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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 ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden face off for last time on the debate stage Trump expected to bring Hunter Biden's former business partner to debate Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before 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 CarterGOP Senate confirms Trump Supreme Court pick to succeed Ginsburg Davis: On eve of tonight's debate — we've seen this moment in history before Obama urges voters to back Graham challenger in South Carolina 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 TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote 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 WarrenAll fracked up: Biden's Keystone State breakdown What do Google, banks and chicken salad have in common? Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit MORE (D-Mass.), Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Americans have a choice: Socialized medicine or health care freedom Ocasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOcasio-Cortez: 'Plenty of people without college degrees could run this country better than Trump' Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to positive tests among Pence aides Ocasio-Cortez says Democrats must focus on winning White House for Biden 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 ObamaTrump is cruising for a bruising State lawmaker Elizabeth Fiedler discusses the top issues for Pennsylvania voters Joe Biden's transit plan: Party like it's 2009 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 PutinScarborough: Putin more likely to take tough question than Trump Kremlin: Biden encouraging hatred of Russia President Trump: To know him is to 'No' him 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.