Trump takes gamble with decision to kill Iran military commander

President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE took perhaps the most significant gamble of his presidency in authorizing a U.S. drone strike against a top Iranian commander in Iraq. 

The strike killing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, dramatically escalated the Trump administration’s confrontation with Tehran.

It also marked an unexpected move for Trump, who has campaigned on withdrawing American troops from conflicts abroad and displayed a wariness of overseas military engagements. 


The strike, which U.S. officials described as a defensive action to protect American lives, could have far-reaching implications for the Middle East and for U.S. foreign policy in general. Reports emerged Friday that the U.S. would send 3,000 Army soldiers to the Middle East. 

Magnifying the gamble for Trump was the timing of the strikes, on the second day of an election year, and as the White House prepares for a looming impeachment trial. With weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses, Democrats hoping to succeed Trump condemned his actions.

Critics described the decision as a reckless gamble, and Democrats demanded that the administration present its plan for handling Iran and the Middle East.

“Responsible policy-making has to consider the consequences, and I fear that this act has consequences that were under-considered or not considered at all,” said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Others defending the president said Trump made the right choice.

Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, argued that Trump had displayed restraint with respect to Iran, noting that Tehran had taken a number of aggressive steps in recent months culminating in rocket attacks and a break-in at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. 

“Just think about what it has taken to push Trump to this point,” Coffey said. “I think Iran was really pushing its luck and Trump reached a point where he felt like he needed to act.” 


A former State Department official doubted that the operation would have the desired effect of deterring Iran. The official predicted Soleimani will be hailed as a "national hero," that his death is unlikely to chasten the Quds force and that the strike may spark a wave of anti-Americanism in Iran and neighboring areas.

But the official suggested Trump was out of other options, having drawn a red line if Americans were killed. The strike targeting Soleimani came days after the U.S. blamed an Iranian-backed militia force for an attack that killed a U.S. contractor and injured American servicemembers.

"My guess is the people around him... probably told him, 'listen, you’ve been called out and you’ve got to find a way to send a clear message here, otherwise there’s no stopping this," the official said.

Trump has spent the better part of the last three years purging his administration of military and intelligence officials who clashed with him. The result is an unusual national security process and a lack of moderating voices, raising questions about how Trump might proceed in the weeks and months to come.

While he has staked his foreign policy on confronting Iran and reversing the diplomatic overtures of the Obama administration — including withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — Trump campaigned on winding down U.S. involvement in foreign wars. Tweets resurfaced Thursday night in which Trump predicted in 2011 and 2012 that Obama would seek war with Iran as a reelection tactic.

He has previously relied mostly on imposing increasingly harsh sanctions targeting Iranian industries and leaders in a push to cripple the country’s economy, with bombastic rhetoric mixed in at times as part of a “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.

“We have moved from kind of a shadow war and an economic war to direct acts of war by the Trump administration,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program. 

Trump has weighed military action against Iran in the past but never taken such a step. In June of last year, the president abruptly called off a strike on Iran over the downing of U.S. surveillance drone at the last minute, a decision that surprised his advisers. 

The decision to take out Soleimani earned Trump praise as well as criticism from expected corners.

Republicans commended him for bold action against a figure responsible for hundreds of American deaths, while Democrats warned of the risk of dangerous consequences and accused him for not seeking proper approval from Congress. 

The biggest criticism of Trump’s decision to emerge Friday was that it would provoke a response from Iran that would make matters work.

Military and foreign policy experts said Friday that an Iranian response is inevitable, but there was no consensus on what it might look like.  Experts said it was likely Iran would use unconventional or asymmetric capabilities in order to retaliate and noted U.S. allies may be a target for reprisal. 

The issue seemed certain to become a major point of debate on the Democratic campaign debate trail, even though the campaigns have been more focused generally on domestic issues.

“Since the 2004 election, issues of national security have been on the back burner for voters until momentous events like this thrust them into the forefront,” said GOP strategist Colin Reed, who argued that Democrats would risk looking “either weak or too political” if they go to far in criticizing Trump for killing a “murderer.” 


Officials in France and Germany issued muted statements that expressed concern that the U.S. action had raised tensions in the region. The lack of enthusiastic support among global allies reflected the extent to which Trump has decided to go it alone on foreign policy, particularly toward Iran.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS intel: Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi killing Golden statue of Trump at CPAC ridiculed online Five things to watch at CPAC MORE, asked about a French official saying the world is less safe due to the rise in tensions, was dismissive.

“Well, the French are just wrong about that,” he said on CNN. “The world is a much safer place today.”

At the same time, the U.S. embassy in Iraq urged Americans in the country to leave as quickly as possible, and Pompeo emphasized in media appearances that the United States does not seek war with Iran. 

Pompeo’s remarks to media outlets were part of an incongruous messaging from the administration.

While the Department of Defense issued a statement confirming Trump directed the strike, it was Pompeo who was on television early Friday explaining the move.The White House offered no formal statement or briefing, and Trump, who is still at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, had not made public remarks as of Friday afternoon aside from a few tweets. He delivered brief public remarks on the strike Friday afternoon before departing or a campaign event, saying that he took action to “stop a war,” not start one, and that the top Iranian commander should have been targeted and killed “long ago.” 

“Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him,” Trump told reporters. 


Trump spent Thursday night with senior adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerBiden to speak with Saudi king 'soon' as pressure builds for Khashoggi report Biden to speak with Saudi king ahead of Khashoggi report: report Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE, White House social media director Dan Scavino and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyMcCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' Sunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues MORE (R-Calif.), according to photos the congressman posted on Instagram.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report MORE (R-S.C.), a staunch Trump ally and Iran hawk, said on “Fox & Friends” that he was briefed on the potential operation that killed Soleimani earlier this week while meeting with the president in Florida, a sign the strike was not a snap decision.

But members of the Gang of Eight — the top congressional leaders in each party — were not notified ahead of the strike, a move that irked Democrats in particular.

“At a time like this you need clarity,” said Dave Lapan, a former spokesman for the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security. “Instead of clear messaging and leadership from the top, we haven’t seen that. And this is a very dangerous period of time to have that kind of uncertainty and confusion still around.”

Some have expressed fears that the decision could provoke broader armed conflict between Washington and Tehran, underscoring how big a gamble Trump made with the strikes.

But Maloney said there is not an appetite domestically in Iran for a war with the U.S., and Coffey also doubted that the decision would provoke a significant armed conflict. He said it could actually work to stabilize the situation in the Middle East in the long term because Soleimani will be dead. 

“I don’t think it’s going to result in World War III,” he said.