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This is Trump’s War

He's punched Iran harder than Obama and even Bush dared—and he'll own the consequences.

US President Donald Trump at NATO gathering in London this week, Dec. 2019. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Of this, there can be no doubt: Qassem Soleimani was a son of a bitch. Worse, he wasn’t “our” son of a bitch, as was Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García, about whom Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously (and apocryphally) made that remark. This particular SOB was firmly on the side of the Iranian state, for whom Soleimani killed countless foes (including many American troops in Iraq) and helped maintain a Shiite swath of influence across the Middle East. His résumé is one of disruption, not just of American operations but of regional peace in general.

So in a way, it’s easy to understand Donald Trump’s call to have Soleimani assassinated. It feels similar to his decisions to attack a Syrian airbase in 2017 and call back U.S. planes from striking Iranian targets last year: impulsive, cutting through the clutter, involving broad blacks and whites rather than deep nuance. Soleimani has American blood on his hands, so why shouldn’t he be blown to pieces? Such calculations are quintessentially Trump, and given how allergic the Blob is to plain thinking, occasionally refreshing.

But the killing of Soleimani was more than a Trumpian impulse call. It was the latest move in a calculated policy of aggression towards Iran that began almost at the beginning of Trump’s presidency and has continued unabated ever since. There was the decision to pull out of the nuclear deal, utterly jarring to Iran, which had risked a good deal in opening up to the West. There was, before that even, a number of oft-forgotten provocations in Syria, including our bombing of an Iranian-backed militia in al-Tanf and destruction of an Iranian-made drone. For all of Trump’s bluster about withdrawing American forces from Syria, early in his presidency, shin kicks to the Russia/Iran/Assad axis were frequent.

In late 2017, Trump gave a speech blistering Iran and announcing new sanctions on its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A year and a half later, he would designate the IRGC as a terrorist group. Last summer, he imposed a new round of sanctions, designed to quarantine top Iranian officials from the international banking system—largely symbolic, since few in Iran’s regime use global banks, and meant to send a message. That message had been in response to the downing of an American drone in the Gulf of Oman, over which Trump launched planes to attack Iranian targets, only to pull them back at the last minute.

Now, Soleimani, perhaps the second most powerful figure in the Iranian government and a personal friend of the supreme leader, is dead. And to be sure, Iran has swiped at the United States plenty of times, too, two stags locking horns and pushing like hell. And that’s precisely what makes Soleimani’s hasty assassination so perilous. The Tehran regime has a history of, not backing down, but retaliating in the face of American attacks, and given how precious Soleimani was to the Iranian state and how intertwined anti-Americanism is in Iran’s civic religion, blowback seems inevitable. Americans will very likely die as a consequence of what Trump did on Friday. And given Trump’s penchant for pummeling Iran, the favor will surely be returned.

The Soleimani strike, then, wasn’t some out-of-context Trumpian gut call; it was part of a larger approach, one that’s greased the skids to another faraway war that the public neither wants nor understands. Trump can’t blame this on his predecessors. The Obama administration turned down opportunities to kill Soleimani, worried America wouldn’t be able to swallow the consequences. So did George “Real Men Go to Tehran” Bush. It is Trump and Trump alone who brought us to this precipice, and if war does indeed break out, it is he who will own its consequences.

Trump was supposed to be something different on foreign policy, a Republican determined to bring the troops home. Yet as Jim Antle notes, we’re now back to 2003 all over again, with conservatives squawking like hawks and Democrats murmuring their objections. For all his novelty, Trump has basically taken the neocon line on Iran: out with gradual change, forget Hassan Rouhani, there are no moderate ayatollahs, and surely the Iranian people are on our side. Are they though? Those foreign policy realists who were cautiously optimistic about Trump might ask ourselves this: why should we ever support him again?

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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