Despite the natural compulsion from many who study foreign policy to reflexively condemn the actions of Donald Trump no matter what the circumstance, the strike this week that killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force and one of the highest political powers within Iran, fits within a longer pattern of American foreign policy in the Middle East since 2016.
Donald Trump campaigned on an essential contradiction, keeping America out of quagmires and “forever wars,” while being willing to radically shift foreign policy to prevent America from being “laughed at” by other states. To some, the actions today illustrate both. The lack of engagement in the form of the limited scope of the action – a one time precision strike, carried out in Iraq, where the United States still maintains a legal authorization for the use of force, a relatively measured and legally appropriate move. Yet it is also a shift, a slightly provocative move that many analysts predict could lead the United States into an escalating pattern into a war that it can not easily escape from.
This is highly dubious. Regardless of whether or not this is true, the actions this week do not seem to present an active contradiction to what has been called a strategy of “belligerent isolationism.” According to such a theory, the United States withdraws from the world in general, especially from regions it considers not to be within its area of strategic interests, while vigorously responding to security threats that directly target it. The actions this week undertaken outside the Baghdad airport are consistent with this motive, if one accepts the notion that Iran was a direct threat to the US and its assets throughout the Middle Eastern region, without passing judgement on the asset placements themselves. Whether this policy has any long term strategy in mind and will act in American interests is another story altogether.
What can be said, however, is that Trump’s other actions throughout the region are less than consistent, and this is what begs the question of what the ulterior motives are for Trump in the region.
The strike, in terms of larger American foreign policy in the region, was relatively insignificant. It took place outside of Iranian territory, and led to the death of a single paramilitary commander in the midst of an active war-zone, and on the tail of a failed embassy invasion, hardly an earth-shattering shock.
Iran will likely not budge, their short-term internal instability measured against their 40 year long term political stability means that they will take some time, but eventually regroup and find a new symbol for their paramilitary proxy warfare corps.
Thus, both parties should stop overdramatizing what is another notch in the pockmarked history of the nearly two decade long war in Iraq. Things will continue as is while the leaders will likely preserve the status quo.
If one looks under the surface, other than potentially destabilizing Iran, this action has the effect of potentially sparking a fissue in the already balkanizing modern Iraq, a state that by all accounts should probably not exist. This action will deepen the already virtually impassable rift between Sunni and Shia forces in Iraq. The long term effects of destabilizing Iraq in light of Trump’s very strong rhetoric on ISIS make the situation all the more confusing. Donald Trump is bucking the decades old strategy of counterinsurgency around the world, which traditionally relies on partnering with one side of the local forces and backing them against a defined enemy. At this point, he has betrayed our true allies, the Kurds, for some cheap political accommodation with Turkey, as well as to show support to the Shia-led Iraqi government, who post-strike has essentially shut us out and wants nothing to do with the US. Thanks to Donald Trump, we now have no allies left, especially in Iraq, which leaves us optionless in terms of finding a stable solution for a region that until recently was the source of IS’ political power.
America lost Iraq a long time ago, and the state at this point has essentially ceased to exist as such. The territory ironically labelled Iraq is now split between a de-facto independent Kurdish state in the north that the cowardly American administration refuses to acknowledge, an Iranian-proxy Shia state in Baghdad, and the battered Sunni remnants of Isis in the West. Our foreign policy has so utterly failed there is nothing we could do to reconstruct a viable state.
At this point, the most prudent move would be the one that the US has been putting off for two decades, recognizing Iraqi Kurdish independence and creating a military alliance with them, while supporting the partition of Iraq into a federation of smaller micro-states who simply defend a common national border against outside interference.
Instead of debating the legitimacy of Trump’s action during an administration marked by unequivocally terrible foreign policy blunders (permitting North Korean nuclearization), America needs to buckle down and debate our future and the future of the country whose destruction we played a role in, that of the shattered glass house that once was called Iraq.
Staff writer: Ari B