Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) criticized President Donald Trump late Thursday for ordering an airstrike in Iraq that killed Qassim Suleimani, the powerful leader of Iran's Quds Force.
The Pentagon took responsibility for the drone strike, which also reportedly killed several leaders of Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran. State media in Iran confirmed the death of Suleimani, who was seen as a pivotal military and political leader.
In a written statement issued hours after news of the strike broke, Sanders referred to the attack at Baghdad International Airport as an “assassination.” The president’s “dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillions more dollars,” he said, adding, "Trump promised to end endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one."
The senator and presidential candidate compared the move to the United States' 2003 invasion of Iraq, which he opposed at the time. "I feared it would lead to greater destabilization of the country and the region," he said in the statement. "Today, 17 years later, that fear has unfortunately turned out to be true."
During a campaign event Friday in Iowa, Sanders elaborated on his response — and again compared it to the start of the Iraq War.
“I’ve gone to too many funerals in my own state,” Sanders said. “I’ve talked to too many mothers who’ve lost their kids in war. I’ve talked to too many soldiers, men and women who’ve come home with PTSD, who have come home without arms and without legs. And I know that it is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy. It is the children of working families.”
Sanders argued that “the true power of the United States” is demonstrated not by starting wars but by preventing them. “And that is how I will use American power as president,” he said at the Iowa event.
After calling on Congress to “reassert its constitutional authority over matters of war,” Sanders said the country must avoid not only war with Iran but throughout the region. “We need to firmly commit to ending the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, in an orderly manner, not through a tweet,” he said. “And must understand that these wars have cost us so much in blood and in treasure.”
Sanders’ fellow Vermont delegates to Congress also criticized the air strike in written statements issued Friday afternoon.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) criticized Suleimani as “a ruthless killer” and blamed him for the deaths of many Americans. But he said that killing Suleimani would not stop Iran from engaging in terrorism or attacking U.S. interests. “It is more likely to embolden hardliners in Iran and to trigger a further escalation of violent counter attacks,” he said.
Like Sanders, Leahy raised the specter of past U.S. military blunders. “I have been in the Senate since Vietnam,” the senator said. “I have learned how easy it is to get into a war that no one wanted, and that wars never turn out as planned. The initial bravado and rosy predictions soon give way to the costly realities.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the House’s “No War with Iran Caucus,” has previously cosponsored legislation that would restrict the president’s ability to take military action against Iran without explicit congressional approval.
“The Constitution is clear that only Congress can authorize war,” he said in a written statement. “The administration must immediately come before the Congress to explain its rationale for the attack and its strategy in the Middle East. And it must seek approval for any military action in the region.”
Calling Trump “impulsive and erratic,” Welch called the air strike “reckless and utterly without grounding in a coherent Middle East strategy.” The president, he said, had “dramatically increased the risk of a grave escalation of violence in the region. And he placed American soldiers, diplomats and citizens around the world in harm’s way.”
Disclosure: Paul Heintz worked as Peter Welch’s communications director from November 2008 to March 2011.