In the aftermath of President Trump’s order to kill Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, a lot of attention is being paid to an interview I conducted with then-candidate Trump on Sept. 3, 2015.
In that interview — which you can read here — the president did not know who Soleimani was. Trump complained that I was engaging in “gotcha questions,” a charge which I still reject.
But then Trump said two things in that conversation that resonate deeply today and are worth repeating:
“As far as the individual players,” Trump declared to me, “of course I don’t know them. I’ve never met them. I haven’t been, you know, in a position to meet them. If, if they’re still there, which is unlikely in many cases, but if they’re still there, I will know them better than I know you.”
He then added a clue to his thinking: “Somebody wrote a very good story about me recently, and they said there’s a ‘certain unpredictability,’ and it was actually another businessman, said ‘there’s a certain unpredictability about Trump that’s great, and it’s what made him a lot of money and a lot of success.’ You don’t want to put, and you don’t want to let people know what you’re going to do with respect to certain things that happen. You don’t want the other side to know.”
Trump as president, it is clear now, did get up to speed on Soleimani, and when presented with the opportunity to kill a known terrorist, he acted. Turns out you don’t have to know the names of all of America’s enemies before you become president if you commit to keeping your eye on them after being sworn in. Trump did what had to be done to protect American lives. Bravo, Mr. President.
What Trump has demonstrated — time and again — is that unpredictability combined with a willingness to use force is a reminder to the world that it challenges the United States at its great peril. The drone attack against Soleimani was certainly a dangerous thing to have done. It was also necessary. Soleimani was intent on killing more Americans than the hundreds for whose deaths he is already responsible. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, vowed “severe revenge.” If he acts on that impulse, the same president, advised by the same core national security team of Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien, will use the same military to respond with the same lethal effectiveness.
Trump took up the task of protecting the United States, and he has delivered. He has created strategic ambiguity around himself and, through a combination of restraint and sudden, lethal action, has restored U.S. deterrence.
Trump exercises restraint, even when longtime critics of U.S.-Iran policy on the right, including me, questioned it. When oil tankers were seized, a Navy drone shot down and our Saudi ally repeatedly attacked, we thought more of a military response was required. Trump laid down his red line: injury to Americans. When missiles killed an American and wounded several others, he ordered airstrikes. When Iran’s proxies attacked the U.S. Embassy, Trump shed restraint for a definitive answer about how far he will go when his red line is crossed.
Democrats are lining up to condemn the president’s action and to declare — again — they would return to President Barack Obama’s policies of appeasement toward Iran. Many have said they would return to the catastrophic “Iran deal,” which provided Iran with $150 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for shuttering its nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, I am guessing that most of the talking heads on air and online citing my 2015 interview on cable television this week have neither read a book about Iran nor held a security clearance. They couldn’t emerge from a serious interview about national security without being exposed as amateurs. They live in glass houses.
Trump has made his share of errors in his three years in office. Every president does so. But his red lines are real, and his threats are backed up. He has renounced the appeasement policies of the Obama years and has clearly identified China as the great power competitor for the next many decades. He’s rebuilt the military.
If Soleimani’s name comes up during interviews this election season, Trump will have a far better answer than the one long ago, and one that argues for his reelection. In a landslide.