Take North Korea for example. Just two days ago, its leader, leader Kim Jong Un, said he would soon unveil a “new strategic weapon” and signaled a tougher stance toward the United States. What if he decides to do this now, or in coordination with an Iranian response to Solemani’s assassination? Is the United States prepared to address two threats to its core interests at the same time?
China could also choose to play this game. The dissent in Hong Kong has not dissipated. Could China decide to crack down on that city’s democracy movement while the United States is tied down with Iran? Taiwan also holds its presidential and legislative elections on Jan. 11 and pro-independence candidates and parties lead in the polls. China is already trying to interfere in that election through the use of disinformation and its newest aircraft carrier, the Shandong, which sailed through the Taiwan Strait that separates the small island from the mainland last week. If a growing conflict with Iran causes the United States to dramatically increase its military presence in the Middle East, could China react to the likely victory of incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party by finally making good on its threats to forcibly reintegrate Taiwan?
A host of other hot spots could also flare up if our adversaries decided to test President Trump. Russia could ramp up its military incursions in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Venezuela could arrest opposition leader Juan Guaidó when he tries to be reelected as Speaker of the National Assembly on Sunday. The Taliban could launch more attacks against U.S. troops or its Afghan allies. The list goes on and on.
I don’t know that any or all of these things will happen. But they could, especially now that it’s an election year and Trump remains under serious political pressure. Any or all of these countries might reasonably think that Trump would rather cut a bad deal and focus on a conflict with Iran in which he would likely prevail than have to simultaneously manage multiple foreign conflicts. Even if Trump didn’t, they could reasonably presume that his Democratic opponents would compete to campaign as the candidate who won’t unnecessarily provoke conflicts, further ratcheting up internal pressure to disengage or cut and run somewhere in the world.
This sort of thing has happened before. In late 1979, Iran seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 50 American diplomats and embassy staff hostage. As President Jimmy Carter tried to deal with this crisis, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to install a puppet government in the strategically located nation. It took nearly a decade of U.S. support for Afghan resistance fighters to push the Soviets out.
Since the Cold War ended in 1991, many Americans have never lived in a time when the United States didn’t unilaterally call the shots globally. We have become used to U.S. power being deployed when and where it wants. But China’s rise and Russia’s rebirth have changed this equation. The United States once again has global adversaries that have the resources to pick and choose where and when they or their proxies deploy power. That means Trump could be tested in a way no president has since Ronald Reagan.
Democrats thought Reagan wasn’t up to that challenge, either. Every provocation by the Soviet Union or one of its proxies was met with alarm, predictions of doom or war and calls for negotiations. Reagan proved that he was up to the task, however, successfully rolling back Soviet gains in Afghanistan and Grenada while avoiding war and setting the end of the Cold War in motion. We can’t say Trump will rise to such a challenge, but we can’t say he won’t, either.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and the assassination of Soleimani may simply be what it appears to be: a dramatic ratcheting up of already high levels of tension with Iran. Let’s hope Trump’s team has thought through the more frightening alternatives and is prepared for the worst.