Unsurprisingly, President Trump did not deter further aggression by killing Iranian Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani. As was predictable to virtually everyone but the White House, Iran retaliated Tuesday by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles against U.S. military and coalition forces at two locations. Iran signaled that it would not retaliate further if the United States took no additional action. Later Tuesday night, Trump’s tweet sounded as though he wanted to end the tit-for-tat:

In another disturbing development, Iraqi officials on Tuesday indicated that they were taking literally and seriously a letter suggesting our troops would leave Iraq — a letter the administration claimed was merely a draft. The Post reports, “In comments to the Iraqi cabinet, broadcast on state television, [caretaker Prime Minister Adel] Abdul Mahdi expressed exasperation with the conflicting signals coming from Washington. The letter he received ‘was clear,’ he said, in its reference to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.” Abdul Mahdi did not buy that it was a “draft or a paper that fell out of the photocopier and coincidentally came to us.” The report continued:

Two Iraqi officials said the caretaker prime minister had read the letter as a signal of a U.S. intent to withdraw and concluded that it was necessary in light of the spiraling tensions between the United States and Iran, which risk putting Iraq in the middle of a new war.
In Abdul Mahdi’s view, “there is no way to ensure the stability of Iraq without the withdrawal of foreign forces,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss a sensitive subject.

The simultaneous developments — a counterattack on U.S. forces and potential expulsion of U.S. troops in Iraq (which have prevented a resurgence of the Islamic State and domination of the country by Iran) — underscore how a reckless president can bring us to the brink of war and strategic disaster.

As former vice president Joe Biden said during a speech Tuesday: “[However] you may feel about an American military presence in the Middle East, there is a right way and a wrong way to draw down our troop presence. Getting unceremoniously kicked out is unequivocally the wrong way.” He explained that "if we do end up having to leave, that would be another boon to Iran — tipping the balance of power in the region. ... Trump’s impulsive decision may well do more to strengthen Iran’s position in the region, than any of Soleimani’s plots could have ever accomplished.”

The same could be said of the position of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has promised to yank troops out of Iraq (and Afghanistan) regardless of the consequences. Has he thought about how he would prevent the same boon to Iran’s power and a resurgence of Islamic State forces still in the region? Or how to reduce Iranian influence if we have no eyes or ears on the ground, no means of immediate response to aggressive Iranian (or Russian) moves, and no troops to assist local forces fighting the Islamic State?

Biden was correct in noting that “Russia and China are quietly reveling in the prospect that the United States may once more be bogged down in another major conflict in the Middle East." He explained: "They would love nothing more than to be able to pursue their own interests and carve out their own spheres of influence, without the United States challenging them on human rights, on abusive trade practices, or on meddling in other nations’ democracies — because we are too busy fighting Iran.” What then would Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who wants all troops out of the Middle East, do about that?

It is difficult to adequately communicate the dangers that Trump has put us in if you favor the same retrenchment of U.S. forces that Trump does. Simply saying we will reenter the Iran nuclear deal — now that Iran has attacked U.S. forces and declared it won’t abide by the deal — is as naive as asserting that “maximum pressure” on Iran will reduce its malignancy in the region.

Biden urged: “The only way out of this crisis is through diplomacy — clear-eyed, hard-nosed diplomacy grounded in strategy, that’s not about one-off decisions or one-upsmanship. Diplomacy that is designed to deescalate the crisis, protect our people and secure our regional interests — including our counter-ISIS campaign.” Biden is right, but successful diplomacy also means we must stop taking foolish actions that reduce our influence. Abandoning the Kurds was a mistake, as was allowing Iran and Russia to dominate Syria. Removing all troops absent conditions that would not precipitate attacks on our interests would be a mistake, too.

The facts on the ground are changing rapidly thanks to an impulsive president surrounded by subpar advisers unwilling to stand up to him. In brief remarks Tuesday night, Biden offered a modulated assessment. “Some of the things he’s done and said [since the strike] have been close to ludicrous, including threatening to bomb holy sites,” he said. "And I just pray to God as he goes through what’s happening, as we speak, that he’s listening to his military commanders for the first time because so far that has not been the case.” Trump’s tweet signaled his stand-down might be underway. (That still leaves the question as to what the pullout from the Iran nuclear deal has accomplished, other than setting the stage for these kinds of nerve-racking confrontations.)

Trump has shown that zigzagging from bluster to appeasement to ill-considered military action to withdrawal to troop buildup to threatening sanctions against an ally makes us all less safe. Two questions remain: Which Democratic candidate will gain the voters’ trust to navigate through the wreckage Trump will leave behind, and which can explain why it is not so easy to pick up stakes and depart a volatile part of the world at a moment’s notice, especially after one’s predecessor has unnecessarily destabilized the region?

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