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Trump backed down from Iran for political salvation

His moment of self-styled triumph could be fleeting, particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East.
President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump said Iran was “standing down” from possible conflict with the U.S. But Trump himself was just as eager for an out.

Trump, by declining to take military action in retaliation for Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops, edged the nation back from the brink of a war that could have destabilized the Middle East. That fits with his broader foreign policy pattern: talk tough but stay away from armed conflict.

And that approach, mixed with a bit of luck and Iran’s own desire to avoid open conflict, could allow Trump to pull off dual election-year goals of projecting strength while placating those who backed him because of his promise to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

“This was clearly a speech that was designed to avoid the need to take further military action or open war, which I don’t think is the president’s desire or Iran’s desire,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander. “He’s in a very narrow space here: He wants to look tough and presidential but he campaigned on getting us out of these wars.”

Trump began casting about for an off-ramp as tens of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike and Tehran talked vengeance. When Iranian rockets flew over Iraq and slammed into two bases housing American soldiers Tuesday night, the president and his team waited before deciding on a response.

After daylight broke, and it became clear that there were no American casualties, Trump took to the podium at the White House to frame the attack as a win for the U.S. He said the next move from Washington would be sanctions, not missiles.

“Our great American forces are prepared for anything. Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said from the White House.

But Trump’s moment of self-styled triumph could be fleeting, particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East. There is no guarantee that Tuesday’s rockets will be the end of Iran’s retaliation, and future operations could involve covert militia action or cyber warfare that would be tougher for the U.S. to pin on Tehran.

As the Iran crisis began to deepen last month, the stakes were clearly higher than with some of Trump’s other international entanglements.

Iran has long loomed as a rising threat, with tensions escalating after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama years. Iran seethed as Trump instituted a series of crippling sanctions in a “maximum pressure” campaign meant to keep Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.

When Iran-backed militias launched a strike that killed an American contractor and raided the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, Trump was presented with an array of possible responses. To the surprise of his national security team, Trump opted for the most dramatic option: a strike to kill Soleimani.

The ramifications of the strike were unknown: How would Iran retaliate? Would it target other countries or compel the U.S. to strike again? Other U.S. presidents had chances to take out Soleimani but opted against the decision for fear of igniting a war.

But Trump, normally loath to risk transforming a standoff into a shooting war, slipped out of a meeting with campaign staff at his Mar-a-Lago resort to approve the lethal strike.

Iran countered with its missile strikes Tuesday night but the rockets did not claim any lives. The response allowed Tehran to appease Iranian hardliners without further provoking Trump into a massive response.

And Trump, in the aftermath, pushed for NATO to step in and do more in the Mideast, though it was not immediately clear if that was a rare nod to the importance of the long-standing military alliance or yet another exhortation for it to spend more resources.

Trump has long made opposition to war part of his political identity. Though he briefly supported the 2003 Iraq war, he later became a fierce opponent, declaring it a waste of American lives and resources.

His foreign policy promises during the campaign were consistently incoherent: While he pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Middle East, he also has pledged to “bomb the hell” out of the Islamic State.

Since taking office, he has launched limited missile strikes against Syria, and authorized the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi there, yet also pulled out the vast majority of American military personnel. The al-Baghdadi killing became a staple in Trump campaign ads.

And in North Korea, the situation perhaps most analogous to Iran, Trump first issued bellicose warnings the U.S. could unleash “fire and fury” on Pyongyang before lowering the temperature and trying to avoid military conflict.

“Trump risks a lot of political capital by deploying tens of thousands of troops to the Mideast. A core part of his appeal to a lot of voters was to end endless wars and this Iran episode has put that at risk,” said Republican strategist Alex Conant. “But if Trump can project strength without having to face any real consequences, that’s a clear win for him. If he can kill a terrorist and not face any real-world blowback, that’s nothing but political upside for him.”


Lemire has covered politics and the White House for the Associated Press since 2013.


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