9 January 2020
9 January 2020

Can we please have a “do over” for 2020?

The year is only in its infancy but somehow we all might be better served if we went back to December 31, 2019 and started all over again.

2020 was not even 72 hours old before Donald Trump set the nerves of the world on edge.

It seems the Pentagon had given him a list of options to respond to a rocket attack late last month by an Iranian-backed militia that killed an American civilian contractor and wounded U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

Trump initially went with a counter-punch on the militia – the “like for like” response backed by the Defense Department.

But then, as 2019 drew to a close, he saw the video on TV of  demonstrators trying to force their way into the highly fortified U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad. That likely set him off.

He went back to the list of options prepared by the military and chose the most radical — the one defense planners put on the list perhaps because it was so extreme it would nudge him towards a more rational approach.

But rationality has never been President Trump’s strong suit. He ordered the Pentagon to kill Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and its top security and intelligence commander.

Soleimani — seen by many as his country’s best military strategist— was taken out by an American drone strike near Baghdad International Airport.

It was a major blow to Iran and, as the New York Times put it,  Trump’s “most significant use of  military force to date.”

Now, just about everyone in Washington agrees that Soleimani was a bad actor, who may well have the blood of countless civilians and soldiers on his hands. But to the Iranians he was a hero… and now he is a martyr. They mourned him with funeral processions across the country the likes of which have not been seen since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989.

Iran wants revenge and Donald Trump, who vowed to get America out of “endless wars,” may be leading us into one.

So much has changed and in so little time.

President Trump — who tends to make decisions on the spur of the moment — now has to prepare for a backlash from Iran and a conflict that could further destabilize an already tense part of the world.

Richard Haas, the veteran American diplomat who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, has been issuing warnings to the White House on Twitter — the medium perhaps most likely to get the president’s attention:

“Make no mistake: any war with Iran will not look like the 1990 Gulf war or the 2003 Iraq wars. It will be fought throughout the region with a wide range of tools vs a wide range of civilian, economic, & military targets. The region (and possibly the world) will be the battlefield.”

The president’s faithful supporters, however, are standing by him. Senator Tom Cotton noted Soleimani’s decades-long reign of terror included the deaths of hundreds of Americans. “He got what he richly deserved,” said Cotton.

But there were words of caution from Brett McGurk – who headed the State Department’s efforts to combat ISIS. He tweeted:

“The news out of Iraq is a measure of justice done but with unknowable consequences.”

Within days of Soleimani’s death, the Iraqi parliament had voted to ask U.S. forces to leave (though it is unclear if the caretake government in Baghdad can sign off on this request)… and Iran had signaled its intention to suspend its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal it had struck with world powers.

The response to all this was a series of mixed messages from the White House. Key among them:  President Trump’s threat to respond to any future Iranian attacks on Americans or American assets with reprisals against Iranian cultural sites. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later said the United States would behave according to international law, including a 1954 treaty that made targeting cultural sites a war crime.

And then there was this — a chaotic couple of hours at the Pentagon.

It all started when a letter from the Defense Department— dated but unsigned — began circulating on social media  that appeared to reveal U.S. plans to pull out of Iraq after nearly 17 years.

Addressed to an official at Iraq’s defense ministry, the letter said American forces would be “repositioning” to prepare for “onward movement” following the vote in the Iraqi parliament.

Defense officials scrambled to respond, sending out the nation’s top military officer to tell reporters that it was all a mistake, and the letter was just a draft that should not have been released.

It was heavy-duty damage control.

“There is no onward movement. Honest mistake,” said General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff.

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” echoed U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Espy.

It was not, to put it mildly “a good look” for the Pentagon at a time of rising tensions. And it seemed eerily reminiscent of the kind of communications chaos we have grown to expect from the Trump White House.

This is a president who seems intent on conducting foreign policy by tweet. Most of the congressional leadership was kept in the dark about the plan to go after Soleimani, as were key allies abroad.

All this at a time when Donald Trump is facing an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. As Politico — the online daily journal of U.S. politics — put it:

“Lawmakers are left struggling to prioritize the two dramas — and could for weeks if Iran retaliates against the United States while the Senate considers removing Trump. It’s a microcosm of Trump’s frenetic presidency: The plodding pace of Congress has it barely keeping up as an institution.”

Yes, this has become the season of the three I’s in America: Iran, Impeachment and Iowa.

Why Iowa?  It is the first test of the 2020 U.S presidential campaign. Voters in this midwestern, largely agricultural state will state their preferences for the Democratic Party nomination on February 3rd.

All the Democratic contenders have been speaking out about the decision to kill Soleimani. All agree that he needed to be brought to justice somehow for sowing terror and chaos across the Middle East… and all worry about the consequences of Trump’s decision to do it by assassination.

Former Vice President Joe Biden summed it up best:

“President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”

Five days after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, at least a dozen ballistic missiles launched from inside Iran hit military bases in Iraq that house U.S. and coalition forces.

No one was killed but it could have been a nerve-rattling early warning shot — the real retaliation could come much later.

For his part, President Trump intially responded to the Iranian attack in his usual fashion, with a tweet.  “All is well,” he said.

No, Mr. President. All is NOT well.



Paula Wolfson

Paula Wolfson is a veteran Washington correspondent who has covered three presidents and six presidential campaigns. She was the White House bureau chief for the Voice of America before switching to commercial radio, where she reported on science and health care policy, Recently she returned to her first love and is writing once again on American politics and foreign policy for

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