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Iran, China, and war: Foreign policy topics to watch for in the January debate

Foreign policy may actually play a role in the Iowa debate.

The empty stage for the Democratic debate.
The stage is prepared for a Democratic presidential debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register on January 14, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Finally — finally — there’s a good chance that foreign policy will feature heavily in a Democratic presidential debate. If it happens, the six 2020 Democratic candidates in tonight’s debate will have their best chance yet at demonstrating they could serve ably as the country’s next commander-in-chief.

President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani on January 2 — which some people worried could lead to war with Iran — and his impending phase-one trade deal with China will likely place world affairs at center stage in Iowa tonight.

And the candidates are looking forward to it. Multiple campaigns told me they see foreign policy as a huge weakness for Trump, and they relish the chance to hit him on it.

“This is what happens when a president disregards allies the US has had for decades,” Benjamin Gardes, the senior spokesperson for Tom Steyer’s campaign, told me. “Trump’s policies have placed regions around the world in a cauldron of conflict.”

Iranians walk past a poster of killed military commander Qassem Soleimani off a main square in the Islamic republic’s capital city on January 11, 2020.
Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

Yet the real challenge for the candidates onstage tonight won’t be making the case to Democratic voters that they are a better choice to lead the country than Donald Trump — most registered Democrats probably already agree with that point — it’ll be to differentiate themselves from one another.

And in this regard, they may have a harder time. “I expect a fair amount of unity and clarity laying out how the current administration’s policies and recent actions make the US less safe, prosperous, and respected,” says Heather , a US foreign policy expert at the New America Foundation in Washington.

But there could still be fireworks.

Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, is facing criticism from candidates on his left like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about his previous support for the Iraq War.

A clear split has also formed among contenders over the benefits of Trump’s competition with China, with some like former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg saying it’s worth pushing back hard on Beijing. And Democrats may even go after each other on their differing answers on Trump’s Soleimani decision.

So, with just a few hours to go until the Iowa debate, here’s a quick guide on what to expect when it comes to foreign policy.

2020 Democrats will bash Trump’s Iran policy and may talk about “assassination”

All six candidates on the stage tonight have criticized Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani because they worried about the chance of a broader escalation with Tehran, though most acknowledged that Soleimani was a bad guy.

That’s why Bishop Garrison, a top foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told me he expects the world affairs portion of the debate will “focus on Iran first and foremost, and the administration’s incoherent story and response.”

“A rational leader and administration likely wouldn’t have engaged the regime in the haphazard way Trump has,” Garrison said.

Ben Rhodes, who was President Obama’s deputy national security adviser and a key figure in promoting the Iran deal, wants Democrats to use the Iran opportunity to dismantle Trump’s foreign policy narrative.

“It’s important that the candidates connect the recent dangers with Iran to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal,” Rhodes told me, “and broaden the conversation beyond one exchange with Iran to the broader failures: Iran’s resuming its nuclear program, the counter-ISIS mission being suspended, and the enduring risk to our personnel in Iraq and the region.”

“I’ll also be looking to see if Democrats are at all defensive in how they go after his Iran record — they shouldn’t be,” he added.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Berg Middle School on January 11, 2020, in Newton, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

But any attempt to “go after” Trump could be sidelined by a debate over how to frame the Soleimani killing itself.

Sanders has already taken some heat from moderate Democrats and conservatives for calling the Soleimani killing an “assassination” while failing to say anything negative about the Iranian general in his first campaign statement on January 2. That’s a charged term, as Max Fisher and Amanda Taub explained in the New York Times last week:

Assassination is colloquially defined as a killing, or sometimes murder, for political purposes, particularly but not necessarily of a senior political leader ...

But there is also a second definition.

The United States banned assassination in 1976 but did not define it. Ever since, decades of legal interpretation and precedent-setting have evolved into a legal understanding of assassination that is intricate, disputed and narrower with each administration.

Sanders reiterated that sentiment four days later when he compared the killing with Russian President Vladimir Putin murdering dissidents.

Those statements may lead candidates with more traditional foreign policy views like Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) — both of whom lambasted Soleimani in their statements — to attack Sanders for his stated anti-war stance and accuse him of being too weak on national security.

Buttigieg and Warren have also used “assassination,” but they are not as likely to get the kind of blowback Sanders might. After all, recent polls show Sanders in second place among the candidates, and analysts increasingly think he has a strong chance of winning in Iowa next month. That most likely puts the target on his back more than on the other two, which means he may have to answer for his “assassination” comments.

2020 Democrats may have to reckon with Trump’s China strategy

The day after the debate, Trump and a top Chinese official will sign “phase one” of the president’s long-sought trade deal with Beijing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal includes greater access for US companies to Chinese banks and more Chinese purchases of American products. Some tariffs, which Trump placed on Beijing’s US-bound exports to force them to negotiate an agreement, will also be lifted.

That development could put 2020 Democrats at the debate in a tight spot.

Most candidates have trashed Trump’s heavy-handed approach toward China, though some believe it’s important for the US to confront Beijing. “Chinese techno-authoritarianism,” Buttigieg said in a foreign policy speech last year, “present[s] a major challenge to us.”

Yet the candidates are unanimous in wanting trade deals that help American workers. A Trump deal that secures more access for US firms to sell in China could help those same workers — thus putting a dent in Democrats’ criticism of Trump’s approach.

It could lead to especially awkward answers from Sanders and Warren, who have led the left-wing campaign charge in advocating for less free trade and more protections for American workers. They’ll have to balance what could be a decent deal for their base while at the same time smashing Trump for the way he went about making the deal, which involved consistently increasing tariffs until China had no choice but to put pen to paper on something.

Containers are seen stacked at a port in Qingdao in China’s eastern Shandong province on January 14, 2020.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

They may get an out, though, as Democratic Party leadership has already come out against the deal. “The terms of the agreement will result in very little progress in reforming China’s rapacious trade behaviors and seems like it could send a signal to Chinese negotiators that the US can be steamrolled,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the party’s leader in the upper chamber, wrote to Trump on Monday.

It’s possible, some experts say, that a China question could prompt a broader discussion on how the world’s two most important countries should interact in the future. “Power competition should be discussed generally,” Garrison, who is now at the Human Rights First advocacy group, predicts.

But other than that, experts say it’s more than likely that a China section will get a few moments but then the debate will quickly move on.

2020 Democrats will tussle on their war records

One of the most important developments in the race right now is Sanders attacking Biden on his war record. There’s good reason to do that: Biden voted for the Iraq War and continued to support it even after it started to look like a failure.

Sanders has used Trump’s recent actions in Iran to label himself the anti-war candidate while branding Biden as having poor judgment on global issues.

Sanders co-introduced a bill earlier this month to block funding for any military action in Iran and put out a video saying he’s “not sorry” for his long history of opposing US wars. Sanders and fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who wasn’t in office for the vote on Iraq) both lead an anti-war strategy call with liberal MoveOn activists and signed on to a bipartisan Senate resolution saying Congress has not yet approved any war with Iran.

Biden, meanwhile, played up his faith in the military establishment and his place in the Obama White House, which negotiated the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. As Trump seemingly blamed Obama in his Iran “victory” speech last week, Biden went on the offensive, defending his former boss on Twitter.

“He’s been President for three years,” he said of Trump. “It’s time he stops blaming President Obama for his failures.” This line dovetails with Biden’s message that he will be ready to be commander in chief on his first day in office.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to volunteers at state campaign headquarters on January 13, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It’s likely, then, that this brewing feud will continue onstage.

But punching Biden on foreign policy may not be as effective as Sanders hopes. A CNN poll from last November showed the former vice president is far and away the most trusted on foreign policy among the 2020 Democratic candidates, with Biden beating Sanders 48 percent to 14 percent. Which means attacking Biden on his foreign policy acumen could backfire on the Vermont senator.

Indeed, Sanders likes to brag that he never voted for a defense authorization bill in Congress with Trump in office, but he did so four times with George W. Bush as president. He therefore can’t say that he wasn’t fully opposed to the Iraq War effort, though he couched one of his votes as helping troops who would be in harm’s way regardless of what he did.

“No member in this body disagrees that so long as our troops remain in Iraq, they should have the resources they need in order to protect their lives,” the senator said in 2004 on that year’s defense bill. “We have not done well in this area up to this point, and we must do better.”

But Sanders isn’t the only one looking to tussle with Obama’s former No. 2. Tom Steyer, the New York billionaire, has repeatedly gone on TV to say that years in politics doesn’t necessarily make a better commander in chief.

“What counts is judgment, not experience,” he told MSNBC on Tuesday, hours before the debate. “If you look at what that experience has brought us over the last 20 years, it’s two failed wars, the waste of American lives, and Americans dollars and prestige doing something that didn’t make sense.”

Steyer hasn’t said Biden’s name directly, but it’s clear that’s who he’s mostly referring to. That indicates the former vice president may face attacks on his foreign policy record from all sides during the debate.

Put together, it’s likely that tonight’s debate will offer viewers a clearer picture of how these candidates would handle the world from the Oval Office.

Correction: Tom Steyer is from New York, not Maryland.

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