Carl P. Leubsdorf

Carl P. Leubsdorf

The dramatic rocket attack that assassinated Iran’s top Middle East terrorist commander last week was one of those events for which the true impact won’t be evident for some time.

Still, initial indications are hardly encouraging, given the fact that it has already prompted Iran to end compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement and the Iraq parliament to demand withdrawal of U.S. troops.

But until Iran undertakes the explicit retaliation that Middle East experts predict, it will remain hard to tell if the attack marks a transformative moment for U.S.-Iran relations or merely one more contributor to the region’s instability.

That presents a special problem for the Trump administration. In nearly three years in office, President Donald Trump has proven far more able to take single dramatic steps like killing Qassem Soleimani than show the persistence and consistency required for long-term success.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo portrayed the attack on Soleimani as part of a long-term “strategy” designed “to convince the Iranian regime to behave like a normal nation.” But the one thing that appears lacking is any coherent administration foreign policy strategy.

That has been especially noteworthy in two regions where Trump has acted dramatically differently from prior U.S. policy, in Korea and the Middle East. In each, Trump now faces circumstances that seem hardly better than the ones he inherited and possibly worse.

When they met after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama warned Trump the most dangerous situation he faced was North Korean nuclear development. Since then, Trump has repeatedly but unconvincingly contended that only his election prevented a full-scale nuclear war there.

Rather than undertake serious talks, Trump staged that dramatic July 2018 summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, proclaiming afterward with little evidence that the North Korean dictator had pledged to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Since then, not only has that alleged agreement proven nonexistent, but Trump weakened the U.S. negotiating position by conferring international status on Kim and cancelling U.S. regional military exercises, without requiring similar North Korean concessions.

Last February’s second summit in Hanoi went nowhere.

Now, Kim is threatening to resume testing long-range missiles of the sort that could carry a nuclear warhead to the United States. Trump’s gambit has only succeeded in increasing doubts among U.S. allies about his steadfastness.

Similarly, in the Middle East, Trump has favored dramatic gestures over the kind of quiet, detailed diplomacy that has traditionally been the path to long-term results.

His first significant move was ordering an April 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

He contrasted his response with Obama’s decision four years earlier to drop plans for a military attack on Syria for doing the same thing, declaring, “What I did should have been done by the Obama administration a long time before I did it.”

Later, his announcement that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria led to a Turkish invasion and increased influence for Iran and Russia.

In another instance, Trump sought to short-circuit Afghanistan peace talks by inviting Taliban leaders to Camp David, only to withdraw the invitation after an American was killed in that war-torn country.

In dealing with Iran, Trump unleashed a “maximum pressure” campaign of increased economic sanctions, seeking to force negotiations that would replace the existing nuclear agreement with one placing greater restrictions on Iran.

Results so far: zero. Ironically, one of the first fallouts from the attack on Soleimani was Iran’s announcement that it was abandoning existing constraints on its nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Trump failed to follow his frequent verbal denunciations of Iran with responses to a series of provocative Iranian acts: mining ships in the Persian Gulf, downing a U.S. drone and attacking Saudi oil installations.

Following the drone attack, he abruptly halted a pending attack on Iran he had just authorized, prompting criticism among his conservative backers that he had refused to follow up his threats with actions.

Indeed, The Washington Post reported that one factor motivating Trump to attack Soleimani was the “negative coverage” from his prior failures to act. Another apparently was his concern of “another Benghazi” after Iran-backed militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the administration’s contention that the strike against Soleimani was designed to forestall a massive Iranian attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East has provoked widespread skepticism among independent observers in the United States and abroad.

Charles Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under President George H. W. Bush and former president of the Middle East Policy Council, said it seemed “intended to appease neoconservative critics of President Trump as vacillating and weak in his response to Iranian ripostes to his policy of maximum pressure on Iran.”

Others suggested Trump wanted to offset coverage of his pending impeachment trial in the Senate.

One reason these questions about Trump’s motivations matter is that they revive fears that, once again, he has opted for another dramatic headline over a well-thought-out strategy.

By all signs, the administration is woefully unprepared for what may follow, given its failure to show it has any long-term strategies to cope with major global trouble spots.


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