Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) for example tweeted: “Soleimani was responsible for thousands of deaths, including US troops killed by Iranian-made IEDs in Iraq. He personally directed Iranian proxies to attack US & our allies. ... We should prepare for potential retaliatory attacks by Iran & its proxies. We must ensure the security of US personnel in the region. The Admin must inform Congress of next steps and clarify legal basis for military action. Reminder that Congress has not authorized war with Iran.”
Freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst, tweeted a thoughtful analysis that reiterated the deaths and destruction attributable to Soleimani. She then continued:
This Admin., like all others, has the right to act in self-defense. But the Administration must come to Congress immediately and consult.— Rep. Elissa Slotkin (@RepSlotkin) January 3, 2020
If military engagement is going to be protracted — which any informed assessment would consider — the Administration must request an AUMF.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), speaking on the floor, began with an admonition: “No one should shed a tear over [Soleimani’s] death." However, he cautioned: “The administration did not consult in this case, and I fear that those very serious questions have not been answered and may not be fully considered. Among those questions, what was the legal basis for conducting this operation? And how far does that legal basis extend? Iran has many dangerous surrogates in the region and a whole range of possible responses. Which responses do we expect? Which are most likely? Do we have plans to counter all of the possible responses?”
These Democrats understand two imperatives: They must not “take sides” with the dead terrorist leader (nor minimize his killing of Americans and others across the region), and they must aggressively question the administration as to next steps and the basis for its claim that an attack was “imminent.”
Several of the Democratic presidential candidates responded appropriately. Unsurprisingly, former vice president Joe Biden sounded like someone prepared to step into the commander-in-chief role on his first day:
"The prospects of direct conflict with Iran is greater than it has ever been."— ABC News (@ABC) January 3, 2020
Joe Biden addresses the U.S. strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani: "The question is, do Donald Trump and his administration have a strategy for what comes next?" https://t.co/B9RQlPPF29 pic.twitter.com/v6K0fuKZoX
Likewise, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, referencing his naval intelligence background, provided a sober and balanced response in a public appearance and in writing.
In his written statement, Buttigieg warned: “There is no question that Qassim Suleimani was a threat to that safety and security, and that he masterminded threats and attacks on Americans and our allies, leading to hundreds of deaths. But there are serious questions about how this decision was made and whether we are prepared for the consequences.” He continued: “Now we must deal with the consequences of this action, beginning with the immediate and very real dangers to American citizens in and out of uniform in the Middle East. We must prepare for the impact on regional stability, complex forms of retaliation, and the potential for escalation into war.” He concluded: "As we learn more in the coming days and weeks, one thing is clear: this must not be the start of another endless war. We must act wisely and deliberately, not capriciously or through Twitter. The consequences are grave, as anyone who has served in uniform understands all too well.”
Contrast that with the knee-jerk and unnuanced statement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). His tweet sounded almost Trumpian: “The American people do not want endless war! We cannot allow Trump to drag us into war with Iran. We must prevent what would be an unmitigated disaster.” Sanders needs to be careful not to reinforce the notion that he is an irresponsible isolationist unwilling to defend U.S. interests.
Sanders, after all, voted against sanctions on Iran twice — once in June 2017 and again in July 2017. He was one of only two senators to do so, the other being Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). In 2016, he slammed Hillary Clinton for questioning then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 for saying that he would meet unconditionally with dictators from Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without preconditions. (President Barack Obama met only with Raúl Castro, after agreeing to open relations with the communist regime.) One wonders whether Sanders would now follow Trump’s blunder in meeting unconditionally with Kim Jong Un as well as with other butchers absent preconditions.
Democratic voters who seem to have awoken to the undesirability of electing a proponent of Medicare-for-all who can be labeled a socialist should likewise be wary of picking a nominee who cannot instill confidence that he will defend U.S. interests in a consistent, sensible and robust fashion. Trump is not going to be able to label Biden or Buttigieg as “weak on defense,” but he just might have a field day with Sanders.