In Praise of Lesser Evils
Can Realism Repair Foreign Policy?
Killing the Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani may well have been the most consequential foreign policy decision of Donald Trump’s presidency. Its repercussions will be felt for days, months, and even years to come—but what exactly they will be depends on what the Trump administration does next.
The strike has been explained by senior U.S. officials as both an effort to deter future Iranian aggression and an act of preventive defense in the face of an imminent attack. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are already out crowing with patriotic tweets reminiscent of the “Mission Accomplished” banners rolled out in the first weeks of the Iraq war. But what was true then in Iraq is true now: the crisis will not end here.
Iran’s retaliatory actions will unfold over time, often in ways no one expects, and they won’t be limited to Iraq or even to the Middle East. The Trump administration needs to prepare for a full range of contingencies: cyberattacks, terrorist attacks abroad and on U.S. soil, attempts to assassinate U.S. officials, and more assaults on Saudi oil fields. Iran will likely take more provocative steps on its nuclear program: in fact, the country was already expected to announce its latest move away from the 2015 nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Trump needs a strategy that does more than respond to Iran’s tactical moves as they come. He must decide how he wants to resolve this crisis and work backward from there. The U.S. goal at this point should be to de-escalate the situation and avoid a wider war, and to do so in a way that leaves Americans safer in the long term. To this end, the administration will need to send clear, consistent messages that are not unnecessarily provocative, while quietly working to ensure the safety of vulnerable U.S. diplomatic outposts. Washington should coordinate with U.S. allies, and it must attempt to open a diplomatic channel to Tehran, through a third party if necessary. Anything short of this risks plunging the United States into yet another costly Middle East adventure.
In the near term, Iran’s response to Soleimani’s assassination will occasion crucial decisions: Does the United States continue tit-for-tat strikes? Does it escalate, which would involve substantial deployments and additional U.S. military action? Or does it to try to de-escalate, for example, by opening a diplomatic channel? The Trump administration will have to decide how best to defend U.S. personnel at vulnerable diplomatic posts abroad and whether to evacuate U.S. citizens from certain locations. Some moves—such as sending additional forces to the Middle East—will straddle the line between deterrence and escalation. And any move can be misinterpreted.
At each decision point, Trump will have only bad options to choose from. He has left himself with no diplomatic channels, a divided international community, and a skeptical Congress. Sustaining a low-level tit for tat will be nearly impossible, because more miscalculations are likely on both sides—as the recent history of U.S. retaliation for Iranian-backed attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq already attests. But de-escalating will be difficult, too, given the rhetorical bravado on both sides and the lack, under this administration, of the kinds of working diplomatic channels to the Iranian government that existed under previous administrations. Further escalation, meanwhile, would probably mean a wider, conventional war. All of these decisions will unfold against the backdrop of regional turmoil: Iraq’s parliament is now considering kicking U.S. troops out of the country, a move that would hinder the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in the near term and open the way for even greater Iranian influence in Iraq over the long term.
To effectively handle the repercussions of the strike on Soleimani, the Trump administration will need domestic support. But the president launched the strike without consulting Congress or preparing the public or U.S. allies for what might come next. Over the coming days, Trump and his team will need to earn the trust of the American people and persuade them that the intelligence reporting justified the decision. This would be no easy task for any president after the Iraq war, but it will be especially hard for the deliberately divisive Trump. He will have to make his case while clearly articulating his administration’s plan for avoiding yet another Middle East war that the American public does not want. And he will need to do all of this while staring down the impending impeachment trial that stems from his decision to place personal political interests above U.S. national security.
Trump will desperately need many of the same members of the National Security Council, State Department, and intelligence community that he has persistently attacked and undermined.
Given Trump’s lack of foreign policy coherence and his resistance to planning beyond the next tweet, the task of wending the country’s way out of this labyrinth will likely fall to American servicepeople and diplomats. In other words, for strong policy options and plans, Trump will desperately need many of the same members of the National Security Council, State Department, and intelligence community that he has persistently attacked and undermined for the last three years.
Trump will also need the support of Congress. The administration’s failure to consult with even the House and Senate leadership or the Gang of Eight—made up of Senate and House leaders and relevant committee chairs—before the air strike was inexcusable. There was clearly time for a briefing, and the Gang of Eight has a reputation for avoiding leaks. The administration will now need to fully brief Congress and persuade members that it has a sound strategy, an adequate legal justification, and a plan in place to keep Americans safe at home and abroad. Any serious widening of this conflict will require the administration to obtain congressional authorization. Last year, members of Congress across both parties made clear that they were not in the mood to authorize war with Iran and passed legislation to that effect.
Trump may not like working with other countries, but he can’t avoid it now. He needs U.S. allies (as well as China and Russia) to share intelligence about potential retaliatory attacks and uphold UN Security Council resolutions if Iran ramps up its nuclear weapons development. That France—and not just Russia and China—has already condemned Soleimani’s assassination is not a good sign. There is no coalition of the willing right now to punish Iran further, and “maximum pressure” is clearly not achieving its desired results. Unfortunately, Trump is unable to draw upon a surplus of goodwill around the world. Most other governments see the administration’s Iran policy as a self-inflicted wound, starting with the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. The transatlantic relationship—essential for an effective Iran strategy—is at its weakest since 2003. After all, Trump remains in a tariff war with European countries.
This crisis could easily consume Trump’s presidency. He could soon find himself a war president, not an antiwar president. He should call former President George W. Bush to find out what happens to your legacy when you dig yourself deep into an unnecessary war. And he should call former President Barack Obama to learn how to dig the country out.
Right now, Americans are less safe because Trump killed Soleimani. Tactical decapitation does not solve the Iran problem. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps still exists, and its attacks on U.S. interests will likely increase. The Iranian nuclear program still exists, the JCPOA is effectively dead, and Washington is now even further from getting the better deal that Trump promised.
In short, the United States is once again on the brink of a deepening military conflict in the Middle East. Trump and his national security team do not appear to fully grasp all that may come next and what is at stake. The American people will be the ones to bear that burden for the days and years to come.