No one knows with certainty what Iran’s leaders will do next, whether Trump wants to provoke or avoid war, whether he has even made up his mind, and the degree to which his underlings will diligently assist or try to thwart his preferences. For now, however, a significant majority of Republican voters seem to support Trump’s actions with regard to Iran even as they share his critique of the hawkish interventionism that came to characterize their party’s foreign policy during the aughts.
David Frum: Trump broke it. Now he owns it.
On some level, it seems, they have reached conclusions similar to observers like Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, who argues that “taking out Soleimani was wholly consistent with the president’s approach to the world that can’t be plotted on a simple hawk/dove or neocon/isolationist axis. As a Jacksonian, Trump is none of the above, combining a willingness to whack our enemies with a distaste for ambitious foreign interventions.” The Jacksonian label, Lowry explains, is the construction of the foreign-policy analyst Walter Russell Mead, “who traces the tradition back to Andrew Jackson and the cultural influence of the American backwoods. Jacksonians are content to let the world sort itself out, except if they perceive a threat, in which case they react with great ferocity.”
The Fox News host Steve Hilton offered a similar assessment of Trump: “He is anti-war, but he is also anti-weak. No, he doesn’t want to invade deserts of sand like the neocons, but he doesn’t want to put his head in the sand, like the isolation nuts, either.”
Perhaps it’s true that Trump is a Jacksonian at heart. Even if so, Americans should remember that whether a president intends to prolong old, stupid wars or to trigger costly new ones is less important than whether his actions have those effects. Maybe Trump would never have invaded Iraq or deployed so many U.S. troops to that region. But so long as he keeps troops in Iraq and Syria, he is continuing a project of hawkish interventionists in the foreign-policy establishment with similar costs and consequences, consigning America to an endless tit-for-tat with Iran while always risking war.
Trump’s rhetoric and actions are likely to remain confused and contradictory so long as he and most elected Republicans continue to avoid the toughest questions. Is constraining Iran so vital that this project justifies leaving U.S. troops in the region indefinitely? Would it be worth it to bring U.S. troops home and to spend less blood and treasure in the Middle East if the effect was an Iran with more regional power?
Bernie Sanders would answer a forthright “yes” to the latter question. If he or another progressive secures the Democratic nomination, these trade-offs may be debated during the general-election campaign. But if an establishment Democrat like Joe Biden is nominated, there is a strong possibility that both parties will continue their conspiracy of silence.