Why you should care
Because Trump took the off-ramp to war … for now.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was famously described as a comparative dove to Hillary Clinton’s hawk. This was true in some respects, but like anything else with our president, it can be hard to find the core in a swirl of contradiction. Trump has a reflexively skeptical view of American military entanglements overseas and often talks of pulling our troops out of this place or that. But he also is keen on violence: He wanted to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State, bring back torture and — as in all else — counterpunch hard.
So he did with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, using a drone strike to kill the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, whom many believed was the second most powerful man in the country. This was part of an escalating series of retaliations after Iran’s proxies killed an American contractor in Iraq. (Trump reportedly tried unsuccessfully to also take out Abdul Reza Shahla’i, Soleimani’s deputy, in Yemen.)
The stunning slaying seemed to bring America to the brink of war. Iran provided Trump with a carefully calibrated off-ramp with a counterstrike on a U.S. base that resulted in no American or Iraqi casualties. And Trump took it. On Wednesday morning, with his top military brass standing stone-faced behind him for visual effect, Trump vowed new sanctions in response to the attack but nothing more. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” the president said.
By week’s end, we appeared to have returned to essentially the pre-assassination status quo, though with an enormous question mark remaining of how Iran might strike back in a deniable way through its proxies.
As always, there’s ample noise, fueled by a bellicose Twitter account. Trump threatened war crimes against Iran by destroying its cultural sites. His administration has struggled to explain why striking Soleimani was so urgent and necessary, with even Republican senators frustrated at a lack of detail in describing his supposedly “imminent” threat.
But these kerfuffles will fade before long. Expect the campaign trail message to continue along the lines of: A bad guy is dead at Trump’s hand, just like Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi before him.
In taking a risk his predecessors would not, Trump has scored a success — so far.
Trump’s pullout of the Iran nuclear deal has led to increasing tensions in the last couple of years, and killing Soleimani has only hardened the Iranian people against the U.S., if the crowds for his funeral are any indication. This conflict could certainly flare again before November.
One of the avenues Democrats hope to exploit is from voters who are tired of the white-knuckle news cycles of the Trump era. Take Bruce Manning, 60, a farmer I met at a recent event for Elizabeth Warren in Maquoketa, Iowa. He voted for Trump in 2016. “I got drawn to Trump because he’s a businessman, not tied up with the politicians,” Manning says. But now he says, “I fucked up,” and he’s doing everything he can to get Trump out. “The foreign affairs has scared the hell out of me,” Manning says, from the flailing in the Middle East to the trade war with China that’s hurt his business.
While many voters like Manning might be tired of the “chaos,” what you’ll see Trump focus on now — aside from demonizing his opponents as no one else can — is proving that his erratic, “madman” style produces wins.
Even Democrats admit Soleimani was a bad guy. After a painful tariff tit-for-tat in the past couple of years, Trump is set to sign a “phase one” trade deal with China this week that is said to include new protections for intellectual property and forced technology transfer — critical priorities for American businesses, though skepticism abounds on the follow-through.
Donald the Dove still commands U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and many other dangerous locations around the world. But he’s still not quite a hawk. Instead, shifting with each piece of advice or TV segment, he keeps us off guard. Let’s leave it, then, as Donald the Chameleon.