In Iran, a test for a go-it-alone president

Why We Wrote This

What happens when a president makes decisions without consulting allies, or even many domestic advisers? The killing of General Soleimani was fodder for U.S. adversaries and left many friends wondering what comes next.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell hold a joint news conference after a meeting of the EU executive to discuss the Iran crisis, in Brussels, Jan. 8, 2020.

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President Donald Trump’s decision last week to order the airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani infuriated Iraq, on whose territory it took place. It also unsettled U.S. allies that had deployed forces alongside U.S. troops in Iraq and forced political leaders, once again, to weigh the risks of working with a U.S. president who shoots inconsistently from the hip. 

Allies in the Middle East are also asking if Mr. Trump is signaling a retreat or a renewed commitment to their region, given his hostility to Iran’s rulers. Some may take comfort from his reiteration Wednesday of longstanding U.S. policy to deny Iran a nuclear weapon. 

But there’s little doubt that the Trump administration feels unbound by allies’ demands to be read into decisions like the airstrike in Baghdad. The president “is the only decision-maker,” says Heather Conley, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“Our closest allies can’t deal with the surprise and the unpredictability and the lack in so many cases of anything that looks like a plan,” she adds. “And so one consequence is that they are increasingly unwilling to contribute to U.S. operations and missions.”

America’s allies had a hard enough time dealing with the go-it-alone policies of the George W. Bush administration, epitomized by the Iraq invasion of 2003.

But now those same allies, first and foremost in Europe and the Middle East, find themselves challenged by a go-it-alone American president in Donald Trump, who is often about as unpredictable with and independent of his own senior aides’ counsel as he is toward America’s oldest and closest friends.

That uncomfortable new world struck again like a two-by-four between the eyes when Mr. Trump ordered the killing by drone strike last week of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani – considered second only to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in terms of power and prestige in Iran – after his arrival at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

The deadly strike, which reportedly divided the president’s national security staff and Pentagon officials, stunned allies and was seized upon by adversaries relishing any opportunity to highlight a “rogue” United States.

“It is obvious,” a smiling Ma Zhaoxu, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, told U.N. journalists Tuesday, “that this unilateral action by the United States violated the basic norms of international relations.”

The strike infuriated Iraq, which deemed it a violation of its national sovereignty. It left unconsulted European allies scrambling to protect forces deployed to Iraq to help train Iraqi military forces and fight ISIS.

And it left them wondering if they have on their hands an American president who feels unbound by international law and the rules of warfare described in the Geneva Convention – especially while Mr. Trump was threatening to bomb Iranian cultural sites if Tehran retaliated over General Soleimani’s death.

Iran did retaliate early Wednesday, sending at least a dozen ballistic missiles from its territory crashing down on two Iraqi bases housing some of the 5,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. No casualties were reported, and there was some indication – for example, the use of guided ballistic missiles, which are less erratic than rockets – that Iran intended its retaliatory strike as a warning and a matter of pride for domestic consumption, and sought to avoid any American deaths that would increase the likelihood of additional hostilities with the U.S.

President Trump addressed the nation from the White House Wednesday morning, saying no American or Iraqi casualties resulted from Iran’s missile strikes, and stating that he would not order any further military action in response at this time.

However he did announce new sanctions on Iran – signaling a return to his preferred means of pressuring what he repeatedly referred to as the Iranian “regime” – and he called on America’s NATO allies to become more deeply engaged in the Middle East.

Unpredictable actions

Beyond Europe, the Soleimani strike left befuddled Mideast allies wondering if Mr. Trump had carried out another of his one-off actions – albeit a more spectacular and potentially consequential one – or if the U.S. is signaling a renewed commitment to the region for them to rely on.

“This order to take out Soleimani reinforces with potentially disastrous consequences that this president is the only decision-maker, and that actions that matter very much not just to the United States but to the world are taken with complete unpredictability and aren’t in any way channeled through a normal interagency process or any consultation of allies,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Our closest allies can’t deal with the surprise and the unpredictability and the lack in so many cases of anything that looks like a plan,” she adds. “And so one consequence is that they are increasingly unwilling to contribute to U.S. operations and missions.”

Mr. Trump’s call Wednesday for NATO to put more skin in the game in the Middle East seems likely to fall on deaf ears.

Ms. Conley points to an existing reluctance among allies to join the U.S. in the region – for example last year as part of an effort to protect oil tankers that were being targeted in the Strait of Hormuz. The British finally came aboard the operation, she adds, but they later hinted at a disconcerting confusion around the effort and a lack of clarity over just what the mission was.

On Tuesday Germany, Canada, Croatia, and other NATO allies of the U.S. began moving troops out of Iraq that have been deployed there to assist in training Iraqi forces to fight ISIS. In addition, NATO announced that it was temporarily suspending the counter-ISIS training mission, with European allies warning that the Islamic State would be the only winner if rising U.S.-Iran tensions diverted attention from counterterrorism efforts.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday he was dispatching Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale to Brussels this week to consult with European partners, but some viewed the move as too little, too late.    

“It’s something, but this is where the gravity of the situation requires the secretary of state or the secretary of defense,” says Ms. Conley. “Our allies want to know where this is going, but right now no one does,” she adds. “I assume even [Pompeo] doesn’t know where the president will be taking this.”

On the other hand, some analysts found that Mr. Trump’s statement Wednesday, with heavy use of the word “regime” to describe the Iranian government, was only shades removed from an articulation of a regime-change policy – and had Secretary Pompeo written all over it.

What’s his next step?

Still, the lack of any reliable sense of where Mr. Trump is going with regards to Iran has left regional allies to guess what might be coming next and to pursue new initiatives of their own – including efforts to reach out to Iran and secure some regional accommodation based on a U.S. disengagement from the region.

“After the Soleimani strike, we’re standing at an interesting fork in the road,” says Ilan Berman, a Middle East specialist and vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. “Our allies in the region are watching very closely: Does this turn out to be just a one-off where the president will take what we’re hearing from the Iraqis [about demanding the departure of all foreign troops from Iraq] and pick up our marbles and go home,” he says.

Or, he adds, “does the U.S. show a little patience, wait for the outrage [over the Soleimani strike] to abate, and then undertake some serious conversations with Beirut and Baghdad … that remove any doubt and confirm that America is not going anywhere?”

For some analysts, the Soleimani strike as well as Mr. Trump’s statement Wednesday suggesting an enduring commitment to the region – among other things, his reiteration of longtime U.S. policy to deny Iran a nuclear weapon – may reassure allies about U.S. involvement. Yet some anticipate regional allies in turn making demands of the U.S. that end up pushing all of Mr. Trump’s ungrateful-allies buttons.

“The president is going to hear the complaints and what regional allies need, and he’s going to get tired of hearing ask, ask, ask, and not more of what [allies] plan to contribute,” says Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council, and now director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Security Initiative.

Still, she says she expects to see more from the U.S. – everything from stepped up diplomacy to more materiel and counter-cyberattack cooperation – “heading out to the region.”

“What kind of ally would we be,” Ms. Fontenrose says, “if we didn’t plan for the possible?”

To read the rest of the Monitor’s coverage of the U.S.-Iran clash, please click here.

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