In the wake of reversing his decision to strike Iran, US President Donald Trump insisted in a series of media appearances that his foreign policy defied straightforward political labels such as "hawk" or "dove."
While Trump’s allies lauded his prudence for the reversal, some saw an opportunity for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders to use president's last-minute decision to label him as erratic.
“Trump's erratic zig-zagging on decisions of such magnitude creates enormous uncertainty, increasing the risk of miscalculation at a time when the region is on a knife's edge of conflict,” said Colin Kahl, who was national security adviser to Joe Biden when Biden was vice president. Biden, currently the front-runner in Democratic polls, and other candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination will be sparring on the debate stage for the first time later this week.
Trump levied another round of sanctions on Iran on Monday, taking steps to ramp up the "maximum pressure" campaign that has sought to cut off Tehran’s oil revenues.
However, presidential hopefuls who have signaled interest in re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal said the president was responsible for the simmering crisis in the Gulf.
“Trump provoked this crisis, and his reckless foreign policy by tweet will only worsen it,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, tweeted Thursday, before the on-again, off-again decision on a strike. She noted that Senate Democrats had sponsored legislation to strip the Pentagon of funding for a potential attack against Iran.
Other leading Democrats also painted the Iran decision as an indicator of the commander in chief’s tendency to spark crisis in the Middle East. "I don't believe anyone should receive credit for a crisis of their own making,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., told CBS’ "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another leader in the Democratic presidential field, called for the United States to end the war on terror in the pages of Foreign Affairs this week, claiming the 17-year campaign "allowed a few thousand violent extremists to dictate the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on earth.”
Beyond 10 candidates who have said they would re-enter talks for a new nuclear deal, most Democratic contenders have not clarified how they would handle the increased military tensions with Iran in the Middle East following a series of attacks on Emirati, Japanese, and Norwegian tankers and the shootdown of an American surveillance drone last week.
Kahl told Al-Monitor that Biden would push back on Iran’s “destabilizing actions” through “targeted sanctions” and y reworking ties with European allies.
Yet Kahl did not make clear how Biden’s efforts for “multilateral pushback” would differ from Trump’s bid to pressure Tehran back to the negotiating table. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Gulf on Sunday to urge allies to protect oil shipment lanes and help de-escalate the ongoing standoff.
Bishop Garrison, a former foreign policy adviser on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Iran’s recent threats and reports that Trump drew on the cable news airwaves for advice give Democrats a strong opening to highlight the administration’s “lack of structure and stability across the board” to voters.
“Who is the decision-maker right now in the White House? Who is he actually taking his input from on these issues? Is he just watching Fox News?” asked Garrison, co-founder of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. “That’s how you differentiate yourself as a Democratic candidate. You walk in and Day One, it will be clear, bright red, in writing, out front. That’s not clear in this administration because it’s based on whatever the president decides to tweet.”
While military action against Iran is not favored in most polls, Democrats have historically faced a credibility gap with the public on national security issues. Dating back nearly 70 years to President Harry Truman, who was attacked by Republicans in 1950 for “losing” China after Communists won the country’s civil war, researchers have indicated that GOP presidents often have more political leeway with American voters to hold off on military action than their Democratic counterparts.
But Kahl that following the events of Trump's years in office, voters won’t associate the president's label-defying foreign policy with traditional Republican strength on military issues. “I don’t think the majority of Americans see Trump as a generic ‘strong’ Republican on national security,” Kahl said.
Attacks from the left on Trump’s decision-making have proven risky in the past. As the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016, Clinton repeatedly questioned Trump’s fitness to serve as commander in chief in a campaign defined by the unpopularity of both candidates.
It could be that Democratic presidential hopefuls who criticize the president’s unpredictability on foreign policy will fail to make headway with voters unless the United States stumbles into a war with Iran.
“Even if what [voters] most care about is domestic issues, jobs, health care, access to education, typically we do expect that people will want to have reason to believe that the person is capable of serving as commander in chief,” said Jim Goldgeier, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University. “Unless he takes us into a war, making the argument that [Trump] can’t be trusted is going to be harder.”
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