President Trump’s gamble of ordering the assassination of an Iranian warlord to prove his own toughness, and then dismissing Iran’s retaliation as bloodless, may allow him to walk away politically unscathed from his latest act of military adventurism.
His thinly verified contention that no American lives or casualties resulted from the Iranian missile attacks on two Iraqi air bases at which U.S. troops were stationed has enabled him to declare victory in the brief encounter that has all the earmarks of a kabuki waltz.
Remaining are public and political questions about his reliance on many misrepresentations, serial lies and unvarnished boastfulness that casts everything he says and does in doubt. Never has an American president’s word been held in lower esteem by millions of his countrymen and beyond.
From the start of the current crisis, Trump’s insistence that the threat to U.S. military forces from Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was “imminent” drew many raised eyebrows, particularly among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who saw it as another political foil to boost his re-election prospects.
Trump in defending his action tied it to his determination to deny Iran access to nuclear weapons, in line with his withdrawal from the deal struck by his predecessor Barack Obama, which has become a pet Trump peeve.
The president stated that “Iran appears to be standing down” rather than continuing reprisals for the death of Soleimani, adding that no American lives were lost “because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early-warning system that worked very well.”
But he thereby ignored two subsequent rocket attacks on the Green Zone in Baghdad where other U.S. troops are based, signaling he was willing for the time being to blink at that further challenge. Instead, he promised imposition of more unspecified economic sanctions on Iran.
Once again, as in the past, Trump placed at Obama’s feet the Iranian nuclear weapons impasse. He falsely alleged that the missiles fired “at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”
He also took the occasion to needle the key NATO allies for failing to join in his determination to scrap remnants of the original Iranian nuclear deal. Trump seemed in his speech to be personally pivoting from the post-World War II focus on building and preserving the Western alliance across Europe. He pressed the NATO countries to do more to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone, thereby preventing Iran from achieving regional dominance there.
“Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East,” he said, “as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred and war. The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward.”
Such language from Trump conveyed a mixed message: that he is willing for now to declare a truce of sorts, but with a caveat that the fight over Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons will be waged by whatever means, as long as he remains the shepherd of America’s broad military power.
For now he appears to have averted a political crisis created by his own impulse, in a role for which he is a rank amateur groping for a safe harbor.
In the end, what is at stake is not just Trump’s political survival but also the fate of our now unhinged nation, staggering under his utter incompetence into an uncertain and perilous future.
More than ever, the 2020 presidential election looms as a test of this democratic self-government’s ability to overcome the damage that Donald Trump has wrought.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.