Huge crowd gathered at Soleimani's funeral procession on January 6, 2020
Is it really a defensive act or a provocative act? Has President Trump over reacted and made a wrong strategic calculation? The chances of an all-out war may not be very high but it would lead to dramatic escalation in the low-level conflict between the US and Iran having global consequences
2020 is an election year in the USA. President Donald Trump is trying for a second term. The American public will definitely review his performance before giving him a second chance. As far as foreign policy is concerned Trump’s record has been a mixed bag while many term it as a “term of controversies.” The cornerstone of Trump Administration’s foreign policy has been “principled realism” or more popular “America First.” After all, what else is the purpose of any country’s foreign policy except to put its own interests, the interests of its citizens, first? Trump’s foreign policy vision smacked of sabre-rattling rather than reconciliation. He was not only distrustful of US allies, scornful of international institutions, and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the liberal international order that the United States had sustained for nearly eight decades but also displayed inconsistently by blowing hot and cold on numerous occasions. He carried his self-perceived image of a “hard negotiator” too far.
President Donald Trump is bound to tout his record on foreign policy as a resounding success. While he hasn’t built a wall and expensed it to Mexico, he has followed through on pledges to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to renegotiate NAFTA, and to aggressively press China on trade. He has delivered on many of his campaign promises, whether the rest of the United States supports them or not. In doing so he has earned the title of “International Bully,” annoying many allies and friendly nations, undermining international institutions, dishonouring treaties and accords and creating flash points. The conventional wisdom says that foreign policy does not win elections. But Trump seems to be faced with a challenge that may break this convention.
The majoritarian view in the US still favours US engagement and shared leadership in international affairs, as well as US participation in alliances and agreements, while the President continues to move in the opposite direction. As per a latest survey conducted in the USA nearly 57% Americans disapprove his foreign policy performance. The latest episode in the Middle East will definitely add to his woes and the democratic hopefuls will certainly exploit these vulnerabilities of Trump during the campaign trail. This time, foreign policy might be a major theme for the election and just might tip the balance.
The tension in the Middle East has been building for quite some time and President Trump did display restraint. Iran, no doubt, was testing Trump’s patience by repeated misadventures like the shooting down of an American surveillance drone, mining the Strait of Hormuz and an assault on Saudi oil facilities in response to the American sanctions creating tension in the Middle East. Trump all the while avoided retaliating militarily and preferring to tighten the noose with additional sanctions. The brain behind the Iranian defiance was the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani.
Soleimani had been in the bad books of Americans ever since he emerged as the mastermind of Iranian use of proxies to target American and Western assets and servicemen, promoting terrorism and conducting destabilising activities in countries hostile to Iran. He was credited with conducting proxy wars across the Middle East in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. He controlled much of Lebanon through its proxy force there, Hezbollah. He is also the mastermind behind survival of Assad Regime in Syria. The Americans hated him for being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq at the hands of Shia militias after US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though, later he cooperated with the US in fighting the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
But ever since, Trump called off the nuclear treaty with Iran and imposed sanctions he once again became a sworn enemy of the US. He seems to have crossed the red line in the eyes of Trump by attacking an American military base in Iraq that resulted in the death of a US contractor and injuring several US servicemen. Trump would not tolerate any loss to American lives was clear by the way he ordered airstrikes against five targets in Iraq and Syria associated with Iran backed Shia militia Kataib Hezbollah that was believed to be responsible for the attack on American base near Kirkuk. Justifiably, Pentagon termed these strikes as ‘defensive’ since these were in retaliation to attacks on American servicemen and civilians in Iraq. But two days later on Sunday, Trump known for his often hyperventilating rhetoric surprised the world by using American military power to kill Gen Qaseem Soleimani through an aerial rocket attack on his vehicle while leaving the Baghdad International Airport and Pentagon once again terming it as ‘defensive’ since the President was convinced that Soleimani was visiting Iraq to intensify attacks against American bases in Iraq. The US strike also killed a top Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, an adviser to Soleimani and a dozen of militia men evoking a quick and angry response from both Iran and Iraq. While Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, to whom Soleimani reported directly, vowed a harsh revenge, the Iraqi Prime Minister termed it as a violation of a deal for keeping US troops in his country?
Is it really a defensive act or a provocative act? Has President Trump over reacted and made a wrong strategic calculation? The chances of an all-out war or a global crisis may not be very high but it would lead to dramatic escalation in the low-level conflict between the US and Iran having global consequences. As vowed by Khamenei violent retaliations will be there. Considering that the Americans are thin on the ground and widely dispersed in the foreign lands a chain of action and reprisals is going to hit America very badly unless America is willing to escalate to a full blown war. This may prove costly as far as American causalities are concerned. Under such circumstances, will Trump be able to sustain his doctrine of military retaliation whenever an American life is lost is a million dollar question? That too in an election year! Additional deployment of 3000 troops in Kuwait to ward off the Iranian threat and failure to reduce the boot strength in Afghanistan may also prove costly for Trump. What is most surprising is that why Trump has decided to strike now when he is also facing an impeachment? Trump was possibly irked by ransacking of the US Embassy 104 acre Green Zone compound in Baghdad yet killing the most powerful Iranian General on Iraqi soil will remain a questionable strategic decision. Continuation of American troops in Iraq will come under pressure in view of the response of the Iraqi Prime Minister.
Apart from usual retaliation through attacks targeting American military commanders and soldiers or launching operations to destroy American bases and assets, Iran may also resort to cyber-attacks considering the over dependence of Americans on the internet. In worst case scenario, Iran may try to enlist Chinese and Russian support and combined with their cyber forces launch a propaganda cum perception operation against Trump which may hit his campaign adversely. Americans should prepare for the unexpected. There has been fair amount of criticism from the Democratic opponents of the President.
The situation in the Middle East will be highly tense with Israel and Saudi Arabia at the receiving end. Shia terror groups in Pakistan may also become active against American targets as well as US troops in Afghanistan. Soaring oil prices and tumbling share markets will be the immediate global consequences. Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden has termed it “a highly escalatory move in a highly dangerous region.” The possibility of it turning into a Shia versus Sunni conflict may disturb peace in many countries in the region.
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao has criticised Trump’s decision, “US military personnel are in Iraq supposedly on an anti-ISIS mission. Under the Trump administration, there appears to have been mission creep, in Iraq as well as Syria, in which somehow confronting Iran has become part of a new mission. That mission has never been justified.”
India cannot remain unaffected with the events in Middle East since it remains one of the largest oil importers of the world. Soaring oil prices apart from hitting the pockets of the common men in India is also going to add to nation’s economic vows when it is struggling to revive the sluggish economy. The escalation in the region may also effect the smooth oil supply from the sources in the Gulf. Strategically, it would have adverse impact on India’s bid to develop Chabahar port and develop alternative rail, road axis to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan and open trade route to land locked Central Asian Republics.
Majority across the globe term it as an ‘unnecessary provocation.” Elizabeth Barren, another Democratic Presidential candidate, has tweeted, “This reckless move escalates the situation with Iran and increases the likelihood of more deaths.” Surprisingly, usually hyper Trump has chosen to remain quiet this time. Trump himself will be in a dilemma since he ran his campaign and continues to do so ahead of 2020 election on the promise of an end to Middle East wars. Does he have that choice now?
Senator Bernie Sanders has attacked Trump, “Trump’s dangerous escalation brings us closer to another disastrous war in the Middle East that could cost countless lives and trillion more dollars. Trump promised to end the endless wars, but this action puts us on the path to another one.” While the American troops will remain on tenterhook to repulse Iranian retaliatory actions, Trump has provided enough ammunition to his Democratic opponents for a very interesting election campaign at home. While the target will not be questioned, timing will definitely be a contentious issue.
(The writer is a Jammu based veteran, political commentator, security and strategic analyst)