Iran is a crucial test case on US engagement in the Middle East and beyond

Donald Trump, as well as both the country's major political parties, seem torn between internationalism and isolationism

US President Donald Trump arrives for a "Keep America Great" campaign rally at Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio, on January 9, 2020. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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Iran might not have decided yet whether to escalate or de-escalate tensions with the US following the targeted killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, as Raghida Dergham reports in these pages. But question marks also hover over both the Donald Trump administration's long-term approach to Tehran and even over the broader trajectory of the US international role in coming decades.

Iran will be a crucial test case for American engagement.

Underneath the extraordinary outcry on both the left and the right in response to the killing of Suleimani lies a huge rift between internationalists, whether hawks or doves, who want to sustain the kind of global engagement Washington maintained during the Cold War era versus neo-isolationists, who reject a robust American international profile except, perhaps, regarding trade.

The Republican Party can normally be expected to rally around Mr Trump under any and all circumstances. And one would particularly expect a degree of robust unanimity when it comes to kinetic military actions overseas, particularly in response to the killing of an American military contractor and the besieging of the US embassy in Baghdad by cadres of the pro-Iranian Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah.

The Democratic Party can be expected to always critique the president's performance. Its leaders focused on the lack of customary briefings of senior congressional leaders in advance of the action, or satisfactory ones after.

Others went further. Many Democrats decried the "recklessness" of the killing and claimed that Mr Trump was dragging the US into a new Middle Eastern war for political purposes. Democratic leaders, essentially products of Cold War multilateralism who prize alliances and international institutions, sounded very different from those who reject the legacy of US global leadership as wasteful, corrupt, immoral or imperialistic.

This division is strikingly mirrored among Republicans. Internationalists such as senator Lindsey Graham – who are generally more hawkish and unilateralist than their Democratic counterparts – applauded the strike. But libertarian and isolationist senators, led by Rand Paul who has been one of Mr Trump’s key allies, did not disguise their doubts and dismay.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to reporters ahead of a vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner
Isolationist senators, led by Rand Paul who has been one of Donald Trump's key allies, did not disguise their dismay over Qassem Suleimani’s killing. Reuters

Numerous American reactions to the drone strike reflected ideological and political orientations, frequently having nothing to do with the event itself, viewed either strategically or tactically. Many seem either cynical or neurotic, or both.

The problem has been exacerbated by typically poor messaging from this White House, which failed to clearly explain that beginning in late October, Kataib Hezbollah and other Iraqi militias operating under the supervision of Suleimani had launched rocket attacks on US-related military targets in Iraq on an almost weekly basis, eventually leading to the death of a contractor. Demanding, as both left and right isolationists did, specific intelligence about an imminent threat therefore seems silly.

To the contrary, the normal burden of proof in this instance is inverted. Given what Suleimani and the other leading Iraqi and Iranian figures killed in the strike have been doing in recent months, any suggestion that they did not pose an “imminent threat” is baffling. That claim must posit a sudden shift in their modus operandi, and that they were going to start behaving very differently all of a sudden than they have been for many weeks. It is possible but hardly likely.

This obvious point should have been easily communicated to Congress and the public but the Trump White House, as it so often does, failed to make a sound policy case, preferring to indulge in undignified chest thumping.

This mistake invited facile neo-isolationist arguments, with their own preposterous buzzwords such as “endless wars” – which Mr Trump himself has unwisely used to criticise his predecessors – to try to insinuate that the US-Iranian confrontation was effectively manufactured, exaggerated or is somehow pointless.

A good case could be made that the nuclear deal Iran signed with the world’s powers had secured the international community a valuable breathing space on the country’s nuclear programme, and withdrawing from it was rash and imprudent. However, there is really no question that if the US wishes to be a major global power it has no choice but to confront Iran’s expanding hegemony in the still strategically vital Middle East.

Yet many Americans on both the right and the left do not wish the country to remain a major global power at all. The isolationist streak runs deep. A majority demanded it between the first and second World Wars, leaving the country dreadfully weakened at a time of growing peril.

It was only the consensus about an existential threat posed by the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Cold War that established internationalism as a hegemonic and mainstream position in US foreign policy.

Those days are obviously over and the current confrontation with Iran is arguably the most vivid demonstration of that yet. The Trump administration may be committed to continuing to challenge Iran’s regional agenda, missile programme and nuclear ambitions. But much of the rest of the country wants nothing to do with anything like that.

At stake, ultimately, is whether the US intends to remain a global power or not. If so, it is not necessary to kill people like Suleimani or go to war with Iran. But it is essential to maintain the kind of engaged leadership that placed Washington at the centre of global affairs for the past 80 years.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties are badly split on this issue, and Mr Trump himself appears to be deeply conflicted between internationalist (or at least mercantilist) and neo-isolationist tendencies. He is constantly tacking between the two positions. Thus divided, Washington is incapable of the foreign policy focus it needs.

The country needs a robust, thoroughgoing national conversation about international relations. Foreign policy professionals and others who favour international engagement have simply failed to make the case to ordinary Americans that global leadership is in their interests. Far too many consider it all a detestable, outrageous burden. As long as that persists, and absent an existential and unifying foreign threat, the US is likely to remain an indecisive international actor that hamstrings itself time and again to the benefit of much weaker adversaries.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington