President Donald Trump’s targeted killing of Iran’s ruthless military and intelligence chief adds up to his most dangerous gamble yet with other peoples’ lives and his own political fate.
By killing Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, Trump committed the United States to a risky open conflict that at best could stop short of all-out war with Iran that could cause national security and economic shocks in the United States and across the globe.
The administration argues that it has taken one of the world’s worst mass murderers and terrorists off the battlefield. But given Iran’s easy access to soft targets, the Middle East and even Europe suddenly look a lot less safe for Americans, including US troops Trump may be even more tempted to haul home.
Two days into his re-election year, Trump – who rails against Middle Eastern entanglements – has plunged the United States into another one, with vast and unknown consequences. It challenges a presidency that is already alienating half of his country, following his impeachment and unrestrained behavior in office. Trump may find it impossible to rally the nation behind him to weather the crisis. He has also scrambled strategic and moral expectations of the United States – ordering the killing of a senior foreign leader of a nation with whom the US is not formally at war – albeit an official regarded by Washington as a terrorist.
Reflecting the strike’s potential for escalation, a US defense official said the administration would deploy a further 3,000 troops to the Middle East, including 750 who have already deployed to protect the US embassy in Baghdad.
The reverberations of his act on Thursday will last for years.
“Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation!” Trump wrote on Friday morning in a tweet that will do nothing to calm critics who worry about the depth of his strategic thinking.
It is too early to know whether Soleimani’s death will significantly weaken Iran and improve the US strategic position, whether it will ignite a regional conflagration and how it will eventually affect Trump’s political prospects and legacy. It is also unclear how it will change the political position inside Iran where the regime is besieged by an economic crisis and recently crushed mass protests.
But Iran will surely regard the killing of one of its most significant political leaders as an act of war, so its revenge is likely to be serious and long lasting.
“There are definitely going to be unintended consequences, and for starters I think we better have our embassies pretty well buttoned down,” former US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill told CNN.
“Iran simply cannot sit on its hands on this one. I think there will be a reaction and I’m afraid it could get bloody in places.”
Trump supporters are celebrating their hard man commander-in-chief. They note that Soleimani orchestrated the deaths of hundreds of US soldiers in militia attacks during the Iraq War. But recent history is marked by spectacular US shock-and-awe opening acts of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that cause short-term gloating and long term military and political disasters. A full-on conflict with Iran would be far more complicated than those two wars.
Trump’s strike may be the most significant calculated US act in a 40-year Cold War with revolutionary Iran. It’s the biggest US foreign policy bet since the invasion of Iraq.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN’s “New Day” that killing Soleimani “saved American lives” and was based on “imminent” threat intelligence about an attack in the region. Trump echoed his secretary of state later Friday morning, tweeting that Soleimani “was plotting to kill many more” Americans.
But Pompeo refused to give further details. The political bar for an administration that has made a habit of disinformation and lying is going to be far higher than that in such a grave crisis. Eliminating the most powerful political force in Iran short of Supreme Leader Ayotollah Ali Khamenei also destroys the chimera that this White House is not committed to a regime change strategy.
Given Soleimani’s frequent travels to Iraq, Syria and other areas in the Middle East this is not the first time that he will have been in US crosshairs. But previous presidents, perhaps cognizant of the inflammatory consequences, chose not to take the shot. In the coming days, the administration will have to explain why it acted now.
The act also likely eliminates possibly for a generation, any hope that the United States and Iran can settle their differences by talking. There will be no desire nor political capital for even Iranian officials often misleadingly described as moderates to sit down with US counterparts.
Trump owns the aftermath
When Trump took office, there was no immediate crisis with Iran. The Islamic Republic was honoring the Obama administration’s nuclear deal though it had not stepped back from its missile development and what the US says is malignant activity in its own neighborhood.
But by ripping up the deal, strangling the Iranian economy and now killing Soleimani, Trump now owns however the confrontation turns out. It’s a huge gamble because history suggests that Presidents who bet their careers on the jungle of Middle East politics always lose.
The strike displays Trump’s growing infatuation with wielding military power, exacerbates a trend of unchecked presidential authority and forges the kind of ruthless vigilante image he adores.
The question is now whether Trump – an erratic, inexperienced leader who abhors advice and rarely thinks more than one step ahead – is equipped to handle such a perilous, enduring crisis.
And is his administration, which seems bent on toppling Iran’s regime but cannot publicly come up with a plan for the aftermath, ready to handle an Iranian backlash in the region and beyond?
Trump’s hubristic tweeting of a US flag following Soleimani’s death in a drone strike in Iraq but failure to explain to Americans