Much criticism has been levied against US President Donald Trump for his January 3 targeted killing of General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Concerns have ranged from retaliatory attacks against the US, angering European allies, embroiling Washington in a prolonged war with Tehran, and deepening America’s involvement in the Middle East amid little public appetite for such endeavors.
Yet had Trump not acted against Soleimani at some point, it would have reinforced the narrative that the Islamic Republic could continue attacking the US and its interests without any consequences amid its decades-long quest to become the region’s predominant power.
Some critics have alleged that Trump had not thought through the consequences of Soleimani’s killing and that it will result in America’s allies being targeted by Iranian proxies and Iran abandoning its existing commitments to the world community.
Others have castigated him for going beyond the stated US mission in Iraq, which is countering Islamic State, arguing that Soleimani’s killing was mission creep.
While some of these worries are understandable and have been realized – such as Iran deciding to abandon the nuclear deal – Trump is unlikely to involve the US in a drawn-out conflict resembling that of the Iraq war. A critic of “endless wars,” he is loath to involve the US in hostilities that will inflict heavy American casualties. This is due to both his libertarian leanings on war as well as his determination to keep in good stead with his political support as the presidential election approaches.
A broader war could also damage the strong US economy during this critical time for the Trump campaign.
The message that the Trump administration sent with Soleimani’s killing is that terrorists who seek to harm US citizens and its allies will be targeted. Gone are the days of attacks without consequences.
In one sense, few should have been surprised by Trump’s operation that took out Soleimani. For the better part of a year, the Trump administration has repeatedly called on Tehran to stop its threats and malign behavior toward US interests. It also bears saying that the January 3 strike was consistent with his administration’s October 27 elimination of another nemesis, Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in Syria’s Idlib province.
Yet Iran may have been lulled into a state of overconfidence and assumed that there would be no ramifications for its recent hostile acts given Trump’s restraint in 2019. Over the past six months, there had been no American responses to three high-profile Iranian acts of aggression, namely the June 13 attack on two Japanese oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the June 20 shooting down of an unarmed US Global Hawk surveillance drone that had been flying in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz, and the September 14 drone attack on the Saudi Aramco oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, in the two months leading up to Soleimani’s killing, Shiite militias staged 11 attacks on Iraqi bases where US forces are located, none of which elicited US retaliatory measures.
Arguably, Trump’s order to take out Soleimani was overdue. As a chief executive whose constitutional duties involve protecting the American people, Trump had no choice but to act against the terror mastermind. The January 3 operation at Baghdad Airport was critical in its timing given the imminent attacks on US citizens and interests that Soleimani was actively planning and directing.
After the Barack Obama administration’s accommodating diplomacy toward Tehran that ignored the malign nature of the Iranian regime, the Trump administration has rightly communicated that Iran will be confronted and held accountable for attacks against the West.
Going forward, the Trump administration will need to continue with operations that eliminate immediate threats of bad actors who are planning, funding and conducting terror attacks against Americans. This should involve a long-term strategy of containment of Iran by working with friendly regional states (Gulf Arab allies and Israel) and deterrence with overwhelming military capabilities.
A failure to do so could invite additional Iranian strikes and leave President Trump vulnerable to criticism that he is impotent on foreign policy and contributing to chaos in the Middle East as he seeks re-election.
The objective will be for Trump to avoid getting involved in a costly direct war with Iran while still doing what is necessary to protect the United States at a time when American voters are war-weary and want out of foreign entanglements.
While polls consistently indicate opposition to prolonged US involvement in the Middle East, Trump is likely to maintain his base of support if he responds to Iranian aggression effectively and campaigns as a strong commander-in-chief who is protecting the American people from a rogue regime.