The Bite of the Rattlesnake
The killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is consistent with US President Donald Trump's doctrine of “strategic realism.” Nevertheless, the mullahs of Tehran were caught off guard. Friend or foe, the Trump Doctrine is now, more urgently than ever, required reading.
Commentators across Europe are in a panic, issuing dire warnings: “Donald Trump acts without any sense of proportion” blares the Swiss “Tages-Anzeiger.” The “Neue Züricher Zeitung” lectures its readers: “A drone is not yet a strategy.”
Critics chastised the American leader as he withdrew troops from the Middle East. Now, they warn that he might send in new forces. They ducked for years as then-President Obama escalated the drone war and wiped out entire wedding parties. Now, they raise concern when Trump eliminates Iran's strategic ace with a direct hit — without, it should be noted, any civilian collateral damage. Given the "monstrosity" of this US president, it almost goes forgotten that Soleimani spread terror and death across the region.
The general with the smoky grey eyes — his right one would droop and disconcertingly wander at its own whim — was alternately worshipped as a master spy or feared as the Mephistopheles of the Middle East.
When I interviewed General Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq, on the height of the surge in Baghdad in December 2007, he told me that Shiite militias in Iraq were "trained, equipped, established and, in some cases, directly controlled by Iran." And he made no secret of the identity of the man behind all this: Soleimani.
In case Petraeus should ever forget the power of the notorious general from Tehran for a tiny moment, this ominous rival had a text message sent to the commander, audaciously announcing: "General Petraeus, You should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq and also Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan."
«Mephistopheles of the Middle East”: General Qassem Soleimani
Security experts agree: The world is a safer place without Soleimani. However, many questions remain.
“Soleimani has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans over an extended period of time,” President Trump declared. Then, why did he, like Obama before him, wait for so many years to kill the terrorist mastermind?
More questions. Why was Soleimani in Iraq at all? Some argue that the Iranian death dealer was on Iraqi soil because the Americans attacked Iraq under false pretenses in 2003, overthrew Saddam Hussein, and thus opened the gates to the Persians becoming a regional superpower. So, is it worth the risk of getting bogged down in yet another Middle East war?
Even among conservative opinion leaders, skepticism is spreading. Tucker Carlson, Fox News prime time star and populist firebrand, asks, “If we're still in Afghanistan nineteen, sad years later, what makes us think there's a quick way out of Iran?"
These are important questions. But Carlson along with Trump’s critics may be trapped in a pre-Trumpian era, just as is Iran. There is little doubt that the Islamic Republic can garner international sympathy as a "victim" of American aggression if it succeeds in provoking Trump into a full-blown military conflict — especially should it become an epic bloodbath as in Afghanistan and George W. Bush’s Iraq. The slogans choreographed by the regime at Soleimani's funeral service — "Hey US! You started, we will finish! — suggest that this is exactly what the mullahs have in mind.
But Trump will not fall into this trap. After having shown patience and restraint in the face of previous Iranian escalations, military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that Trump can now respond to Iranian counterattacks from a safe distance “without seeming to be a provocateur itching for war.”
In a recentinterview with Die Weltwoche, Hanson described Trump to me as “sort of chemotherapy … aimed at killing the cancer before it kills the patient.” The Greek and Roman classicist contends that Iran has badly miscalculated and is thoroughly mistaken about Trump. The regime has interpreted the impeachment procedure, the upcoming election campaign, and the withdrawal of troops from Syria as signs of weakness, even as inability to react to its provocations in the Middle East.
Hanson, who wrote “The Case for Trump” last year, argues that Iran’s hubris is based on a profound lack of understanding of the US president. “Tehran has misjudged the US administration’s doctrine of strategic realism.”
Back in December 2017, Trump outlined the “Trump Doctrine” in his first “National Security Strategy” statement. . In his first year, the new US president radically changed the military policies of his predecessors, Bush and Obama. He rejected humanitarian intervention and costly nation building as sufficient predicates for US military action. Neither the export of democracy nor lofty free market principles would, absent a clear and compelling US interest, legitimize spending billions of taxpayer dollars on far flung foreign liberation projects. (See White House Summary. And Full NSS Text)
Trump instead focused on hard realism. As he has repeatedly put it, “America first. But not America alone.” Without chaining himself to old alliances, he seeks partnerships where American interests seem opportune or necessary. Trump is convinced that America can only play this new role from a position of strength. In his view, strength means: economic robustness, free but fair trade, promotion of domestic industry, a renewed American self-confidence, secure borders, restrictive migration policy, and military superiority.
The doctrine of defensive US patriotism finds symbolic expression in the so-called “Gadsden Flag.” The flag shows a rattlesnake ready to bite against a yellow background with the motto “Don't tread on me.” It is one of the oldest flags of the United States and stands for the spirit of independence.
In 2009, the Gadsden Flag became the symbol of the Tea Party movement in its fight for individual freedom and against state paternalism. Today, it is widely popular among Trump supporters. Like most Americans, Trump's voters reject another endless war. But their focus on their own nation is not to be confused with Wilsonian isolationism. As Hanson argues, “‘Don’t tread on me’ translated into 2020 terms means something like ‘live and let live — or else.’”. Meaning: Anyone who tramples on America's interests risks a fatal bite.
This means that Trump will respond to Tehran's attacks without sending tens of thousands of soldiers into a bloody ground war, “doing a lot more damage to an already damaged Iranian economy either through drones, missiles, and bombing, or even more sanctions and boycotts to come.”. It's a kind of Old Testament, long range duel with high tech weaponry. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, with surgical precision. Using missiles, drones and other sanctions, Trump aims to intimidate and weaken the enemy's elite. Such pressure is designed to further undermine the credibility and respect of a regime that uses rigorous force to suppress its own people's desire for freedom.
I have personally witnessed the brutality of the Iranian security forces after the elections in 2009 that many called “rigged.” The very minute protesters took to the streets, well equipped security forces – many on howling motorbikes – were waiting for them. Over the coming weeks, the protesters’ voices were silenced with extreme brutality. Countless demonstrators were imprisoned or killed. In the past months, new protests have flamed up across Iran. Once again, hundreds have been slaughtered.
Slogans like “Death to America!” have been chanted routinely after Friday prayers for 40 years. But as I have witnessed over several visits to the Islamic Republic, many of the common people of Iran hold friendly feelings towards the United States.
Anyone who dares to utter criticism about the clerical regime risks harsh repression. Iranian journalist and feminist activist Masih Alinejad, who has started a campaign against the “hijab,” was forced to flee her native country. “The hijab makes the woman a hostage to the Iranian regime … It’s the most visible symbol of oppression against women,” Alinejad told me last year when I met her in her exile home in Brooklyn, New York. Labeled as a “traitor” and “enemy,” the regime intimidated her family. Alinejad’s parents were interrogated, and her brother was imprisoned.
While the thugocracy in Tehran occasionally gets chastised for its human rights record, the western press is full of fury toward Trump. Commentators are horrified by Trump's flamboyant style and ostentatious rhetoric. They disparage him as a “big mouth” and “Twitter tiger,” an elephant in the Middle Eastern china shop or an impulsive thug.
These surface judgments among politicians and journalists are evidence of confusion. For his part, Trump sows confusion deliberately in the belief that it will be to his advantage. Confusion and unpredictability are integral parts of Trump's doctrine of "strategic realism." They cause nervousness among his opponents. Russia, North Korea and China carefully study his reactions and are never quite sure what he will do next.
Now, the world is waiting for Iran to wreak its further acts of “revenge” as it has promised. Hanson believes the mullahs have the short end of the stick. “If Iran turns to terrorism and cyber-attacks, it would likely only lose more political support and risk airborne responses to its infrastructure at home,” which would weaken the staggering regime even more.
A geostrategic novelty gives Trump a further advantage. For the first time, the US is a net exporter of oil, rendering the super power uniquely independent from Mideast oil. Trump’s America is moving ever closer to energy independence, a key element of Trump's "strategic realism."
There is no question that the current crisis between the US and Iran poses great and unseen dangers. A withdrawal of troops by the Americans, as members of the Iraqi parliament have recently demanded, would further open doors to Iran into its neighboring country. As long as the Islamic Republic regime is in power, it will confront the US and its allies. True to his doctrine, however, Trump has explicitly ruled out a regime change in Tehran as an immediate goal of American policy.
Moreover, the liquidation of Soleimani raises new questions. Even with the Iranian strongman gone, there are still numerous "villains" who endanger America's security. Carlson points out that, “Mexico and China are also linked to the deaths of Americans. Each has flooded our country with narcotics from which tens of thousands of Americans die every single year.” The Fox News host asks, “So does that mean we get to bomb Oaxaca? Can we start assassinating generals in the [Chinese] People's Liberation Army?"
A rhetorical question, to be sure. But knowing that Donald Trump is capable of doing so might be enough for his adversaries on the world stage to change their thuggish behavior and to start doing business with the unpredictable US cowboy by way of Manhattan real estate. This would be consistent with Trump’s "The Art of the Deal" – and add a huge, new chapter to the bestselling business bible.