Take Russia, for instance. The Western response to its incursion into Ukrainian territory was always proportionate and almost entirely economic. While there were very good reasons for this, that response meant that Moscow could escalate the crisis by moving more assets into territory it sought to control, safe in the knowledge that, having tested Western resolve, it would not be challenged militarily. In effect, the United States’ failure to enforce red lines empowered its adversaries.
With Iran, according to analysts at the Royal United Services Institute, Britain’s leading military think tank, Trump’s seemingly disproportionate response to Tehran’s aggression has left the Iranian regime shocked and unsure how to respond. At a briefing in London on Monday, I asked a panel of RUSI staffers whether, given that assessment, they considered the air strike a triumph for the president. No one on the panel demurred. Michael Stephens, a former British diplomat who is now a research fellow at RUSI, told me later that it was clear how badly the Iranians had been hurt, both in practical military terms and in pure national pride. “This has fundamentally changed the game and opens up the space for de-escalation,” he said. “It was a sucker punch which has scrambled their understanding of how the Americans might react in future. In the short term, it’s a triumph for Trump.”
Every option available to Iran now comes with huge risks, and the lack of serious response—so far—has damaged the Iranian regime’s reputation. The recent accidental downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight PS752 has also hit it hard, revealing a frightening incompetence as well as a limited retaliatory power.
But while the air strike itself might be a limited foreign-policy success for Trump now, the geopolitical gains he has won through escalatory tactics might yet dissipate if the killing turns out to be little more than an isolated incident, signaling nothing but the president’s capacity for shock. He has history in this area, after all. In 2017, Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs,” the largest conventional bomb the U.S. has ever deployed, to kill more than 90 militants in eastern Afghanistan, and the following year, he authorized, alongside France and Britain, air strikes on Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. On neither occasion was the action followed up in any long-term fashion.
The lessons of the Soleimani killing also do not fit neatly into Trump’s worldview, suggesting the need for clear and consistent red lines, as well as the willingness to commit U.S. military resources to enforce them. It’s America back as global policeman.
Read: The Soleimani assassination is America’s most consequential strike this century
At the moment, in the assessment of the British diplomat I spoke with, the only clear strength of Trump’s foreign policy is his unpredictability, which has the power to unsettle the United States’ adversaries. The diplomat said that Trump appears to understand American strength more instinctively than Obama but, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t seem to have anything close to a strategy to go alongside this insight.