The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 2: The Trump Doctrine

The Trump Doctrine

  • Trump’s finest hour on Iran?
  • Bernie Sanders takes the lead in key states
  • Georgia poll looks good for Trump


The Trump Doctrine: America doesn’t want war, but if you keep messing with the USA, you will pay a very high price for it.

President Trump has started the new decade off the right way by clearly and loudly delivering that message to Iran. And he did it in a way that probably makes long-term peace in the region much more likely, not less.

The last two weeks have seen a lot of media hot takes about going to the brink of war. This is laughably wrong. In fact, if you listen to what a lot of the hysterical commentators have said, then recent events largely don’t make any sense. So we’ll try to interpret events in a more sensible manner here in order to estimate their political significance.

It all began Jan. 3, with the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, a major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. The Iranian general, who headed the state terrorist Quds force, was on a clandestine trip to Iraq when he met his early demise. According to U.S. intelligence, he was there planning terrorist attacks against American personnel and interests, including diplomatic facilities. As it happened, the U.S. embassy had also just been attacked and its grounds occupied by Iranian sympathizers days earlier.

After monitoring Soleimani’s trip, Trump and his team decided to hit him with a drone. It went off without a hitch — in fact, he was killed along with one of the leaders of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia. The justification for this strike is that it was an act of self-defense. The Baghdad embassy incursion — an attack on sovereign U.S. soil — might alone nominally justify this defense, but administration officials point also to multiple imminent attacks by Iran on four U.S. embassies, all of which were prevented by Soleimani’s sudden demise. 

Far from sparking or nearly sparking a war, the killing of Soleimani sent an important message that will likely prevent any such conflict — a message that the Iranians haven’t heard in quite a long time. They have long been testing the limits of American patience with small provocations and acts of terrorism — everything from the recent embassy attack to the war in Yemen to the seizing of American and British ships to the plotting of an assassination in Washington, D.C. But from now on, they have just been informed, this sort of behavior will meet an overwhelming and forceful response. This time, Iran has lost one of its revered and talented military leaders; next time, who knows?

Not the brink of war: So, what about the risk of war? After all, a war with Iran would be not only disastrous, but also very much against the promises Trump made as a candidate. Fortunately, Trump was able to act in the knowledge that such a war just isn’t on the cards. The Iranians have even more incentive to avoid war than the U.S. does — their regime is already teetering under economic sanctions and would likely not survive a conflict with the world’s best-equipped and trained military. 

This became evident with the Iranians’ toothless response to Soleimani’s killing. They fired 17 missiles at a U.S. air base in Iraq that had been cleared two and a half hours in advance — no casualties. This allowed the mullahs to save face at home without escalating a conflict they could not afford to engage in. 

By simply giving them that chance to save face and tolerating their retaliation, Trump had already put himself into a very powerful negotiating position. He delivered a masterful speech on Wednesday — probably the best of his presidency — acknowledging the Iranian attack, calling for de-escalation, and reaffirming his goal of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

At that point, the situation had already resolved itself in America’s favor, but there was one more shoe to drop — a passenger airliner had crashed in Tehran around the same time as the retaliatory action. Despite an elaborate cover-up attempt that involved bulldozing the crash site, the Iranians were unable to hide the fact that they had mistakenly shot down the plane themselves, killing 176 people — mostly Iranians, Ukrainians, and Canadians. 

Exposed and vulnerable: Obviously the human cost is heartbreaking, but from a diplomatic perspective, it has broken the regime’s ability to stand up for itself any longer. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, not known as an assertive or hawkish leader, cannot even afford to show the Iranians sympathy at this point. No one could, even if they wanted to. The regime further compounded its problems over the weekend by arresting the U.K. ambassador for showing up to a vigil for the victims on the airliner. 

Thus, the Iranian regime has been exposed as a paper tiger and at the same time reduced to abject submission by multiple simultaneous blunders. Whereas they had at first tried to prevent any foreign investigation of the plane crash, they are now allowing even Americans. Meanwhile, the U.S. announced tighter sanctions against Iranian leaders and the Iranian metals industry. The Iranians have no response. What could they even say at this point? Right now, the streets have flooded again with anti-regime protesters who are tearing down Soleimani’s likeness. They are exposing the lie that Trump’s strike galvanized public opinion against him, and potentially threatening the very continued existence of the regime.

Back to the table? So where is this all heading? Trump would like to get the Iranians back to the table to negotiate a new nuclear deal. As far as that goal is concerned, he could not have set things up better than they unfolded. And if he succeeds in that, it will be a magnificent diplomatic achievement, the likes of which no one would have expected from Trump. 

Voters rarely make decisions based on foreign policy — unless it goes very badly. The good news here for Trump is that we probably won’t be hearing a whole lot of noise from Iran for some time. By beating very low foreign policy expectations, and most of all by avoiding war, Trump will be able to silence his critics (or at least destroy their credibility) on foreign affairs the same way he has been able to so far on the economy. 

Once again, it will be very hard for Democrats in this week’s debate to make the case that Trump has ruined the nation or the world, as they once warned he would as president. 

This is why, politically speaking, this confrontation might well live on as Trump’s finest hour.  

Impeachment blink: Speaking of confrontations, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has backed down on her demands for changes to the process of a Senate impeachment trial. She was forced to by Senate Democrats, who began voicing impatience over her delay last week. 

Pelosi had threatened to withhold the articles of impeachment to the Senate, which would have suited Republicans just fine. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell held together his caucus and the Senate will consequently adopt the same process that was used during Bill Clinton’s impeachment. That means there will be no guarantee of new witness testimony or documents, although senators will be allowed to request written answers to questions.

The fact is, Democrats don’t want impeachment to linger. Although there has been a paucity of national polling, it does not seem to be getting more popular with time, and certainly not in the key swing states. Pelosi’s four-week delay so far has already pretty much obliterated the original rationale for rushing into impeachment — that it was urgent. 

When senators — not just conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin but also Chris Coons, D-Del., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., started complaining about Pelosi’s strategy, it was clear that it wouldn’t go on much longer. 

President 2020

Early Primaries: At this stage, Bernie Sanders leads in the polling averages of both Iowa and New Hampshire. Were he to win both states, he would have a serious chance of upsetting the presumed frontrunner, Joe Biden

Were Democrats to nominate of Sanders, an avowed socialist with very far-left views, it would make for an amazing 2020 general election. Trump and Sanders would surely both be in rare form, making populist appeals in their own way. It would be a magnificently entertaining affair, but also an ideological clash unlike what Americans usually see in their elections. Although Sanders is far to the left of what Americans are used to, he must not be written off. Discontent with the established system of government spans the ideological divide, and it’s quite possible that a lot of people will see Sanders the same way they saw Trump in 2016 — as a cleansing fire that can burn down the status quo, or a hurricane that can drain the swamp.

Georgia: A previously shaky state for President Trump appears to be in better shape than expected, according to a recent poll.

Mason-Dixon finds Trump polling between seven and 14 points ahead of all Democratic comers. Biden does best and Elizabeth Warren does worst, as you might expect. Interestingly, Trump breaks into the double digits with black voters if his opponent is Warren or Pete Buttigieg.

Part of Trump’s campaign strategy in 2020 revolves around keeping Red a handful of traditionally Republican where he underperformed in 2016. This includes Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. If Georgia looks good, he can focus more time and resources on Arizona, which has appeared more of a problem.

Senate 2020

Michigan: In a race that continues to poll closely, 2018 Senate Republican nominee John James managed to outraise incumbent Sen. Gary Peters, D, in the fourth quarter. James took in $3.5 million compared to Peters’ $2.5 million. Peters led by a meager 44 to 40 percent in a poll released last week.