The new year, and the new decade, opened with a potential game-changer for the presidency of Donald Trump: the Jan. 3 drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport which killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Some of Trump’s toughest critics, from political scientist Ian Bremmer to conservative author and scholar Tom Nichols, have offered at least qualified praise for this move and for the subsequent choice to avoid further escalation. If the strike helps deter Iran’s Islamist regime from hostile actions toward the United States and curb its role in the region, it will indeed be a win for Trump, the United States, and the world — and Trump should get the credit regardless of how one judges the rest of his performance. Unfortunately, this president’s lack of credibility and moral authority is already undercutting this potential win even before the consequences of the strike have fully played out.
There is no question that Soleimani was, to put it crudely, a very bad guy. As commander of Iran’s Quds Force, which conducts military operations and clandestine activities outside Iran’s borders, he was directly responsible for attacks that killed thousands in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere; as Nichols put it, “he helped to turn entire regions of the Middle East into a charnel house.” He also coordinated recent attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and numerous past attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
So far, fears that the strike would lead to all-out war have proved groundless. Iran’s retaliatory strike against a U.S. base in Iraq was carefully calculated not to kill any Americans. The United States has refrained from further action. While some pundits have suggested that the Iranian side has shown more wisdom and restraint than the American side, this charitable assessment is tough to defend given Iran’s shootdown of a Ukrainian passenger plane which left 176 dead — and the initial lies about the cause of the crash.
The public grief at Soleimani’s death in Iran led many to conclude that his killing would strengthen popular support for the regime. But that may not be the case. Days later, vast numbers took to the streets in anti-government protests after the admission that the plane was shot down.
If the protests force liberalization, the brave Iranians will certainly deserve most of the credit — but U.S. action will have played a role. A Farsi-language message of solidarity with the Iranian people sent from Trump’s Twitter account got more than 100,000 “likes.” For Iranian dissidents such as Shay Khatiri, a writer for the staunchly “Never Trump” conservative website The Bulwark, Trump’s hawkish Iran stance is preferable to what they regard as former President Barack Obama’s regime-enabling outreach and deal-making. When Democrats blocked a House resolution condemning Iran for killing protesters and shooting down the plane, it was a self-defeating exercise in anti-Trump spite.
But there are still many “ifs.” Regime change may not mean the triumph of pro-freedom forces. Iran’s refusal to escalate hostilities may prove to be a temporary lull to bide time. Our presence in Iraq, which the administration clearly has no intention of ending, may grow much more precarious.
Meanwhile, whatever goodwill Trump may have earned from some critics has already been squandered by the administration’s apparent (and needless) lies about an imminent threat to justify the Soleimani strike, its unconstitutional refusal to advise Congress on the airstrike, and repugnant suggestions that the Democratic leadership is pro-Iran.
In other words, it’s business as usual. This was not the month Trump truly became a real president.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.