There is nothing new in the way Democrats and their camp in the United States portray decisions taken by US President Donald Trump as both unilateral and uninformed, and Trump’s order to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, triggered the usual reactions from Democrats and their supporters this week.
Democrats and others on the left in the US are calling for protests against the country’s going to war with Iran, even though Trump appears even more reluctant than they are and does not want war with Iran or anyone else. He prefers sanctions to achieve results with his country’s adversaries and rivals.
Ironically, the Democrats have become more conservative in their outlook and view the world as a static place unmoved or impacted by variables. They believe that interpreting the world merely requires brandishing a handful of moral slogans, such as “no to war,” and they interpret strategic decisions superficially and demagogically, including by claiming that Trump’s order to kill Suleimani was a unilateral one by a president who wanted to distract attention from his impeachment and increase his popularity before the upcoming US presidential race.
But conventional theories that view the decision to go to war as a desire of world leaders to export their domestic problems are no longer viable in today’s world. Today, there are no such wars between states, but rather a collection of civil wars and proxy wars between regional and international powers in various regions and several failed states based on major economic interests.
A decision by the president of the United States, irrespective of his person and outlook, is governed by the legal regulations that define his mandate. He is surrounded by institutions that can hold him accountable if he makes a mistake or even block him from taking wrong or unnecessary decisions.
All that a president like Trump, with his unconventional personality, can do is to pick one choice among the many others that the decision-making institutions in the US offer him, especially when it comes to security and military decisions. It is certain that Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani was an option even before he became president, and it certainly would have been when US-Iranian relations deteriorated during the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama before a nuclear deal was reached.
Anyone trying to portray Trump’s order as an irrational move made for personal reasons is ignoring the statements made by top brass in the Pentagon and members of Congress supporting the decision. For example, after Suleimani’s assassination, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said that “if he was not targeted, we would have been accused of negligence.” He added that the US had confirmed intelligence that Suleimani was planning major operations, and the risk of not making a move was far higher than taking action.
In order to understand Trump’s order, discussion of a deeper issue is required, namely Trump’s personality in the context of an intense and protracted conflict in US culture between power and ethics.
Trump may be the only president in US history to approach politics from an original direction. Politics is the art of the possible, but Trump believes in achieving the impossible. Politics is based on government and opposition institutions and bureaucracies, which Trump hates, and therefore he looks for individuals who will help him to decide and carry out his policies instead. While politics has a give-and-take dynamic, which means reaching goals gradually, Trump believes he can achieve his goals with a knockout punch.
Trump won the 2016 presidential race despite all expectations. At first, most politicians and the media doubted he would even win the Republican Party nomination, and then they thought his ethical scandals and racist ideas (which he has shown no shame in flaunting) would stop most Americans from voting for him. Finally, the opinion polls showed until the eve of the elections that his opponent Hillary Clinton was in the lead by a long stretch.
But Trump’s victory revealed that the US is living through an unpredictable era. Either it is a passing event which will end once he leaves office, or there has been a deep change that began with Trump and will continue to reign over the US for years to come. At its core, this aims to destroy institutions and find a populist Christian constituency that will play a loyal role instead of the corrupt entities that are incapable of addressing the complicated economic, political and social challenges facing the US.
Since he came to the White House and one year before the next presidential elections in November 2020, Trump has battled fiercely on all fronts: the media, judiciary, adversaries in both parties and wars with US friends and foes. He ignores the counsel of his advisers and key figures in his administration and has fired people in the State Department and the intelligence agencies and Defence Department shortly after he hired them because they disagreed with decisions threatening US diplomatic, security and military strategies that have been in place for many years.
Trump never misses a chance to express his contempt for his predecessors’ policies and international law, in the belief that their legacy was created by corrupt and incompetent US and international institutions. He has tried his own problem-solving techniques by making unconventional deals to deal with Middle East crises and other complex issues, especially his decisions on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran’s nuclear plans.
These have included recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in Syria, recognising the legitimacy of Israeli settlements in the Occupied West Bank, and pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Last but not least, Trump is now facing an attempt by the Democrats to gather all their energies to fight another losing battle with him, namely the impeachment which the House of Representatives began in October and that could last until close to the presidential elections this year.
TRUMP’S SUCCESSES: Meanwhile, Trump has had many victories, and his unorthodox methods of pressuring partners and rivals have been successful on several issues.
He has lambasted NATO allies since he came to the White House, accusing them of not paying their dues. At the NATO summit meeting last year, Trump said Washington might withdraw from NATO altogether if other members of the alliance did not increase their military budgets. This pressure led to immediate results, with member states increasing their military spending, and Germany, a key target of Trump, planning to spend 1.42 per cent of its GDP on defence next year bringing it closer to the NATO target of two per cent.
On trade, the Trump administration reached a partial agreement with China on 12 October to end the trade war between the two countries, and Trump promised a complete deal early next year. He continues to pressure China by issuing sanctions against it due to its human rights record and the status of Hong Kong, without worrying that this could impact a comprehensive trade deal.
Despite the criticisms of Trump for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and imposing harsh sanctions on Tehran, Trump persisted in increasing the economic pressure on Iran in the hope that the mullahs’ regime would collapse under the pressure of the sanctions, or that it would agree to US demands to stop spreading its influence in the Middle East and threatening Washington’s Arab allies.
Iran procrastinated in responding to the US demands, and the impact of the sanctions increased, indicating serious flaws in the regime’s ability to continue its foreign and domestic policies unchanged. This was a great success for Trump and his methods in dealing with foreign policy problems, and he seems to be ready to do more. During a surprise visit to US troops in Afghanistan on the Thanksgiving Holiday last year, Trump said the Taliban would return to the negotiating table with Washington to find a permanent solution to the Afghan crisis and ensure that the country does not become a safe haven for terrorists after US and NATO forces leave.
However, the failures of Trump’s foreign policies are also substantial and are most prominently reflected in two issues. Trump has failed to present a plan to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (the “deal of the century”) because for eight months Israel has been unable to form a government and most of Washington’s Arab allies are not enthusiastic about the deal. Trump has also been unable to convince North Korea to abandon its policies threatening US allies in Asia, especially South Korea and Japan.
On the domestic front, Trump has been successful on economic issues, as seen by the growing employment rates in the US pushing unemployment down to 3.7 per cent, the lowest since the 1970s. GDP has increased to more than $20 trillion, or 25 per cent of the global economy. However, these successes were met with failures in addressing the US budget deficit and lowering public debt, or in reaching real solutions for illegal immigration and addressing the imbalance in the healthcare system.
Although the final scorecard of Trump’s domestic and foreign policies over the past three years appears to be in his favour, his fate will not be decided by this alone. It will also be decided by the outcome of attempts by his Democratic opponents to impeach him. So far, this impeachment does not seem likely to proceed because it will be difficult to secure the minimum 67 votes in the Senate needed to launch the proceedings.
The Republican Party does not want the White House to be delivered to the Democrats on a silver platter, and Republican support in the Senate for Trump’s impeachment will be an admission the party was wrong to support him in the last elections at a time when it will also be difficult to find an alternate candidate for this year’s. Even if Vice President Mike Pence is an alternative, his campaign will be negatively impacted since he was part of Trump’s controversial actions.
Among the 20 Democratic Party candidates running for president so far, former vice president Joe Biden remains the frontrunner, although he is competing with other candidates who are supported by the Democratic base including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg.
Since the Democrats know that maligning Trump’s economic achievements will be difficult, and the voters support Trump’s isolationist outlook and his pressuring allies to pay more for US military bases on their soil, they could focus their efforts on Trump’s weak spot – his morality. American culture involves two basic and correlated concepts: absolute power and absolute morality. Morals cannot be upheld without power that is a deterrent to adversaries, and power should not be used except to defend values.
Democrats could infer from these core US values that Trump, who flaunts his misogyny and racism, his attempts to expel refugees fleeing poverty and civil war, and his abandonment of Kurdish allies leaving them to be massacred by the Turks, cannot be the representative of their country. However, morality without power could harm US interests, as Hillary Clinton admitted in her book Hard Choices when she said that the Chinese had become more aggressive in addressing issues of contention with Washington as a result of the 2008 financial crisis that had weakened the US and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that had drained US resources.
But this admission benefits Trump more than the Democrats, because he relies on power more than morality to achieve US interests. Trump and his rivals are equals for the moment, unless another candidate emerges who can convince the American people that he or she can strike a balance between power and morality in domestic and foreign policies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.