Biden denounces Trump on Iran in commander-in-chief moment

Katie Glueck, The New York Times

Posted at Jan 08 2020 01:15 PM

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Chelsea Piers in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the Iran crisis in New York, Jan. 7, 2020. Biden on Tuesday delivered a forceful and detailed critique of the Trump administration’s aggression toward Iran as he sought at every turn to highlight his own commander-in-chief credentials and to evoke the stature of a president. Hilary Swift, The New York Times

NEW YORK — Joe Biden on Tuesday delivered a forceful and detailed critique of the Trump administration’s escalation toward Iran as he sought at every turn to highlight his own commander-in-chief credentials and to evoke the stature of a president.

The former vice president, speaking from Pier 59 in New York against a backdrop of American flags, delivered a stern warning about President Donald Trump’s stewardship of international affairs and painted a grim picture of the dangerous landscape in the Middle East.

Biden cast Trump as a hypocrite who preaches an inward-looking foreign policy but operates using unsteady, bellicose tactics, and faulted the president for bringing the nation “dangerously close” to war after a US drone strike that killed one of Iran’s top military commanders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

“Because he refuses to level with the American people about the dangers which he has placed American troops and our diplomatic corps, personnel and civilians, as well as our partners and allies, or demonstrated even a modicum of presidential gravitas, I will attempt to do that,” said Biden, who is one of 14 candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. “That starts with an honest accounting of how we got where we are.”

Hours after he spoke, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles against United States military and coalition forces in Iraq, according to US military officials.

“What’s happening in Iraq and Iran today was predictable,” Biden said at a fundraiser in the Philadelphia area Tuesday night, citing the “chaos that’s ensuing” from Trump’s approach to the region. He added, “I just pray to God as he goes through what’s happening, as we speak, that he’s listening to his military commanders for the first time because so far that has not been the case.”

One of Biden’s rivals, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, opened a rally Tuesday night at a packed house in Kings Theater in Brooklyn by telling the crowd about the Iranian strikes.

“My three brothers all served in the military,” she said. “At this moment, my heart and my prayers are with our military and with their families in Iraq and all around the world.”

“But this is a reminder why we need to de-escalate tension in the Middle East,” Warren continued. “The American people do not want a war with Iran.”

The crowd thundered in approval.

All of the leading Democratic candidates have excoriated the Trump administration over its posture toward Iran. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has used the moment to highlight his long-standing anti-war credentials — and to point out, obliquely and explicitly, Biden’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq. And former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, a military veteran, has emphasized his personal experience in a war zone.

In Biden’s telling, the chaos America now confronts — “heightened threats, chants of ‘death to America’ once more echoing across the Middle East,” with Iran and its allies “vowing revenge” — was stoked by Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated under the Obama administration.

He described a series of subsequent provocations and challenges for which the Trump administration, he argued, was unprepared, even as he also said that he had “no illusions about Iran,” led by a government that he said threatened US interests. But the decision to kill Soleimani “may well do more to strengthen Iran’s position in the region than any of Soleimani’s plots would have ever accomplished,” he said, arguing that Trump owed the nation answers but had delivered only “tweets, threats and tantrums.”

Soleimani was designated by the United States as a terrorist, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of US troops. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that attacks orchestrated by Soleimani had been expected within “days,” adding that he “has the blood of hundreds of Americans, soldiers, on his hands and wounded thousands more,” and many Republicans, including some who are typically critical of Trump, said the action had made the nation safer. Democrats, too, including Biden, have said Soleimani should face justice. But other officials have questioned whether an attack was in fact imminent.

Biden said that if there was an “imminent threat” that warranted this “extraordinary action,” Americans should receive “an explanation and the facts to back it up.”

“At precisely the moment when we should be rallying our allies to stand beside us and hold the line against threats, Donald Trump’s shortsighted, ‘America First’ dogmatism has come home to roost,” Biden said. He went on to add, “We are alone now. We’re alone, and we’ll have to bear the cost of Donald Trump’s folly.”

On the campaign trail, Biden has emphasized his decades-long record in international affairs and extensive relationships abroad, highlighting a contrast with his rivals in the Democratic field, who have largely been focused on domestic matters throughout the race.

In New York, the setting appeared designed to conjure the White House briefing room: Biden spoke against a blue backdrop before a room full of reporters. He walked in to the clicking of multiple cameras and offered his own prescription for the path forward, calling for “clear-eyed, hard-nosed diplomacy grounded in a strategy that’s not about one-off decisions and one-upsmanship.”

“Mr. President,” he urged, “you have to explain your decision and your strategy to the American people. That’s your job as president, Mr. President. Not ‘Dear Leader.’ Not ‘Supreme Leader.’ Democracy runs on accountability, and nowhere is it more important than the power to make war and bring peace.”

Biden, who has faced renewed scrutiny of his foreign policy record and especially his Iraq War vote, also appeared to misspeak at times, referring to Iran when he apparently intended to say Iraq, and he appeared to say that the current perilous situation was “unavoidable,” when excerpts from the speech circulated before the appearance used the word “avoidable.”

Still, Biden’s advisers and allies hope that the gravity of the moment will further crystallize the importance of defeating Trump in the minds of voters, and polls continue to show that Democrats believe Biden has the best chance to do so, though other candidates have also polled strongly against the president in hypothetical head-to-head match ups.

The current crisis “just reinforces how high the stakes are in this election,” Biden said at a fundraiser earlier Tuesday, during which he also envisioned a Senate dynamic in which one could see “Mitch McConnell changing some ideas or being more — how can I say — mildly cooperative,” even as Biden also discussed the imperative for Democrats to win back the Senate, revoking McConnell’s title as majority leader.

He was not the only presidential candidate to castigate the Trump administration’s handling of foreign policy Tuesday.

Speaking Tuesday on ABC’s “The View,” Warren said that by killing Soleimani, Trump had “moved us close to the edge of war.”

“Soleimani was a bad guy,” she said, “but the question is, what’s the right response?”

“The job of the president of the United States is to keep America safer,” she added. “And having killed Soleimani does not make America safer.”

As evidence, Warren cited the withdrawal of US citizens from the region because of safety concerns and said Trump had tweeted “threats of war crimes” by threatening to strike cultural institutions.

“We need a president who actually has good judgment and is willing to follow through,” she said.

Pressed on whether she believed Soleimani to be a terrorist, Warren said: “Of course he is. He’s part of a group that our federal government has designated as a terrorist.”

As for how she would handle foreign policy in the Middle East, she said, “It is the responsibility of the commander in chief not to ask our military to solve problems that cannot be solved militarily.”

“The point is not whether or not Iran is a bad actor — they are,” she added. “But the question is: What are the right steps for the president? Use our diplomacy. Use the back channels. De-escalate and get Iran to the negotiating table.”

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