President Donald Trump likely has averted a major regional war. With the recent escalation of hostilities between Iran and the United States, many—on the Trump-hating Left and the “Blame America First” Right—have insisted the world is headed into a major conflict, maybe even a third world war. Certainly, we appear to be closer to a major conflict today than we have been in years.
Thankfully, though, Trump is holding to the mantra, “Not today!”
Yes, the United States escalated a tense situation with Iran with the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. It is possible, though, that Trump’s escalation was actually meant to de-escalate the larger problem with Iran. Trump’s moves may simply be about covering the exits while U.S. forces draw down from the area in an orderly fashion to more defensible positions in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Going back to the fall of 2019, President Trump had been working assiduously to remove U.S. forces from Syria to bases in Iraq. The Iraqi government, though, is ruled by pro-Iranian Shiites and beholden to their co-religionists in Tehran. It was only a matter of time before the U.S. military’s position in Iraq became untenable.
Now Iraq’s Shia-majority parliament voted overwhelmingly to kick the U.S. military out of Iraq. This is fine, considering ISIS has been beaten down and Syria will never be an American protectorate (no matter how hard the neocons may wish for it to be).
Trump as a Grand Counterpuncher
After a U.S. defense contractor was murdered by Iranian militia operating in Iraq, the United States struck hard against Iranian targets in both Iraq and nearby Syria. From there, Iranian-backed “protesters” laid siege to the American embassy in Baghdad and broke through some of the defenses. This, in turn, prompted the Trump Administration to send a rapid reaction force of U.S. Marines to secure the embassy.
Then, the president ordered an additional 4,000 U.S. troops to Kuwait, should the situation there deteriorate. It likely would have, too, had President Trump not killed Soleimani, the man who orchestrated the attacks.
Although Iran replaced Soleimani immediately, his loss will be felt for years. Soleimani’s leadership had proven indispensable to the mullahs over the last 12 years, as Iran strove to make the Middle East its own exclusive sphere of interest. While Soleimani may have been replaced, his vision and talents—his savvy—cannot be replicated so easily. When the United States assassinated Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamato in 1943, the man who had conceived and executed the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese war effort at sea was irreparably damaged. His insights and leadership had kept Japan a potent enemy of the United States. Yamamoto’s death, however, robbed Japan of such leadership at a critical time.
Trump’s killing of Soleimani deprives Iran in a similar fashion.
This is especially beneficial for the United States, as it has been struggling to maintain its once-dominant position in the Middle East in the face of growing Iranian influence there.
Meanwhile, Soleimani’s killing has sparked some ominous signs in Iran. Its leaders vowed revenge. They have placed an $80 million bounty on the head of President Trump. A red battle flag was raised over the Jamkaran Mosque in Iran. And a “noisy” cyberattack has been directed against an insignificant government website (the Federal Depository Library Program).
None of these moves have been particularly damaging to the United States. Iran’s leadership is traditionally cautious when dealing with the more powerful Americans. And some are still concerned that an Iranian-backed terrorist attack or even an Iranian electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons attack against the United States could occur at any moment.
But so far Iran’s responses to the attacks on them have been relatively muted. Either they are planning something big or they are unsure of what to do.
Iran Might Be Doing America a Favor in Iraq
Perhaps Iran’s response has been muted because the mullahs were putting pressure on their proxies in Iraq’s parliament to end Iraqi military cooperation agreement with the Americans.
The Iraqi parliament on Sunday approved a resolution that would force the 5,200 U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq to leave. The vote broke down along religious lines, with the majority Shiite lawmakers voting to kick out the Americans and the Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers refusing even to show up in protest.
This move actually redounds to America’s benefit, as it slows down the slide into general war between Washington and Tehran.
Many insisted that President Trump was seeking war with Iran—even as the president repeatedly insisted he was not looking for a fight. The president likely is telling the truth, as he is a famous counterpuncher. If you don’t hit him he is unlikely to waste his time hitting you. Iran had provoked the Americans with their recent attacks and Trump punched back in a big way. (Just think back to Trump’s infamous feud with Rosie O’Donnell: had she never attacked him, Trump would have never spent years castigating her.)
The U.S. military is not totally removing itself from the region. It merely would be repositioning those forces to traditional American bases in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Plus, its overwhelming dominance at sea and superiority in the air over the region would still allow for U.S. forces to combat whatever terrorist threats may arise.
By taking out a key figure in Iran’s military establishment while removing U.S. forces from Iraq, Trump is essentially living up to his campaign promises: he’s weakening Iran while likely preventing another major war in the region.
This is a sound strategic choice. It is essentially an attempt to return the region to the status quo ante that existed before George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Whether it works remains to be seen, but at the very least, Trump’s combination of boldness and realism is refreshing.
The End of the Beginning, Not the End of Everything
When he ran for president, many claimed that Trump lacked the gravitas to make the hard, strategic decisions without making a mess of overall U.S. strategy (of course, few in the American elite could actually say what U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East ought to be). Yet Trump has proven a sound strategic thinker. His counterpunching has kept American enemies off-balance while allowing U.S. forces to gain a more advantageous position in the region.
By leaving Iraq for U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, America would only be divesting itself from the sunk costs of both Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, Iran risks becoming the dog that caught the car when the Americans finally, completely, depart Iraq.
Iranian forces will get bogged down fighting whatever Sunni insurgency arises to complicate their attempts to colonize Iraq and Syria—to say nothing of the pounding Iranian forces inevitably will receive from an increasingly twitchy Israeli air force.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi people will continue protesting their government while the beleaguered Iranian people protest the fraying reign of the mullahs. Trump is leaving Iran, Iraq, and Syria to their own self-destructive devices while he empowers U.S. allies in the region and focuses on defending actual American interests.
All of this will occur, as Washington continues its maximum pressure campaign against Iran. Face it, Trump’s actions are putting America First, which he promised to do from day one.