The unnerving familiarity of Trump's killing of Soleimani

Why the Soleimani assassination could lead a Republican president into another Middle Eastern disaster

(Image credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

It's a new decade, but does anyone else feel as if they have traveled back in time to May 1, 2003? That's when George W. Bush gave his "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, prematurely declaring victory in Iraq.

President Trump had largely delivered us from the stultifying partisan foreign policy debates of that era. Yes, he has escalated more "endless wars" than he has ended. But having a Republican president who regarded the Iraq war as a mistake and has at times resisted the counsel of his most hawkish advisers broadened the conversation and with it the range of possibilities.

Trump's strike killing Iranian Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani inside Iraq brings back memories of Mission Accomplished. Some of the conservatives cheering most loudly aren't normally Trump fans. "General Soleimani is dead because he was an evil bastard who murdered Americans," said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb). "The president made the brave and right call, and Americans should be proud of our servicemembers who got the job done." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally who is a Bush throwback on foreign policy, told reporters. "I think we need to be ready for a big counterpunch," girding for wider conflict with Iran.

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Like Saddam Hussein, Soleimani has blood on his hands, including that of many Americans who fought in Iraq. Yet what is next and whether it furthers our national interests and security remains unclear. Our remaining forces in the region are vulnerable to Iranian retaliation as never before, even as the threat from Tehran to the U.S. homeland is remote.

The partisan debate has returned: Democrats cry "wag the dog" and "Trump's Benghazi" in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that motivated the Soleimani strike; even Republicans who once talked about abandoning the neoconservatism that led to Iraq cheer Trump and downplay the possibility of an Iraq-like war with Iran.

Trump isn't Dubya. He has so far confined even his activities in Iraq to fighting ISIS. He has been skeptical of regime change, nation-building, and democracy promotion. He could retaliate against the embassy attackers and leave well enough alone. But Trump also does not like to look weak and has unrealistic diplomatic expectations. If Iran escalates, will he once again increase the number of troops in Iraq?

After all, former National Security Adviser John Bolton is a hawk who says he doesn't believe in the neoconservatives' candy and unicorns about democracy promotion. Neither did George W. Bush himself, as he campaigned on exit strategies and a "humble foreign policy." What is Trump's exit strategy here? Even Bush rebuffed advisers who wanted a reprise of the Iraq war inside Iran.

With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. toppled the chief regional counterweight to Iran and empowered Shiites likely to be closer politically to Tehran than Washington would prefer. "Whether due to loyalty, fear, or bribery, the Shiite government in Iraq will not take America's side against Iran," notes political philosopher Yoram Hazony, whose book The Virtue of Nationalism has become one of the premiere texts of the Trump years.

More simplistic forms of nationalism are still a potent political force, however. And Americans will rightly want to defend their troops and diplomatic personnel from foreign attack abroad. Soleimani is dead, but it is difficult not to worry more dangerous times lie ahead and voices of caution will once again be drowned out in the emotionally charged debate.

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