As Democratic presidential hopefuls scrambled to respond after President Trump ordered the assassination of a top Iranian military commander, Sen. Bernie Sanders touted his antiwar voting record on the campaign trail and laid out a vague but bold vision for removing U.S. troops from the Middle East while redirecting overseas military spending to programs that improve life for people back home.
The United States and Iran appear to be at the brink of war, or at least a proxy war, which could sow bloody chaos in Iraq and further conflict in the region. After supporters of an Iran-backed Shia militia besieged the U.S. embassy in Baghdad this week in protest of deadly U.S. airstrikes against the group, Trump ordered a drone strike near Baghdad on Friday that killed up to 10 people and assassinated Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force and one of the most powerful men in Iran. Iran has vowed to seek “severe revenge.”
The strike has raised fears of war across the globe and divided lawmakers largely along party lines. Republicans generally applauded the killing of a commander accused of targeting U.S. forces during the Iraq war while leading Democrats characterized the move as a dangerous escalation made without approval from Congress. While presidential contenders Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren referred to Suleimani as an enemy of the U.S., they questioned whether Trump had considered the consequences of the strike and the president’s long-term plan for dealing with Iran.
“Now we must deal with the consequences of this action, beginning with the immediate and very real dangers to American citizens in and out of uniform in the Middle East,” said Buttigieg, a former military intelligence officer, in said in a statement. “We must prepare for the impact on regional stability, complex forms of retaliation, and the potential for escalation into war.”
However, the airstrike also exposed divisions among Democrats, whose progressive wing in the House rose in protest just three weeks ago when language that would have prevented Trump from attacking Iran without congressional approval was dropped from a massive, $738 billion military spending authorization package. Republicans were able to win major concessions on the package due to their majority in the Senate, and most House Democrats voted for the package as a year-end deadline loomed.
Sen. Sanders voted against the package, as he has several times in the past. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is jockeying with Sanders for support from progressive voters in the Democratic presidential primaries, came out later against the military spending legislation.
Speaking at a town hall in Iowa on Friday, Sanders reminded voters that he voted against going to war with Iraq in 2002. At the time, he warned that the war would become a bloody and expensive quagmire that would further destabilize the Middle East. Unfortunately, his prediction turned out to be true. Today, Iraq suffers from rampant corruption, unrest, poverty and Iranian interference that spurred riotous protests in recent weeks. War, Sanders said, must be “our last recourse in international relations.”
“All of that suffering, all of that death, all of those huge expenditure of money for what?” Sanders said. “It gives me no pleasure to tell you, that at this moment, we face a similar crossroads fraught with danger. Once again, we must worry about unintended consequences and the impact of unilateral decision making.”
Sanders also laid out a vision for U.S. foreign policy centered around peace and diplomacy, in stark contrast to nearly two decades of military adventurism and endless conflict in the Middle East sparked by the War on Terror under the Bush administration and expanded under the Obama administration. In a world where authoritarianism is rising and nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, Sanders said the U.S. must chart a very different course.
“I believe, in the midst of all that, the role of the United States, as difficult though it may be, must be to work with the international community to end conflicts, to end the threat of war, not to promote war, as President Trump is doing,” Sanders said. “This is how the true power of the United States is shown, and that is how I will use American power as president.”
Responses from rival Democratic candidates were more tempered, reflecting a shrewd political calculation of how centrist voters will respond to news that Trump killed a commander portrayed as the violent mastermind behind Iran’s “expansionist agenda.” Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, said on Friday that Suleimani was plotting attacks against U.S. service members in Iraq but would not provide any further details about the alleged plans when pressed by reporters.
While Sanders focused on his vote against the Iraq war, Warren called Suleimani a “murderer” responsible for thousands of deaths, including U.S. casualties. However, Warren also called the assassination a “reckless” act that could lead to greater violence, arguing that avoiding another costly war should be the top priority. Sen. Cory Booker, another presidential hopeful, said Trump has “no strategic plan for Iran and has only made the region less stable.”
Biden voted for the 2002 invasion of Iraq and served as vice president in the Obama administration, which signed off on deadly drone strikes, supported the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, intervened in the Syrian civil war and launched the war against ISIS. Biden claimed Suleimani “supported terror and sowed chaos” and “deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes.” But he also said Trump “just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”
“I hope the administration has thought through the second- and third-order consequences of the path they have chosen,” Biden said in a statement. “But I fear this administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary — and the stakes could not be higher.”
Democrats are largely united in their criticism of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Since taking office, Trump has pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration that would have placed strict limits on the country’s nuclear weapons program. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the agreement, slammed Iran with devastating economic sanctions that harm the Iranian population and designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.
As Trump has taunted Iranian leaders on Twitter, a series of tit-for-tat strikes and escalations has taken police, often involving various proxies throughout the region. Earlier this week, the U.S. launched deadly airstrikes against a militia with ties to Iran in Iraq and Syria after accusing the group of rocket attacks against U.S. and coalition forces, including one that killed an American security contractor last week. Supporters of the Shia militia in Iraq responded by besieging the U.S. embassy, and the latest U.S. drone strike killed the militia’s commander along with Suleimani.
The Constitution gives Congress — not the president — the ability to declare war, and the Trump administration has not yet revealed its legal justification for the assassination of a foreign military commander, which Iran clearly views as an act of war. O’Brien said the attack on Suleimani was consistent with the 2002 Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF) that allowed President Bush to invade Iraq int the first place — legislation Biden infamously supported. Observers expect the administration to use a controversial interpretation of the AUMF to justify the assassination to Congress.
Language that would have repealed the 2002 AUMF and required Trump to get permission from Congress before attacking Iran were among the progressive provisions stripped from the military spending authorization bill passed by Congress last month. Democrats used their majority in the House to put these provisions on the table, only to have them dropped after negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate. A bloc of 41 progressive Democrats and a handful of isolationist Republicans in the House voted against the package in protest.
Biden, Warren, Buttigieg and other Democrats are attempting to draw a contrast between themselves and Trump’s blundering, shoot-from-the-hip approach to foreign policy as the conflict with Iran looms over the 2020 elections. But their statements on the assassination of Suleimani and the very real threat of war with Iran were eerily similar.
Sanders was an original opponent of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has spoken for decades against massive military budgets, and he recently championed an effort in Congress to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s brutal civil war. As the conflict with Iran continues, expect to hear him tout this record on the campaign trail. (It should be noted that Sanders has also been criticized by antiwar activists for supporting President Clinton’s intervention in the 1999 war in Kosovo and other U.S. overseas operations.)
Sanders is betting that voters want the violence to end and for their tax dollars funding overseas military operations to be spent on rebuilding infrastructure, fixing the health care system and addressing climate change.
“We must invest in the needs of the American people, not spend trillions more on endless wars,” Sander said.
He is also betting that voters want to see a brand of foreign policymaking that is different than the status-quo, which only the progressive wing of the Democratic party has consistently challenged.
“We must end our involvement in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is now one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes on Earth,” Sanders said on Friday. “And we must bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Instead of provoking more volatility in the region, the United States must use its power, its wealth, and its influence to bring the regional powers to the table to resolve conflicts.”
Sanders did not elaborate on how exactly he would end U.S. military options in the Middle East, though it is clear he favors diplomacy where Trump favors aggression when it comes to Iran — and he is prepared to use his record to set himself apart from Biden and rival Democrats.