U.S. President Donald Trump wanted to avoid getting entangled in another war in the Middle East after the American failure in Iraq and the 18-year war in Afghanistan. He knew that American public opinion despises military adventures far from home and so he hoped to make do with belligerent rhetoric and sanctions against Iran while throwing bones of support to Saudi Arabia and Israel. But like his predecessors over the last half-century, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Trump discovered that the Middle East imposes itself on American foreign policy even when that superpower is no longer dependent on oil from the region and despite its justified tendency to focus on the Chinese challenge in Asia.
Trump’s lack of military response to the destruction of oil installations in Saudi Arabia in an Iranian assault in September raised deep concern among friends of the United States in the region. The Israeli security establishment was afraid of remaining exposed to Qassem Soleimani and his plots. It counted the missiles that Iran could launch from its territory directly against Israel and warned that the next war was coming closer. The weakness the United States showed was seen – and rightly so – as a temptation to Iran to raise the stakes and be more daring.
– Haaretz Weekly Ep. 55
Listen: Under Trump, haters don’t need an excuse to attack Jews. Ep. 55
The clash was not long coming over control in Iraq, which is perceived in Iran as a client state, and in the United States as an essential outpost. After a series of events in distant places, the Iranians targeted the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It is not hard to imagine the political outcome of another hostage crisis in Tehran, after the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by Iranian students in 1979: a catastrophe for Trump’s reelection, the way President Jimmy Carter retired after one term following his failure to secure the release of the captive diplomats. And if that’s too far back in history for Trump and his aides, they certainly remember the mortal blow against their nemesis Hillary Clinton after the fatal assault on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in 2012.
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The killing of Soleimani turned back the wheel. Trump made it clear that the United States will remain in the area and is committed to its interests here. The choice of target and the implementation were brilliant: a target that everyone knows, without harming civilians and without American casualties, along with total surprise and immediate taking of credit. The president apparently realized that the political price of inaction would be greater than criticism over the risk of war and entanglement that came from his Democratic opponents as well as from Republican separatists. His belated response – that the action was intended to prevent a war, not spark one – was foreseeable and unconvincing.
A strategic error
Soleimani apparently believed his own PR, the admirers who shared his photos and the enemies who glorified him. There’s no doubt that he was a courageous commander and that his frequent and well-publicized visits to the front lines strengthened his position among his accomplices and those under his command. His open movements in the Baghdad airport with his militia commanders showed an overabundance of confidence and disregard for basic security rules.