(Bloomberg) -- 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.
“What we have seen over the course of the past 24 hours, or, more arguably, over the course of the past week, is a newfound risk tolerance which I think is going to create some need for recalculation on the Iranian part,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “They thought they had Trump figured out. It’s no longer clear that they did.”
Trump defended his strike on Friday, arguing that Soleimani was planning “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.”
“We caught him in the act and terminated him,” he said, adding that the U.S. doesn’t seek war with Iran. “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”
Trump’s move catches Iran at its weakest point in years, with the regime’s economy crushed under the weight of U.S. sanctions. That leaves Tehran, with its outdated air force and navy, in little position to respond with a direct assault against U.S. interests in the region, Araud said. Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed.
“The Islamic Republic is a battered regime, beset by protests at home and abroad,” he wrote. Since Trump “withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions, Iran’s economy has essentially collapsed,” he said, adding that “Iran is not in a position to go to war with the United States, and is likely not capable of mounting effective asymmetric attacks on U.S. positions.”
Zarif seemed to suggest as much on Friday, telling Iranian state television that the consequences of the U.S. killing Soleimani will be “broad” and will be out of Iran’s hands because of the general’s widespread popularity in the region.
That doesn’t mean Iran will back down. Allies largely sided with the U.S. on Friday, but some said they viewed the escalation as the result of a U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign they see as diplomatically untenable.
Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political bloc, said the targeted strike won’t cow Iran, risking an “asymmetric Iranian retaliation and a new wave of violence.” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab joined other world leaders in calling for de-escalation.
“Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Friday. “The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.”
How the conflict evolves will depend as much on the credibility of the U.S.’s threats as it will on its ability to leverage economic and military superiority to achieve diplomatic results, the diplomats and analysts said. Yet Trump’s previous unpredictability cost him in the diplomatic sphere, angering allies such as France with his abrupt plan to pull out of Syria and undermining support for a U.S.-led security initiative in the Persian Gulf.
“One problem the United States has had in the Middle East is that it’s often acted in disregard for allies, snubbed allies, and that could be quite costly as the United States is upping the confrontation with Iran,” said Dan Byman, vice dean for undergraduate affairs at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a professor in its Security Studies Program.
--With assistance from William Horobin and Iain Rogers.
To contact the reporters on this story: David Wainer in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org;Nick Wadhams in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at firstname.lastname@example.org, Larry Liebert
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