There are only two things you need to know about President Donald Trump to figure out his foreign policy at this point: He is a penny-pincher who hates spending money on anyone or anything that does not benefit him directly, and he cannot abide by anything that makes it look as though he isn’t tough. Both traits were on vibrant display when the US killed a top Iranian general visiting Iraq early Friday morning local time.
Qassem Soleimani died in a fiery drone strike alongside the commander of a major Shiite militia, targeted as he left Baghdad International Airport. He’s already been deemed a martyr by the Iranian government; days of mourning lie ahead for the man the regime would have remembered as the hero who beat ISIS. Many experts have said it was impossible to picture the Middle East’s future without Soleimani; likewise, the repercussions of his loss are impossible to predict.
US officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have insisted that Soleimani was in the process of planning new attacks against Americans. The general had to die to save lives — American lives. (Defense officials have already said that they were aware of only generalized threats.) And in a background briefing on Friday, a senior State Department official insisted that the targeted killing would prove to be an effective deterrent against Iran and that Tehran would have no major response. When asked why, the official said it was because the US is “speaking in a language that the regime understands.” Much like the reasoning for the strike itself, no evidence was given to support that claim.
“We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war,” Trump told reporters on Friday afternoon. Whether he truly believes that is beside the point right now.
Because in every crisis and conflict that he has faced since becoming commander in chief, Trump has defaulted to the bluster that made him both an ever-present figure and perennial laughingstock in New York’s elite circles. For someone who absorbed the cutthroat tactics that both Fred Trump and lawyer-slash-boogeyman Roy Cohn wielded, power has always been about brute force. And if you don’t have the means to back that force up? You wave it off and approach your next target, bullying and pushing and cajoling until your way is the only way.
It was the declaration that he would be tougher than anyone on immigration that helped him net the Republican nomination in 2016. It was his willingness to turn on anyone who showed him the slightest disloyalty that made him the GOP’s only voice after he won the election, using his Twitter account to target anyone who would cross him. And it’s that desire to keep everyone and everything off-balance and afraid that has been at the center of his foreign policy.
“The US is respected again” has been a constant refrain of his since he became the country’s commander in chief. And that’s a stance he’s clung to tightly, even as all evidence has shown it to be untrue.
Last week, long-running protests in Iraq expressing anger at the government, including over its close ties with Iranian militias led by Soleimani, took a backseat to headlines tracking a siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad. The resulting death of a US contractor at the hands of a militia led by the man who died next to Soleimani was a “red line” for Trump, according to Bloomberg News. For a president who campaigned on drawing down the wars the US has spent decades fighting in the Middle East, he was quick to send more into the breach to help secure the diplomats on the ground. Comparisons were quickly made between Iraq in 2019 and Benghazi in 2012 — however thin and specious, given the vastly different situations.
But that wasn’t enough; a more severe punishment was needed — especially after a Twitter account claiming to be Iran’s supreme leader openly mocked Trump. Bloomberg News reported that a cadre of Trump’s aides began planning the operation even as most of them were scattered for the holidays. In killing Soleimani, Trump was meting out the ultimate payback for making him look weak — and risking the largest escalation in the region since the US first invaded Iraq in 2003.
It’s easy to see how the mission would also appeal to the president’s avarice. In Trump’s mind, the entire operation was likely done on the cheap. One drone, one missile. Boom. No more problem. No costly invasion, no more embassy attacks. Done.
That tracks with the utter obsession Trump has with money in foreign affairs. He’s berated US allies for not paying their fair share in NATO or Ukraine. (Republicans have used the latter as an excuse for the scheme that saw Trump impeached in the House, refusing to hand over almost $400 million in military aid until it benefited his reelection — at least, before he was caught.) Trade deals and the pursuit thereof have been his most pressing initiative in dealing with China, the United Kingdom, and others, even as the trade war he launched against Beijing has cost the US jobs. He’s lambasted the idea of spending US treasure overseas at all, an offshoot of his “America first” policy. And he remains clearly baffled that everyone can’t see things through his almost exclusively economic lens.
The New York Times earlier this week noted as much as it examined Trump’s inability to move the needle on either Iran or North Korea as an election year begins. The latter hasn’t been won over by his promises of beautiful condos along the beachside. His initial instinct toward Kim Jong Un and the young prince’s nuclear weapons involved openly antagonizing North Korea. In speeches and tweets, he promised that after years of former presidents not being taken seriously by Pyongyang, military action was imminent if Kim set one toe out of line. That gave way to Trump attempting to charm North Korea into behaving and giving up its nuclear arsenal after softening the ground with his threats. Pyongyang’s recent warnings — about how its patience is running thin for the US to provide sanctions relief — will test how long Trump’s promises of “fire and fury” can be held at bay once the glimmer of Kim’s praise has finally worn off.
Iran likewise hasn’t capitulated to US demands in the face of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. Instead, it’s only upped its own campaign of retribution for the US abandoning the nuclear deal it signed in 2015, targeting tankers in the Gulf and attacking Saudi Arabia’s largest oil refinery.
In the long run, Trump’s fateful decision to kill Soleimani, taken absent of any consultation of Congress, will fulfill neither of his base desires. The respect he craves will be denied him — rather than leaving the Iranians cowed, experts are sure that reprisals against US interests, personnel, and allies will only increase. Planning for this backlash appears to be minimal from an administration that’s lacked any sort of foresight. And given Trump’s inability to take a loss, the retaliation to these perceived slights from Tehran could prove to be massive — and costly. Both in dollars, as still more money is poured from the US’s coffers in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and in blood. Just whose blood will pay the toll for Soleimani’s death — be it American, Iranian, Iraqi, or other — is still unclear.