Last week’s hostilities with Iran prompted the most significant foreign-policy debate on the right since Donald Trump became president––a debate that is ultimately about America’s role in the Middle East and the world.
At a moment when President Trump’s actions are difficult to predict––and when many voters are wondering whether Republicans or Democrats are more likely to end old wars and avoid new ones––right-leaning commentators disagreed about the wisdom of killing Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, the likely effects, what it says about Trump’s approach to the Middle East, and what, if anything, America ought to do differently in the region.
At Fox News, the two most influential populist demagogues in the country differed greatly. Sean Hannity, who spent the aughts as an Iraq War–supporting George W. Bush ally, urged escalatory attacks on Iranian oil refineries while teasing the possibility of regime change. But Tucker Carlson urged restraint; hosted guests who emphasized the huge costs that a war with Iran would impose on Americans; criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an Iran hawk; and questioned why so many on the right who claim to distrust the “deep state” so completely trusted its characterizations of the threat from Iran.
In the Senate, two of the Republicans who most frequently pander to Trump to curry favor with him, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham, split on Iran; Paul insisted that Congress must approve acts of war, while Graham suggested that Americans who invoke laws that constrain presidential war making are guilty of “empowering the enemy.” (Three House Republicans joined a Democratic effort to assert a war-powers resolution.)
At National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty, a paleoconservative generally averse to foreign interventions, defended Trump’s actions as an instance of prudent war making. “The reason you have a military is to punish people that hurt your people and to deter others,” he said on an NR podcast. “Trump took a limited, targeted action against a responsible military target in Iraq who had commanded and shaped proxy attacks in Iraq that killed Americans. It was a just target, a proportionate response, as in proportionate to the end he sought with it, and the early returns are that he got exactly what he wanted, which is establishing escalation dominance and deterrence. This is exactly what a military is for.”
What’s more, he argued, some in Iran felt that Soleimani “was out of control and too aggressive and that his actions were keeping America in Iraq longer than they want us to be,” and if his removal “makes it easier for America to have a dignified exit from the Middle East,” even better. He objected only to Trump’s counterproductive threats about going after Iranian cultural sites, “a war crime and a crime against human history.”
Roger Kimball of Spectator was similarly convinced that “America is getting out of the nation-building neocon regime-change business,” and that “the elimination of Soleimani was not a prelude to deeper US involvement in the Middle East. It was a farewell letter.” Peter Van Buren, while counseling calm at The American Conservative, noted that Trump is the only recent president who hasn’t gotten us into war.
But others at that anti-interventionist, paleocon magazine disagreed. Iraq’s demands for U.S. troops to leave the country after the strike on Soleimani gave Trump “the perfect excuse to order a full U.S. withdrawal,” Daniel Larison wrote, “but he refuses to accept their gift because he is so obsessed with hostility to Iran … Trump seems intent on increasing the U.S. military footprint in the region. So much for the fantasy that the president wants to bring the troops home.” Gareth Porter warned that like key steps toward public acceptance preceding the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq, the Soleimani killing “was aimed at building popular support for war on Iran. Not only the justification, but the assassination itself were part of a broader strategy to grease the skids into war.”
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.
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.