The Predictable Shame of the 2020 Iowa Debate’s Iran Discussion

The United States overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader in 1953.

President Eisenhower (left), who signed off on the Iranian coup that removed Mohammad Mosaddegh, and the Shah (right), the Western-backed dictator who replaced Mosaddegh.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer kicked off the first Democratic Presidential debate of the decade by hastily raising the issue of a U.S.-Iran war before pivoting to the question of why each candidate believes they are best-suited to become Commander-in-Chief.

Bernie Sanders, whose surging poll numbers afforded him a first crack, did well in contrasting his “no” vote to the Iraq war to Biden’s “yes.” Biden made an unconvincing defense that he eventually opposed the war too, perhaps forgetting—as he is wont to do—his record of support for the Iraq War both before and after the invasion. Sanders then highlighted his opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but misspoke in attributing Trump’s veto of a resolution that would have ended U.S. involvement in it to Bush. Blitzer accidentally stated the location of the debate as Ohio, so perhaps something was in the air.

Sanders forged on, calling attention to the hundreds of thousands of lives needlessly lost and the trillions of dollars wasted on the Iraq War — an invasion, he noted, predicated on lies. Importantly, he framed this blunder within the larger context of how we allocate our human and financial resources. While the military gobbles up half of our discretionary tax dollars to bully the globe with evermore weapons and bases — let’s stop euphemizing this as “defense spending,” yes? — Bernie rightly indicated that our domestic programs, including healthcare, education, and infrastructure, are starved.

Warren piggy-backed on this theme by denouncing bloated military spending and the collusion of the military-industrial complex:

“We also have to think about how we spend money. We have a problem with a revolving door in Washington between the defense industry and the department of defense and the Pentagon. That is corruption pure and simple. We need to block that revolving door and we need to cut our defense budget.”

While she started strong, Warren missed an opportunity to more explicitly call out war profiteering. Weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon saw their stocks soar two weeks ago following the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Also disappointing was Warren’s declaration that “the principal job of the Commander-in-Chief is to keep America safe,” a line uncomfortably close to jingoistic when unpaired with the reality that to do so we must dismantle the U.S. war machine that keeps the world unsafe.

Steyer agreed with Warren that our military spending is too high and parried accusations of inexperience by arguing that over the past 20 years, American foreign policy has been riddled with mistakes and that someone with fresh judgment is needed moving forward — a fair point in our technocratic and credential-obsessed governance culture.

Klobuchar, for her part, pointed out that she opposed the Iraq War from outside of Congress and helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal from within it. She closed with a sincere-sounding, if cliché commitment to “protect and defend our constitution,” ostensibly against undeclared wars.

Buttigeg followed with a quip that many of those serving today were either not yet born or too young to remember the debate surrounding the Iraq war. This had the potential to be a decent point if Buttigeg had then denounced endless wars; but instead, he left it hanging to enumerate putative 21st century national security threats such as “cyber security challenges, climate security challenges, [and] foreign interference in our elections.” Buttigeg’s inclusion of foreign interference on this list is puzzling, given that it is hardly a new phenomenon. The United States itself is guilty of dozens—if not hundreds—of instances of foreign meddling. A study published in 2016 identified 81 times that the U.S. interfered in other countries’ elections between 1946–2000.

A case of interference relevant to Iran is the 1953 C.I.A.-orchestrated coup of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The U.S. and U.K. collaborated to illegally depose Mosaddegh after the PM led an effort to take back control of Iranian oil fields from Britain. His ouster, along with the CIA’s installment of the repressive, yet Western-friendly Shah, paved the way for the 1979 Revolution and in many ways is responsible for the U.S.’s current embroilment with Iran. It is a predictable shame that a historical analysis linking contemporary foreign conflicts to past Western imperialism was absent from the discussion.

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