Democratic Debate Sheds Little Light On Foreign Policy

A question about the assassination of Qassem Soleimani did little to draw contrasts between how the candidates would deal with bad actors abroad.

Democratic presidential candidates were given a hypothetical Friday night: If they had been given the opportunity to kill notorious Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, as President Donald Trump did in January, would they have gone through with it?

The responses during the Democratic debate in Manchester, New Hampshire, hinted at some divides in the party on foreign policy — an area where presidents have historically had more power to act even without the involvement of Congress — but did little to clarify how these candidates would actually act as commander in chief.

South Bend, Indiana’s former Mayor Pete Buttigieg kept himself open to the idea of the strike.

“It depends on the circumstances,” Buttigieg said, adding he would have to know if there were “alternatives” and going on to praise the United States’ national intelligence community. 

Biden, notably, said no, at first, saying there wasn’t an “imminent threat” (the Trump administration initially defended their decision to strike Soleimani, without congressional approval, because of an imminent threat). But as Biden continued his response, he said he didn’t know how we would have responded to Iran’s counterattack — a series of missiles targeting a U.S. base in Iraq that wounded several American soldiers.

“I don’t know what i would have done if my son had still been there,” Biden said. “I would have been so angry. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Those responses sat in clear contrast to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was the most unequivocal in his repudiation of Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani.

“There are very bad leaders all over the world,” Sanders said on the debate stage, listing North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and others. “You cannot go around saying, you are a bad guy, we are going to assassinate you. And then you are going to have, you are opening the door to international anarchy. Every government in the world will be subjected to attacks and assassination.”

Democratic presidential candidates from left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom St
Democratic presidential candidates from left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and businessman Tom Steyer try to be recognized during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Sanders has long advocated for an anti-interventionist foreign policy strategy, though he is not a pacifist — and there are areas where he sees the use of military force to be appropriate. In a questionnaire with The New York Times, he said he would consider the use of military force for humanitarian intervention and to to preempt an Iranian or North Korean nuclear or missile test.

Unlike most policy areas like health care, or tax policy, presidents have a lot of discretion on foreign policy, and can define the United States’ role abroad largely without congressional intervention. Candidates have repeatedly been pushed to answer hypotheticals about foreign policy, in an effort to show the actual variance in opinions on the stage.

But Soleimani’s killing wasn’t able to reveal those contrasts.

Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, and bring the United States to the brink of full-blown war with Iran, without congressional approval was overwhelmingly decried by Democrats, though many pointed out that Soleimani had been a longtime target. Sanders co-sponsored legislation in Congress in January to deny the Pentagon any funds for unauthorized use of military force against Iran.