January 8, 2020

While previous US presidents knew killing Iran’s top general wasn’t worth the risk or repercussions, Donald Trump has a unique approach to foreign policy, writes David Lipson.


Why did Donald Trump provoke Iran into striking US troops?

Updated

There are countless questions about US President Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate one of the Middle East’s most powerful and important figures, Qassem Soleimani.

Did he know it would lead to the sort of retaliation we saw today, with Iran sending a dozen ballistic missiles to bases housing US troops in Iraq?

Did he think about how it’d affect his alliances around the world?

Perhaps foremost is why now? What was so special about the recent events, when US-Iran tensions had been escalating for months?

The Iranian General hadn’t been hiding out like terrorist leaders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Osama Bin Laden.

He moved freely and fairly openly throughout the Middle East and posted regularly enough on social media.

Former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama were presented with similar options to take out the Iranian General but both decided it wasn’t worth the risk or repercussions.

Without going into detail, Mr Trump said he acted because General Soleimani was planning a “big attack and very bad attack”.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted an attack was “imminent” but, when asked for details, pointed to events that happened before the US drone strike — namely a rocket attack on the US embassy in Iraq that caused the death of an American contractor.

Mr Pompeo went on to describe “continuing efforts” by General Soleimani to build a “network of campaign activities” that would “potentially” lead to the death of many more Americans.

This fairly vague language sounded exactly like the activities General Soleimani had been involved in for decades.

So, again, why now?

Some clues about what was on Trump’s mind

A New York Times report suggested Mr Trump initially rejected the Soleimani option on December 28.

“A few days later, Mr Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the American embassy in Baghdad,” the report said.

Then, on the way into New Year’s Eve celebrations at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the President promised: “This will not be a Benghazi.”

It was a reference to the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Libya, in which America’s ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other officials were killed.

The tragic events dogged Mr Obama’s presidency and hurt Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

“Benghazi never should have happened. This will never, ever be a Benghazi,” Mr Trump declared last week.

On January 2, he gave the order.

The world was shocked by Trump’s decision

There’s no doubt Iran was flummoxed by the surprise hit on its most powerful and important military man.

But so were America’s allies.

Germany is now reducing its troop numbers in Iraq, citing “security reasons”.

An international NATO training force has moved more than half of its 500 personnel to safer sites outside of Baghdad for the same reasons.

Some European diplomats have expressed fears the troop movements will diminish attempts to fight the Islamic State terrorist group.

According to reports, even Mr Trump’s own military advisers were “stunned” he took the most extreme of the options presented to him.

The bungled release of an unsigned letter, which suggested the US was preparing to pull its troops out of Iraq (it’s not), reeks of an administration caught on the hop and struggling to catch up with the realities of a situation in danger of spiralling out of control.

America’s allies in the Middle East are unimpressed, to say the least.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defence Minister raised eyebrows in Washington by tweeting photos of a meeting with Mr Trump in the White House yesterday.

Unusually, Mr Trump’s press team made no mention of the meeting.

Khalid bin Salman said he was there to, “deliver a message from the Crown Prince, and review aspects of our bilateral cooperation”, but offered no further details about what that meant.

Australia could play a role in future conflict

Australia, too, is no doubt seeking clarity on Mr Trump’s strategy going forward, if there is one.

The ABC understands Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the unfolding situation in the Middle East when the President called to offer sympathy about the Australian bushfires.

When Mr Pompeo stepped up to a news conference today, he started by addressing the Australian bushfires.

Sending “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, Mr Pompeo spoke of the “truly unbreakable alliance” between Australia and the US.

No-one is suggesting his comments were anything more than a heartfelt message of support to a friend in distress.

But, coming ahead of a news conference about potential conflict with Iran, they did make some old wounds itch.

Australians would be right to be nervous about the prospect of being dragged into war in the Middle East … again.

If history is any guide, Australia would be unlikely to resist any US request for military assistance if the current tensions descended into open conflict.

There are a lot of “ifs” and “maybes” in such a scenario, but things are moving quickly.

Iran has described the strike against General Soleimani as an “act of war”.

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said America was “not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one”.

Thankfully, they’re trading threats, not bombs.

But right now, it’s hard to see how de-escalation can precede escalation.

What could happen next?

If Mr Trump has a broader strategy going forward, it isn’t clear at this time.

As usual, everyone has to try and make an educated guess as to what this famously erratic President will do next, especially now Iran has warned additional attacks may be coming.

Perhaps we should look at the way the President plays golf for some direction.

In an interview with Golf Digest in 2017, Mr Trump said: “I never really wanted to know a lot about my technique. I really trust instinct a lot, in golf and a lot of things.”

Instinct is fine for a game that involves hitting a little white ball up a fairway.

It’s a high-risk strategy if you’re trying to avoid war by staying two moves ahead of a nation that invented modern chess.

Topics: world-politics, unrest-conflict-and-war, iraq, iran-islamic-republic-of, united-states

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