By Chris Dolan
The targeted killing of Qassim Soleimani, an Iranian state actor and commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the type of decision President Donald Trump thought would appeal to his voters in 2020. But it’s inconsistent with the America First strategy that got him elected in 2016.
Trump’s risky and reckless decision will not fulfill his promise of ending the cycle of war and intervention in the Middle East.
Rather, it will only get the U.S. further involved in the region and flies in the face of war-weary Americans. Besides Iran can strike back, as it did with ballistic missile attacks against U.S. military bases in Asad and Erbil.
Trump promised he was going to be different than Bush and Obama.
He accused the Bush Administration of lying to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003: “We should have never been in Iraq. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none and they knew there were none.”
He also accused Obama of wanting to attack Iran to boost his 2012 re-election chances: “the only way [Obama] figures that he’s going to get reelected-and as sure you’re sitting there-is to start a war with Iran.”
In 2016 Trump promised to “stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.” Instead, Trump would “bomb the shit out of” the Islamic State, “take the oil,” and ban Muslims from entering the U.S. He vowed to rebuild “our military not as an act of aggression, but as an act of prevention.”
Trump’s abandonment of the America First philosophy that rejected involvement with the Middle East began when he pulled the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
His maximum pressure campaign of imposing sanctions on Iranian oil exports crippled its economy, forcing it to lash out. In June, Iran shot down a U.S. drone in the Strait of Hormuz and then launched missile attacks against a Saudi Aramco facility in September.
One month later, an Iranian-owned tanker was mysteriously attacked in the Persian Gulf. In December, U.S. contractor Nawres Hamid was killed in a rocket attack at a military facility in Kirkuk.
In response, the U.S. launched airstrikes against Iranian-backed paramilitary proxies in Iraq and Syria, prompting Shia supporters to attack the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
This tit for tat ultimately led Trump to kill Soleimani and al-Muhandis. Trump then sent more U.S. troops to the Middle East despite his stated desire to bring troops home.
The crisis with Iran is giving us flashbacks to the war with Iraq. 2020 is beginning to look a lot like 2003.
The missile strikes against U.S. military bases in Iraq were more about Iran saving face and, given no Americans were killed, could be an opportunity to deescalate.
Although Shia militias in Iraq could still hit American targets and Iran can sponsor terrorist attacks and launch cyberattacks, Foreign Minister Javad Zarik tweeted, “We do not seek escalation of war.” In other words, we’re done, if you’re done. Zavrik offered the U.S. an off-ramp and on Wednesday Trump took it with his statement that “the United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
But Trump’s reckless decisions and warmongering threats will have consequences with an American electorate worn down by almost two decades of war in the Middle East.
Large majorities of Democrats and Republicans want the president to focus on domestic issues, not engage in foreign policy adventures.
Seventy percent of voters want Trump to concentrate on domestic policy now, which is not very different than when he took office in 2017. More Republicans than Democrats want him to focus less on foreign policy. Most Americans believe it is more important to avoid military conflict with Iran, including 25% of Republicans.
Following a briefing on the crisis with Iraq, Republican senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul expressed their support for a proposal by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine to limit the president’s authority to use force against Iran. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., came to Trump’s defense, accusing Lee and Paul of “empowering the enemy.”
The House of Representatives also voted to require Trump to request congressional approval before using military force against Iran. Fissures are emerging within the GOP. If Democrats are united, they can take advantage of the in-fighting.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.