The recent drone attack that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a Shiite militia leader in Iraq led predictably to a retaliatory strike by Iran. Twenty or so ballistic missiles were launched at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were housed. Fortunately, no one was killed.
Instead of launching a counterattack, President Trump stopped. Since no Americans were killed, Trump said, there would be no good reason to strike back. Instead, he promised more sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
The president’s America First supporters, including me, have been disappointed with Trump’s occasional escalations in the Middle East. The president who promised to get us out of the Middle East, and frequently expressed skepticism of our neverending wars there, has at least three times engaged in provocative actions that had the potential to set in motion a broader conflict, perhaps even a world war.
In 2017 and 2018, Trump ordered airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Two weeks ago, Trump approved the mission to kill the powerful and popular Iranian general while he was in Iraq. Each of these countries is connected to regional allies and the broader Shia and Sunni sectarian struggle for power. What’s more, Russia and China are waiting in the wings to upend America’s global dominance.
But in all three cases, Trump chose not to take things further.
Trump Focuses on the Tangible
In Syria, with great controversy, he ordered our troops to withdraw after the destruction of the ISIS caliphate. With Iran, he stopped the potentially infinite cycle of attack and counterattack by absorbing a blow, a controversial decision made more palatable because America sustained no casualties.
While all three of these actions had a dubious strategic rationale, big-picture strategy is not the only important factor in foreign policy. Decisions on how to manage immediate events and their surprises are equally important. Grand strategy can be undermined by poor operational art, bad planning, the decisions of others, or just bad luck.
Trump’s approach to these events (and his approach to foreign policy more generally) is focused on the tangible: more jobs at home, fewer dollars spent on the defense of ungrateful allies, and less concern for international institutions and process than his predecessors demanded.
One decidedly different aspect of Trump is his rejection of the usual high-minded approach that has informed much of American policy, including the notion that, in every war, we must seek a comprehensive solution and uproot hostile regimes.
Trump is content with the old-fashioned punitive raid.
The False Counsel of the “Idealists”
There is a very American habit of dressing up even the most prosaic conflicts in grandiloquent and crusading language. President Wilson justified America’s involvement in World War I as a way to “make the world safe for democracy.” Franklin Roosevelt described World War II as a great contest between “democracies” and “dictatorships,” even though the murderous Joseph Stalin and his Red Army did the majority of the fighting and dying on our side.
At the time of the first Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush promised a “new world order,” which, in spite of his intentions, had a rather ominous sound.
Finally, the “global war on terror” was, in the words of George W. Bush, a crusade to make the world safe for “freedom.” This broader concern with American values, the internal politics of allies, and reforming other nations to be more like us is sometimes described as foreign policy “idealism.”
While this rhetorical habit seems to appeal to Americans and connects our foreign policy to our nation’s philosophical origins, it appeals even more to the highly educated, tinkering, and ambitious managerial class—the traditional stewards of the nations’ foreign policy. Americans and their “can-do” optimism, often tragically, have been employed in long-running campaigns of ambitious scope. The failures of the Vietnam War disposed of this propensity for a time, but was revived by Clinton in the Kosovo War, the first so-called “humanitarian war.” George W. Bush reinforced this impulse by pursuing an ambitious reformation of the Middle East in response to 9/11.
Americans, for all their alleged demand for high moral causes in order to pursue a war, are just as inclined to tribal demands for revenge. The rallying cry of World War II, after all, had nothing to do with democracy; it was “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Similarly, while Bush and his team sought to remake the Middle East in America’s image, the dominant emotion of Americans was a desire for revenge for the September 11 attacks, which first sustained the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns and then grew into weariness over the endless insurgencies.
Americans quickly tire of the high-minded part of their foreign campaigns, particularly when these efforts are not connected to something fundamental, such as safety for the homeland or revenge for fallen countrymen.
Trump’s Disruptive and Transactional Approach
Trump has been criticized for his “transactional” view of things. This could mean many things, but here it mostly amounts to criticism about tone and decorum.
The president is very blunt. He expressly asks for things in exchange for American help. He is willing to call out allies and play nice with enemies. He sees himself as a dealmaker, ignoring the pieties and habits of the foreign policy experts. He is criticized both for rash threats and for being overly solicitous, often with regard to the same regimes.
Paradoxically, his transactional approach often expresses more empathy and common sense than the on-again, off-again concern for human rights and democracy among the “idealists.” These idealists who mourn the treatment of the Iranian people in order to goad us into liberating them, often are rather cavalier about turning the place into a “glass parking lot.” The idealism of the idealists is something special.
Because he is unmoored from the rhetorical and ideological straightjacket that dominated his predecessors, Trump has shown considerable flexibility and willingness to change course, to include our relations with China, North Korea, and also the Middle East.
While the initial decision to attack Soleimani appeared rash and likely to further solidify America’s presence in the Middle East, it would have been worse if Trump viewed this strike as something other than a single, one-off measure to push back against the Iranians and remove a troublesome and talented adversary. After Iran inevitably retaliated, Trump’s remarked that Iran was “standing down.” At the same time, Iran described its attack as a “proportionate response.”
It would have been very easy and more typical for an American leader to escalate further, treating Iran’s response as an unprovoked attack and an affront to the high ideals of democracy and freedom.
In truth, both the United States and Iran view the actions of the other as aggression, while seeing its own responses as defensive and justified. These competing views of events can never be fully reconciled. Instead of embracing this inevitable cycle of revenge, Trump has shown a reluctance to wage full-scale war, a product of his repeatedly expressed skepticism of American’s involvement in the Middle East.
Arguably because of his “transactional” view, Trump has treated diplomacy and military operations not as opposites, but as part of the same spectrum of policy, each a mode of communication, with one being rather unmistakable in its seriousness.
I am doubtful of any possibility of an enduring peace with Iran or with any other nation in the Middle East. Their values are alien to our own, their resentment of America’s presence inseparable from national and religious identity, and our history in the region has had few successes and many disappointments. Benjamin Netanyahu has sometimes described Israel as living in a “dangerous neighborhood.” This is no doubt true. But we live in the safe suburbs of the Western Hemisphere. We can avoid this bad neighborhood and its problems.
The logic that informed Trump’s decision to stand down should have prevented the initial decision to take out Soleimani. This strike undoubtedly has added to Iran’s long list of imagined and real grievances with the United States, while alienating Iraq’s majority Shia community among whom our troops are still deployed.
Far from settling scores, America should be looking for the exits as fast as possible. But at least here Trump’s transactional calculus prevented us from further running up the bill.