WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The drone strike that killed Iran's top military commander thrust the 2020 presidential campaign on Friday (Jan 3) into a new focus on foreign policy, a moment that could play to the strengths of Joe Biden in the Democratic primary race.
Biden seized on the killing of Iran's Qassem Soleimani as a chance to remind Democratic voters of why he believes he's the best suited to face President Donald Trump on foreign policy in the general election.
Biden told voters in Dubuque, Iowa, on Friday that the US "could be on the brink of a new kind of conflict in the Middle East."
Calling Soleimani "the architect behind the slaughter of countless lives," Biden said he doubts the Trump administration has "a strategy for what comes next," suggesting he would not take action as president without a longer-term plan.
"Unfortunately, nothing we've seen from this administration" to suggest such a plan has been worked out, Biden said.
Pete Buttigieg echoed Biden's statement.
"Taking out a bad guy is not a good idea unless you are ready for what comes next, so there's a lot of questions that Americans are asking today," Buttigieg said at a town hall meeting in North Conway, New Hampshire.
Bernie Sanders also planned to address voters on Friday in Iowa, where the Feb 3 caucuses kick off the Democratic nominating contest.
Sanders has focused on his refusal to vote for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has criticised Biden - and Hillary Clinton in 2016 - for voting in favour of it.
Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Soleimani, one of Iran's most powerful generals, who led the Revolutionary Guards' Quds force. The Iranian led proxy militias that extended Iran's power across the Middle East, and is believed responsible for the deaths of US troops in Iraq.
Biden on Thursday night was among the first candidates to respond to news of the killing, and issued a statement longer than those of his opponents. He warned that Trump may not have considered the "second- and third-order consequences" of the attack.
"The administration's statement says that its goal is to deter future attacks by Iran, but this action almost certainly will have the opposite effect," Biden said in his initial statement.
"President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox and he owes the American people an explanation of the strategy."
Democrats by wide margins consistently rate Biden, 77, as best able to handle foreign policy because of his eight years as vice-president and his decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But he rarely focuses on those credentials because foreign policy is not typically a top priority for Democratic primary voters, who focus more on social and pocketbook issues. Trump's escalation with Iran has at least briefly elevated the issue.
Biden's advisers have said they believe voters are less concerned about any one foreign policy issue with Trump, but instead about an overall sense that he's a dangerous driver at the wheel should a true crisis erupt. Iran could turn out to be that crisis.
In the view of many Democrats, including Biden, Iran was a crisis of Trump's own making long before the killing of Soleimani. That's because of his decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration spent more than a year negotiating.
The deal was President Barack Obama's bid to calm tensions with the Islamic Republic.
"The hit on Suleimani will produce the first major real-time foreign policy crisis for Trump Administration against the backdrop of impeachment trial and an election campaign," Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow expert at the Carnegie Endowment think-tank and former Middle East analyst at the State Department, said on Twitter.
"It's a potentially terrifying combination requiring wise, prudent decision making and a steady/steely hand."
A CNN poll in late October found Biden had a huge advantage among Democrats on foreign policy: 56 per cent said they believe he can best handle the issue, compared to 13 per cent for Sanders and 11 per cent for Elizabeth Warren. Next was Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, at 3 per cent.
Sanders and Warren, who've prioritised economic issues over foreign policy in their respective campaigns, issued statements criticising the president's decision.
Sanders has called for a halt to "endless wars" and repeatedly slammed Biden for voting to authorise the Iraq invasion, a measure the Vermont senator voted against.
"Trump's dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars," Sanders said in his statement.
"Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one."
Warren, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that Soleimani was responsible for "the deaths of thousands, including hundreds of Americans."
She also called for stopping "endless wars" and said Trump's "reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths and new Middle East conflict."
"Our priority must be to avoid another costly war," Warren said.
Buttigieg, who served a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan while in the Navy, did not issue a statement until almost midday on Friday. He echoed Sanders and Warren.
"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," Buttigieg said in a statement.
Michael Bloomberg, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, said Soleimani had "the blood of Americans on his hands".
He expressed hope that Trump had "carefully thought through the national security implications of this attack."
Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
In 2011 and 2012, Trump repeatedly predicted that Obama would attack Iran in order to get re-elected, signalling that he believed there's a domestic political benefit to a president for engaging in a military confrontation with the country.
While it's too soon to know whether the latest US-Iranian conflict will escalate, tensions or military action extending into the general-election season could benefit Trump, even though he has high disapproval ratings on foreign policy. American voters are historically hesitant to change presidents during a military engagement.
"If things quickly escalate with Iran or oil prices rise significantly, it could damage Trump's re-election chances. But right now, Trump looks strong," said Dan Eberhart, a Republican financier and oil-and-gas executive.
"He killed a terrorist. That's universally a good thing. It plays well with conservatives and Trump's base, who are tired of what they see as American power being ignored by rogue nations."
Even as the soaring approval ratings that George W. Bush saw immediately after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US began to sink by 2004, he still beat Democrat John Kerry, a respected US senator and Vietnam combat veteran. as the country was newly engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan.