A recurrent theme throughout the Donald Trump presidency has been restraint in the application of military power. It followed from his belief that, as he said in December, “the United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world.” While he has engaged in a lot of sabre-rattling over the course of his administration, his bark is often bigger than his bite.
No longer. Not with the assertion of military might that targeted and killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Any notion that he was the peace president can now be set aside. The destabilizer at home has become the destabilizer abroad.
Although Mr. Trump has been hostile to Iran throughout his presidency, the strike still came as a surprise to foreign-policy analysts. He has repeatedly vowed to steer clear of costly and endless conflicts in the Middle East; just last summer, a more temperate Mr. Trump called off a planned attack on Iran just as the Pentagon was prepared to strike in response to the downing of an American drone, saying that he felt there would be too many deaths from such a response.
The timing of the risk-laden attack raises questions of political motivation, given that it comes when Mr. Trump has been impeached in the House of Representatives and faces a trial in the Senate on the impeachment articles. His sudden dramatic escalation of global tensions deflects and distracts from that crisis.
Politically, the reaction has predictably broken along party lines. While Republican supporters salute Mr. Trump for taking out a longtime architect of terror, critics like Democratic senator Tom Udall of New Mexico claim there was insufficient provocation for an act of such magnitude, that it was a disproportionate response that recklessly inflames Middle East tensions. Until the fallout in the coming weeks is witnessed, conclusive assessments are premature.
Mr. Trump could well politically profit from the attack – at least in the short term. Presidents who make military strikes against perceived threats to the country’s security normally do. But there is no sense that Americans are in the mood for a broader war, and if the strike leads to one, all bets are off.
The challenge for the White House will be to establish clearly that Iran, as the Pentagon claims, “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Given Mr. Trump’s reputation for being rash and headstrong, he’s not likely to be accorded the benefit of the doubt for his version of events or his motivations. He has been a severe critic of President George W. Bush’s Iraq war, which arose out of the bogus belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the U.S. and allies. Mr. Hussein’s reputation as a mass murderer helped the Bush administration to mobilize public opinion on its behalf for that war.
While Iran has frequently been in the news, it is nowhere near the top-of-mind issue that Iraq was. Soleimani was not a name known to the American public.
If Mr. Trump is accused of using the attack to benefit politically, it will not be the first time a president has been accused of such. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998 and 1999, Bill Clinton initiated bombing campaigns in Sudan and in Iraq, and critics claimed he was trying to divert attention.
Mr. Trump’s military strike came at the very moment that defending his actions around the Ukraine scandal got much more difficult to do. E-mails from officials at the Defence Department and the Office of Management and Budget were published this week, showing that the decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine until it opened an investigation into political rival Joe Biden came directly from the President, and that his decision came in spite of warnings from Defence Department staff that the hold violated U.S. law.
With so much damning evidence to support the impeachment articles of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, the prospect of a Senate trial becomes all the more dreaded for Mr. Trump. There is speculation that Senate Leader Mitch McConnell will avoid a trial by holding a snap vote with his Senate majority to acquit the President, but that would make a mockery of the process.
In such a scenario, it will be hard to ignore the fact that a war or pending war in the Middle East represents an enormous, helpful distraction.
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