Iran just became Trump's No. 1 foreign crisis of 2020 — but not the only one

Iran just became Trump's No. 1 foreign crisis of 2020 — but not the only one
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When James Carville, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDemocratic group plans mobile billboard targeting Collins on impeachment Political science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction Walsh plans protest at RNC headquarters over 'nakedly anti-Democratic' primary cancellations MORE’s brilliant political strategist, pronounced “It’s the economy, stupid” as the key to winning the 1992 election, he was correct not only about that election, but about all presidential elections that were to follow — and most of those in the past as well. Voters care about their pocketbooks, and tend to pay far less attention to foreign policy. It is true that the Iran hostage crisis dominated headlines throughout 1980 and contributed greatly to Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPolitical science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction Mellman: Democrats — Buckle up for a wild ride Trump and Obama equally admired? Eight things popularity polls tell us MORE, whom Americans saw as too weak to respond to Tehran’s criminal behavior. That election was the exception that proves Carville’s rule, however. 

There can be little doubt that President TrumpDonald John TrumpLev Parnas implicates Rick Perry, says Giuliani had him pressure Ukraine to announce Biden probe Saudi Arabia paid 0 million for cost of US troops in area Parnas claims ex-Trump attorney visited him in jail, asked him to sacrifice himself for president MORE hopes the U.S. economy once again will dominate the presidential election. It would enable him to reach beyond his base, which prioritizes “values,” opposes Hispanic and Muslim immigration, and objects to making concessions to minorities of any stripe. To that end, he hopes that the stock market will continue its dizzying climb. Its record levels have benefitted not only the billionaires who are the betes noires of the likes of Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersEx-Obama official on Sanders-Warren feud: 'I don't think it played out well for either of them' Former Vermont Governor: Sanders 'will play dirty' Hill.TV's Krystal Ball rips Warren over feud with Sanders MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezAyanna Pressley's 'squad' of congresswomen offers support after she opens up about alopecia Here are the 10 senators who voted against Trump's North American trade deal Artist paints Michelle Obama, other women as battered in campaign against domestic violence MORE (D-N.Y.), but also small investors and contributors to IRAs and 401(k)s, that Trump hopes to attract. 

Trump also can point to low unemployment and inflation rates, the very opposite of the stagflation that was another factor in Jimmy Carter’s inability to get re-elected. 

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Foreign crises still could prove to be Trump’s undoing, however. Iran poses his most immediate challenge. Trump has retaliated against the Iran-backed Shia militia known as Kataib Hezbollah for its rocket attacks on American facilities in Iraq, and promised an even more powerful response if the crisis at America’s Baghdad embassy was not contained.For its part, Tehran will hold Washington responsible for the killing of Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind behind Iran’s efforts to dominate the Middle East. It will surely retaliate against American targets, in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere. Trump will be pressed to respond in force. Nevertheless, he is somewhat hamstrung by his promise to an exhausted American public that America no longer will become enmeshed in endless wars. 

Yet if, as is likely, he does not respond to new Iranian provocations, and withdraws American forces from Iraq, he will be subject to Democratic assertions that he “lost Iraq.” The fact that it was Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaNew Hampshire Rep. Kuster endorses Buttigieg Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall Ray LaHood backs Biden for president MORE who first withdrew those forces in December 2010, thereby creating an opening for Iranian domination of Iraq that Tehran has not relinquished, will be of little consequence in the heat of the 2020 election campaign.

Iran is not the only potential overseas headache for Trump this year. A Baltic defense minister recently told me that Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinThe Hill's Morning Report - Dems to lay out impeachment case to senators next week Overnight Defense: Foreign policy takes center stage at Democratic debate | House delivers impeachment articles to Senate | Dems vow to force new vote on Trump's border wall Putin names successor to Medvedev as Russian prime minister MORE could attempt to take over Belarus in the not-too-distant future. Even more than Russia, Belarus is Europe’s last remaining noxious dictatorship. It is neither a member of NATO nor one of its partners. Yet if Russia were to seize Belarus, Russia would be in a much stronger position to pressure neighboring Lithuania and Poland, both NATO allies. Would Trump react, and thereby alienate Putin? Or, would he stand aside and be subject to attacks from not only Democrats but also many Republicans for allowing Putin once again to expand Russia’s sphere of influence and to render the Baltic states, in particular, even more vulnerable than they already are? 

On the other side of the world, China may choose to send troops into Hong Kong to quell, once and for all, the demonstrations in the territory that never seem to end. Trump is unlikely to intervene; in this case, as well, Democrats will accuse him of kowtowing to China’s Xi Jinping and fostering the perception that China could do the same to Taiwan with no American response.  “Who lost Hong Kong?” could become a Democratic battle cry that might energize moderates, independents and many Republicans who resent Beijing’s efforts to reduce East Asia to a Chinese backwater. 

Worst of all, a crisis in one part of the world — whether in Europe, the Middle East or East Asia — could prompt aggressors in another region to capitalize on America’s unwillingness, indeed its inability, to respond to two crises simultaneously. If Washington has proved unable to defeat Afghan insurgents and Iraqi sectarians at the same time, how could it simultaneously confront Russia and China, or even Iran and one of the others? 

Trump then would be seen as someone whose coddling of dictators led them to believe that they could undermine, or even attack, other states with impunity. And that not only would cost him the election, but would completely subvert the rule-based international system that America  worked so hard to create and sustain for well over seven decades.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.