The second fact is that this group of like-minded individuals is having a difficult time getting on the same page about why the United States killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani of Iran. The answer “because he’s a bad guy” does not cut it — there are plenty of bad guys in the world and the United States kills very few of them. The administration’s rationales have been all over the map on this over the past 10 days. The claim of an “imminent threat” seems increasingly bogus; the New York Times’s Peter Baker and Thomas Gibbons-Neff report that, “a State Department official has privately said it was a mistake for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to use the word ‘imminent’ because it suggested a level of specificity that was not borne out by the intelligence.”
Trump’s assertion that Soleimani was targeting four U.S. embassies and facilities in the Middle East also seems dubious. Not even Trump’s defense secretary can back him up on this claim:
So, this very unified national security team is not quite believable when it comes to the motives for the killing. This lack of clarity might help explain why an ABC News-Ipsos poll shows that a majority of Americans feel less safe after the attack.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has a more basic question to ask after the past 10 days: What, exactly, does this administration want to accomplish in the Middle East?
I ask because of this presidential tweet:
National Security Adviser suggested today that sanctions & protests have Iran “choked off”, will force them to negotiate. Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and “don’t kill your protesters.”— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2020
So are these Trump’s red lines? Because it seems very likely that the Iranian regime will violate one of them quite soon, because Iran’s security forces are using live ammunition to quell protests. And on the nuclear question, it is factually undeniable that Iran is closer to developing a nuclear weapon now than at any juncture when the JCPOA was still in force. Maximum pressure might weaken the Iranian economy, but it has accelerated the Iranian nuclear program.
If the Trump administration’s position on Iran seems confusing, its position on Iraq is even more puzzling. For a president who has repeatedly stressed his desire to get U.S. forces out of Iraq, his administration sure seems not to have received the memo. According to my Post colleagues Karen DeYoung, Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, “The Trump administration refused again Friday to recognize Iraq’s call to withdraw all U.S. troops, saying that any discussion with Baghdad would center on whatever force size the United States determines is sufficient to achieve its goals there.” The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Talley and Isabel Coles report that the administration has gone so far as to threaten economic sanctions against Iraq if Baghdad insists on a departure of U.S. forces: “The State Department warned that the U.S. could shut down Iraq’s access to the country’s central bank account held at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a move that could jolt Iraq’s already shaky economy.”
If U.S. policy toward Iran seems unclear and toward Iraq seems hopelessly muddled, I do not know what adjective to apply to this clip of Trump explaining why he’s sending U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia:
He sells troops.— Justin Amash (@justinamash) January 11, 2020
“We have a very good relationship with Saudi Arabia—I said, listen, you’re a very rich country. You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us. They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1B in the bank.” pic.twitter.com/rc1f7heyCP
What is truly bizarre about all of this is seeing all this effort take place in a region that the Trump administration’s strategy documents have de-emphasized. None of these moves assist the United States in its great power rivalries. At best, the Trump administration seems to be doing its darndest to look like an imperial power.
Back in 2017, Walter Russell Mead explained that Trump’s triumph represented a Jacksonian revolt against foreign policy elites who had gotten the United States embroiled in Middle East conflicts. Jacksonians mostly want to be left alone by the rest of the world, but react strongly against perceived threats. In theory, this allows them to escalate and de-escalate quickly. In practice, the Trump administration keeps sending more and more troops to a region that Trump disdained throughout his 2016 campaign. The administration reacts to requests to leave with angry sanctions and stubborn refusals.
What does this administration want in the Middle East? Damned if I know. All I am sure about in 2020 is that a grand strategy based on spite and pique seems like a bad way to advance the national interest.