How Does U.S. Killing of Solemani Fit In to Trump’s Mideast Policy?
President Donald Trump and his top aides spent the weekend arguing that the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani would deter future attacks and help make the Middle East safer.
Instead, U.S. policy in the region seems to be going in the opposite direction of what Trump has long promised -- with more U.S. troops going in, not fewer; an Iran defiant, not cowed and broken by sanctions; and regional allies giving only lukewarm support to Trump’s airstrike instead of rallying around it.
The blows continued on Sunday, when Iraq’s parliament called on U.S. troops to withdraw from the country after denouncing the drone strike as a violation of its sovereignty. Trump responded by saying Iraq would have to “reimburse” America. The same day, Iran said it would abandon limits on uranium enrichment put in place as part of a 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump withdrew from in 2018.
U.S actions have “unquestionably made an already volatile situation much more dangerous,” said retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities who favours a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. “If you paid any attention to Iran in the last 40 years you know they will never buckle to that kind of pressure. It’s just the opposite.”
The strike last week on Soleimani appeared to temporarily unite Iranians after months of violent protests against their own government, with thousands turning out to mourn a leader who had made their nation -- battered by U.S. sanctions -- appear strong by giving Tehran leverage in conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
“The Trump administration monstrously miscalculated by playing into Iran’s hands,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “It united most political forces in Iraq against the U.S. It provided Iran with a breathing space in Iraq.”
Even the fight against Islamic State was affected, with the U.S.-led global coalition saying it would suspend operations against the terror group in Iraq to focus on protecting bases that have recently come under attack.
The escalating tensions hit global markets starting Friday and continuing through the weekend. The Middle East’s major equity gauges all fell Sunday, while oil, gold and the Japanese yen rallied.
After Trump and Iranian officials traded public threats about future reprisals, the U.S. leader will now face questions from lawmakers returning to Washington from the end-of-year break ready to take up a bitter debate over the president’s impeachment by the Democratic-led House and a coming trial in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Reaction to the raid has fallen mostly along party lines, with Republicans hailing the action to eliminate a terrorist leader and Democrats questioning the administration’s assertion that Soleimani presented an “imminent threat” and asking whether Trump has a broader strategy or plan to deal with the aftermath.
“Look, everybody knows that Soleimani was a very bad, despicable guy,” Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told “Fox News Sunday.” “There’s no debate there. But the claim of an imminent threat they have not supported, and what we do know is this dramatic escalation is now putting Americans at greater risk.”
After more than a dozen calls with foreign counterparts from China to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo argued the administration’s case on all the major U.S. news shows on Sunday.
He said there were no doubts within the administration about the intelligence behind the decision to kill Soleimani, and that any moves taken by the U.S. against Tehran will be “lawful.” That was a response to concerns about Trump’s threat on Saturday to hit “52 Iranian sites,” including cultural targets, if Tehran retaliates for Soleimani’s killing, as it has promised.
“We’ll behave inside the system,” Pompeo said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Despite the international outreach, there were few signs of strong support among key U.S. allies beyond Israel, while the NATO alliance planned an emergency meeting Monday to discuss growing tensions in the region.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson summed up European reaction to the strike on Soleimani, saying “we will not lament his death,” but adding that “we are in close contact with all sides to encourage de-escalation.”
Working to the U.S. advantage is Iran’s dire economic situation following increasingly tight U.S. sanctions that have largely wiped out the country’s ability to sell oil abroad and cut it off from most trade partners. And some analysts said the political tensions in Iran will only be briefly masked by Soleimani’s killing.
“The killing of a general who wasted a lot of Iran’s resources on Arab civil wars is unlikely to trigger support for the government,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Pompeo said that in the long-run, Soleimani’s death will make the Middle East more secure. And he seemed to minimize the significance of Iraq’s parliament calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, suggesting that outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi -- who said he was due to meet with Soleimani the morning he was killed -- was acting under enormous pressure from Iran. Pompeo said the U.S. was a force for good in Iraq, 17 years after it invaded to oust Saddam Hussein.
“It is the United States that is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region,” Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That is in defense of the Iraqi people and is good for America, too.”
It’s unlikely U.S. troops will leave Iraq anytime soon, but Sunday’s vote was damning for Trump and U.S. plans for the region. The diplomatic compound in Baghdad was constructed after the 2003 invasion to be the biggest American embassy in the world, designed to essentially serve as a forward operating base and a listening post in the Middle East.
And with his latest deployment of about 3,500 troops to Kuwait, Trump has now bolstered American forces by about 17,000 personnel since May, undermining his vow to get the country out of “endless wars.”
“Rarely has any single tactical move, untethered from any long-range thinking, produced so many potential strategically negative consequences for the U.S.,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “In one single decision you’ve undermined 17 years of a U.S. mission, fraught though it may be.”
--With assistance from Robert Hutton, Josh Wingrove and Glen Carey