Trump playing a truly deadly game

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Jan 2020

The killing of Iran's top general Qasem Soleimani in an American drone attack was uncharacteristic of US President Donald Trump. The US president had aborted at the last minute a strike on Iran last June and refrained from striking back militarily after Saudi oil facilities were vastly damaged by missiles fired by rebel groups equipped by Iran in September.

So the world was shocked after Trump said they killed Soleimani after the general landed at an Iraqi airport.

If Trump had been confining his Middle East policy to rhetoric and avoiding direct military conflicts during the first three years of his presidency, what happened at the Baghdad airport on Friday may signify a turning point in his Middle East policy in the final year of his first term.

Is he prepared for an escalation in the notorious Middle East tinderbox after claiming a temporary victory in the trade war with China? Was the military strike from above the Baghdad sky the start of another page to capture eyeballs during the presidential election home stretch?

Critics are right to warn that the killing of a general so respected in Iran would pave the way for the Persian nation to unite internal political divisions.

Maybe Trump is betting that escalating conflicts with Iran will galvanize his support at home despite House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi's threat to move a resolution to limit his military actions on Iran. That could be a risky move for the Democrats to pursue.

Though political commentators have been mostly critical of the killing, American reactions have been mixed.

It was not the first time the US military had intruded into other countries to go after targets. The 911 attack mastermind Osama bin Laden was tracked down and killed by elite US force inside Pakistan.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was arrested by the US-led coalition force inside a hideout in Iraq and he was later hanged by his own people. On both occasions, Washington made efforts to justify their intrusion, no matter how disputable those justifications may have been.

Shortly after Soleimani was killed, the White House said they pre-empted a plot that would have led to more deaths of Americans and attacks on US facilities. But what was the plot? Regrettably, no details were offered and no evidence was presented. What was the strategic goal for the military action? That, neither, was explained in full.

It seems that Trump is expecting the world to take America's words for granted without questioning. But it doesn't work that way.

Tehran has vowed to retaliate but its options are limited and Trump and his advisers would have weighed the probable backlash before pressing the button.

Having stoked up the fire in the Middle East, Trump can assure himself that he will continue to be the focal point for the rest of the year. In retrospect, he has designated a distinct theme for each year since winning the 2016 election: border wall and Obama health care for 2017; corporate tax cut and North Korea for 2018; and Sino-US trade war for 2019.

It's now clearer than ever that 2020 will be dedicated to Iran. And the year is going to be volatile for gold and stocks.

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