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.
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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.