The Middle East: Trump Blunders In

An Iraqi protesting the use of his country in the conflict between the US and Iran, Najaf, January 2020
Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi protesting the use of his country in the conflict between the US and Iran, Najaf, January 2020


The assassination of Qassim Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary unit, the Quds Force, on January 3 has left almost everyone, at home and abroad, confused about President Trump’s policy toward Iran. On December 27, rocket fire at an Iraqi base near Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, killed a US contractor. There had been a rash of such attacks at bases across the country. Shortly afterward, the administration announced that Kataeb Hezbollah (KH), one of the largely Shia militias that form part of Iraq’s military infrastructure, was responsible for the attack. No evidence for this assessment has been publicly disclosed, although it is not inherently implausible. US aircraft subsequently bombed five KH installations, killing twenty-five fighters in what a Pentagon spokesman called “precision defensive strikes.” Predictably, Iraqis objected to US air strikes against a militia that was composed of Iraqis and had fought ISIS, and they demonstrated in the hundreds around the American embassy in Baghdad.

A US drone strike then killed Suleimani; Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a prominent Iraqi Shia politician and the founder of KH; and several others as they were leaving the Baghdad airport. The US also attempted but failed to kill Abdul Reza Shahlai, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s liaison to Houthi forces in Yemen. Suleimani was on his way from Beirut to Riyadh, where he was reportedly planning to discuss ways to reduce Saudi-Iranian tensions. The administration insisted, however, that his stop in Iraq was intended to set in motion a broad assault by Iranian proxies against Americans in Iraq and elsewhere. No information to support this claim has yet been released, either to Congress or to the public.

The targeted killing of a senior Iranian official appeared to come out of the blue. Trump’s preferred approach to the Middle East had previously seemed in some ways not unlike President Obama’s. Both presidents rejected the “endless war” paradigm. Both thought the Arab-Israeli peace process was at a dead end. Neither wished to be entangled in the Syrian civil war, although Obama hedged by approving a huge secret program to arm and train so-called moderate opposition groups. Both wanted to flee Afghanistan. Here again Obama hedged, apparently against his better judgment. Trump did not, and it looks like the current US force there of eight thousand will soon be halved in tandem with progress in negotiations with the Taliban. And despite the Obama administration’s sincere support for the Arab Spring revolutions, there was not much it could do to advance them in the absence of congressional approval of a large increase in foreign aid. But Trump has gone further than failing to fund…

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