Think about it: The president of the United States has threatened to bomb Iran’s priceless cultural sites, for no reason except spite and a desire to look “tough.” How would that differ from what the Taliban did in Afghanistan? Is this the kind of foreign policy we’re supposed to be proud of?
Trump campaigned on a promise to end our involvement in Middle East wars. Despite all his tough talk, he is so conflict-averse that he won’t even fire aides who displease him in person, instead using emissaries and tweets. His instinct now will probably be to back off. But I worry that the events he has set in motion will have a logic and momentum of their own.
The administration’s claim that Soleimani was planning “imminent” attacks against Americans cannot be believed, simply because nothing this administration says can be believed. It might be true. It also might be nothing more than a pretext for an impetuous and foolish action whose consequences Trump is not capable of fully thinking through.
How can I be so sure the president has no idea what he’s doing? Because his Iran policy made no sense from the beginning.
He withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which offered at least the possibility of constructive engagement, apparently because it had been negotiated by the Obama administration. Trump is so insecure that he must pretend everything Barack Obama did was bad. Trump’s new policy toward Iran was called “maximum pressure,” a phrase with the kind of macho ring that Trump likes.
Punishing sanctions succeeded in crippling the Iranian economy, but to what end? They did not lead to Iran’s capitulation. They did not lead to the fall of the Islamic revolutionary government. They did not end Tehran’s support of proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Would Iran have moderated its behavior if the United States had offered carrots along with sticks? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know.
But anyone familiar with the history of U.S.-Iran relations since 1979 would know there was no way the government in Tehran would just knuckle under. Stepped-up attacks against U.S. assets conveniently located in next-door Iraq, such as the Dec. 27 rocket attack that killed an American contractor, were contemptible and inexcusable — but predictable.
According to news reports, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — long among the most implacable of Iran hawks — was one of the most insistent voices pressing Trump to greenlight the killing of Soleimani, despite the reservations of some U.S. military leaders. It might indeed be the case that Trump was goaded into this by advisers who played on his delicate ego by telling him anything else would make him look weak.
Pompeo is not the president, though. No matter who egged him on, Trump gave the order. And Trump will chart the way forward, God help us.
Is Trump trying to distract us from impeachment? Is he “wagging the dog” to try to win reelection? If so, not very skillfully. He’s still impeached and still faces trial in the Senate. And this is far too early for a rally-round-the-flag election ploy. By November, the Soleimani assassination will be old news — and there will likely be thousands more U.S. troops deployed in the Middle East than there are now. Having promised to end our long-running wars, Trump will have kept all the old ones going and added a new one.
We can only hope it is a low-intensity war, not an apocalyptic one.
If you saw the images of millions of Iranians in the streets at Soleimani’s funeral, you have to anticipate that Tehran will respond to his killing. Trump will then feel he must respond to the response. How far up the ladder this escalates depends on leaders, on both sides, having the sense to understand the need for proportion and restraint. Yet there is no evidence Trump even knows what those words mean.