EDITORIAL: Impulse is not foreign policy

York Dispatch Editorial Board
President Donald Trump walks off after delivering remarks on Iran, at his Mar-a-Lago property, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, in Palm Beach, Fla. Photo by Evan Vucci

The elimination of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander, is welcome news. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops in the Mideast over the years.

But almost everything surrounding the decision by President Donald Trump to assassinate the longtime enemy raises troubling questions.

  • The administration gave conflicting rationales for the deadly drone attack: calling it both retaliation for Iranian aggression in the Middle East — including support of a siege on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad — and a preemptive measure to prevent an “imminent” attack being planned by Suleimani.
  • There was scant initial detail offered that any such attack was in the works, not to mention internal disputes among Defense Department officials over whether evidence suggested a threat.
  • The White House declined to appraise House and Senate leaders — the so-called Gang of Eight — about the mission before pulling the trigger.
  • Yet Trump evidently spilled the beans to others, including his son Eric, who seemingly telegraphed the attack in a dim-witted and since-deleted Twitter message.

Worst of all, there’s little evidence the attack was undertaken as part of any kind of overriding foreign policy. In fact, the administration has now hurriedly deployed thousands of troops to the region, in direct opposition to the stated goal of reducing the U.S. military presence.

More:Rockets fired after day of mourning for slain Iranian leader

More:Pa. Republicans applaud, Casey criticizes killing of top Iranian general

Trump claimed the killing was needed to stabilize the region and prevent war. But the situation was anything but stable over the weekend, with tens of thousands of mourners flooding Iran’s streets during a funeral procession for Suleimani, Iraq demanding the withdrawal of all U.S. troops within its borders, Iran pulling out of the 2015 nuclear accord, U.S. citizens urged to flee Iraq and Iran promising retribution.

Just as concerning: There is scant proof that Trump or his administrative enablers have considered the repercussions of the Friday, Jan. 3, drone strike on Suleimani’s motorcade outside the Baghdad airport. 

It’s not a good sign, for example, that the president turned to his social media platform of choice over the weekend to spew silly boasts and threats aimed at Iran. Iran’s supreme leader and his military advisers are not as likely to lap up Trump’s Twitter shtick as the president’s domestic supporters.

Coffins of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades who were killed in Iraq by a U.S. drone strike, are carried on a truck surrounded by mourners during a funeral procession, in the city of Mashhad, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. Soleimani's death Friday in Iraq further heightens tensions between Tehran and Washington after months of trading attacks and threats that put the wider Middle East on edge. (Mohammad Hossein Thaghi/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

And there are already hints of reprisals. The website of the government’s Federal Depository Library Program was struck Saturday by hackers purporting to be affiliated with Iran’s regime. More concerning are Tehran’s promises to target U.S. military installations.

The administration needs to get its act together. Presidential tweets do not a foreign policy make. And an inexperienced son-in-law is no replacement for seasoned diplomats. But as congressional hearings leading up to Trump’s impeachment demonstrated, neither seasoned diplomats nor diplomacy itself are valued in this administration.

And speaking of the impeachment, there are questions whether the attack was intended to distract from, complicate or derail the proceedings. Trump’s two immediate predecessors both had the opportunity to take out Suleimani but opted not to, citing military, strategic and geopolitical ramifications. What’s changed?

The president’s decision was nothing if not impulsive, and Republican supporters who praised the act — including Pennsylvania’s congressional contingent — seem as near-sighted as the president when it comes to foreign policy in the region.

Said Rep. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster: “The safety and security of the American people at home and abroad should be the central focus of our foreign policy.”

Assuredly. But how does Trump’s brash and rash decision tie into that foreign policy? More to the point: What is that foreign policy?

The president has proven adept at making messes. And his congressional and inner-circle apologists have become equally facile at explaining away or ignoring his missteps — up to and including the impeachment proceedings.

This is different.

The administration needs to spell out its the substantive, long-term objectives for the Middle East and the diplomatic tools it will use to pursue them. Drone strikes and Twitter threats aren’t going to cut it.