Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Modern Woodmen Park, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa

Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally at Modern Woodmen Park, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in Davenport, Iowa Andrew Harnik/AP

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Soleimani Strike Splits 2020 Democrats

It also opens up a key weakness for frontrunner Joe Biden.

The U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general has thrust national security policy into the forefront of the Democratic primary, at least for now. 

The primary field had been largely united on matters of war and peace; most candidates had coalesced around a fuzzy promise to end “forever wars” in the Middle East. But cracks began to emerge over the weekend as contenders were forced to respond to the Jan. 2 killing of Qassem Soleimani.

And it has spotlighted perhaps the biggest vulnerability of former Vice President Joe Biden, the race’s longstanding frontrunner: his Senate vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002. 

The two leading progressive candidates in the race, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., both referred to the strike as an “assassination.” Sanders called it a “dangerous escalation” that "brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars."

Other candidates struck a far more cautious tone, emphasizing Soleimani’s responsibility for hundreds of American deaths and calling for more information on how the decision was made and how well the Trump administration has planned for what comes next. 

“Before engaging in military action that could destabilize an entire region, we must take a strategic, deliberate approach that includes consultation with Congress, our allies, and stakeholders in the Middle East,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in a statement that emphasized his own service as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. 

Sanders stood out as perhaps the most critical. While even Warren began by acknowledging that Soleimani was a “murderer, responsible for the deaths of thousands," her Vermont colleague’s statement included no such preamble. 

“Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on a path to another one,” he said in a statement that was the first to use the term “assassination.”

Sanders, with Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., has also announced legislation to block funding for military action that doesn’t have congressional approval. 

Meanwhile, Biden on Saturday sought to downplay his support for the Iraq War in 2002.

Responding to a voter in Des Moines, Iowa, who told him that he supported him “90 percent of the way” except "you were for the second Gulf War, which was a mess,” Biden said he opposed then-President George W. Bush’s campaign “from the very moment it began” and “right after,” Biden said, "I opposed what he was doing, and spoke to him."

But that’s not what he was saying on television at the time. In March 2002, he told PBS’s Charlie Rose that he had believed "all along" that "the right decision is to separate [Saddam Hussein] from his weapons and/or separate him from power." In an interview with CNN the day after the invasion began, the then-senator counseled his colleagues to support Bush. “We voted to give him the authority to wage that war. We should step back and be supportive."

Although Biden did publicly criticize what he saw as failures in the Bush administration’s diplomatic approach to the conflict, three more years passed before he began calling his support a “mistake.”

Biden has made similarly misleading claims in the past, which his campaign has explained by saying he “misspoke.” In a response to a CNN fact check of Saturday’s remark, campaign spokesman Andrew Bates said that Biden “was referring to how he immediately opposed the specific way we went to war — without giving diplomacy and the weapons inspectors a chance to succeed, based on hyped intelligence, without sufficient allies and without a plan for the day after — and the manner in which the war was being carried out.”

But Biden’s cabined response hints at the risk his 2002 vote might pose to him in the primary race. Biden has largely sought to leverage his extensive foreign policy and national security background as a needed antidote to Trump’s freewheeling style and his opponents’ relative inexperience — but analysts have noted that it also means he has a long track record to plumb for mistakes. And polls have found little public appetite for protracted conflicts in the Middle East. 

The Soleimani strike has also split Democrats on the Hill, even as there is a broad appetite to rein in Trump. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., introduced a War Powers resolution last week intended to limit military action against Iran. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Sunday night that the House will vote on a similar measure this week, calling the strike a “provocative and disproportionate” action that “endangered our servicemembers, diplomats and others by risking a serious escalation of tensions with Iran.” Pelosi said that the House effort will be led by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former Pentagon official and Shia militia specialist. 

Meanwhile, liberal Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., also introduced a War Powers resolution that they described as a “companion” measure to Kaine’s. “Make no mistake: the assassination of Qasem Soleimani places us on the brink of war with Iran,” Lee said in a statement. “Trump’s reckless military actions, without Congressional approval or authorization, have caused this crisis.”

Slotkin has struck a far more moderate tone on the killing, emphasizing Soleimani’s “violent campaigns.” 

“This Administration, like all others, has the right to act in self-defense,” Slotkin said in a lengthy statement. “But the Administration must come to Congress immediately and consult. “If military engagement is going to be protracted—which any informed assessment would consider—the Administration must request an Authorization for the Use of Military Force.”

The Trump administration is set to brief Congress on the strike on Wednesday.