Iran now presents Donald Trump with the first real-time crisis of his presidency, illustrated in stark terms Tuesday when Iran launched ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases hosting U.S. and Iraqi troops. And not surprisingly, he is handling it in a way that embodies all the worst elements of his management of national security issues. Unfortunately, Trump also seems to have abandoned one of the more positive aspects of his approach to foreign policy: a reluctance to get into new and unwinnable conflicts in the Middle East.
A major war with Iran is by no means inevitable. But the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani is a roll of the dice that just might take us there.
The external signs of crisis mismanagement are already apparent. The president’s threats against Iran have inflamed an Iranian public already at fever pitch against the United States. His promise — twice — to attack Iran’s cultural sites should it respond violently against the United States was not only a provocation, it was also a potential war crime. Trump belatedly recognized that, but no statement did as much to undermine the American narrative that it’s at war with the Iranian regime, not the Iranian people.
Trump has fared no better with the Iraqi government by threatening sanctions if it moves to force U.S. troops out of Iraq. U.S.-Iraqi relations are at an all-time low, with additional confusion over the leak of a Defense Department letter that appears to set the stage for repositioning American forces in anticipation of withdrawal. That’s even though many Iraqis, primarily among Sunnis and Kurdish constituencies, want them to stay.
Trump has also alienated America’s most important ally on Iraq — Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unhappy that the United States did not coordinate with him before targeting Soleimani.
Soleimani killing weakens US influence
But behind these headlines, the dysfunction in U.S. policy reflects trend lines that have been clear since Trump took office. First, the killing of Soleimani is emblematic of Trump’s tendency to come up with solutions to problems America didn’t necessarily have. He did this by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord; recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria; and exiting a flawed but still highly functional Iran nuclear accord — arguably the reason we are now in this crisis with Iran.
Taking Soleimani off the battlefield may have been morally justified and a tactical success. But it has created any number of second-order consequences that have weakened rather than strengthened U.S. influence in region. Americans are less secure, not more; Iran’s regional influence, especially in Iraq, has been boosted, not weakened; and U.S. influence is at its lowest ebb in a decade and a half.
Nor is there real certainty that we can control events in the wake of an Iranian retaliation. Killing Soleimani may have been a tactical success; but so far it appears to be a strategic failure.
Killing Soleimani also highlights yet another Trump tendency — taking actions that are untethered from any broader strategic goal. One example is recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, with no apparent correlation to promoting serious negotiations or selling the administration’s own Middle East peace plan.
And this sort of haphazard approach driven by Trump’s moods, ego or domestic politics doubly pertains to the way his Iran policy has played out. His “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran has been effective in squeezing Iran’s economy. But it has never been clear what the goal is: To fracture the regime, weaken it and lay the basis for regime change? Or to pressure Iran into returning to the negotiating table to reach a new deal more favorable to Washington?
When you don’t know where you’re going, the old saw opines, then any road will get you there. And right now it looks as if the administration really has no idea where it’s going or what it wants to achieve with Iran.
Decisions tied to moods and cable TV
Then there’s the matter of Trump’s decision-making — a style that seems free of any methodical or consistent process of weighing options in a deliberative manner and thinking through the implications and consequences before actions are undertaken. Instead, the decisions seem tied to Trump’s likes, dislikes, moods, personal views and what he watches on cable news.
The decision to target Soleimani was reportedly taken after Trump had decided on a more moderate response. But after watching the images of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad under attack, Trump changed his mind and stunned his advisers with the decision to kill Soleimani.
Other reports suggest that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been pushing to hit Soleimani for months and took advantage of Trump’s moment of risk-readiness to argue for the more extreme option.
There’s no way of knowing what motivated the president. The administration has still not released the intelligence that purported to show the “imminent” nature of the attacks Soleimani was planning.
Either way, we are seeing an administration taking a dramatic course of action that was not well thought through either on the front end (why Soleimani was killed) or on the back end (how would this impact U.S. interests in a volatile region). And a president driven by any number of motives that are still opaque — from anger over pictures on cable news, to frustration with impeachment, to a desire to appear tough and bold in the wake of Iran’s rocket attacks that killed an American contractor and wounded U.S. servicemen.
US interests devastated:Attack on US Embassy in Iraq shows Trump is failing. He walked into Iran’s trap.
Finally, above all it suggests drift in U.S. policy and an administration that doesn’t know its own mind or the region. Like some modern day Gulliver, Trump is wandering around in the Middle East tied up by small and larger powers whose interests are not his own, and by his own illusions sliding toward a confrontation with Iran. His is an administration inhabited by regime changers, sanctions imposers, chicken hawks and real ones who are looking for a fight with Iran.
What the president lacks, however, is what he could most use — a realistic and sustainable approach to avoid a war with Iran that America neither wants nor needs.
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow for American Diplomacy and U.S. Foreign Policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department adviser and Middle East negotiator, is the author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Follow him on Twitter: @aarondmiller2
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