Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 30 March 2020

Democratic debate: candidates eye smaller footprint in Middle East and curbing Iran’s nuclear programme

Presidential candidates spar over US military presence in the region 20 days before the Iowa caucuses

In their last debate before the state of Iowa votes in three weeks, the Democratic candidates differed on the size of US military presence in the Middle East but were in agreement on need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

The debate taking place 20 days ahead of the Iowa caucuses featured a more restrained foreign policy, and heavy criticism for Donald Trump’s approach in the Middle East.

“Trump is taking us pell-mell into another war,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, accusing the US President of leading a reckless policy on Iran since abandoning the nuclear deal in 2018, and up until the current escalation following the killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg added that the Trump exit from the deal “set off the chain of events that we’re now dealing with as it escalates even closer to the brink of outright war."

The candidates agreed on the need to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. “Our security depends on Iran not getting a nuclear weapon,” said Mr Buttigieg. Others such as Senator Bernie Sanders stressed “the need to work with the international community to reestablish the Iran Nuclear Deal” as a path to block Iran from obtaining a weapon.

Frontrunner Joe Biden, centre, speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa. AFP
Frontrunner Joe Biden, centre, speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa. AFP

The frontrunner in the Democratic field, Joseph Biden, called the situation with Iran “a crisis of Donald Trump’s own making.” He said that due to the crisis, “we have lost our standing in the region...the next president has to bring those folks back together.”

On the question of troop presence in the Middle East, the candidates disagreed. Ms Klobuchar supported leaving a small force in Syria and said withdrawing 150 soldiers from the border with Turkey was a mistake, allowing Ankara’s incursion into the country. But Senator Elizabeth Warren advocated withdrawing all combat troops from the region and Afghanistan.

“We should stop asking our military to solve problems that can’t be resolved militarily,” Ms Warren said. On Afghanistan, she said “”we have turned the corner so many times, we're going in circles.”

Senator Sanders flaunted his anti-war credentials, voting against the Iraq war and passing legislation that would curb US role in Yemen. Mr Biden said he would keep a “small special force” but also took credit for withdrawing from Iraq in 2011.

Domestically, the candidates debated the trade deal, health care, climate change and gender issues. Senator Sanders was at the center of a controversy after Ms Warren said he told her in December of 2018 that a woman can’t win against Mr Trump.

“Well as a matter of fact I didn't say it,” he said. But the tension continued between the two candidates who are vying for the support of the same leftist base of the party.

While there was no clear winner from the debate, Ms Warren commanded the most time and her positions on trade, and troop presence separated her from the rest. Mr Biden leads the polls nationally but the margins significantly shrink in early battleground states such as Iowa that votes on February 3.

Updated: January 15, 2020 10:42 AM

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