HOW should other Western leaders best manage President Trump’s toddler temperament? The United States’ allies were wrong-footed when Washington announced that it had killed the powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Assassinations as a tool of foreign policy had been illegal in the US since the 1970s, when the more nefarious activities of the CIA were exposed during the Cold War.
But President Trump’s action also seemed a wild one-off that did not fit into any wider strategic plan. Contradictory official announcements appeared to confirm this. The killing was designed to deter Iran from attacks — but the US was deploying thousands more troops to the region in case it increased attacks. The strike was designed to change the behaviour of Iran’s surviving leaders — or to cow them, since their behaviour would never change.
It was all as incoherent as the wider Trump policy on the Middle East, where he has proclaimed himself, by turns, a once-in-a-generation peacemaker, a belligerent opponent of Iran, the president who will withdraw American soldiers from foreign wars, and a fierce opponent of Islamic State (as was the Iranian general he has just had killed).
The publication — and then retraction — of a draft letter confirming the withdrawal of US troops from Baghdad added a sense of incompetence to the irresponsibility. President Trump’s assertion that he has 52 further bombing targets, including ancient Persian cultural sites — to reflect the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran in 1979 — smacked of a man casting wildly around for old grievances to justify new recklessness.
The US has an unhappy history of Hollywood-style thinking that bumping off the Bad Guy will solve all the problems. Yet, when it got rid of Saddam, things got worse in Iraq. It was the same when Gaddafi was removed in Libya. After the US killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda grew into the terrifying Islamic State.
Still, it has all taken the heat off President Trump’s impeachment. It is a well-worn political tactic to use a foreign adventure to divert attention from a domestic crisis. It is a measure of President Trump’s lack of judgement that this particular diversion merely underscores how unfit he is for office. But the Republican majority in the Senate will keep him safe in the White House, even if safe is not the word to apply to the rest of us.
How will the Iranians exact the revenge that they have threatened? With such mixed signals from Washington, and Teheran’s fear of a real existential threat, the space has been opened up for serious miscalculation. The reaction of politicians in Europe has been measured. A joint French-German-British statement expressed concern about “the negative role Iran has played in the region”, but called on both sides to stop “the current cycle of violence in Iraq”. Perhaps they also realise that Iran has a part to play in the balance of power which prevents an unhealthy US-Israeli-Saudi alliance dominating the Middle East entirely.
Boris Johnson has been uncharacteristically, and commendably, circumspect. The crisis highlights Britain’s post-Brexit dilemma. Mr Johnson’s need for a good trade deal with the US pushes him nearer to our unreliable ally than is comfortable. But the memory of Tony Blair’s unhappy reputation as the “poodle” of George Bush over the original Iraq War must also linger.