On the surface, President Trump's decision to order the killing of Iranian terrorist leader Qassim Soleimani would seem to conflict with his rhetoric about ending "endless wars." But in practice, it may be the best example to date of the Trump Doctrine in practice.
With a single strike, Trump delivered a major blow to a leading enemy of America. But he did so without launching large scale attacks or committing to any sort of major invasion.
Trump’s foreign policy approach is often misunderstood. Despite at times sounding like Ron Paul in attacking costly foreign entanglements, Trump has never been a principled or consistent non-interventionist. Sure, his transactional nature made him conclude that the U.S. isn't getting good bang for the buck when it comes to protracted large-scale military engagements. But his impulse against major interventions has always been balanced by a desire to project an image of strength abroad, to signal to the world that nobody should mess with the U.S.
These dueling sentiments, at times in conflict, served him well when seeking the Republican nomination. Primary voters were torn between weariness from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feeling that President Obama had made America look weak on the world stage, alienating friends and emboldening enemies. And when running for president, Trump’s blend of foreign policy statements -- bashing the war in Iraq while promising to “bomb the s--t” out of ISIS -- confounded experts but seemed to hit the sweet spot with the electorate.
As president, Trump has been pulled in different directions on foreign policy. In addition to his conflicting impulses, Trump has taken advice from traditional Washington foreign policy types and those who want to smash conventional thinking. He hired uberhawk John Bolton and has informally consulted with non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul.
This has made things seem incoherent at times. In Syria, he’s been talking about withdrawing, yet troops remain there. He stepped aside so Turkey could invade Northern Syria, only to try and stop the invasion after Turkey had achieved its objective of creating a buffer zone cleared of Kurds. In Afghanistan, we’ve seen Trump cycle through the options of fully withdrawing, negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban, and maintaining a residual force in the country.
Up until the hit on Soleimani, it wasn’t clear where Trump was heading to with Iran. He blew up the Iran deal and, once liberated, ratcheted up sanctions. But he stopped short of reimposing all of them. He flirted with retaliating militarily after Iran downed a U.S. drone before backing off. And he has consistently expressed a desire to meet with Iran and negotiate. So it was unclear until now where he would end up.
In recent months, Iran, desperate to get the Trump administration to relent and deliver relief from crippling sanctions, has attempted to bring the U.S. to its knees. Iran has orchestrated relentless rocket attacks against the U.S. in Iraq, targeted drones and tankers in the Arabian Sea, and attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. More broadly, Iran has propped up the brutal regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, supported the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and flamed the civil war in Yemen by supporting the radical Houthi movement. And the architect of this strategy to establish Iranian dominance of the Middle East from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea was none other than Soleimani.
More recently, under Iran’s direction, Kataib Hezbollah launched an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In response, Trump warned, “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities.” He predicted Iran would pay a “big price” and declared, “This is not a warning, it is a threat.” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei taunted Trump back by saying, “You can’t do anything.” Yet it turned out that Trump was not bluffing. Within 48 hours, Khamenei was mourning the loss of his most important military commander.
Some analysts are comparing the killing of Soleimani to the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein, which did not end the Iraq War. But an important distinction is that he was killed after a massive invasion of Iraq by U.S. and its allies. The Soleimani hit was a precision targeted operation.
Critics of Trump argue that he took this action rashly, without consideration of the blowback against the U.S. But I’m not so sure. In June, Trump backed off planned airstrikes on Iran, concerned about the potential casualties and consequences.
No doubt, the killing of Soleimani carries the risk of retaliation from Iran. My colleague Tom Rogan has speculated as to the regime’s potential response. This was no doubt a bold move by Trump. But he likely viewed it as a calculated gamble worth taking.
That is, for all the focus on the threat of blowback toward the U.S., it’s important to recognize that Iran has a lot more to risk from a major escalation. Iran’s economy has been squeezed by sanctions and the regime is encountering regular street protests. Whatever the costs of escalation may be for the U.S., for Iran, all out conflict would pose an existential threat to the regime. Leaders will want to take vengeance, but Trump just showed that the U.S. has the intelligence assets, military capability, and will, to neutralize one of the most important figures in Iran. How far are they willing to go to test Trump?
Trump decided that ultimately, the U.S., with a significantly stronger economy and more powerful military, was in a much better position to absorb some escalation than Iran. So he decided it was worth the risk. If he’s proven right, he will have weakened Iran and projected U.S. strength while avoiding another forever war.
Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye