President Trump delivers remarks on Jan. 8, 2020 at the White House. <a href=https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/49351700228/>Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Public Domain</a>.
President Trump delivers remarks on Jan. 8, 2020 at the White House. Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/Public Domain.

Soleimani and the Democratic Primary Electorate

Jan 6, 2020

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

In the aftermath of the U.S. drone strike on the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, General Qassem Soleimani, Sarah Jones, over at New York magazine, ponders whether we will see more focus on foreign policy questions in the Democratic presidential primary. I agree with her conclusion, that this action will become a focal point of questioning—and that, in the responses, we will see laid bare some of the major differences between different candidates.

Jones and others writing about this use the characterization of "moderates" and "progressives" to help draw these distinctions, but I believe that the use of what is largely a domestic political definer is less useful here. It is more useful to think of the responses along the axis of where the candidates stand with regards to the question of the degree and scope of American involvement and engagement in the world.

Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar all tacked to what the Carnegie Council report on narratives on U.S. foreign policy would classify as the "chastened restorationist" approach. Sanders, the second set of responses from Warren, and Yang fall under the rubric of narratives of restraint. No one on the Democratic side seems to be embracing any of the transactional/nationalist narratives.

This is why the focus of questioning should be less on mastery of details with regards to this specific incident and more what it says about instincts and fundamental attitudes about the use of force, the nature of the challenge posed by Iran, and the level of U.S. involvement in the Middle East needed to secure what each candidate thinks are American core interests and values. And, as Jones concludes: "Their answers will reveal something profound about the way they'd govern."

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