Trump doesn't want to go to war, he just wants to look tough, even if it puts US troops in danger
Less than a week into 2020, President Donald Trump's desire to look tough pushed the US and Iran to the brink of war and placed US service members in danger, top experts and former US officials say. Early on January 3 Iraqi time, Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, widely considered the second most important figure in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As Business Insider reports, the Soleimani strike raised fears of a new war in the Middle East and was the most stunning use of a decapitation strike of a senior foreign military leader by the US military since World War II. It sparked the only direct attack on US forces or allies that Iran has openly claimed since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.
"For Trump, everything is political — even this profoundly dangerous escalation," Ned Price, a former National Security Council official under the Obama administration, told Insider. It's an election year and Trump, a former reality TV star who's perpetually conscious of his public image, has already sought to use the deadly strike to raise money for his 2020 reelection campaign via Facebook ads, emails, and text messages. "ANOTHER dead terrorist," the subject line of one such email to supporters said, per ABC News.
"This operation wasn't a strategic or even a tactical maneuver; it was in large part a political act disguised as a military operation," Price said. "That's why it's not at all surprising that the Trump campaign has fundraised off the strike." Echoing this perception, Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told Insider, "Trump is a unique president insofar as he only does politics, and never policy ... He strikes me as someone who makes decisions based entirely on how he thinks something is going to look to his base on a 12-hour news cycle, if not less. So it's all, always politics, to the exclusion of policy altogether."
Less than 24 hours after Soleimani was killed, Trump was touting the drone strike at an "Evangelicals for Trump" rally in Florida. "Qassem Soleimani has been killed and his bloody rampage is now forever gone," Trump said to an audience at a Miami megachurch. Former Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently not been impressed with Trump's handling of this, telling CNN on Friday that Trump has been "reckless" and "impulsive." Kerry added that Trump "likes to think it makes him look tough," but said his approach to Iran has actually shut the door to any chance at diplomacy.
After a week of tensions and threats following the strike, the US and Iran backed off from entering a wider conflict. "To the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future and a great future — one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world," Trump said in a speech on Thursday. "The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it."
Experts say Trump's asserted desire to avoid war is genuine. "Trump has made clear his interest in reducing the US military footprint in the Middle East. Thus, despite the attack on Soleimani, he likely would prefer to avoid escalation that led to a general war between the United States and Iran," Michael Horowitz, professor of political science and the interim director of Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, told Insider. Horowitz added, "Similarly, Iran's leaders, while wanting to look tough in responding to the American attack on Soleimani, likely want to avoid a general war that would threaten the future of their regime, given American military power."
But, even after this week's deescalation, the parameters that nearly pushed the two countries over the edge are still in place. They may not be at war, but this historic standoff is far from over. And though he moved away from conflict, Trump was still boasting about the Soleimani strike at a 2020 campaign rally on Thursday night. Trump and his advisers have said that the strike was meant to thwart an "imminent" threat, but have offered few details and inconsistent explanations as to what that means. The wishy-washy response has raised many questions about the overall rationale behind pulling the trigger on a senior foreign military leader, particularly given it prompted a retaliatory missile attack from Iran at US and coalition forces. There were no US casualties, but it was an unsettling moment for the region and the wider world.
Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican who became an independent in July, excoriated the administration over its conflicting messages on the strike in a tweet on Friday. "When President Trump lies or embellishes on a topic this sensitive, and administration officials then parrot his claims to avoid drawing his ire, the situation becomes extremely dangerous for our troops and the American people," Amash said.
The series of events leading up to the strike can be traced back to a late December rocket attack from an Iran-backed Shia militia, Kataib Hezbollah, that killed an American contractor and injured several US service members in Kirkuk, Iraq. Trump responded by ordering airstrikes against the militia, killing dozens. The airstrikes prompted a violent protest at the US Embassy in Baghdad. The optics of this were seemingly the last straw for Trump, who has made it clear he did not want to see an incident similar to the fatal attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. The president did not want to look weak by not offering a response, officials told The Washington Post, and was partly motivated by lingering consternation over negative coverage of his decision to not hit back at Iran when it downed a US drone in June.
"At the core of this strike was Trump's desire to appear tough, especially as the attack against the US Embassy in Baghdad had elicited comparisons to Benghazi," Price said. Similarly, Ibish said, "This decision had a great deal to do with the images of the US Embassy in Baghdad being besieged by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah, set on fire and so forth ... Trump wanted to be absolutely sure that no one could accuse him of having a 'Benghazi' of his own. So he chose a rather extreme reaction. This is entirely about domestic politics and how things look on TV to Trump's base and other Americans given the various muscle memory echoes it provokes," Ibish added
'The cost to the US is potentially very high'
During his 2016 campaign, Trump bashed the foreign policy decisions of previous administrations, lambasting his predecessors for getting the US bogged down in lengthy, costly conflicts in the Middle East. He promised things would be different with him in the White House and has continued to make such pledges. "Fighting between various groups that has been going on for hundreds of years. USA should never have been in Middle East," Trump said in a series of tweets in October. "The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!"
Roughly three months later, Trump gave the order for a drone strike that took out Iran's most important military leader. The US considered Soleimani to be a terrorist and the group he led, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' elite and secretive Quds force, to be a terrorist organization. Soleimani, widely described as one of the most charismatic figures in the region, built a network of Shia militias that have caused problems for the US for years. He's linked to the deaths of least 608 US service members in Iraq.
There is widespread consensus among Iran watchers that Soleimani was a malign actor who posed a consistent threat. But many have also said that Trump did not think through the consequences of taking out a senior military leader of another country, and that he could've established deterrence or a red line without taking such an extreme action. "Deterrence is restored," Ibish said, but added that the "the cost to the US is potentially very high."
Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a powerful Iraqi militia leader and close ally of Iran, was killed alongside Soleimani in the January 3 strike. Ibish said their deaths "will be tactically extremely effective" for the US, but the "strategic value" of their killings "is very much in doubt." "I would be a lot less skeptical if I believed the president and even the administration in general had anything like a clear strategy, or even a well-defined goal, regarding Iran policy," Ibish added. "I have no confidence the president and the administration have a clear sense of what they're going to do next. And that makes me very nervous."
Meanwhile, Price also said that Trump's approach to Iran more generally is linked to his desire to undermine former President Barack Obama — particularly via dismantling the Iran nuclear deal. "What set off this cycle of escalation was Trump's decision — against the advice of his national security team — to abandon the Iran deal," Price said. "He did so not because it made us any safer, far from it. He did so because he desperately wanted to be able to trash another legacy achievement of his predecessor notwithstanding the costs to our national security."