In the lead-up to Monday’s final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses, Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign unleashed a full-scale attack on former vice president Joe Biden, blasting Biden’s vote to authorize the Iraq War. As if to underline the attack, in the opening minutes of the debate itself, Sanders hit Biden with it directly. It made for an uncomfortable moment, as Biden attempted to defuse Sanders’s assault by apologizing for what he conceded to be a mistake and claiming he’d been deceived by the George W. Bush administration.
Of course, the exchange wasn’t really about the decision to invade Iraq. Instead, it was a stand-in for more important questions about Iran, and about whether any Democrat running for president is willing, under any circumstance, to use military force to defend American lives and interests.
Coming as they did several days after the confrontation between President Donald Trump and the Iranian regime — triggered by the administration’s killing of General Qasem Soleimani — ended with the latter standing down, the six Democrats’ attempts to portray the Trump administration as relentlessly pursuing war with Iran rang hollow. While the Democratic primary electorate is inclined to believe everything Trump does is wrong, the candidates’ mischaracterization of every aspect of the discussion about Iran demonstrated their disconnect from the reality of the Middle East.
Though the non-stop hysteria heard on CNN — the host of the Iowa debate — about the Soleimani strike’s potential to lead to World War Three had already been proven unwarranted by events, the idea that Trump was on a path to war that Iran has already largely foreclosed was taken as a given by all the Democrats on the stage. Yet faced with even friendly questions about what they would do with the problem of Iran, none of Trump’s would-be opponents could supply a coherent answer. Merely pledging allegiance to Obama’s deal won’t force Tehran to come back to the table and agree to eliminate the deal’s sunset clauses, which gave the regime a legal path to a bomb. Only Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure,” which even the New York Times has acknowledged is starving the regime of funds, has a hope of doing that.
Nor does pretending that reinstating the deal and lifting sanctions would curb Iran’s appetite for foreign military adventurism in pursuit of regional hegemony. The destruction of Syria and the increased unrest in Iraq and Yemen were all in large part direct consequences of Obama’s belief that appeasement of Iran was the way to provide stability in the region.
Denigrating Trump as incompetent is also no answer to the question of what candidates who seem bent on avoiding conflict at all costs will do in order to keep Iran from using a reconstituted nuclear deal to recoup the setbacks it has suffered at the hands of the Trump administration.
When Trump ran in 2016, he ran as a harsh critic of the Iraq War. Like Sanders, Trump boasted of his disapproval of Bush’s invasion, though unlike Sanders, who really did oppose the war early and often, Trump was shown by the contemporary record to have supported Bush at the time. But what Trump has done in the last three years proves that the debate about the wisdom of the now broadly unpopular decision to go to war is far less important than the question of what we do in Iraq now.
Those who, like both Biden and Sanders, cheered Obama’s complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq need to own up to the fact that the U.S. retreat effectively paved the way for the growth of ISIS. Though many observers thought Trump’s “America First” doctrine would mean a retreat from the region, it was on his watch that ISIS was decisively routed after Obama’s half-hearted campaign against the terror group.
The same principle is likely to apply to Afghanistan, where Democratic pledges to abandon the struggle against the Taliban and Trump’s moves in the same direction might lead the country to again fall into the hands of an Islamist terrorist movement with a history of enabling attacks against the West.
Trump can be rightly criticized for the contradictions at the core of his foreign policy, in which an inclination to abandon the Middle East has been offset by his correct assessment of the threat posed by Iran. Yet the flaws in his approach pale beside the colossal abandonment of U.S. interests that the return to a policy of appeasement of Iran promised by Democrats would represent. Though Trump shares the Left’s disdain for Bush’s war, his instinctual rejection of the foreign-policy establishment’s conventional wisdom on Iran has allowed him to avoid repeating Obama’s mistakes.
In the game of relitigating Iraq, those such as Biden who supported the war will never be able to make up for their decision by subsequent pledges to avoid future conflicts. But if the Democrats are agreed that the only possible response to Bush’s mistake is to back down from the Iranian threat, then unlike Trump, they have learned the wrong lesson from recent history.