Qassem Soleimani was not just an enemy of the United States and the peoples of the Middle East—he was an enemy to many of our European allies, too.
Hundreds of European combatants died during the Iraq War. As a percentage of their population, the United Kingdom deployed more troops per citizen to Iraq than any other country, including the United States. Spain and the Netherlands deployed 1,300 troops each, Italy 3,200, and South Korea 3,600. Australia’s 2,000 troop contribution might look small, but it was 5 percent of the country’s active-duty personnel. The list goes on.
The general public seems to have forgotten that the Iraq War was a multilateral effort, with allies from across the world were involved—even though very few of them had direct and immediate interests in Iraq. Nevertheless, these allies participated, some in small numbers, and others in larger ones, and they all paid human, financial, and political prices for their participation—prices which Soleimani made sure would be as high as possible.
More recently, our European allies have had their societies and politics disrupted by the flow of Syrian civil war refugees, which was also a Soleimani project.
And yet, despite the fact that our allies had an interest in seeing Soleimani dead, their responses have been muted, at best. Why? Because they neither trust Donald Trump to act prudently throughout escalation, nor like the man.
They have good reasons, on both counts.
Boris Johnson’s statement was the closest to an endorsement of Trump’s decision, in which Johnson said that he doesn’t “lament” Soleimani’s death. France’s minister for Europe came closest to an outright condemnation, saying that “we have woken up to a more dangerous world.” She continued by saying that France’s role “is not to take sides.”
Actually, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s response was probably more unequivocal. Abe had been trying to mediate between the United States and Iran, and he said that he was “humiliated” by the strike.
Thus far, there are no reports of any direct talks about the Soleimani operation between Trump and foreign leaders. But Vladimir Putin is trying to make the most out of the situation by driving a wedge between the United States and its allies. He has invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Russia to talk about the situation and had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron about the matter.
And instead of cultivating our allies, the Trump administration is making Putin’s job easier. Reflecting on the situation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained that “the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be. The Brits, the French, the Germans all need to understand that what we did, what the Americans did, saved lives in Europe as well.”
Who would have thought that three years spent constantly antagonizing America’s allies would result in those allies’ being not as helpful as America wishes?
The hallmark of Trump’s approach to foreign policy has been showing contempt for America’s allies and an affinity for America’s enemies.
He has made a habit of kicking Europeans left and right—most recently leaving a NATO summit in the middle because his feelings were hurt. He openly admires Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un while imposing tariffs on our European allies.
Even in the conduct of the Soleimani operation itself, Trump treated our allies with contempt. The British foreign secretary says that he found out about the strike from the news. This was an operation that could have put British and other European citizens and diplomats in the region at risk and Trump did not even give Boris Johnson’s government a heads up?
And if the Trump administration was worried that America’s closest ally might have warned the Iranians about the operation, then Soleimani was the least of our problems.
When it comes to Iran, nearly every action from this administration has been carried out over the objections of our European allies.
Geopolitics, like all politics, is a team sport and requires making compromises. America cannot delegate its national interest to Europe, but neither can it affront out allies without imposing costs.
Allies often need to compromise with one another, and goodwill and niceties go a long way in making these compromises less painful. Alliance management is one of the most, if not the most, difficult task in diplomacy. Donald Trump’s “to hell with allies” and “why are our allies not more helpful” brand of diplomacy doesn’t actually put America first. It makes America’s strategic situation more dangerous and uncertain.
It is often said that Donald Trump views the world not like a politician, but like a gangster. He believes that the weak owe the strong, and that people either cooperate with his wishes, or become targets of his ire.
The world can work that way, but only for a time. Eventually, the complexities of politics assert themselves. Trump’s administration has been incapable of making meaningful compromise with America’s allies and now, at a moment of instability, our allies are nowhere to be found.
That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that our president and his secretary of state seem surprised.