Iran Retaliates But Offers Trump An Off-Ramp (Which Trump Takes)

Ken AshfordIran, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

Iran retaliated for the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces on Wednesday local time.

Washington and Tehran both confirmed that Iran was the source of the missiles. The extent the damage was unclear, but there were no casualties on either side.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the strikes were a “slap in the face” to the U.S. and not sufficient retaliation for the killing of Soleimani, a top general, last week.

Trump just got off the teevee and in a slurred speech to the nation, surrounded by Pence, Esper and military brass, he said

But up until now, the operative word for what is going on is this: confusion

There’s confusion over Trump’s rationale for assassinating Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Confusion over Trump’s broader strategic goals. Confusion over whether Trump wants to appear militarily unhinged and threatening or restrained. And confusion over whether Trump is betraying his promise to avoid foreign entanglements or honoring it.

All this confusion traces back to one of Trump’s biggest lies: The idea that the Iran nuclear agreement constituted a wretched display of elite failure and American weakness, and that Trump has replaced it with an approach that’s “strong.”


Iran may have given Trump that off-ramp by launching a strike that apparently didn’t kill Americans. If he de-escalates — perhaps by declaring that Iran blinked in the face of his show of strength — that will be great, as far as it goes.

But the larger point here remains this: None of this has to be happening at all.

The Iran deal was working

Many foreign policy writers have done great work in tracing the current moment directly back to Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Iran had been complying with by accepting constraints on its nuclear program.

The short version is that Trump replaced the Iran deal with his own strategy of “maximum pressure,” which meant much tougher sanctions to get Iran to fully capitulate — without any meaningfully clear sense of what Trump thought full capitulation really meant.

As Stephen Walt notes, Iran has “neither caved to Trump’s demands nor collapsed” and instead has “moved gradually to restart its nuclear program” and “retaliated against U.S. allies in the region.”

The key point here is that, once Trump pulled out of the Iran deal — after deriding it as weakness — he had to replace it with something that constituted his own version of “strength.”

Because Trump’s conception of the Iran deal as weak was rooted largely in hatred of Barack Obama, he had neither any idea what was in it nor any vision of what a “strong” substitute should accomplish.


The deeper lie

Since Trump campaigned on a vow to stop “endless wars,” the current escalation has led many to ridicule the “Donald the Dove” interpretation of that promise and to argue he’s selling out his voters.

The nuanced interpretation of this, advanced by Ross Douthat, is that Trump actually is giving his voters what he promised: a Jacksonian combination of suspicion of international adventurism with threats to use overwhelming but very targeted force to protect U.S. interests where necessary.

In this telling, disastrously conceived establishment failures — such as the Iraq War — have turned the forgotten Americans in the Appalachian and industrial heartlands bearing the brunt of those failures against the elites. They opted instead for the guy who promised greatness through military strength unburdened by the illusion that our allies are on our side (they are perpetually ripping us off”) and by the niceties of international engagement and law.

There is a lot to this, but let’s be clearer. Trump campaigned on an “America First” hyper-militarism that promised both an effortless crushing of the (inchoate) enemy and dramatically scaled-back engagement, all accomplished at zero serious cost. As Jonathan Chait notes, the route to this was through an explicit declaration that “strength” is synonymous with junking respect for international and human rights law, and behaving more like dictators and terrorists.

Similarly, in the Trump narrative, the Iran deal was clumsily crammed in with this bundle of things that constrained American power — it involved diplomacy, international engagement and a reliance on empirical verification systems rather than unbridled displays of strength.

Trump told endless lies about the Iran deal to support that narrative. But the more important point here is that Trump squared leaving the Iran deal with a promise to end Mideast wars by casting withdrawal as strength — he’d be “tougher” with Iran, unilaterally so, and force its full capitulation (without any shots fired) that way.

It appears that Trump is de-escalating now. But the consequences of ending the Iran deal — and of the Soleimani assassination — will continue, including a revival of Iran’s nuclear program. And so, we’re now discovering that there are untold long-term costs for trying to achieve total but ill-defined victory over Iran through Trumpian (or Jacksonian) toughness, without the engagement and compromise that the deal had put in place.

It’s not remarkable that as a Republican, Trump would pursue a sharply different foreign policy than his Democratic predecessor. But Trump’s obsession with Obama goes beyond ideological differences between the parties. At times, it seems personal. It’s not based on an overarching global view and foreign-policy strategic approach.

Anyway, it is a good thing we can (already) look back on this averted crisis. But questions remain about the Suleimani killing.

We know:

Official explanations have thus far been insufficient and lacking in credibility.

  • Trump is an inveterate liar, with very little public credibility.
  • So far, nobody in the administration has publicly released any credible evidence to support any of their explanations.
  • There is no evidence that Soleimani had suddenly become a bigger threat.

There’s no evidence of a normal deliberative process.

  • Trump does not pay attention to details.
  • He does not display any appreciation for strategic planning
  • The support system of knowledgeable, experienced people a president would normally turn to in such a circumstance for advice does not exist.
  • There is no evidence that any normal procedures were followed in this process.

Reporting suggests Trump made his decisions impulsively, rather than strategically.

  • He has a history of making decisions impulsively.
  • He was angry about negative press reports related to his decision last year to call off an airstrike against Iran at the last minute, which he felt made him look weak.
  • He was angry about Iranian-backed attacks on the American Embassy in Baghdad.
  • Some officials – presumed to be Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence – goaded him by telling him the Iranians would consider him weak if he didn’t act forcefully.
  • There was apparently no discussion about what would happen after the attack.

Other than Trump supporters, pretty much everyone agrees this was a very bad, inflammatory decision.

  • None of the explanations provided by Trump administration officials provide a legitimate, legal motive under U.S. or international law for the assassination of a high-ranking government official.
  • Killing Soleimani was never pursued in the past because it was considered too provocative.
  • Iran experts have been overwhelmingly critical of Trump’s action, calling it hugely destabilizing and likely to lead to all-out war.
  • European and other international allies consider Trump unhinged and have called for de-escalation.

And Trump had an obvious ulterior motive.

  • Looming over it all is the obvious fact that this provides a distraction from impeachment, which Trump is very angry about.

So here’s the Iran crisis in a nutshellk — it was the Trump playbook yet again:

1. Present distorted version of status quo.
2. Create crisis over distorted version of status quo.
3. Restore status quo (often at substantial cost).
4. Take credit for status quo.