The past two decades have exhausted Americans’ willingness to accept or even risk extended military action in the Middle East. Whoever takes the oath as president in January 2021 will face a daunting task: building a sustainable Middle East policy on the ruins of U.S. engagement in the region.
The events of recent weeks have revealed the weakness of the U.S. position.
regime, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Khamenei & Putin Inc., is pursuing a ruthless offensive in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province. Nearly 300,000 civilians, many already displaced from elsewhere in Syria, are fleeing for their lives.
Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has resisted U.S. pressure to reverse its purchase of a Russian S-400 air-defense missile system. Although Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the Libyan civil war, they have worked together to forge a shaky cease-fire and are likely to broker the final outcome. All parties to the Libyan conflict have noted the near-absence of U.S. involvement and the weakness of European Union diplomacy decoupled from American leadership.
Escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, capped by the killing of
haven’t rallied America’s allies in the region to its cause. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which took note of the U.S. failure to respond to Iran’s September attack on a major Saudi oil facility, have signaled their desire to avoid further conflict. Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the removal of all American forces, throwing the future of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition into doubt.
Israel’s Prime Minister
Iran’s most implacable foe, issued a terse public message backing Mr. Trump’s move but reportedly told his cabinet, “The assassination of Soleimani isn’t an Israeli event but an American event. We were not involved and should not be dragged into it.” On Monday, Prime Minister
of Canada, which lost 57 citizens in the downing of the passenger jet near Tehran, blamed the incident partly on U.S. “escalation.”
One might have expected that Mr. Trump’s decision to remove an effective adversary from the battlefield would generate at least a temporary surge of domestic support. To my surprise, this hasn’t happened. It has had no discernible effect on Mr. Trump’s approval rating, and many Americans express concern rather than approval.
A survey conducted by Ipsos for USA Today late last week provides the most detailed snapshot of public reaction so far. On the one hand, 42% of respondents supported the killing of Soleimani, with 33% opposed and 25% undecided. Seventy-three percent of Republicans backed the move, compared with only 22% of Democrats and 34% of independents. This polarized plurality support is the only good news for the Trump administration. Sixty-nine percent believe that the killing will make Iran-linked attacks on U.S. interests in the Middle East more likely. Other negative outcomes that Americans regard as more likely include terrorist attacks on the U.S. (63%), war with Iran (62%), and Iran’s developing nuclear weapons (52%). Only 29% think the president’s decision will help re-establish American dominance in the Middle East.
It isn’t surprising that most Democrats express these fears. But many Republicans worry as well. More than 6 in 10 believe that Iranian-backed attacks on U.S. interests in the region are now more likely; about half feel the same about the likelihood of terrorist attacks on the U.S. and going to war with Iran.
The survey, conducted after Iran’s retaliatory strike on Iraqi bases housing American troops, found limited support for further military action. Only 39% of Americans would support attacks on Iranian military targets, a share that rises to 55% if Iran were to kill a “major U.S. officer.” Just 22% would support Mr. Trump’s idea of targeting Iranian cultural sites, an option Defense Secretary
The news for the administration gets no better when the survey turns from policy to personal feelings. Yes, 53% say that killing Soleimani shows Iran that the U.S. won’t be pushed around. But only 30% agree that they feel safer now that he has been killed, while 51% disagree. Sixty-four percent—including 57% of Republicans—say the killing represented an “escalation” of the conflict, and 52% regard President Trump’s conduct toward Iran as “reckless.”
The administration should ponder the finding that only 34% of Americans (and 25% of independents) believe Mr. Trump is delivering on his promise to end “endless wars.” Support for his Iran policy stands at 36%, while 53% support congressional efforts to require legislative approval for conducting military strikes or initiating a war.
No president should allow public opinion to drive foreign policy, but no president can afford to ignore it. After two decades of armed conflict in the Middle East—overseen by administrations of both parties—that yielded limited returns, the American people are reluctant to open a new front. Unless this sentiment changes, presidents of both political parties must economize on the use of force and maximize U.S. reliance on proxies, allies and skillful diplomacy.
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