Last week, amidst a sleepy news cycle, with the Speaker of the House unwilling to move impeachment forward and campaign trails news few and far between, the Trump administration dropped a bombshell when they admitted they were behind the drone strike which killed Quds forces commander General Qassem Soleimani. The move, far from being a random strike , was specifically targeted at Soleimani after an attack at a US base in Iraq wounded a dozen soldiers and killed an American contractor.
But, since that time, the administration has hardly ratcheted up the conflict. Instead, the President, when offered the opportunity to further the conflict, even after an Iranian missile attack on a US base occurred, did not. It does help the Iranian attack was limited in nature and caused no injuries and little damage.
The administration’s actions, other than upsetting liberals, who were fine with drone strikes under Obama but now worry Trump will start World War III, are in keeping with trump’s very unconventional policy on foreign policy. He will respond to attacks on US interests and materials heavily, but he will not go overboard. This is important when people are acting like Trump just became George W Bush II.
Let’s keep in mind here Trump did not become President as a dove or a hawk. He became President as a Jacksonian. For reference, The Jacksonian label is the famous construction of foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, who traces the tradition to Andrew Jackson and the cultural influence of the American backwoods. Jacksonians are content to let the world sort itself out, except if they perceive a threat, in which case they react with great ferocity.
Remember Trump campaigning on how the Iraq War was a mistake…..wait for it, because we did not take their oil. Or, how NATO or the UN are not very valuable…..because they do not pay their fair share. These are very Jacksonian traits of not being the world’s policemen and paying for others wars and defense. Trump was elected on these ideas and not because of them.
Even when Trump was hostile to foreign commitments he promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” and campaigned on limiting foreign entanglements. It should be noted, after Trump became President, he sure did “bomb the shit out of ISIS.”
Comparing Trump to neocons misses the point which is what the media does well. Trump’s strike on Soleimani was wholly in keeping with the President’s worldview which you cannot plot on an axis of pro-war/anti-war, dove/hawk, interventionist/non-interventionist. As a Jacksonian, at least in action, Trump combines the willingness to strike our enemies instantly but not get engaged in protracted foreign conflicts, as true neocons would like.
Indeed, the killing of Soleimani is in keeping with the Jacksonian tendency more than running against it. In particular, with Iran, Trump’s red line has always been more about not harming Americans.
Yet, what likely precipitated the strike, the aforementioned rocket strike which killed an American contractor and wounded US soldiers, conducted by a known Iranian backed militia, clearly crossed that line. The result was very Jacksonian in nature. Strike the heart of the beast in full-force, getting the biggest bang for the buck, and creating the maximum deterrent.
The nature of the strike, very limited, also fits with Trump’s tendencies. It also helps the President’s team was right in figuring Iran had little support to start an armed conflict with the US. The neutered reaction of Iran to launch an ineffective missile strike which the US knew was coming shows this.
Even Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, before and after the strike, are Jacksonian. His inconsistencies on being able to hit Iranian cultural sites if Tehran kills our people is reminiscent of the no-holds barred attitudes of Jacksonians around war. His threat of making Iraq pay us back for their liberation if they eject us from their country (take their oil) is also reflective of the Jacksonian attitude of ensuring US interests are promoted. Yet, when necessary, and it no longer benefits the country, Trump is perfectly willing to do a press conference to assure the nation we are not going to war, and take the political credit and heat.
This is why complaints from the President’s populist backers he has been co-opted by warmongers is wrong. It ignores the mountain of previous evidence Trump is not a warmonger (remember he even called off an earlier strike on Iranian targets). It also forgets Trump never promised he would never get involved in foreign entanglements or let blood stained foreign officials off the hook for their actions. If Trump had said any of those things, I suspect we would all do a double-take.
The killing of Soleimani even has political benefits for the President. His base loves the impact of the strike with very little cost. Foreign leaders in the Arab world can boast all they want about how this is solely a US action and we bear the consequences, but exactly what are those again? Further, the only people up in revolt about the strike are the same people who never would give the President the benefit of the doubt anyway (liberals who are fine with these strikes as long as a Democrat is in charge and libertarians who oppose it generally). At least the libertarians are more principled.
Geo-politically, the move isolates Iran more. Iran’s bluff has now been called when they show they are powerless to stop US attacks on their top leaders and unable to mitigate the damage from US sanctions they showcase their empty hand. The best Iran can do is state they are abandoning a nuclear agreement the current administration already admitted they would not renew. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is already back at pressuring Iran to back away from its nuclear program.
However, lighting strikes and Jacksonian tendencies are not enough so solve such a complex geopolitical scenario alone. Then again, no foreign policy worldview has been either. Rather, the elimination of Soleimani is a reflection of the Trump worldview and the advisers who make it a reality.