Trump is Awful, But the Suleimani Killing is not Distinctly Trumpian

by Michael C. Dorf

The coverage of Donald Trump's decision to kill Qassim Suleimani with a drone strike at the Baghdad airport without the consent of the Iraqi government has been mostly highly critical--and with good reason. Here's my "unrolled Twitter thread" from a few days ago, when, in the immediate wake of the killing, I questioned both the stated rationale for it and a couple of potential alternative ones. Questioning the stated rationale turns out to have been sound, because when asked yesterday what specific attacks Suleimani was planning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave no answer. In President Trump's statement today, he recited Suleimani's past acts but did not refer to anything concrete in the works, much less explain how killing a general would stop an operation that was going to be carried out by others.

I also stand by my other criticisms of killing Suleimani as likely to be counterproductive to any rational conception of US strategic interests in the Middle East. To be sure, I can imagine a scenario in which it accidentally plays out for the better: perhaps the Iraqi government will follow through on its resolution to expel US troops and that will end up being a reason to bring them home; that would, to be sure, cede Iraq to Iran, but the costs of maintaining even a relatively small force in Iraq are very substantial, as the value they provide in fighting the remnants of ISIS and the added security and counterweight they provide relative to Iran must be balanced against their tendency to antagonize many Iraqis and others.

To be clear, I don't think that withdrawal of US troops in response to an Iraqi order or the Iranian ballistic missile shots would necessarily be a good outcome, as it would, among other things, betray the Kurds yet again, this time in Iraqi Kurdistan, but there is enough uncertainty and volatility to lead me to think that while Trump's decision was terrible, it could work out all right--much in the way that buying lottery tickets is a stupid investment, even though it will sometimes work out well.

To be clear about why the decision to kill Suleimani was bad, it's useful to note how the various press reports have portrayed it as extreme. They note that the military advisers who included killing Suleimani on a list of options given Trump were shocked that he selected it and that Presidents Bush and Obama as well as Israeli PM Netanyahu had all rejected killing Suleimani (who was not exactly hiding) as likely too inflammatory and, depending on the circumstances, potentially a violation of international law.

Yet if the killing of Suleimani was too extreme and risky for Bush, Obama, and Netanyahu, it does not follow that the drone strike was distinctly Trumpian. It was the sort of move that a distinct wing of the GOP--the neocons who brought us the Iraq War--has been seeking for years. Now-sainted John McCain was nominally joking when, in response to a question in 2007, he sang "bomb bomb Iran" to the tune of "Barbara Ann," but he spoke for a view within the GOP that has had and retains substantial support both inside and outside the Trump Administration.

Within the administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to be the loudest voice to have urged confronting Iran, a role he inherited from John Bolton after the latter resigned/was fired. Bolton's excitement about the possibility that the killing of Suleimani could lead to regime change in Iran--presumably after a bloody war that Bolton will watch from the safety of a FoxNews studio--might even explain his sudden willingness to testify in a Senate impeachment trial in the unlikely event that Mitch McConnell decides to allow witnesses. Perhaps Bolton is so grateful to Trump for acting against Iran that he will suddenly remember how all of his discussions with the president about Ukraine were simply about how to address Trump's longstanding concern about the insidiousness of corruption.

To be clear, I have no evidence to indicate that Bolton was offering to commit perjury in the Senate. I'm merely suggesting that, given the odd timing, that is a possibility. In any event, whatever Bolton's motives, his views on Iran, while not exactly dominant within the Republican Party, are within its mainstream. And to make matters worse, neocons have been somewhat prominent within the never-Trump right. Bill Kristol is perhaps the leading example but not the only one.

I doubt that Kristol or any other particular neocon will suddenly confess error and recognize Trump as a  stable genius in foreign policy or more generally, but I do worry that by following a policy trajectory long advocated by some of his strongest (neo-and-other) conservative critics, Trump will have dampened what might otherwise have been a source of some opposition. Put differently, Trump's muscle-flexing relative to Iran could be for neocons what his transformation of the judiciary is for social conservatives: a reason to overlook his obvious flaws as a useful vehicle for achieving longstanding aims.

Meanwhile, I believe there is a tendency in the media to over-emphasize the ways in which Trump has transformed the policy agenda of the right. For the most part his agenda has been down-the-line conservative: tax cuts that disproportionately favor the wealthy; deregulation and lax enforcement of existing regulations; very conservative judicial appointments; undercutting the Affordable Care Act; and suppression of the votes of Democratic-leaning constituencies.

With two exceptions to which I'll return in a moment, Trump's other policies have tended to favor one or another of views on which there is intra-conservative conflict. His hard-line stance on immigration aligns him with the GOP base as against the Wall Street financial backers. In acceding to some criminal justice reform, he sides with a growing bipartisan movement that draws strength within the GOP on a rationale based on saving public money. By signing budgets with huge deficits even during a time of economic growth, Trump bucks the fiscal hawk orthodoxy of the GOP, but that orthodoxy has always been more theoretical than real when there is a Republican in the White House. And to the extent that Trump's foreign policy careens rather wildly and incoherently between isolationism and inflammatory tough-guy hawkishness, his own internal conflict reflects a conflict within the Republican establishment.

That leaves two areas in which Trump takes positions outside the range of mainstream Republican views. One is his support for tariffs and hostility to free trade. This view is an outlier, although it's worth noting that it is more of an outlier among Republican elected officials--responsive as they are to the Wall Street wing of the party--than it is to the GOP base.

The second area of distinctive Trumpiness is his willingness to engage in open racism. Even here, however, there is less than meets the eye. From Nixon's Southern strategy to Reagan's "welfare queens" to the Willie Horton ads for Bush 1 to the racist attacks on McCain in support of Bush 2's 2000 South Carolina primary campaign, hitherto the m.o. of the Republican Party has been veiled racism or racism by others with a patina of plausible deniability. Trump's express racism is thus embarrassing to the GOP but not exactly the clean break that it is sometimes portrayed as.

Accordingly, I am left to conclude that while Trump has personal qualities that make him awful and distinctly unfit for office, in many ways, his policies reflect continuity with the Republican Party of the last half century.

I make a similar observation in my latest Verdict column. There, I read between the lines of the year-end report by Chief Justice Roberts to find evidence that he is a closeted never-Trumper. However, after expressing gratitude for the Chief Justice's willingness to stand up to Trump, I remind readers of the many ways in which the agenda of the Supreme Court's conservative wing, including Roberts, aligns with Trump's.

Removing Trump in the next election is important because of the ways in which he challenges core democratic norms. But we should not forget that, with respect to policy, he is ultimately a symptom, not the disease.