President Trump may have been elected on a promise to extricate American troops from foreign wars, but his decision to kill Iran’s most powerful military leader will only strengthen support among his base, according to Republican strategists.
The president’s domestic opponents and global allies warned that the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike created a more dangerous world, inviting Iranian retaliation and risking a Middle Eastern conflagration. Within 24 hours, the Pentagon ordered another 3000 U.S. troops to the region.
But Michael Johns, conservative activist and Tea Party movement founder, said Trump supporters would recognize decisive action was necessary and justified. It was not simply a case of the base cheering on every action ordered by the president.
“There’s a very big difference between taking a decisive military step against a designated terrorist leader now, even though he’s affiliated with a state power, and occupying a foreign country,” he said. “The former is one that the Trump base understands and respects, and the latter is one that the base — along with the country as a whole — is very skeptical of.”
That is the balancing act that Trump has pursued since coming to power. Voters weary of never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq elected a president who campaigned to project American power while ending foreign entanglements.
At times this year, he has frustrated foreign policy hawks by resisting pressure to launch strikes on Iran, first when a U.S. drone was downed in the Persian Gulf and later when Tehran was blamed for an attack on Saudi oil facilities.
“We took action last night to stop a war,” is how Trump framed the intervention in a televised address on Friday. “We did not take action to start a war.”
The tension between his two objectives was evident on Fox News in the hours after the death of Soleimani was announced.
While many anchors and contributors praised Trump’s boldness, Tucker Carlson — who has frequently set himself in opposition to the foreign policy establishment — condemned “official Washington” and foreign policy hawks such as John Bolton for dragging the U.S. into war without debate or discussion, while doing nothing to stem the real threat from immigrants crossing the southern border.
“They are liars, and they don’t care about you. They don’t care about your kids,” he said. “They are reckless and incompetent, and you should keep all of that in mind as war with Iran looms closer tonight.”
Supporters in one key district for Trump’s reelection chances shrugged off the risk of escalation.
Chuck Molinari, a businessman in the crucial Pennsylvania swing county of Luzerne, said Soleimani might not have been as well known as Osama bin Laden, but the strike was justified and unlikely to drag the U.S. deeper into war.
“Iran is going to retaliate? What, you mean different to what it’s been like for the past 40 years with this regime? That doesn’t bother me,” he said.
Other Trump supporters who made up an informal diner breakfast club agreed, added Molinari, who runs a fitness equipment store in the town of Kingston.
“I don’t think that Trump is going to lose his support no matter what he does,” he said.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based political strategist, said the deployment of extra forces undermined Trump’s promise to bring home troops. “But, you can’t tell his base what he did was wrong or had any failing,” he said. “They won’t believe you. They believe, in fact, that this guy has decided that foreign entanglements must end, and this is just part of this process.”
That fails to credit a commander in chief who has managed to walk a fine line, according to Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, who said supporters saw “a measured response by a president who did not want to get into additional wars.”
“They see a president who has been patient and careful in the use of military force. This was not a rash decision,” he said. “He had very many opportunities to take military action after Iranian provocations, but he only acted after an American citizen was killed and after Iran sent militias against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The president was not going to let that go unanswered.”
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