• Trump’s Move on Iran and the Question of Leadership

  • What is leadership? It was a question posed to us, a group of two dozen Atlantic Council Millennium Fellows, as we sat in a small classroom at a secluded and rustic resort on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia, this past May for a professional development retreat. What attributes constitute leadership, the session’s facilitator asked. How, more specifically, do you know a leader when you see one?

    The answers ran the gamut of available responses. Leadership was having a platform to share a worthwhile message, offered one fellow. It was casting an actionable vision, said another. We also heard that one could not be a leader without followers and that leadership meant exacting change or taking risk where others may otherwise disengage. In this lively exercise, our global focus group proved a universal point: leadership has many definitions.

    This same question of leadership came to the fore when reading the Eurasia Group’s “Top Risks 2020” report. In it, authors Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan write that “both U.S. allies and enemies over the past years have come to wonder whether the United States intends to lead — and they’ve hedged their bets accordingly. In the midst of a disputed 2020 election, many of those countries will wonder whether the U.S. can govern itself. It’s a period of unusual geopolitical vulnerability to shock and escalation.”

    And it is those different definitions, and different perceptions, of leadership that have caused a whole lot of hubbub regarding President Donald Trump’s decision to kill, via drone, Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Major General who commended the country’s Quds Force, moments after he landed in Baghdad, Iraq, on a visit that was, according to U.S. intelligence, meant to coordinate attacks on Americans and American interests.

    For Trump, leadership comes with coercion and confrontation. He sees his role as a disruptor who will say or do anything to achieve his objective. The end justifies the means — always. And in that moment, he disrupted the norms of engagement by proactively eliminating an enemy combatant. His objective of removing a top-tier global terrorist was achieved. Similarly, Trump’s berating of NATO allies to meet their agreed upon defense spending obligations as members of the alliance undoubtedly rattles the less bellicose European contingent, but his words have led to measurable results. Again, the end justifies the means.

    His detractors on the worldwide stage, however, define leadership as certainty and predictability. They long for a morally superior United States that can engage in almost any dispute and bring it to a peaceful resolution (with sometimes questionable long-term results). And when that is not possible, a United States that possesses the military might and wherewithal to destroy the opponent within the guardrails of international law.

    Those weary of Trump saw in the attack on Soleimani a pre-ordained act of trigger-happy aggression. The hysterics in parts of the media and from some on the left that World War III was surely upon us is the clearest indication of that. But their worst fears did not come to fruition. After a dozen missiles fired by Iran purposely missed targets at U.S. bases in Iraq both sides stood down and the fear of imminent conflict subsided. The message was delivered and received, however unorthodox that delivery took place.

    In this particular example, could leadership have instead been standing down from the outset and requesting a conversation through diplomatic channels with the Iranians following the death of an American contractor in Iraq? Or was leadership doing exactly what Trump did and ordering the U.S. military to forcibly remove a known threat from the picture? It all depends on who you ask.

    But it’s not just Trump. A similar debate played out, literally, on a debate stage in Iowa this week where one bunch of Democratic presidential aspirants, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, argued for predictability in foreign affairs. Others, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, suggested another four years of disruption — his kind of disruption — is what we need on the world stage instead. Ultimately, the American people will decide in November whether the definition of leadership continues to be defined by Trump, redefined by a successor or undefined altogether.