Every candidate going into Thursday night’s third Democratic primary debate should have had two different goals: stand out from the rest of the field, and make Joe Biden look like an asshole. Bernie Sanders had one particularly good opportunity to do both, and came up short.
During the 2016 campaign, pundits characterized Sanders as not having any sort of vision on foreign policy, claiming that he was a one-trick pony who could only really get going when the discussion turned to healthcare and inequality. That was always a lie; during Sanders’ entire career in Congress, he’s been one of the most prominent opponents of the bipartisan war caucus, which Joe Biden helped lead during much of his time in the Senate.
Sanders isn’t the only one talking about inequality or healthcare in 2020. Although Sens. Elizabeth Warren’s and Kamala Harris’ healthcare plans are not Medicare for All in the sense that Sanders means it, they’re still calling it that, creating even more confusion about what a single-payer healthcare system would look like. But Sanders does have one issue he can both ding Biden over and use to put distance between himself and Warren and Harris, who weren’t even in the Senate at the time and are both fairly mainstream liberals on foreign policy: Iraq.
At the debate, moderator David Muir somehow managed to confront Biden from the right on Iraq, asking if the Obama administration’s Iraq pullout happened “too quickly” in the context of pulling troops from Afghanistan—where we’ve had them for nearly 18 fucking years—and thus created a vacuum for ISIS.
In his answer, Biden admitted that his Iraq vote was a mistake, but couched it in his willingness to take the Bush administration’s word at face value, and also tried to walk back recent comments where he claimed that Bush promised him he wouldn’t invade Iraq:
With regard to — with regard to Iraq, the fact of the matter is that, you know, I should have never voted to give Bush the authority to go in and do what he said he was going to do. The AUMF was designed, he said, to go in and get the Security Council to vote 15-0 to allow inspectors to go in to determine whether or not anything was being done with chemical weapons or nuclear weapons. And when that happened, he went ahead and went anyway without any of that proof.
I said something that was not meant the way I said it.
I said—from that point on—what I was argued against in the beginning, once he started to put the troops in, was that in fact we were doing it the wrong way; there was no plan; we should not be engaged; we didn’t have the people with us; we didn’t have our — we didn’t have allies with us, et cetera.
And it was later, when we came into office, that Barack turned — the president turned to me and said, “Joe” — when they said we’ve got a plan to get out, he turned to the whole security and said, “Joe will organize this. Get the troops home.”
Following Biden’s response, Muir turned to Sanders, who turned his ire on Biden. “You talked about the big mistake in Iraq and the surge,” Sanders told Biden. “The truth is, the big mistake, the huge mistake, and one of the big differences between you and me, I never believed what Cheney and Bush said about Iraq.”
“I voted against the war in Iraq and helped lead the opposition,” Sanders continued, to applause. “And it’s sad to say—I mean, I, kind of, you know, had the feeling that there would be massive destabilization in that area if we went into that war.”
From that point on, Sanders changed the subject to being the only person on stage to vote against all of the military budgets so far. This is, of course, worth mentioning, but no one in the primary field is running against Trump yet. They’re running against Biden. And Biden, who had significant doubts about the invasion but set them aside because he didn’t want to make Dick Gephart look bad (seriously), was the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations committee when both wars began. He played a crucial role in making Iraq a reality.
Iraq is the biggest foreign policy disaster of at least the past 45 years. Bernie Sanders was completely right about it. Joe Biden was completely wrong. That is something to hammer him over and over again. We all know that Bernie Sanders—who has an uncanny ability to divert nearly any conversation back to his talking points on healthcare and inequality—is capable of doing this.
It’s notable how early we still are in the process; there are at least four more of these debates to go before the first primary vote is taken in Iowa next February. But if Sanders wants to put some distance between himself and the other frontrunners, it wouldn’t hurt to fall back on his most underutilized strength: his distrust of American imperialism and unwillingness to go to war.