The legendary hip hop artist Rakim once rapped “thinkin’ of a master plan,’ cause ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand.” Donald Trump has likely been sweating in recent months as the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi failed to bring him a significant bump, impeachment proceedings hang over his head, and even his die-hard Evangelical base has begun to show cracks. It’s not without reason to believe that these and other considerations went through the President’s mind as he decided to launch a controversial military strike, but it’s unclear if the attack was part of a calculated grand strategy to address the President’s foreign and domestic concerns, or a petulant and impulsive action carried out against many of his advisors’ better judgment.
There were almost certainly a number of factors that motivated President Trump to order the drone strike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. The strike provides a useful distraction from impeachment proceedings and the growing list of damning revelations about the President’s role in withholding aid to Ukraine to demand a political favor against Joe Biden. The rhetoric of fighting terrorism and the prospect of an enlarged conflict, and possibly war, against Iran is likely to mobilize Trump’s base and may create a “rally ’round the flag” effect ahead of the 2020 election. And by authorizing a strike that his two predecessors had passed on, Trump got to show himself “tougher” than previous presidents, particularly Barack Obama.
At the same time, the move seems counterproductive to Trump’s general instincts to avoid military conflict and his stated goal of withdrawing from the Middle East. For all his bluster, use of threats, preference for surrounding himself with generals and even conducting military parades, President Trump has been quite hesitant to actually engage the US in combat. Prior to the strike against Soleimani, the most prominent uses of military force by the Trump Administration had been very limited in scope: an early strike against targets in Syria after dictator Bashir al-Assad again used chemical weapons against civilians, and the raid that killed ISIS leader al-Baghdadi. Indeed, one of this administration’s most notable military actions was to precipitously withdraw US troops from northern Syria, abandoning US allies in a move that I still maintain was a strategic blunder of unparalleled disregard for American interests. To the extent that Trump presented a coherent rationale for this latter decision, it was based on his desire to withdraw US forces from the Middle East and its “endless wars.”
Now, Trump has threatened to use force a lot, often over Twitter (his apparent preferred method of official communication now I guess?). More often than not, Trump’s threats (even in the past against Iran) seem not to be sincere preferences for flexing American military muscle on the battlefield but rather tactics toward negotiating grand “deals” with countries like Iran or North Korea (in other words, Trump likes to bluff). These preferences fit with Trump’s general pattern of “Make America Great Again” nationalism, which is fairly isolationist and dreams of massive US disengagement from the world, especially as far as military commitments are concerned.
In the short run, the recent strike seems contrary to these foreign policy goals. Although the administration has weakly argued that the strike against Soleimani was meant to “stop a war”, it will almost certainly lead to some sort of reprisals and threatens a more militarized conflict against Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East. And, similar to Trump’s seemingly undying commitment to the Saudi royal family, this attack has led to an increase in US troops being sent to the region.
In the long run, however, Trump’s move could potentially serve his interests. The strike, conducted on Iraqi soil, has already led the Iraqi parliament to vote for the removal of all US troops from the country. If Trump continues to make the US odious to erstwhile allies like the Iraqis and the Kurds (overlapping groups, at that) while ceding influence in the region to countries like Russia and Turkey, US troops may be forced to withdraw from much of the Middle East, which Trump would likely spin as a victory, regardless of the nature and consequences of such a withdrawal. On the other hand, even if the hard press of sanctions against Iran could have put pressure on the Islamic Republic to strike a deal that was “better” than that made by Obama (and Iran, so far at least, has been resisting that pressure with little signs of budging), killing one of the most powerful and popular figures in the country will almost certainly make any deal harder to come by, at least with the Trump White House. And the alternative of an escalating conflict between Iran and the United States, culminating in a “regime changing” war, is the polar opposite of Trump’s stated goals of pulling back from Middle Eastern conflict.
Perhaps Trump has calculated that the targeted killing of Soleimani was just enough of a blow and a shakeup to make Iran come to the negotiating table (or at least curtail its violent actions against Americans and their interests) but not enough of an offense to push the Iranians towards a harder or even more violent stance. The cynical view is that Trump didn’t think through the long-term consequences much at all, and has a much more simplistic view that being “tough” is good. An even more cynical view is that he did think through the consequences and simply didn’t care, as long as the strike had short-term expediency and increased his probability of still being in the White House come 2021. The sad thing with this administration is that all three of these interpretations are similarly plausible, and none of them clearly advance American interests.