Biden accomplishes two things here. First, he reaffirms his bond with Obama, who remains overwhelmingly popular with Democratic voters, most especially with African American voters. Certainly, Biden benefits from association with a popular ex-president, but he also reminds Democrats that unlike his opponents who want “revolutionary change," he wants to build on the Obama legacy. Second, Biden’s analysis is essentially correct, and his rivals would be foolish not to adopt it.
The issue is not about whether he or any of them would have struck down Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani; it’s that none of them would have put themselves and the country in the position to risk full-scale war. Trump’s fixation on Obama — blaming everything on Obama, ripping up whatever Obama did, claiming Obama’s accomplishments as his own — prompted him to abandon an imperfect but stabilizing Iran nuclear deal; embark on an irrational “maximum pressure” campaign (expecting our allies to follow and Iran to roll over); escalate tensions with Iran; and provoke a crisis with our Iraqi hosts. He then blamed it all on the Iran deal he blew up.
There is ample room to criticize the Iran deal as too limited and/or to fault Obama for not addressing Iran’s non-nuclear conduct, but now Trump has no nuclear deal, no alliance, no strategy for containing Iran’s nuclear program or regional aggression, and no public support for his hawkish advisers’ regime-change fetish.
Trump’s performance is a weak leader’s misconception of a strong leader. He thinks “America First” means trashing allies and plunging into unilateral military action, only to pull back when he realizes that he cannot really take the country to war.
It is one thing to criticize Trump for making hash out of our Middle East policy, however, and quite another to construct a coherent plan for improving matters. What is the endpoint we seek? If we aim to renew the Iran deal, decrease Iranian aggression in the region and maintain vigilance against the Islamic State, then immediately bugging out of Iran, Syria and Afghanistan — as some of Biden’s opponents suggest — would be foolhardy. Simply reciting platitudes such as “Get out of the Middle East” does not engender confidence among voters and frankly does not present much of a contrast to Trump.
Biden offers something more concrete and realistic: Keep allies together, use carrots and sticks to get back to an acceptable nuclear deal and attempt to ratchet down the chance for war. That requires a whole lot of finesse, which is not amenable to bumper-sticker promises: Work with our allies. Don’t govern by tweet. Use diplomacy. That’s as simplistic and unimpressive as “Iran won’t get a nuclear weapon on my watch.” Biden opponents’ one-liners or one-upmanship about who opposed the Iraq War first will strike many voters as childish.
Candidates need to show that they understand the challenges they will face going forward. One of them might inherit the Trump legacy of chaos, instability, broken alliances and disdain for human rights.
Not unlike Biden’s preference for a public option over a radical Medicare-for-all single-payer plan, his approach to foreign policy links him to Obama and affords him the chance to demonstrate his superior knowledge of the issues and the players. That’s a recipe for winning the nomination, but hardly a guarantee.
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