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Hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. soldiers in retaliation for the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, President Trump appeared in the White House’s Grand Foyer Wednesday to declare that “Iran appears to be standing down.”
“I’m pleased to inform you the American people should be extremely grateful and happy,” he said.
Trump should be extremely grateful and happy too.
The politics of war are complicated and unpredictable, especially during an election year. Earlier this week, many of Trump’s Republican allies — and even some anxious Democrats — suggested that Americans would rally around the president if tensions with Tehran spiraled into armed conflict.
But that idea was dubious. For every Franklin D. Roosevelt circa 1944 or George W. Bush circa 2002 (approval rating: 85 percent), there’s been a Lyndon B. Johnson circa 1968 or George W. Bush circa 2008 (approval rating: 30 percent). The question is always the same: Do the facts on the ground justify putting troops in harm’s way? Exhausted and skeptical after two decades of Middle East misadventures, Americans have come to oppose foreign interventions in general and war with Iran in particular; in one August survey, only 18 percent favored military action there. The administration’s unreliable and unsubstantiated explanation for why Trump had to kill Soleimani now — to avert an “imminent” attack — seemed unlikely to change many minds. If Trump wound up stumbling into an avoidable and unwanted war, Americans probably wouldn’t reward him at the ballot box.
But if Iran is actually “standing down” after an attack that resulted in “no casualties” and “only minimal damage,” as Trump described it Wednesday, then the president may have dodged a political bullet, at least for now.
That “for now” is important. Short of full-fledged war, the conflict with Iran could play out in other ways in the weeks and months to come. As the New York Times noted Wednesday, “Iran has many proxy groups in the Middle East that could stir trouble in new ways for American troops or American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, and experts remained wary of a possible Iranian cyberstrike on domestic facilities.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made it clear that his country is still determined to drive America out of the Middle East. “Our final answer to [Soleimani’s] assassination will be to kick all US forces out of the region,” Rouhani wrote on Twitter. And as Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out, it’s possible that Iran is acting “with relative restraint now, because the lesson they take from this is they need a nuclear weapon to be safe, and they need to buy time to build it.” Trump reportedly “stunned” his team by selecting the extreme response of killing Soleimani among a menu of options as he was “fuming” over television footage of Iranian-supported mobs storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Right now, no one can predict the long-term cost-benefit tradeoffs of that seemingly rash decision.
But barring further direct, immediate Iranian attacks, the short-term politics seem to be much better for Trump than war would have been. Even before the president’s Wednesday White House address, his reelection campaign was fundraising off the Soleimani killing with email blasts and Facebook ads.
“Thanks to the swift actions of our Commander-in-Chief, Iranian terrorist Qassem Soleimani is no longer a threat to the United States, or to the world,” read an email sent to supporters Monday. (Subject line: “President Trump did the right thing.”) “Finally, we have a President who will do whatever it takes to protect America at home and abroad. Iran’s Terrorist-in-Chief was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, including hundreds of Americans in Iraq. He should have been taken out long ago.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s Republican allies have been parroting that argument while also characterizing critical Democrats as Soleimani sympathizers. “You don’t see anyone standing up for Iran,” said Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “The only ones [who] are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates.”
Haley’s remark is patently false. As Politifact put it, “the five Democrats who have qualified so far for the Jan. 14 debate in Iowa — Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar — all expressed concern about the potential for Trump’s strike on Soleimani to escalate tensions and prompt a rush for war,” but “four of the five” — Sanders was the exception — “prefaced their comments by saying that Soleimani was a dangerous man with blood on his hands” and “none had anything close to praise for him or sympathy for his death.”
If America and Iran were about to go to war — with American troops headed to the Middle East and casualties all but certain — Trump’s potential Democratic rivals would continue to question whether killing Soleimani was worth it. Many Americans would rightly be asking the same question.
But as of Wednesday, at least, that doesn’t seem to be the world we’re living in. Instead, Soleimani is dead, no additional American troops have been killed, Iran is claiming it has “concluded proportionate measures” — and none of the top Democratic contenders have had anything to say about Trump’s White House address.
The right, meanwhile, is crowing. “This president perhaps doesn’t get credit when something goes right,” Fox News host Bret Baier said Wednesday. “Originally, as this all was happening, it was going to be World War III. ‘He's starting World War III, and there’s no strategy here.’ Now, we saw what Iran did in response. We see what the U.S. is saying in response to that. And you wonder whether Trump derangement syndrome factors into some of the responses you hear publicly here in Washington.”
Time will tell whether the fallout from Soleimani’s death — including Iraq’s vote to expel the last 5,000 American troops stationed there and Iran’s announcement that it will no longer abide by any of the operational restraints on its nuclear program — will yield negative foreign-policy consequences for the U.S. But for now it appears that war with Iran isn’t one of them. That’s the best political outcome Trump could have hoped for.
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