The aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the mastermind of Tehran’s dirty wars, not only confirmed the weakness of the Iranian government. It also exposed the weakness of Donald Trump’s domestic opponents. The Iranians launched a barrage of ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq that house American troops. No lives were lost because the strike appears to have been preceded by a warning to the Iraqi government. But, by mistake it seems, the Iranians also managed to shoot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 as it took off from Tehran airport, killing all 176 people on board.
No doubt there will be more threats of retaliation. No doubt there will be more missiles fired. And no doubt there will be fewer passengers on planes to Tehran.
Meanwhile, the Democrats fired their metaphorical missiles at the president. They were no more accurate. The only difference was they did more damage to themselves than to any blameless bystanders.
“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” tweeted Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is still in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Joe Biden, who remains the frontrunner in the opinion polls, was not to be outdone. “Anything that Barack [Obama] and I did, [Trump]’s determined to undo,” Biden said during a speech at a private fundraiser in California. “This is the guy who said he wanted to end endless wars in the Middle East,” he went on. But “the end result . . . is we find ourselves more vulnerable”.
Very vulnerable. During a conference with other Democrats on Wednesday, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar said “everything that is taking place” in the Middle East made her “feel ill”. She continued: “Every time I hear about . . . conversations around war, I find myself being stricken with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].” She later tweeted: “Trump is on the brink of dragging us into an endless war.”
On Thursday the House of Representatives approved a resolution that Trump must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Announcing the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the killing of Soleimani “provocative and disproportionate”.
The Democrats have now had three years to figure out Trump and they still haven’t got it. Of course no one could predict with certainty how the Iranians would react to Soleimani’s killing. But what could be predicted was that Trump did not intend to start an “endless war”. On the contrary. I am not sure quite how the Democrats will react when, as I think likely, Trump simply accedes to the wish of the Iraqi government to withdraw the remaining US troops from Iraq and then blithely starts negotiations with Iran. So accustomed are Pelosi and co to accusing Republicans of being warmongers that they cannot fathom how Trump could first take out Soleimani and then take out his own troops.
Yet, as Walter Russell Mead explained in The Wall Street Journal, this is a quintessentially Jacksonian foreign policy move, in the spirit of Andrew Jackson, the president whom the former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon told his old boss to make his role model. Like his supporters in red-state America, Trump has no appetite for the “endless wars” they associate with George W Bush’s administration. But he and they also believe that the United States should retaliate against attacks on Americans. (Nawres Hamid, a naturalised US citizen, was killed by an Iranian-backed militia attack while working as an interpreter near Kirkuk on December 27.)
As Mead put it in his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, a Jacksonian believes “that the most important goal of the US government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic wellbeing of the American people”. Neoconservative nation-building or liberal interventionism are not on the Jacksonian menu. It’s all about “Don’t tread on me” — the rattlesnake’s warning on the American Revolutionary War battle flag.
Since mid-2018 I have argued that Trump has an incentive to make Jacksonian foreign policy waves in an election year. It guarantees that he dominates the airwaves, depriving his Democratic rivals of the oxygen of media coverage. It also encourages the Democrats to sound like a bunch of wimps.
Yet there is another influence at work here, besides that of Jackson.
I am certainly not the first person to notice the influence of the Godfather films on the president. The former FBI director James Comey said in 2018 that Trump’s style gave him “a flashback to my days investigating the mafia”. Trump’s way of establishing a tie of loyalty to him, Comey has written, was “like Sammy the Bull’s Cosa Nostra induction ceremony — with Trump, in the role of the family boss, asking me if I have what it takes to be a ‘made man’.” The jailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen once described himself as the Trump Organisation’s Tom Hagen, the consigliere played by Robert Duvall in the Godfather films. The jailed Trump adviser Roger Stone once urged an associate who was supposed to testify against him to “do a Frank Pentangeli”.
Trump himself alluded to The Godfather, for example, when he mocked CNN anchor Chris Cuomo by calling him “Fredo” — a reference to the weakest of the Corleone sons. According to CBS, The Godfather is one of the president’s top three favourite movies — after Bloodsport and Goodfellas, and just ahead of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
After the lofty foreign policy doctrines of the past — from Monroe doctrine to the Reagan doctrine — the Corleone doctrine is hardly comme il faut. It is certainly no cause for glee that the most powerful man in the world should aspire to be a mafioso. Yet in the realm of realpolitik, there may be worse figures to imitate than Vito Corleone.
At the heart of Trump’s seemingly erratic approach to international relations are the dream of making Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an offer he can’t refuse; the fond wish to have Kim Jong-un sleep with the fishes; and the fantasy of leaving the severed head of his favourite horse in Xi Jinping’s bed. Trump’s admiration of Vladimir Putin rests on the Russian president’s distinctly Sicilian style.
I quite see why the Council on Foreign Relations deplores all this. But Democrats underestimate at their peril how well it plays in middle America. The Godfather is one of the most popular films of all time, and for good reasons. It is a tale of gangsters, of course — of crime and violence — but it is also one of the great family sagas. And, at its heart, The Godfather is about succession. We all know who the Don is: Donald. The big question is: who’s Michael?
The appearance of Donald Trump Jr’s book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list in November offered a hint. In the wake of the Iranian hit job, its title — Triggered — has a new significance.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford