WASHINGTON — Foreign policy has been largely an afterthought in the Democratic presidential race but President Trump might have changed that when he ordered a military strike that killed a top Iranian general.
As candidates on Friday criticized Trump’s move as a dangerous overreaction that could further destabilize the Middle East and lead to greater US military involvement, one contender appeared to have the most to gain — and potentially lose: Joe Biden.
The former vice president, a front-runner in the polls, has the deepest foreign policy experience in the Democratic race. But he also carries significant baggage, particularly when it comes to Iraq, where Thursday night’s strike took place. Biden voted to authorize the 2003 Iraq war, a point that one of his top rivals for the nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders, has been highlighting recently because he voted against the war.
Like the other candidates, Biden slammed Trump’s actions, calling the attack counter to the Trump administration’s stated goal of deterring future attacks by Iran.
“The threat to American lives and interests in the region and around the world are enormous . . . and the prospects of direct conflict with Iran is greater than it has ever been,” he said Friday at an event in Dubuque, Iowa.
Biden is a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was a pivotal player on Middle East policy in the Obama administration. In a CNN poll in October, 53 percent of registered Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents said they thought Biden was the candidate they thought could best handle foreign policy. Sanders ranked second at just 13%.
Although Biden has sought to tout that experience, the Democratic race has focused mostly on domestic issues. Foreign policy questions have been rare at the six presidential debates. But Representative Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Salem who served four tours as a Marine in Iraq, said the race needs more discussion of US actions overseas.
“If we put forward a nominee whom Americans can trust as commander in chief, I think we have a much better chance of beating Donald Trump,” said Moulton, who launched a campaign for the Democratic nomination last year highlighting foreign policy and national security but got little traction and dropped out of the race in August.
A candidate like Biden would be best suited to handle this situation because of his years of foreign policy experience, said Moulton, who has not made an endorsement in the race.
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But Sanders has been openly questioning whether Biden has the proper foreign policy judgment. At last month’s Democratic debate, Biden was describing his opposition to a US troop surge in Afghanistan during the Obama administration when Sanders’ hand shot up to respond.
“Joe, you’re also the guy who helped lead us into the disastrous war in Iraq,” he said.
As the two battle at the top of the national polls, Sanders has continued to pound that theme. Biden has been hit on his Iraq war vote as well by former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“This is an example of why years in Washington is not always the same thing as judgment,” Buttigieg, an Afghanistan war veteran, said on an Iowa Public Television program last month. “He supported the worst foreign policy decision made by the United States in my lifetime, which was the decision to invade Iraq.”
On Friday, Sanders criticized Trump’s decision to launch the strike while emphasizing his consistent opposition to US military action in the Middle East, including his vote against the Iraq war. He didn’t mention Biden by name, but the implications were clear.
“At that time I warned about the deadly so-called unintended consequences of a unilateral invasion. Today, 17 years later, that fear has unfortunately turned out to be a truth,” Sanders said at a town hall event in Anamosa, Iowa.
The Vermont senator said that the wise course of action would have been to stick with the nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran by the Obama administration, which Trump withdrew from, and use diplomatic channels to address concerns like Iran’s support of terrorism.
“Trump promised to end endless wars. Tragically his actions now put us on the path to another war, potentially one that could be even worse than before,” Sanders said.
Sanders and the other leading progressive candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, are best positioned to pick up anger in the Democratic electorate about the strike, said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. But he doesn’t see the military action being a decisive issue in the primary race.
“Biden is certainly going to push the experience card and I think he’ll get a sound bite on the news . . . but is it going to pull people away from Sanders or Warren or Buttigieg? I’m skeptical,” Barry said.
He added that the strike could help Trump, who strives to be perceived as a tough commander in chief, unless it leads to an all-out war with Iran, which even some of his supporters would likely oppose.
Trump defended his actions on Friday, saying the strike was necessary because Soleimani “was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump said at his Mar-a-Lago resort in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Despite that assertion, Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist, said the military strike will feed into Biden’s campaign narrative that he is a steady, experienced leader.
“Any time you have tension coming from Iran or elsewhere it sort of plays into Biden’s argument that he’s a calm hand on the tiller,” said Bannon, who is not aligned with any candidate.
Biden is the Democratic candidate most likely to benefit, but injecting foreign policy into the party’s nomination race is healthy overall, Bannon said.
“For the first time there’s going to be a serious discussion of national security issues on the Democratic side,” he said.
Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.