Analysis

To Avert War With Iran, Trump Will Need All the Strong Nerves and Sophistication He Sorely Lacks

Trump pounced on an opportunity to prove Baghdad is no Benghazi and he’s no Obama/Clinton

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a sign depicting 'Never give up!' as he gives his speech to evangelical supporters in Miami, Florida, U.S., January 3, 2020.
REUTERS/Eva Marie Uzcategui

The U.S. has hit Iran where it hurts. The killing of Iranian military hero and arch-terrorist Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani sullies the Iranian leadership’s image and prestige. It could also hamper Tehran’s efforts to export terror and exercise power throughout the Middle East.

If the U.S. president was anyone other than Donald Trump, one could validly claim that the targeted assassination of Soleimani has made the world a safer place. With Trump at the helm, the opposite could be true.

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Trump’s devoted fans, in the United States and in Israel, enthusiastically cheered the assassination, but in most world capitals, as well as in at least half of America, the main reaction was apprehension and anxiety. Many of those who welcomed Soleimani’s removal don’t believe Trump is capable of handling the unavoidable consequences of – and fallout from – his own decision.

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Trump has reassured Americans the U.S. isn’t seeking war, but he has peculiar way of avoiding it. After long months of passivity or lackluster responses to Iranian aggression, Trump didn’t make do with a measured response. He went straight for the Iranian regime’s jugular. If war breaks out between Iran and the U.S., the death of Soleimani will be seen as its opening salvo.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has asserted that the missile attack on Soleimani’s convoy came in response to an “imminent threat.” If that were the case, Trump’s response would seem reasonable, at least by Israeli standards. But that would be out of character, an exception to the rule and to his past conduct.

A far more plausible explanation is that Trump was driven, as usual, by his insatiable and amoral ego. U.S. pundits have described the attack as a diversionary tactic that would shift attention away from Trump’s impeachment proceedings. Another possibility is that it was last week’s assault by Shi’ite demonstrators on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that grabbed Trump’s attention and made him change his hitherto isolationist tune.

Protesters demonstrate over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Tehran, Iran, January 4, 2020
AP/Ebrahim Noroozi

The very word “embassy” must have caught Trump’s otherwise muddled attention. Here was a chance for Trump to prove that he’s no wimp, as Jimmy Carter was perceived in the wake of the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Closer to home and to Trump’s heart, here was a golden opportunity to upstage both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and to prove himself far more forceful and avenging than they were in the wake of the 2012 storming of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, in which four American, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.

The contrast with Obama and Clinton was the overriding theme of the widespread plaudits Trump received from his local fan club in Israel. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opposition came out in support of the killing. Israelis were actually perplexed that their near-unanimous salute to a fierce enemy of both countries was not emulated in the U.S. itself. They castigated Democrats for criticizing their president instead of saluting him. Their animosity toward the president, Israelis surmised, has clouded their judgment.

Israelis tend to forget, however, that unlike their country, the U.S. is not in a state of perpetual conflict and that U.S. public opinion does not view any and all military operations as inherently wise and just, as they tend to. Israelis are also unaware of the bitter legacy of the Iraq War and the instinctive resistance, at least in liberal circles, to administrations that could lead the U.S. to another war.

More importantly, after being indoctrinated by their prime minister to view Trump as Israel’s hero and savior, Israelis cannot fathom the utter lack of confidence in Trump’s ability to navigate the difficult days ahead. Soleimani’s assassination, after all, is a radical deviation from Trump’s previous approach. It is perceived in most world capitals as a capricious and reckless move by an inexperienced yet arrogant president, whose ego was probably inflated even more by the success of the operation.

In order to deal with an Iran hell-bent on exacting revenge without embroiling the U.S. in a war that it doesn’t want, Trump will need all the sophistication, patience and strong nerves that he lacks. Small wonder that rather than rejoicing, many Americans are terrified.