The Foreign Policy Debate in the Wake of Soleimani's Killing
President Trump’s assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was an illuminating moment for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Among other things, it revealed that an all-out war between the United States and Iran cannot be discounted and, in fact, must now be actively guarded against; that the U.S. military presence in Iraq has become more of an occupation than a partnership between allies; and that the United States cannot be trusted to abide by core international norms. To be sure, none of these are altogether new developments - but they became newly transparent in the wake of Soleimani’s killing.
The attack also shone a light on U.S. domestic politics – at least for a brief while, before it slipped from the headlines – and, at first glance, appeared to show that many in the United States had become pointedly averse to overseas interventions. But opposition to Trump was never total. And upon closer inspection, even the furor was tightly bounded, throwing into stark relief the reality that the political divide over U.S. foreign policy is not as wide as it might sometimes appear – and that all major political figures in the United States are committed to overseas interventionism to varying degrees.
Trump’s opponents took him to task over both the wisdom and the legality of Soleimani’s assassination. On the first count, critics claimed that the President had behaved recklessly and without justification, warning that his escalatory behavior risked sparking a conventional war with Iran. On the second count, they argued that the President had broken domestic and perhaps international laws governing the use of force; that even if Soleimani deserved to be killed, the administration nevertheless erred by acting outside of established rules and protocol.
These arguments reflect that most of Trump’s critics can be placed into one of two camps: either traditional “liberal internationalism” or what Van Jackson has described as the new “progressive internationalism.” Liberal and progressive internationalists diverge on several questions - the two sides are split on trade and the need for military primacy, for example - but they share a common belief that the United States ought not to abuse its preponderant power. Instead, they urge that global leadership be exercised through established institutions that command the respect of foreign governments.
Neither liberal nor progressive internationalists renounce the use of force altogether. As recently as the Obama administration, liberal internationalists regularly supported military interventions as ways to promote American values and security – Libya being the most obvious case in point. And even Trump’s most left-wing political opponent, Bernie Sanders (D-VT), supports the use of targeted drone strikes on the soil of third-party sovereign states for the purpose of combating terrorism.
Rather, Trump’s critics focused their objections to Trump’s killing of Soleimani on the manner of its execution. They took issue with the President’s flagrant disregard of Iraqi sovereignty of foreign nations – Baghdad was not consulted about the assassination, and has since condemned the attack – and bemoaned the lack of Congressional oversight of the decision-making progress. Fearing a march to war, liberals and progressives even managed to reach across the aisle to conservative lawmakers in approving a new War Powers Resolution to rein in the executive branch.
Trump’s supporters have rejected all criticism of his attack on Soleimani. Their position is that the killing of a murderous terrorist can never be wrong and should never be illegal, and that the President ought to be congratulated for his toughness, decisiveness, and ruthless dedication to putting national security above a misplaced concern for supposed rules. The strongest language was reserved for Democrats, with GOP lawmaker Douglas Collins (R-GA) accusing the opposition party of being in “love” with terrorists. But the White House reprimanded even Republicans for daring to question the administration’s decision-making process.
This combination of unapologetic, pugilistic militarism with unflinching devotion to Trump is, of course, repugnant to liberal and progressive internationalists. But for whatever reason, it seems to find favor with today’s Republican Party. The President’s most fervent backers do not want him to offer even a pretense of following foreign or domestic rules. Far from wanting the United States to serve as a leader of the international community, they revel in the spectacle of Trump thumbing his nose at foreign countries. Not even the President’s tacit admission that Iraq is now under U.S. occupation was enough to enrage the Republican side.
Even if just for a few weeks, the killing of Soleimani brought this central domestic divide over U.S. foreign policy into sharp focus: a pitched battle between liberal and progressive internationalists versus the militarist backers of the Trump presidency. Despite their many differences, the former stand for a defense of international order and the re-imposition constraints on the presidency. The latter, meanwhile, are content to see established rules cast asunder; to them, military primacy is all that the United States needs to keep itself safe and respected.
The differences between these two sides are big and consequential. But the similarities between them should not be overlooked. Most importantly, neither side in the debate over Soleimani’s killing could properly be described as anti-internationalist or even anti-interventionist, still less isolationist. Among those seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, only Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been unequivocal about the need to pursue a wide-ranging drawdown in the Middle East. The leading Democratic hopeful, Joe Biden, has conspicuously stopped short of using the occasion to recommend a radical downsizing of the U.S. military footprint.
This was a telling insight, suggesting that most of the President’s detractors believe that catastrophic mistakes in the Middle East can be avoided so long as the right person occupies the Oval Office. The United States does not need to undertake a major restructuring of its overseas commitments; it can, instead, afford to maintain a constant thumb on the scales of regional security without inviting retaliation from regional actors like Iran and its proxies. It just needs to be done in a sensible way, according to the strictures of either liberal or progressive internationalism.
It is in this sense that the killing of Soleimani can be understood as a metaphorical flare that temporarily illuminated the terrain upon which the 2020 election will be fought when it comes to foreign policy. What was revealed is that America’s leaders disagree over when and why to use military force, but they mostly converge on the assumption that overseas military engagement is a necessity to at least some degree – or, at least, that it is affordable and tolerable so long as it is not taken to excess. Those who long for a leaner U.S. foreign policy would seem to have their work cut out for them.