to distinguish themselves. Biden will tout his extensive foreign policy experience. Sanders will highlight his consistent anti-war record and probably once again bring up Biden’s vote for the Iraq war in 2002—something Biden has had trouble explaining during this campaign. As for Elizabeth Warren, she’s developed a unique and compelling foreign policy message that links her anti-corruption focus to efforts to combat authoritarianism globally. But she has struggled to demonstrate how that approach translates into responses to specific crises—something she’ll be under pressure to do on Tuesday.
More than any division, the debate is likely to highlight the degree to which skepticism about military action has become more mainstream within the party. Trump’s escalation has simplified foreign policy messaging for Democratic candidates across the left-center spectrum. In 2016, Trump made the case—which was convincing to some on the left—that he was less likely to use military force than Hillary Clinton. He still routinely promises to end needless wars and bring troops home, but that’s going to be a harder case for him to make now that he very nearly started a major new shooting war in the Middle East.
As always, a lot will hinge on how the moderators frame the discussion. Vague questions like “What would you do about Iran?” will only prompt a parade of similar-sounding talking points. The candidates are far more likely to argue about Iraq in 2003 rather than Iran in 2020. There are a few ways, however, that the moderators—journalists from CNN and the Des Moines Register—could stoke a more substantive conversation.
They could, for example, ask candidates whether they would try to convince the Iraqi government to allow U.S. troops to remain in the country (even Sanders says he wouldn’t immediately withdraw them) and, if so, what the mission of those troops should be.
The candidates are all critical of Trump’s praise for dictators and also, to varying degrees, skeptical of military-led regime change. So, it might be interesting to ask them what, if anything, the U.S. should be doing to support the anti-government protests in Iran.
It’s also very easy to criticize “forever wars” and call for Congress to rein in executive power, but presidents tend to see that power differently when they wield it. So, they should be asked, under what circumstances—if any—do they believe the president should be able to order military force without congressional authorization? Most of them say they want to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force—the legal framework that has allowed for the ever-expanding war on terrorism—but what would they replace it with?
While it’s possible to use the Iran episode as a springboard for an illuminating discussion of how these potential presidents view the Middle East and military force, it’s going to take a little work to get them off their talking points.