Can Trump Make Foreign Policy a Democratic Campaign Issue? 1

President Trump’s assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s intelligence and security services, has pushed foreign policy to center stage in the Democratic primary race for president.

Soon after the attack, former Vice President Joe Biden, the national front-runner, issued a statement charging that Mr. Trump had “tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.” Mr. Biden has continued to offer increasingly harsh critiques from the campaign trail, warning that Iran is now in “the driver’s seat” in the region and predicting that General Suleimani’s death will strengthen support for the regime in Tehran. “This is a crisis totally of Donald Trump’s making,” he said at an event Sunday in Iowa.

Among other top candidates, Pete Buttigieg has expressed his dismay at the president’s recklessness, while Senator Elizabeth Warren has issued a series of escalating denunciations. Befitting his longtime opposition to military intervention, Senator Bernie Sanders is promoting a broad antiwar message. “Maybe what we should be doing is figuring out how as a planet we work together instead of going to war with each other,” he said at a campaign rally on Friday.

This heightened attention on the White House trail is an important shift. Up to now, foreign policy has been largely ignored, with the candidates focused on domestic topics, such as health care and economic inequality.

This has suited the backgrounds of the contenders. Aside from Mr. Biden, most of the pack — including the mayors, governors and businessmen — have more experience in the areas of job creation and crime prevention than in maintaining global order.

But the imbalance is also a reflection of what voters care deeply about, and that tends to be not foreign affairs. In a September poll, FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos asked Democratic voters what issue was most important to them. Foreign policy ranked 15th, behind such domestic concerns as gun control, jobs, immigration, the makeup of the Supreme Court, racism and education.

This is not unusual.

“Short of a war or other violent attacks on American installations, foreign policy rarely takes center stage during presidential elections,” Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, lamented in The Times late in the 2012 presidential race. “Presidential candidates almost always campaign on how they intend to jump-start the economy.”

He noted that in poll after poll, foreign policy and national security issues were typically cited as the top priority for only 3 to 5 percent of voters.

The paradox, as Mr. Drezner pointed out, is that presidents have far more leeway to influence global affairs than, for instance, the economy, where Congress has more of a say. And while lawmakers can be more than happy to derail a president’s domestic agenda, they are more hesitant to cross the White House on international affairs.

The growing tension with Iran is merely the latest, most acute example of Mr. Trump’s impulse toward global destabilization. Whether it’s his abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, his antagonism of America’s allies, his coddling of hostile autocrats, his disdain for multilateral agreements or his manipulation of America’s Ukraine policy for his own political gain — a move that led to his becoming the third president ever impeached — this president has given Americans reason to abandon their complacency on foreign affairs and increase their concern about Mr. Trump’s frightening style of leadership.

In just a few weeks, the voting in the Democratic contest for president will begin. Voters must now decide whom they trust not only to work with Congress on cutting health care costs and cleaning up the political system but also to navigate a world that Mr. Trump has helped make increasingly unsettled and unsettling.

Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is making the case that this calls for a candidate with extensive foreign policy experience.

Mr. Sanders, in turn, is touting his antimilitarist credentials as part of his populist platform. “I know that it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy — it is the children of working families,” he told supporters Friday at an event in Iowa. Mr. Sanders’s campaign is also reminding voters that, unlike Mr. Biden, he did not support the Iraq war in 2003.

Mr. Buttigieg is playing up his military background. “As a military intelligence officer on the ground in Afghanistan,” he said Friday at a campaign event in New Hampshire, “I was trained to ask these questions before a decision is made.”

Experience matters. But perhaps more important are temperament and judgment and the candidates’ philosophies on the use of American power, both hard and soft. Also, the people a president turns to for advice can be as important as his or her own expertise — yet another lesson that past presidents have provided by their failures.

To aid voters, the moderators for next Tuesday’s Democratic debate should set aside time to drill down on everything from what type of advisers candidates would seek out to how they would adjust our relationship with Saudi Arabia to how they would have handled the situation in Syria differently from Mr. Trump — or President Barack Obama.

Foreign policy can no longer be an afterthought in this election. The president wields enormous power on the global stage. Voters should feel confident that the next one is up to the task.

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