So far, most of the postmortem analysis has focused on the implications in Iran and the United States. But foreign policy isn’t conducted in a vacuum. Just because a missile physically lands in the Middle East doesn’t mean that the fallout can be contained there. This crisis is no different. The world has changed. And in the process, Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani has unwittingly created unexpected winners and losers, from Pyongyang to London.
The winners include two very dissimilar leaders.
The first is Kim Jong Un, the brutal dictator of North Korea. If you wanted to make the case that he shouldn’t give up his nuclear weapons, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better method of persuasion than the Soleimani strike. Even Trump isn’t reckless enough to take out a senior North Korean official by shooting missiles at a country with nuclear weapons.
George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech put Iran, Iraq and North Korea in U.S. crosshairs. Libya was later added to the list. What happened to those four regimes in the last 18 years? Two were toppled by force, one is on the brink of war with the United States, and one is exchanging “beautiful” letters with the U.S. president. Guess which one of the four has nuclear weapons.
The Soleimani strike will have solidified Kim’s already clear understanding that nuclear weapons are his only form of insurance. But it will also ensure that Trump has a reduced appetite to test Kim because he can’t afford to provoke a second major international crisis. That might reduce immediate risks, but a permanently nuclear North Korea opens up much worse possibilities in the future.
The second big winner is Benjamin Netanyahu. 2020 wasn’t off to a great start for Israel’s prime minister. His main New Year’s resolution seemed to be getting immunity from criminal prosecution. Facing three corruption cases and a slackening grip on a political system he has dominated for nearly three decades, his political future was in serious doubt.
Then Soleimani was killed.
Overnight, it became much more likely that Iran would ramp up attacks on Israel through proxy militias or terrorist groups that it has long sponsored. Iran also suddenly became more likely to actively pursue nuclear weapons — one of the most serious threats Israel faces. And that creates more uncertainty and more room for miscalculation. But it’s good for Netanyahu.
That’s because Netanyahu has long presented himself as the defender of Israel, the only person standing in the way of regional enemies who threaten to wipe the country off the map. When national security is at the top of voters’ minds, Netanyahu wins. And the Soleimani strike may have given him a key boost just before the March elections.
Perhaps the biggest loser of the Soleimani affair is British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On the day of Soleimani’s killing, he was celebrating his recent landslide election victory on the private Caribbean island of Mustique. Then he learned that Soleimani had been killed — after the fact. Britain was blindsided. The government had to scramble to protect its 400 troops deployed in Iraq from the heightened threat. So much for the “special relationship.”
But the lack of warning is the least of Johnson’s problems. As Britain moves to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, his government is trying to position itself as a bridge between the United States and Europe. To compensate, he’s promised closer relations with the United States. That was already a tough sell, because Trump is overwhelmingly loathed by the British public.
Then the strike happened. Trump threatened to escalate toward war and boasted that he would commit war crimes (only to later back down). Johnson’s tough sell became a nearly impossible one. If he doesn’t stand up to Trump, he risks being branded as Trump’s poodle, just as Tony Blair was with President Bush. But there’s not a lot of room for Johnson to go off the leash either. Johnson has promised to deliver a major trade deal with the United States to backfill downgraded trade relations with Europe. The airstrike on Soleimani further complicates an already strained special relationship with the United States’ most powerful ally — potentially destabilizing the crucial transatlantic alliance.
There’s no question that Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani was bold. But when the United States makes a bold move, pieces on the global chessboard rearrange themselves in unexpected ways. A nuclear rogue state is less likely to give up nuclear weapons. A corrupt prime minister is more likely to get reelected. And our most powerful ally finds itself in an impossible position. Perhaps such unpredictable volatility is part of the reason previous presidents had Soleimani in their sights — but thought it best not to pull the trigger.