Trump wins his standoff with Iran

Democrats warned that President Trump’s decision to take out Iranian terrorist mastermind Qasem Soleimani had put the United States on the path toward a cataclysmic war with Iran. They were dead wrong. Trump won his standoff with Iran.

When Trump drew his red line — warning Tehran that if it killed even one American, the United States would respond militarily against Iran — the regime never expected him to enforce it. His decision to kill Soleimani clearly stunned Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and left his regime chastened. A regime that regularly threatens “Death to America!” and promises to wipe Israel off the face of the earth suddenly embraced proportionality and legality. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would “respond, but we will respond proportionally, not disproportionally. We will respond lawfully, we are not lawless people like President Trump.” Quite a departure for the world’s premier state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran’s retaliation was just as muted as its threats. Tehran could have targeted large, heavily populated U.S. bases across the Persian Gulf, all of which are within range of Iranian missiles. Instead, it fired a handful of missiles at bases in Iraq, in an attack that deliberately did not target American troops. The Iranians warned Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in advance of the attack — a message they knew he would pass on to the United States. To control the outcome, they carried out the strike themselves, rather than relying on Shiite militia proxies in Iraq, who might accidentally kill an American. According to Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin, the Pentagon “believes there was a political decision taken in Tehran NOT to kill Americans … Even within that target, the Iranians chose to hit dirt rather than runways … so as not to escalate militarily.”

The objective appeared to be political, not military. They wanted their people to see Iranian missiles firing at the Americans, without actually killing one — provoking an even more devastating U.S. response. And once it was over, Zarif announced on Twitter that Iran’s response was complete and meekly added that “we do not seek escalation or war.”

In other words, the Iranians blinked. All the overwrought warnings of a U.S.-Iran conflagration were wrong. Trump understood what his critics did not — that the Iranian regime’s No. 1 priority is the preservation of the regime. Before the Soleimani strike, Iran doubted Trump’s resolve. After the Soleimani strike, they knew Trump was serious when the president warned that next time “Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.” Trump has treated Iran for what it is — a bully. When confronted, bullies back down.

Far from provoking war, Trump’s action against Soleimani might have prevented one. Iran had been escalating for months — striking allied oil tankers, U.S. drones and Saudi oil facilities — with no significant U.S. response. This failure to respond emboldened Tehran. Had Trump allowed Iran to get away crossing his red line and killing an American, they would have been further emboldened. Instead, by taking out Soleimani, Trump put the regime on its heels. As the president put it in his address to the nation Wednesday: “For far too long … nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond. Those days are over.”

In his excellent speech, Trump rightly castigated the Obama administration for providing the Iranian regime with billions in sanctions relief as part of its nuclear deal, noting that “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.” He might well have added that Soleimani’s reign of terror was directly subsidized by those funds. When Trump came into office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East — in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen — thanks in part to the money President Barack Obama released. We were promised that the nuclear deal would alter Iran’s malign behavior. Instead, it was an accelerant. With his maximum-pressure campaign, Trump has removed the accelerant. And with his strike against Soleimani, he has eliminated the mastermind of Iran’s proxy wars across the Middle East and restored deterrence. Now he must maintain it.

Read more:

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Updated January 8, 2020

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Andrew Jackson in the Persian Gulf

The Suleimani assassination is the kind of tactic Trump promised his voters — but without a strategy to match.

There’s a witticism that makes the rounds on Twitter whenever Donald Trump does something particularly plutocratic or corrupt, a variation on the following: Look, this is what all those folks in Midwestern diners voted for. The sarcastic point being either that

  • Trump’s populism was a con with blue-collar voters as its mark, or else that
  • Trump’s supporters professed to care about his populist promises only as a means to own the libs.

But with the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, I’m afraid that I must deploy the one-liner seriously: This was, in fact, exactly what a certain kind of Trump supporter voted for — including both the downscale, disaffected conservatives who turned out for him in the primary and the blue-collar Obama-Trump moderates who tipped the Midwest in the general election.

Not the killing of Suleimani specifically; like Trump himself on the campaign trail, some of these voters wouldn’t be able to tell the Quds Force from the Kurds. But the strategic spirit behind the killing, the preference for a single act of vengeance over more ambitious forms of intervention, the belief in the hardest possible counterpunch, the dismissal of norms and rules and cautious habits that constrain the violence that America deals out … all this is what Trump promised in the 2016 campaign, with his simultaneous dismissal of both neoconservatism and liberal internationalism and his pledge to crush America’s enemies by any means.

This combined promise was not a contradiction; it was an expression of a practical philosophy of foreign policy, usefully called Jacksonianism, that many Americans and especially many white and rural and working-class Americans have always tended to embrace.

The phrase “Jacksonian” belongs to the foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, part of a famous typology in which he divides American foreign policy tendencies into four worldviews:

  1. Hamiltonian,
  2. Wilsonian,
  3. Jacksonian and
  4. Jeffersonian.

The worldviews are simplifications (“intended to be suggestive and evocative,” in Mead’s words), and they inevitably frustrate many scholars; nonetheless, they remain a useful way of thinking about how, in our imperial era, American foreign policy tends to work.

The Hamiltonians are the business-minded internationalists, cold-eyed and stability-oriented and wary of wars that seem idealistic rather than self-interested.

The Wilsonians are the idealists, whether neoconservative or liberal-humanitarian, who regard the United States military as a force for spreading democracy and protecting human rights.

  • Most foreign policy elites belong to one of these two groups,
  • both political parties include both tendencies in their upper echelons, and
  • most recent presidencies have been defined by internal conflicts between the two.

But far more American voters are either Jacksonians or Jeffersonians.

The Jeffersonian impulse, more common on the left than on the right, is toward a “come home, America” retreat from empire that regards global hegemony as a corrupting folly and America’s wars as mostly unwise and unjust. (“No blood for oil” is the defining Jeffersonian attitude toward all our Middle Eastern misadventures.) The Jacksonian tendency, more common on the right than on the left, is toward a pugilistic nationalism that’s wary of all international entanglements but ready for war whenever threats arise. (“More rubble, less trouble” is the essential Jacksonian credo.)

Since neither tendency has that much purchase in the imperial capital, it’s a safe bet that at any given moment in Washington, D.C., elites in both political parties will be trying to mobilize Jacksonian or Jeffersonian sentiment to achieve Hamiltonian or Wilsonian ends.

But when elites of both persuasions preside over too many calamities, you can get Jeffersonians and Jacksonians as important presidential contenders in their own right — think of George McGovern and George Wallace when the Vietnam War went bad. And when one party’s elite loses control of the electoral process entirely, it turns out that you can get an actual Jacksonian in the White House.

Yes, not everything Trump has done fits Mead’s paradigm — but a great deal of what makes him different from previous presidents is plainly Jacksonian.

  • A Hamiltonian wouldn’t have saber-rattled so wildly against North Korea;
  • a Wilsonian wouldn’t be so subsequently eager for a deal with such an odious regime.
  • A Hamiltonian wouldn’t be as eager for an extended trade war with China;
  • a Wilsonian would speak out more clearly against Beijing’s human rights abuses instead of just treating them as one more bargaining chip.
  • Trump’s bureaucracy-impeded attempts to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan are patently Jacksonian;
  • likewise his disdain for his predecessor’s negotiations on climate change. His
  • eagerness to pardon war criminals and
  • threaten war crimes, meanwhile, are Jacksonianism at its worst.

What is the best of Jacksonianism? I would say it’s the capacity to identify and prioritize threats, an area where Wilsonians get way too expansive and ambitious (“make the world safe for democracy,” “an end to evil”), while Hamiltonians sometimes let realpolitik blind them to ideological enmities that can’t be negotiated away.

To the extent that Trump’s foreign policy has been a useful corrective to his predecessors, and better than what other Republican candidates might have offered, it’s been because of his attempts at just such a prioritization. The execution has been, inevitably, Trumpy, but the goals —

  • drawing down in Syria and Central Asia,
  • confronting China while de-escalating with North Korea,
  • burden-shifting to other NATO powers in Europe while
  • keeping our relationship with Russia cool but short of Cold War hostility — are more strategically reasonable than the Bushian and Clintonite forms of interventionism that Trump campaigned against.

But in Trump’s Iran policy we may be seeing the limits of Jacksonianism, or at least a Jacksonianism that operates in strategic contexts that its own impulses did not create.

The Iranian government is indeed our enemy, to an extent that the Hamiltonians in the Obama administration sometimes underestimated, and in that sense Trump’s hawkishness toward the mullahs fits with his Jacksonian approach. But the Tehran regime’s capacity and inclination to cause problems for America also reflect our regional presence, posture and alliances, which mostly exist to advance a kind of mixtape of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian grand strategies

  • access to Middle Eastern oil, the
  • promotion of democracy and human rights, and
  • regime change in Tehran itself.

None of these are naturally Jacksonian goals, especially now that America is more energy independent than when the Carter Doctrine was formulated or the first Iraq War fought. Were America’s Iran policy fully Jacksonian we might still be at loggerheads with Tehran, but we wouldn’t be nearly so invested in projecting power in the Persian Gulf, and there would be fewer natural flash points and fewer targets for Iranian attacks.

But so long as Trump is working within an inherited Hamiltonian-Wilsonian strategic framework, his Jacksonian tactical approach — in the Suleimani case, picking the most surprising and dramatic option on the military board of retaliatory options — is unlikely to serve his official goal of escaping endless Middle Eastern entanglements. Instead, it points to either

  • a permanent retaliatory cycle with the Iranians — we hit hard, they hit hard, we hit a little harder, ad infinitum — or else
  • disastrous ground war in a nonessential theater, the least Jacksonian of ends.

Precisely because I think Trump’s Jacksonianism is fundamentally sincere, I don’t think the full-scale war scenario is particularly likely. And since I’ve written numerous columns, before his election and since, about Trump as geopolitical destabilizer without anything as bad as Obama’s still-unfolding Libya folly yet ensuing, it’s important to stress that the fallout from the Suleimani gambit could be less dramatic than the panicked punditry expects. Indeed, if the dead general was really the Islamic Republic’s Stonewall Jackson, its asymmetric strategy’s indispensable man, then over the long run his death might benefit American interests more than any subsequent escalation hurts them.

But the most likely near-term consequence of Suleimani’s death is an escalation in hostilities that looks to most Americans like more of the endless war that Trump campaigned against. In which case some war-weary voters might decide that if they really want out of futile Middle Eastern conflicts electing a ruthless Jacksonian is not enough; only a peace-seeking Jeffersonian will do.

And it just so happens that a genuine left-wing Jeffersonian, Bernie Sanders, is currently near the top of the Democratic field, contending with Joe Biden, the embodiment of the Hamiltonian-Wilsonian elite dialectic despite his blue-collar lingo, in an increasingly spirited foreign policy debate.

If the establishment’s follies gave us Trump’s Jacksonian presidency, in other words, the question before the Democratic electorate is whether the perils of Trumpism require that we give that establishment another chance — or whether putting a Jeffersonian in charge of an empire built by Hamiltonians and Wilsonians is the only reasonable option left.

Donald Trump’s Iran Show

He has a nose for power, and he thinks Tehran is weaker than Obama understood.

President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.

The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.

None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.

This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.

Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.

The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.

The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.

In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.

Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.

Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.

Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.