Three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. allies and adversaries thought they had him figured out as a leader prone to bellicose talk who rarely delivered on his boldest military threats.
That all changed Thursday with Trump’s decision to kill a key Iranian commander in the biggest foreign policy gamble of his time in office.
With the high-stakes drone strike against General Qassem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most venerated leaders, Trump caught Tehran — and the rest of the world — by surprise, restoring a sense of unpredictability that could play to his advantage as world leaders are left wondering what his endgame is in the Middle East and beyond.
“The Americans are now totally unpredictable,” Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the U.S. and the United Nations, said in an interview. “There was no response to Iranian attacks against oil tankers, a U.S. drone and Saudi oil fields, but out of the blue comes this surprising hit on Soleimani. We are depending on the unpredictable reaction of one man.”
The drone strike shatters an assumption — often repeated by Western officials in anonymous briefings — that Trump would do his utmost to avoid war during an election year. Yet the move may only reinforce the determination of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to build a stronger nuclear deterrent, as the Iraq strike underscores that a nuclear arsenal — which Kim’s regime possesses and Iran is capable of developing — is the surest way to ensure a regime’s survival.
Since entering the White House in 2017 without previous experience in government, Trump built a reputation as a bellicose but risk-averse commander-in-chief. He repeatedly sought to pull troops out of the Middle East, look past North Korean violations of international sanctions and avoid what he called the “endless wars” his predecessors got the U.S. mired in.
After almost three years of Trump badgering NATO allies on matters such as defense spending and praising autocrats like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kim — who the president said he “fell in love” with — world leaders started to think they knew how to read the former New York real estate developer.
That’s gone now, probably permanently.
Even as the U.S. blamed Iran for a slew of hostile actions in the Persian Gulf region last year and began bolstering troop levels in the region in May, Trump held back on direct military reprisals against Tehran. Instead, he pressed Iran to join him at the negotiating table, banking on unsparing U.S. sanctions to force Tehran’s hand.
At the same time, he sought to pull some troops from Afghanistan and withdraw most forces from northern Syria. Since then, though, Trump has actually sent more forces to the Mideast — more than 17,000 since May, including about 3,500 this week alone.
The strike at the Baghdad airport late on Thursday came together swiftly after the death of an American contractor in a Dec. 27 rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia against a U.S. base in Iraq.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif quickly vowed payback for the killing of Soleimani, saying the Islamic Republic’s response to America’s “cowardly terrorism” will come “at any time and by any means.”
Yet Trump’s willingness to risk an escalation in an already volatile region gives him some leverage against U.S. foes even as it raises the risk of miscalculation, diplomats and analysts said in interviews. Leaders like North Korea’s Kim and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will have to proceed cautiously before crossing a U.S. “red line,” and Iran will struggle to come up with a suitable response that won’t further destabilize its already embattled regime.
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