Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and national security adviser John Bolton in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Thursday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE)
Opinion writer

Tensions between Iran and the United States are rising in the wake of a shoot-down of an American drone, which Iranians claim was in their airspace and which we say was over international waters.

As we have come to expect, President Trump is sending mixed signals. The Post reports: “'Iran made a very big mistake!' President Trump tweeted Thursday in his first public comment on the incident.” However, later on he seemed to excuse the Iranian action. “'I have a feeling ... that it was a mistake made by somebody’ who, he suggested, was acting without orders from Iran’s leadership.”

When the United States is engaged in an international incident, it is risky for presidential candidates to weigh in. But if it’s done correctly, a candidate can show off his or her foreign policy chops. That’s what former vice president Joe Biden did. “President Trump’s Iran strategy is a self-inflicted disaster. Two of America’s vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz,” he said in a written statement. “Trump is failing on both counts.”

Biden chided Trump for exiting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with a promise that it would strengthen our position. “But they’ve only gotten more aggressive,” Biden warned. “Trump also promised that walking away would somehow lead to a better deal — instead, the predictable has happened: Iran is building back up its nuclear capability. It’s sadly ironic that the State Department is now calling on Iran to abide by the very deal the Trump Administration abandoned.”

However, the former vice president did something critical: He made clear not to defend Iran. “Make no mistake: Iran continues to be a bad actor that abuses human rights and supports terrorist activities throughout the region,” he said. “But what we need is presidential leadership that will take strategic action to counter the Iranian threat, restore America’s standing in the world, recognize the value of principled diplomacy, and strengthen our nation and our security by working strategically with our allies.”

Biden can speak with authority on the issue and flash his foreign policy credentials. What can others do?

Presidential candidates improve their standing and echo concerns of Democratic voters about Middle East wars by calling for communication and deescalation. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress tells me, “The last thing Americans want to see is another war in the Middle East — so we should work closely with regional partners to make sure they are safe and Americans are not at risk.”

In addition, other candidates should not be seen as taking Iran’s side. Katulis observes that candidates should stress that “Iran is playing with fire — its provocative actions could lead to a major Middle East war that will be devastating for Iran and the broader region.” But they should be clear that the present incoherent and ineffective approach is Trump’s doing. As Katulis says, “Trump’s incoherent Iran policy has destabilized a region of the world that was already a tinderbox.” Finally, it is both consistent with a tone of prudence and with many of their promises to work with Congress to call on lawmakers to step up to the plate — or if the candidate is a lawmaker, to recommend that Congress play an appropriate oversight role, including questioning advisers, holding hearings with experts and reinforcing its sole power to declare war.

Foreign policy crises usually work to the benefit of the incumbent president. However, when the incumbent is reckless, ignorant, disorganized and unable to collect talented advisers, it poses a danger for him — and an opportunity for opponents.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: Iran is outmatched in its latest game of rhetorical chicken. But it might be too late.

Dennis Ross: Trump is a belligerent isolationist. But on Iran, he needs allies.

Jason Rezaian: What the Iran crisis tells us about Trump’s lack of credibility

Max Boot: In Iran crisis, our worst fears about Trump are realized

David Ignatius: Is the Iran-U.S. tinderbox about to ignite?