An issue that’s gotten little attention in Iowa this Democratic primary cycle — foreign policy — is suddenly front-and-center in the country. And over the past two days, some attendees at caucus events had the latest crisis in the Middle East on their minds.
Iowans at former Vice President Joe Biden’s first campaign event on Friday were eager but tense, and as the candidate’s bus rolled up to the University of Dubuque’s campus, members of the media swarmed it to pepper him with questions.
“I will speak about it inside,” Biden said as he shuffled quickly into the building.
News had broken the night before that President Donald Trump ordered the killing of a top Iranian military official via airstrike in Bagdad, Iraq, with concerns of an imminent and potentially dangerous response. The backdrop for hearing how a number of potential commanders-in-chiefs would respond to the situation was Iowa, where attendees proved to be curious, if not outwardly concerned about the developments.
“How would you handle Iraq and Iran different [than Trump]?” was the first question at a Sen. Bernie Sanders rally in Decorah, IA on Friday.
The man who asked the question was Lyle Otte, a retiree from Decorah. He came to the event to specifically hear the candidate’s response to the killing, and how he’d respond as President.
“I would have thought there would have been something in the speech because we’re teetering on the edge of a major war,” Otte said. “I talked to another person before the thing started and he agreed—we wanted to see what he was going to say about the killing Baghdad.”
While Sanders hadn’t addressed the Middle Eastern development during the Decorah event, he had during a town hall in Anamosa, Iowa that morning. Eight candidates came through the state this weekend, and while most of the 2020 Democratic field have commented on the death of Qassem Soleimani, Biden and Sanders took substantial time at a few events in Iowa to talk about it.
“I talked about that a little bit this morning,” Sanders answered. “War and violence have got to be the last response, not the first response.”
The candidate then stressed that international conflict should be settled through diplomacy.
At a town hall in Dubuque Saturday morning, Sanders also highlighted the bill he introduced Friday with California Rep. Ro Khanna to block Pentagon funding for any unilateral actions Trump takes to wage war against Iran without Congressional authorization.
For Iowans who often attend the slate of candidate events in the state, the Democratic hopefuls’ addressing major news is a pull to show up at more.
“His answer was a general one, which is good, by saying we should use non-war methods to resolving conflicts. I agree with that,” Otte said. “I knew he would give his standard speech … but I did expect too to hear that addressed, because that’s right now, happening right now.”
Eileen McSperrin, a retiree from Dubuque, said she came to Biden’s event, in part, because she wanted to hear him address the killing.
“I expect him to talk about the current situation. I would think it would be at the top of his list,” McSperrin said. “He does have the experience that other candidates don’t have.”
Biden took a slightly different approach from Sanders to addressing the situation. He questioned the Trump Administration’s strategy for what comes next and highlighted his own experience with foreign policy.
“When you follow the string of dubious actions President Trump has taken, it has drastically increased the prospects of the risk of war with Iran and danger to Americans,” Biden said. “The question is, does Donald Trump and his administration have a strategy for what comes next?”
The relationships Biden has with world powers is a hallmark of his bid for the presidency — he often points to how he wouldn’t need “on-the-job training,” because of his background as Vice President. Some Iowans have taken notice.
RaeAnn Dickinson, 66, is a precinct captain for Biden in Jackson County. She had spoken to Biden briefly about the Iran news before he began his Dubuque event.
“I think Joe is the best candidate because he has his head on straight. He has a foreign policy team. He told us downstairs, ‘I was late because I was consulting my foreign policy committee.’ And so if we don’t take advantage of his talents, we are really losing out,” she said.
Biden’s background as Vice President may have even solidified a caucus vote amid the question of Iranian retaliation.
“I was between Joe and Pete, but I’m leaning more towards Joe after today. I think in light of what happened last night, we need someone who has experience,” said Kelly O’Donnell, an occupational therapist from St. Donatus who attended Biden’s Dubuque event. “He can get us out of this mess.”
by Isabella Murray