In modern politics, almost all leaders make foreign policy with an eye, or more, towards domestic politics. It is impossible to accurately understand Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Kim Jong Un’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons or the Iranian regime’s actions in Iraq without focusing on domestic political considerations in those countries as well. The US and Donald Trump is no exception.
As it becomes increasingly clear that that there was no genuinely reliable intelligence revealing that Qasem Soleimani was planning an attack on the US, that could be thwarted by killing him, the domestic American impetus for targeting and killing Soleimani must be brought into sharper focus. The killing occurred a few weeks before the impeachment trial in the Senate was likely to begin. That date was not yet completely firm because Nancy Pelosi had not yet passed the articles of impeachment to the Senate, but most people expected impeachment to move ahead on that timetable. The Senate was never going to convict Donald Trump, so it would be wrong to say that the killing Soleimani was done to increase Trump’s chances of acquittal. However, it is clear that one of the results of the killing is that now events in Iran are now drawing attention away from impeachment, even as just new revelations from Tuesday indicate that Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas and other friends of the administration were up to more trouble than initially thought in Ukraine.
The question facing Trump now is whether the killing of Soleimani will lead to further US entanglements, and inevitably loss of life, in the region either through an escalation of the conflict with Iran or in the wake of the collapse of the Iranian regime
If Donald Trump hoped for a rally around the flag effect that would help him going into the 2020 election, he was wrong because the election is too far away for that, but Trump has always been able to set the agenda for the political class and the punditry, which is precisely, deliberately or not, part of what the killing of Soleimani accomplished. Therefore, while he has not helped his chances for an acquittal, because that was guaranteed anyway, Trump has made the political cost of that acquittal less for Republican Senators. Before Soleimani was killed and events in Iran and between the US and Iran took center stage, defenders of the president in the Senate were going to have to repeat the same largely discredited White House/Kremlin talking points that Donald Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky was perfect and that Ukraine is the country that hacked the American election in 2016. Now those defenders, can accuse the Democrats of trying to impeach a President who is keeping us safe and fighting terrorists, and for good measure can accuse Democrats of being pro-Iran and anti-American.
Domestic politics almost certainly informed Donald Trump’s decision to order the killing of Soleimani, but it is an overstatement to say it is the only reason for that decision. The US and Iran have been involved in a simmering for conflict most of the last 40 years that, particularly since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, has heated up at various times. The recent Iranian backed actions at the US embassy in Bagdhad, as well as the Trump administration’s decision to violate the multi-lateral nuclear deal with Iran, known as the JCPOA, had caused tensions between the two countries had been higher than usual by the end of 2019. Trump likely was influenced by the many hawks in his administration, and may have been attracted to the notion of demonstrating American strength as well, leading up to his decision.
The killing of Soleimani was a high risk move that Trump has sought to justify by pointing to intelligence reports that, if they existed at all, were murky. This should sound familiar to anybody who has even a vague knowledge of US foreign policy in the last 20, 50 or 70 years. The question facing Trump now is whether the killing of Soleimani will lead to further US entanglements, and inevitably loss of life, in the region either through an escalation of the conflict with Iran or in the wake of the collapse of the Iranian regime.
Managing this uncertainty in Iran will be the major, and extremely high stakes, challenge that the Trump administration will face following the death of Soleimani. There is not a lot of reason to be confident in their ability to do that
The latter possibility is more intriguing with a broader range of outcomes. Foreign policy hawks have supported the idea of regime change in Iran for decades, but now it is clear that the collapse of the Iranian regime, if it happens, will be more due to the weakness and poor governance of that regime than to anything the US has done. Nonetheless, the outcome could be very good for the US, or it could be a disaster. Reform, greater freedom and a more positive relationship with the US could emerge from the current regime weakening or being overthrown, but is also at least as likely that that development would bring about greater violence, repression and instability in Iran, which would spill over into more violence targeted at the US and our interests in the region. Managing this uncertainty in Iran will be the major, and extremely high stakes, challenge that the Trump administration will face following the death of Soleimani. There is not a lot of reason to be confident in their ability to do that.
Thus far, the killing of Soleimani is a qualified success, albeit one for which convincing rationale has yet to be presented. Nonetheless, a dangerous threat to the US, who has been responsible for the deaths of Americans in the past is dead, the Iranian response has been limited and the regime weakened. On the domestic front, Trump has managed to shift the conversation and limit the discussion of impeachment. That looks like a win for Trump, but there has already been a cost for some. More than 170 people on a Ukrainian Airlines flight from Tehran to Kyiv were shot down by an Iranian missile because in a heightened security context, the civilian flight was mistaken for a hostile vessel. That cannot be blamed on Donald Trump or the US, but it is a reminder that the possibility of war must never taken lightly, and that there are always unexpected deaths and tragedies once war starts. Moreover, the final chapter in the story of the US-Iran tension has not been written yet. It is possible that Iran will retaliate tomorrow, next month, next year or some other time through a cyber attack, an attack on a US base, on a government official or something else. That is also the risk Donald Trump took, but sometimes, or in Trump’s case almost always, domestic politics are most important.
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