Is Donald Trump mad? Yes. At least he’d like his opponents, in this case Iran, to think so. It’s not a novel strategy. He’s borrowing it from Nixon’s playbook. During the Vietnam War Nixon had his aides make Soviet and North Vietnam’s leaders believe that he was so unpredictable that he could order any mad scheme, including a nuclear bombing. The intent was to scare the Vietnamese into submission. It didn’t work. Vietnam knew Nixon would never risk his warming relationship with China. Once his bluff was called and his harebrained escalations spent, Nixon was out of options, and out of Vietnam. But for a while anyway Nixon was considered a master strategist.
Trump’s assassination of Iran’s Major General Qassim Suleimani is the Nixon mad man theory in action. The question is whether it can work. As with Nixon, who briefly had Hanoi off balance, early surface indications make it appear as if it can. The Iranian response to the assassination has been more bluster than action. Wednesday’s 20-missile attack on two American bases in Iraq may have been a “slap in the face,” as Iran’s Supreme Leader put it, but that’s all it was: a shucks and aww response carefully choreographed with the American military to avoid casualties while saving face. Assuming nothing more comes of it, it’s not a bad bargain for the United States, considering the provocation of assassinating Iran’s No. 2 military and political leader.
Trump’s base is mostly ecstatic. Even some nevertrumpers are celebrating. Democrats and European allies are grousing–Trump consulted with no one but some of his military leaders before ordering the hit–and the TV and radio shout shows are overtaxing their ululated vocal cords. If it goes no further, the hit may even give Trump nice B-roll footage for his reelection campaign, which he is likely to win anyway. But ideological narcotics aside, it’s worth looking at the assassination’s context to weigh its value to American and regional interests. Whatever does or does not happen, we can at least agree about what has happened, and not just in the last few days. That alone gives a measure of the assassination’s worth.
It’s not worth much. The tally of America’s position in the Middle East shows the extent of the retreat.
His own fans aside, no one is mourning Suleimani, though a few American military leaders may be mourning him more than we know. Suleimani had plenty of American blood on his hands following the invasion of Iraq and until the earlier part of the last decade (though American generals had far more Iraqi blood on their hands, plus those 290 Iranian civilians). But for the past five years Suleimani had been an American ally in the fight against ISIS. Without Iranian-backed militias doing the fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria, with American intelligence and air support, ISIS would not have been decimated. ISIS was never quite defeated. With Suleimani gone, and American forces about to get booted out of Iraq, ISIS is poised for a comeback. Not quite to America’s or the region’s benefit.
A year and a half ago Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal even though it was working. It had stopped Iran’s nuclear weapons program for at least 15 years, enough time to outlast the half-life of a regime rotting from within. By pulling out, Trump, as always, didn’t have a different strategy to keep Iran from building nukes. The sanctions he imposed didn’t stop Iran from expanding its military adventures in Syria and Yemen. He effectively restarted Iran’s nukes program. Suleimani’s assassination will only accelerate it, with every Iranian nuclear engineer glowing with Manhattan Project-like enthusiasm to make a bomb. Trump may decide to bomb targets at will. It may delay Iran’s march a bit. It won’t stop it. American belligerence is guaranteeing that Iran will become a nuclear power, and at that point American options will be even more limited than they are now.
The assassination of Suleimani was itself a symptom of how limited American power has become in the Middle East. When you have to resort to missiles fired from an MQ-9 Reaper to kill a state leader, you’re signaling raw power, but you’re also signaling your bankrupt diplomacy. It shows. The assassination will cost Iran tactically, but anyone is replaceable. Suleimani’s loss was, if anything, to Iran’s strategic advantage, a confirmation of its status as the power to be reckoned with in the Middle East rather than as a nation anywhere near its heels.
American heels are a different matter. They can use a lot of Bengay. After almost 20 years of war and $2 trillion in wasted taxpayer money, Afghanistan is also lost. In all but a few pockets it’s Taliban country. That’s not Trump’s failure alone: it’s that of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who should have withdrawn a decade ago. Trump is compounding the failure.
Trump abandoned Kurds in Syria a few months ago, eliminating American influence with its most loyal backers in the Middle East next to Israel. That influence is gone in northern Iraq and northern Syria. There are still 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they’re restricted to their barracks and they’re about to be forced out. That war, too, was lost, enabling Iran to become the dominant power Iraq. The assassination of Suleimani ensures that Iraq will become more like an Iranian province, not less.
ISIS may have been defeated in Syria, but only for Bashar al Assad, a war criminal on a greater scale than ISIS, to reemerge more powerful than he was before, his genocide of Sunni and Christian Syrians essentially legitimized. He, too, is an Iranian ally.
Hezbollah is more powerful than ever in South Lebanon, with more weapons and missiles than it knows what to do with, all pointed at Israel. Like all crusading religious fanatics, Hezbollah’s men don’t fear suicidal warfare, so they have nothing to lose. Israel’s two previous attempts to eliminate Hezbollah only made it stronger, again thanks to Iranian backing. But Hezbollah was its own power whether Suleimani existed or not. In that sense too, the United States gained nothing by killing him. It only inflamed further vengeful reactions down the line, in this case making Israel less safe, too. Memories in the Middle East are long.
So let’s review. On the positive side, Suleimani is dead. Yay. And American forces can still roam around Kuwait and Bahrain.
On the negative side: The Iranian regime, facing huge opposition from within, now has Iranians rallied again, its lease on life yet again extended thanks to American intervention. Iran’s nuclear weapons program is on again. Iran controls Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. Afghanistan is lost. Iraq is lost. The Kurds are lost. Some 8,500 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously for nothing. Remaining soldiers are in far more danger than before the assassination. And assassinations of state leaders are now fair game. Trump has no objective with Iran, no end game, no Middle East policy of any detectable coherence other than retreat. His “All is well!” tweet on Wednesday rung with the certainty of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech after the invasion of Iraq.
No amount of propaganda can paint the assassination of Suleimani as more beneficial than damaging to American interests. Of course we’re getting an avalanche of Trump 2020 and MAGA delirium. It’s qualitatively no different from those hordes of Iranians yelling and screaming revenge. But with homicidal fanatics on both sides, it’s hard to imagine how this doesn’t end badly for both. You can’t make a desert and call it peace. This round may be over. But we’ve lost this war, too, whatever shape it takes.