The Day After Russia Attacks
What War in Ukraine Would Look Like—and How America Should Respond
At 9:00 PM on September 24, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron waited on a secure line to speak with U.S. President Donald Trump. Macron was in New York for the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. But he wasn’t calling about UN business that night. In the previous 48 hours, he had met three times with the U.S. president and twice with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. His aim: to broker the first direct and official contact between leaders of the two adversaries since 1978. Now he was about to leave for Paris, and he had bad news for Trump. The Iranian leader had gotten cold feet at the last minute. According to French sources, Trump thanked Macron for his effort and encouraged him to keep trying.
At the time of Macron’s call with Trump, a political tornado had already begun to swirl around a different Trump call to a different world leader. Earlier that day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, had announced the start of an official impeachment inquiry, the fourth in U.S. history and the third since 1973. Leaks about the existence of a whistleblower complaint from within the intelligence community had prompted Trump to admit, implicitly, that he had raised unsubstantiated corruption allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The whistleblower complaint was not yet public, but Trump’s partial acknowledgement of rumors that he had sought dirt on the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president jolted the cumbersome machinery of impeachment into motion once again.
Macron no doubt knew that Trump was in political trouble. And his gesture in trying to open a line of communication to Rouhani was not purely or even primarily an altruistic one. The Europeans had watched helplessly in 2018 as the Trump administration junked the meticulously negotiated 2015 U.S.-European nuclear deal with Iran in favor of a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions. European companies, including France’s Total and Airbus, had rushed to do business with Iranian firms after the 2015 deal, which lifted many international sanctions. Now those French investments were at risk.
Iran had also begun harassing ships in the Persian Gulf and incrementally violating the terms of the now defunct nuclear accord—taking calculated steps toward developing a nuclear weapon. In August, Macron had tried to get Trump and the Iranians talking again at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France. But the effort had failed, and on September 14, Iranian drones struck state-owned oil production facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. With tensions between the United States and Iran at risk of boiling over into open hostilities, the French leader had plenty of reasons to hope for a diplomatic breakthrough.
Trump had his own reasons for seeking a historic meeting with Rouhani. On the morning of September 24, the day of his call with Macron, Trump tweeted, “I am currently at the United Nations representing our Country, but have authorized the release tomorrow of the complete, fully declassified and unredacted transcript of my phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine.” Perhaps Trump thought that a pathbreaking conversation with Rouhani would overshadow that earlier call with Zelensky. But the hoped-for meeting with Iran’s leader never materialized. Nor did the unredacted transcript. Instead, the Trump administration released an edited and incomplete record of the call. Even that was incriminating: it revealed that the president had asked as a “favor” for an investigation of two bogus conspiracy theories, the first about Ukrainian involvement in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the second about Biden’s supposed interference in Ukraine’s criminal justice system on behalf of his son, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company from 2014 to 2019. Instead of alleviating suspicions, the record of the call only added to the momentum behind the Democrats’ impeachment investigation.
During the United States’ two previous impeachment crises of the superpower era—President Richard Nixon’s in 1973–74 and President Bill Clinton’s in 1998–99—one could have reasonably asked whether the domestic constitutional challenge to the president would affect U.S. foreign relations. In 2019, that question was moot, because for the first time in U.S. history, impeachment proceedings arose out of the president’s conduct of foreign affairs. Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rival—as well as his administration’s efforts to manage the resulting impeachment investigation by misrepresenting Trump’s actions with regard to Ukraine—shattered the traditional wall between domestic politics and foreign policy.
Trump’s impeachment crisis was the first to seriously damage the foreign policy apparatus of the United States.
Both Nixon and Clinton tested and occasionally breached that wall, looking abroad for foreign policy achievements when their presidencies came under threat at home. But Trump never acknowledged the existence of the wall in the first place. Faced with the prospect of impeachment, he made dramatic adjustments to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and struck an unfavorable trade deal with China—all to boost his flagging domestic popularity.
Trump’s impeachment crisis was also the first to seriously damage the foreign policy apparatus of the United States. During Nixon’s impeachment saga, his foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, filled a vacuum created by a near-paralyzed president. In the Clinton era, the national security team did the opposite, following the energetic leadership of a president who largely stayed the course on foreign policy. But during the Trump impeachment crisis, the president went to war, privately and publicly, with the national security establishment—a reaction, no doubt, to the fact that the whistleblower was probably a national security professional, as were many of those who complied with House subpoenas to testify against Trump. And with their indifference to the rot exposed by the Ukraine scandal, the leaders of Trump’s foreign policy team—the largely invisible National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien and the energetically partisan Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—revealed their contempt for the very notion of traditional U.S. diplomatic principles.
The president’s defense did even greater damage to the United States’ ability to project “soft power” around the globe. Trump and his official defenders—elected members of Congress and his lawyers—argued that there was essentially nothing wrong with a president using foreign policy to advance his personal political agenda. The world’s dictatorships might be cynically receptive to such an admission. But an American president who is for sale is not one whom democratic U.S. allies will look to for global leadership. To those in the U.S. administration who stood up for old-fashioned ideals such as the national interest, Trump reacted with a scorched-earth campaign of derisive and threatening tweets, dampening morale across the national security and intelligence bureaucracy and denting his credibility abroad.
Trump’s initial reaction to the threat of impeachment was to attempt to reduce the possibility of foreign trouble. Not only did he hope for a breakthrough meeting with Rouhani but he sought further disengagement from the entire Middle East, a region from which as a presidential candidate he had promised to withdraw U.S. troops. On October 6, two weeks after the House began its investigation of his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump shocked the world by agreeing to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion that the U.S. military withdraw from the Turkish-Syrian border region in order to make way for a Turkish invasion.
The deal with Turkey sparked immediate opposition not just from Democrats on Capitol Hill and national security professionals but from members of Trump’s own party and the U.S. military: Washington was effectively abandoning its Kurdish partners, who had played a central role in the coalition that former President Barack Obama had set up to counter the Islamic State, known as ISIS. The sharply negative reaction probably wasn’t the one Trump had expected, and he quickly moved to try to contain the political fallout. After Turkey launched airstrikes on Kurdish positions on October 9, Trump sent Erdogan a letter pleading with him not to go ahead with the planned invasion. “Let’s work out a good deal! . . . I have worked hard to solve some of your problems,” Trump wrote to his Turkish counterpart. No U.S. president facing impeachment had ever made his domestic vulnerability as apparent to a foreign strongman. Not surprisingly, the Turkish army moved into Syria anyway, much as Turkey had taken advantage of Nixon’s wounded American presidency in 1974 to invade Cyprus.
The U.S. position in the Levant was collapsing, U.S. allies were being slaughtered in northern Syria—and lawmakers whom Trump would need to defend him in an eventual impeachment trial let their rising displeasure be known. In a reluctant effort to appease them, Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey on October 14. He then sent Vice President Mike Pence to the region to negotiate a cease-fire. After the Turks agreed to a five-day pause in fighting, which ended without a resumption of hostilities, Trump announced on October 23 that he was lifting of the sanctions. Yet the bipartisan criticism continued, in part because the Turks still held the territory formerly occupied by the United States’ Kurdish partners. Four days later, on October 27, the president seemed to catch a lucky break: U.S. special operations forces killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, in a raid in northern Syria.
What little information about the operation has been made public doesn’t indicate the role, if any, U.S.-Turkish tensions played in the timing. But in announcing Baghdadi’s death, Trump thanked Turkey and Russia (in addition to Iraq and the Syrian Kurds) for their assistance with the mission. At the very least, the timing of the raid was convenient. Basking in the glow of that success, Trump welcomed Erdogan to the Oval Office on October 29. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, who would prove key to the president’s eventual acquittal in the Senate, found the symbolism of the Turkish visit hard to take. “I share my colleagues’ uneasiness at seeing President Erdogan honored at the White House,” he said in a statement.
Turkey wasn’t the only country to try to exploit Trump’s weakened political position. On December 18, the House approved two articles of impeachment against the U.S. president. Less than two weeks later, Iranian-backed militants in Iraq launched rockets at a military base in northern Iraq, wounding several U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and killing an American contractor. Tehran likely thought Trump was distracted with impeachment and wouldn’t retaliate. But Trump wasted no time in responding: two days later, the United States launched airstrikes at installations associated with Iran or its proxies in Iraq and Syria. Like Clinton’s airstrikes against Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in 1998, these strikes were clear responses to actions by an adversary that crossed a well-understood line. They did not seem to be acts of political diversion.
But what happened next in the cold war between Tehran and Washington is more difficult to explain without taking domestic political considerations into account. On December 31, Iraqi supporters of Iran breached an outer gate of the American embassy in Baghdad, setting a reception area on fire. Even in the calmest of political moments, such an action would have touched a historical nerve. But in the midst of an impeachment saga, the echoes of Tehran in 1979 and Benghazi in 2012 were even more resonant. Trump couldn’t afford to let the volatile situation in Baghdad to become his Benghazi.
Tehran must have known that the U.S. president would strike back, but the response he chose—reportedly at the urging of Pompeo—was tougher and more reckless than anything either of Trump’s immediate predecessors would have considered, suggesting a desire to replicate the political bounce he had gotten from killing Baghdadi in October. On January 3, 2020, the United States killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, in a drone strike in Baghdad. The CIA reportedly advised Trump that the Iranian response would be restrained (Trump’s main concern was that Americans might die in any revenge attack by Iran). Although the Trump administration initially explained the attack as a response to an “imminent threat,” it became clear that this rationale was offered as a hedge in case the first publicly acknowledged assassination of a foreign military leader by the United States in peacetime sparked a war.
When Iran predictably responded with retaliatory rocket attacks against Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops on January 8, it also became clear that the assassination of Soleimani hadn’t been part of any larger strategy of deterrence or regime change. “All is well! . . . So far, so good . . . ,” the president tweeted after initial public reports suggested there were no U.S. casualties. Apparently in the president’s mind, only a U.S. death would have necessitated a U.S. military response, which Trump clearly didn’t want—even if standing down meant allowing Iran to continue its march toward a nuclear bomb. More than 100 soldiers were hospitalized with head injuries, but the White House made no mention of this fact. (The public learned of the casualties only because the Defense Department issued periodic statements about the injuries that were picked up by veterans’ groups, members of Congress, and the media.) The message to Iran was clear: Trump didn’t want war in the Middle East. He wanted a show of force to boost his standing in the midst of a domestic political crisis.
As Trump’s Senate trial loomed in January 2020, the U.S. president showcased an international trade agreement that he hoped would also burnish his image. Back in October, when the House was just beginning its impeachment inquiry, Trump announced that the United States and China had agreed to a general framework for a “Phase One” deal, a cease-fire in the trade war that was to lead to negotiations for a more comprehensive agreement “in the near future.” As part of that framework, Trump pledged to delay implementing new tariffs he had threatened to impose in October. Underlying Trump’s approach to these negotiations was a simple-minded mercantilism that Beijing would have recognized—Jean-Baptiste Colbert lite. Indeed, the Chinese leadership is equally mercantilist; both equate state power and influence with the accumulation of export surpluses. When Trump first began his trade war in 2018, the Chinese had responded by working to undermine him politically—designing tariffs that went after Trump-friendly U.S. soybean farmers and ethanol producers in Iowa and Nebraska. A similar option was available to Beijing in 2019, when Trump was arguably even weaker politically.
But instead the Chinese decided to help an American president in a moment of need. In 1974, Mao Zedong’s dictatorship sought to maintain its relationship with the Nixon-Kissinger team, which had supplied it with access to U.S. technology, intelligence, and security capabilities it could use to counter the Soviet Union. And so Mao’s regime supported Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and did nothing to complicate the wounded Nixon’s 1974 détente summit with the Soviets. Likewise, in 2019 and 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping saw long-term benefit in throwing Trump a short-term bone. Prior to Trump’s impeachment crisis, the Chinese hadn’t thought they could bring the trade war to an end without undergoing domestic legislative and regulatory reform. Such reform, which would be painful for an autocrat who sought more rather than less control over China’s domestic economy, was baked into an agreement under review by both countries until Beijing backed out of negotiations suddenly in June. But as the impeachment inquiry deepened, China likely saw another way out of the costly trade war: an economic concession that Trump could claim as a victory.
As part of the Phase One deal signed on January 15, the week before Trump’s impeachment trial got underway in the Senate, the Chinese promised to purchase $200 billion worth of U.S. imports over the next two years—and that $76 billion of those purchases would take place during the presidential election year of 2020. The United States and China have kept secret which U.S. companies will benefit, but Trump made clear at the signing ceremony that U.S. negotiators will funnel the Chinese money to states that are necessary for the president’s reelection bid.
“Joni Ernst,” Trump called out from his presidential rostrum, referring to the Republican senator from Iowa. “You got ethanol, so you can’t be complaining, right? . . . [Senator] Deb Fischer—same boat, right, Deb? You want that ethanol for Nebraska.” Fischer, like Ernst, was about to become a juror in Trump’s trial.
The Trump impeachment crisis—and, in particular, the defense of the president by his allies in Congress—destroyed any remaining pretense that the United States currently operates on the basis of recognizable national interests. Alan Dershowitz, one of Trump’s attorneys, argued in the Senate trial that “even if the president, any president, were to demand a quid pro quo as a condition to sending aid to a foreign country, obviously a highly disputed matter in this case, that would not by itself constitute an abuse of power.” Dershowitz then added, “Quid pro quo alone is not a basis for abuse of power, it’s part of the way foreign policy has been operated by presidents since the beginning of time.” For any normal presidency, these two statements would seem banal. But made in defense of a scheme to extort an investigation of one of the president’s rivals from an important U.S. ally, they implied an unprecedented—and undemocratic—foreign policy doctrine that confused the personal needs of the leader with the interests of the state.
In an attempt to bolster his popularity, the president accelerated his “America first” agenda, which in practice was a “Trump first” agenda.
In seeking to justify the president’s half-baked and self-centered policies as a matter of time-honored prerogative, Trump’s allies showed indifference to any enduring principles of U.S. national security that might transcend presidencies. And their defense enabled an even more Trumpian foreign policy during the impeachment crisis. In an attempt to bolster his popularity, the president accelerated his “America first” agenda, which in practice was a “Trump first” agenda. The United States effectively withdrew from the Middle East, signaling a lack of interest in stabilizing Syria or Iraq. And when Tehran tested Trump in this moment of weakness, he reacted appropriately at first, only to recklessly escalate with a high-profile assassination, the predictable fallout from which he was evidently unprepared to answer. Finally, Trump accepted an election-year bribe from China in lieu of real structural changes to the U.S.-Chinese trading relationship.
Almost three years into his presidency, Trump had already squandered most of his international credibility. The impeachment crisis destroyed what little was left. Under increased political pressure at home, Trump—the self-styled master of the deal—proved even easier for foreign leaders to manipulate than he had been before. Ultimately, the Republican majority in the Senate acquitted Trump at great cost to U.S. foreign policy and to the constitutional balance of power. Of the three impeachment crises of the superpower era, Trump’s was the most damaging to the United States, its alliances, and what is left of the liberal world order.