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The Democrats’ Gutless Response to Trump’s Air Strike

Much of the party, including nearly all its presidential candidates, is still scared to categorically reject war.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the early signs that the United States had assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian major general, on Thursday night came from President Trump’s Twitter account, which posted a low-resolution graphic of an American flag as the news of Soleimani’s death spread. As is typical, Trump’s tweet was met with shock and ridicule from those who insisted the administration should have promptly released a full statement. In truth, most of the formal statements issued by members of Congress and the candidates on the presidential campaign trail that followed Soleimani’s killing did not manage to offer much more clarity, moral or otherwise, on the implications of what Trump has done. There can be no doubt that Trump invoked the flag, in part, as a symbol of the reach of American power—of our might and right to strike anyone in the Middle East we deem dangerous whenever we choose. Last night, a generation of bipartisan agreement on this point seeped into a new decade.

One such statement, representative of Trump’s critics within the Democratic mainstream, came from Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who now serves as a freshman in the House Democratic caucus, representing Michigan’s 8th district. It began with the throat-clearing that most Democrats found necessary in their responses, a concession that Soleimani had been dangerous. “If you worked on the Middle East over the past 20 years,” she tweeted, “you dealt with the growing organization and sophistication of Soleimani’s covert and overt military activities, which have contributed to significant destabilization across the region.”

Then came a “but”: The assassination had been inordinately risky, at least at the moment Trump chose to carry it out. “The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means,” she wrote. “The Trump Administration has made a different calculation.” Finally, Slotkin pivoted to a call for de-escalation and a consultation with lawmakers. “Congress also has a deep interest in the future of our relationship with Iraq, given our investment of blood and treasure there to rid the region of ISIS,” she wrote. “Congress needs to understand the Administration’s plan as soon as possible.”

Massachusetts congressman and former Democratic presidential candidate Seth Moulton, who served in Iraq, also demanded that Trump produce a plan. “[T]he Administration needs to explain to Congress what the strategy is and what happens next,” he wrote. “Our troops and the American people deserve nothing less.” Like Slotkin, Moulton began his statement with an obligatory denunciation of Soleimani’s deeds. Soleimani, he wrote, “was an enemy of the United States with American blood on his hands.” Notably, both statements were functionally indistinguishable from the statement released by erstwhile Reasonable Republican Mitt Romney, who began with the obligatory note that Soleimani was “a depraved terrorist who had the blood of hundreds of American servicemen and women on his hands.” But! “[W]ith ever increasing challenges confronting us in the Middle East, it’s imperative that the US & our allies articulate & pursue a coherent strategy for protecting our security interests in the region. I will be pressing the Administration for additional details in the days ahead.”

Former Vice President Biden’s statement followed the same format, noting that “no American will mourn [Soleimani’s] passing,” before going on to express “hope” that the White House had “thought through the second- and third-order consequences of the path they have chosen.” But, he continued, “I fear this Administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary.” At an appearance in Dubuque, Iowa, Friday morning, Biden almost suggested a willingness to give Trump the benefit of the doubt. “Without passing judgment—this time I pray he listens to his commanders,” he said. “I have no love lost for Soleimani, but we have to know what the second and third iteration of what’s about to come.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren miniaturized this approach in a single tweet Thursday night. “Soleimani was a murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans,” she wrote. “But this reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict. Our priority must be to avoid another costly war.” In a lengthier statement Friday morning, Warren elaborated on the administration’s recklessness, saying that Trump’s rejection of the Iran deal and other actions had already set us on a path to war. “Trump’s actions put every service member and diplomat in the region at risk,” she tweeted. This is a moment for vigilance—for Americans to speak up and speak out. No more Middle East wars.”

Curiously, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has talked up his service in Afghanistan on the campaign trail and has been preoccupied with Democratic rhetoric on war and foreign policy since his time at Harvard, was the last Democratic candidate in the race to comment on Soleimani’s assassination. The statement that eventually arrived Friday morning didn’t meaningfully deviate from the moderate Democratic line—while Soleimani was “a threat,” he wrote, “there are serious questions about how this decision was made and whether we are prepared for the consequences.” Buttigieg elaborated on this later in a New Hampshire speech. “If we have learned nothing else in the Middle East over the last 20 years, it’s that taking out a bad guy is not a good idea unless you’re ready for what comes next,” he said. “So there are a lot of questions that Americans are asking today. First of all, was this decision made carelessly or was it made strategically? Was there any preparation for the secondary effects and the effects that are going to come after that?”

Of course, no one in Washington inside or outside the Democratic Party actually believes that Donald Trump, a pure fool, oblivious to the difference between Soleimani’s Quds Force and the Kurds as recently as 2015, has anything resembling a strategy or a vision for American foreign policy in the Middle East—or anywhere else, beyond what he gleans from the cacophony of conservative voices competing for his ear. Moreover, a president being impeached for an attempt to trade the assurance of American military aid for personal political gain should not be crafting American foreign policy in any capacity.

Most Democrats are pretending otherwise for two reasons. The first is a congenital need to project toughness. Stung by the rhetorical wars of the Bush years, Democrats are wary of protesting the comeuppance of a man like Soleimani too loudly. The second is that most Democrats simply believe assassinating Soleimani (and similar “limited,” “surgical,” or “tactical” strikes) is potentially worth doing under the right circumstances—having consulted Congress, or at least having devised a plan of attack like the Obama administration’s “kill list” of terror suspects to be eliminated by drone strike, for instance. What can be read between the lines of the Democratic statements on Soleimani is an abiding respect for an American president’s prerogative to take unilateral offensive action in the Middle East, even if the president in question is Donald Trump. If some of the Democratic presidential candidates seem as though they want to soft-pedal their criticisms of what he’s done, it’s because they hope to wield the power he has deployed as soon as next year.

America’s strategy in the Middle East should be the withdrawal from the Middle East. Our interventions have been entirely counterproductive to the goal of making Americans safer and have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people. The next American president should categorically reject war in the region—endless or otherwise, given that we cannot reliably anticipate the difference anyway. These should have been simple positions for Democrats to take last night. A few did. Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib tweeted that Trump had, “put us closer to yet another unnecessary war” and urged Congress to “reclaim our responsibility & say no to war with Iran.” Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey urged Americans not to “stand idly by as President Trump drags our country into war.” “No war with Iran,” he concluded. “De-escalation now.” Businessman and Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said war with Iran “is the last thing we need and is not the will of the American people.” “We should be acting to de-escalate tensions,” he wrote, “and protect our people in the region.”

And then there was Bernie Sanders. In a statement Thursday night he invoked, once again, his prescient vote against the war in Iraq in 2002. “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 wrote. “Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.” He went on to address Soleimani’s assassination and the war in Iraq at length in remarks at an event in Iowa on Friday morning:

We have corruption in that country. We have terrible poverty in that country. And now Iraqis want American troops out. All of that suffering, all of that death, all of that huge expenditure of money. For what? 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. And let me repeat a warning I gave in 2002 during the debate over the war in Iraq. “War must be the last recourse in our international relations. And as a caring nation we must do everything we can to prevent the horrible suffering that a war will cause.”

As the former chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs I have seen close up the pain, the death, and the despair caused by death. I’ve gone to too many funerals in my own state. I’ve talked to too many mothers who have lost their kids in war. I’ve talked to too many soldiers, men and women, who’ve come home with PTSD, who’ve come home without arms and without legs. And I know that it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy. It is the children of working families.

Sanders went on to urge the reopening of diplomatic channels with Iran and America’s adoption of a commitment to ending conflicts amid increasing global instability, rather than igniting new ones.

It is commonly said that many of the internal debates at the heart of the Democratic primary have been driven by purity politics—the devotees of the various candidates, some scoff, are fighting over proposals that will never pass and, by doing so, are choosing moral grandstanding over meaningful debate. This is wrong on multiple fronts. In the first place, the American people should have the right to know and discuss how the presidential candidates would address the problems facing the country if they could and why.

This line of discourse critique falls especially flat when it comes to foreign policy. Over the course of generations, American presidents have been given an extraordinary amount of power to wage war and otherwise set American priorities abroad entirely on their own—without the assent of Congress or the broader public, and in many cases without even their knowledge. There are clear differences on these matters among the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination and within the party the next Democratic president will essentially lead. Whatever else may come of the Trump administration’s strike against Soleimani, the responses from the opposition so far have already been incredibly revealing.