U.S. foreign policy has always been one of the most important issues at stake in this year’s election. Despite early pundit speculation about his peaceful tendencies, Donald Trump has never governed like an anti-interventionist. From his assaults on the Iran deal to his open support for a right-wing coup in Bolivia, Under Trump, the fine American tradition of global meddling acquired a distinctively right-wing valence. Whoever replaces him will have to repair the damage; a sensitive and difficult project. But foreign policy has largely been absent from stump speeches and the debate stage, save for the occasional question about China and trade.
That will change. Trump’s decision to assassinate Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, puts thousands of lives in the region in immediate danger. At home, it’s forcing a conversation that should have already been taking place. The Mideast is unstable in part due to the actions of the U.S. itself. After failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, themselves only the latest entries in a decades-old program of direct and bloody interference, Democratic candidates should have to explain what – if anything – they’d change about America’s posture toward the rest of the world.
In tweets, formal statements and speeches issued in the hours after the airstrike, the candidates provided some clarity about the direction they’d take US foreign policy. Most hewed closely to the same rhetoric employed by other Democratic officials: Soleimani was responsible for mass violence and death, but Trump’s actions were ill-considered. Or as Senator Cory Booker put it during an appearance on MSNBC: “This is somebody who is a bad person, but we also have to look at the larger strategic situation in that area.”
The morning after the Pentagon confirmed its responsibility for the airstrike, Pete Buttigieg joined in, saying there were “serious questions about how this decision was made and whether we are prepared for the consequences.”
Trump is not a man given to introspection. There’s obviously no question that his actions were hasty, or that his government is ill-prepared for the conflict it may have just helped start. Trump has whittled the nation’s diplomatic apparatus down to a slim and ineffective shadow of its former self. State Department vacancies go unfilled while the president provokes foreign powers on Twitter. These aren’t decisions any Democratic candidate is likely to repeat, whether they’re centrist or further to the left. But on foreign policy, there’s still a meaningful ideological division in the primary field.
In 2016, foreign policy was a notable weakness for Senator Bernie Sanders, a strange absence in an otherwise detailed vision for America’s future. But that’s no longer true. The democratic socialist has spent the last several years honing a foreign policy that emphasizes diplomacy over military intervention and identifies corruption and oligarchy as global ills the U.S. should work to undermine. On Thursday night, Sanders called Soleimani’s killing an assassination, and in a speech in Iowa on Friday afternoon, highlighted his older opposition to the invasion of Iraq. He didn’t mention Joe Biden by name, but he didn’t have to; the point was clear enough. As senator and then as vice president, Biden made mistakes that Sanders did not. Sanders is staking out ground as the field’s most credible anti-war candidate.
Other candidates may try to follow his example. After first releasing a statement that closely resembled those of other, more moderate candidates, Senator Elizabeth Warren released another on Friday that condemned Soleimani’s killing in stronger terms. She called it an assassination, just as Sanders did the previous night. Maybe voters will care, maybe they won’t; it’s too early to tell and frankly, the opinions of the electorate have no bearing on the actual importance of the issue. The questions in front of the field’s candidates are urgent. Will they stop America’s endless wars? Or will the wars go on, away from Twitter and with different consultants and think tanks in charge? Their answers will reveal something profound about the way they’d govern.