By the Foreign Policy 2020 Team

Tensions in Iraq began ratcheting up on December 27th, when rockets launched by Kata’ib Hizbollah, an Iranian proxy in Iraq, killed an American contractor. The Trump Administration responded by conducting an airstrike against Kata’ib Hizbollah targets in Iraq on December 29th. Then on December 31st, a crowd gathered outside the US Embassy in Baghdad and began to storm it. These actions were all viewed by the Trump Administration as having been orchestrated by Iran. Tensions with Iran have been seriously heightened since the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Over the past year, the Trump Administration has engaged in a strategy that it calls ‘maximum pressure’, with the administration often confronting the Iranian government.

Against this backdrop, on January 2nd, Trump decided to order a strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad for allegedly being involved in an imminent attack on the United States. Such a strike, which many Americans, as well as American allies considered to be brash and unwise, thrust the issue of Iran to the headlines of the 2020 Democratic primary election. Immediately many of the Democratic candidates seized on the strike as an example of Trump’s lack of fitness for office, but even among the candidates, who were all critical of Trump, there was a noticeable difference in their statements and reactions.  Despite the differences in their statements and reactions, domestic politics has remained at the forefront of the Democratic primary, with the issue of the Soleimani strikes no longer being written about on the front pages. 

Striking perhaps the most critical tone was Senator Sanders. Sanders released a statement that read, in part, “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars,” he said in another statement, “Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.” In subsequent appearances, Sanders continued to criticize Trump, calling the Soleimani killing an assassination and comparing it to the Russian or Chinese government assassinating dissidents.

Bernie Sanders

In comparison, Vice President Biden released a statement that began with “No American will mourn Qassem Soleimani’s passing. He deserved to be brought to justice for his crimes against American troops and thousands of innocents throughout the region.” Biden went on to call the strike a ‘hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region.’ What is immediately noticeable between Sanders and Biden is that, for Biden, there is the implicit acknowledgment that Soleimani was a dangerous individual who needed to be held accountable in some way or form. In comparison, Sanders did not acknowledge the threat that Soleimani posed to the United States or residents of the region.

Initially, Senator Warren issued a statement that was similar to Biden’s as well as Mayor Buttigieg’s statement. On Twitter she called Soleimani a murderer, but, also, argued that this strike was reckless and dangerous. She ended her Tweet by calling for the United States to avoid another costly war—a similar sentiment expressed by Sanders. Among activists and individuals on the Left, Warren was harshly criticized, and she ultimately released another statement via a Tweet that explicitly termed Soleimani’s death as an assassination, a word that, among the prominent Democratic candidates, only Sanders used.

Even Andrew Yang, who has trafficked in anti-war rhetoric did not go as far as to call Soleimani’s death an assassination. Similar to Warren and Sanders, Yang called for the United States to “end the Forever Wars” and said he would repeal the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF)—under which such a strike is more legitimate. But outside of his rhetoric regarding ‘Forever Wars’ and the AUMF, Yang struck a similar tone to Biden and more moderate candidates, like Klobuchar and Buttigieg.

In the initial aftermath of the strike, many pundits postulated that the strike would radically alter the primary contest. Many believed that Sanders, due to his vote against the Iraq War, and Biden, due to his lengthy foreign policy experience, would use the moment to propel their campaigns, but that has not happened. Instead, like many foreign policy ‘crises’ in the Trump era, this one has receded from the center stage.

Although the Democratic candidates had notable differences in their statements about the strike, particularly differences in decision to use ‘assassination’ to describe Soleimani’s killing or not and references to non-intervention, the strike did little to change the 2020 campaign. Ultimately, Trump Administration’s strike on Soleimani served to demonstrate the divide within the Democratic party among those who seek to decisively leave military conflicts in the Middle East and those that believe the United States should have a continued military presence in the region.