The simplest explanation is often the correct one.
Why did Donald Trump order the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and by doing so push the United States and Iran to the brink of war?
It is more than reasonable to conclude that Donald Trump ordered this killing to distract the American people from his impeachment and many other scandals. Trump also escalated a conflict with Iran for other self-interested reasons such as pride, ego and, very likely, greed. Trump and his advisers also calculated that a war with Iran would help him in the 2020 election.
Tuesday evening Iran retaliated by launching ballistic missiles at two American airbases in Iraq. These attacks were an attempt by Iran's leaders to make a show of strength and national pride. Later that evening, Iran's government announced a cessation of hostilities on their part if the U.S. would reciprocate.
Military analysts are now suggesting that Iran targeted its missiles in such a way as to minimize casualties among American and Iraqi forces. No one appears to have been killed.
A regional conflagration was averted not, at least momentarily, because of anything Trump did but rather despite him.
In total, Trump's Iran gambit is a gross failure that has further diminished the power and prestige of the United States.
Iraq has now demanded that the U.S. remove its troops from that nation (although this is unlikely to happen). Iran has announced it will no longer adhere to restrictions on its nuclear program. Iran's retaliation has rallied its people against the U.S., and American influence in the Middle East and around the world has been further diminished. This creates a power vacuum that Russia, China and other hostile powers are likely to fill.
Ultimately, the Iran debacle is another example of the ways Donald Trump is singular and "unique" among American presidents — in the worst possible sense. None of his predecessors have embodied Trump's racism, cruelty, ignorance, greed, corruption, violence, misogyny, apparent sociopathy and laziness all in one person.
Trump is also the first president to be impeached for matters related to foreign policy and election interference in the United States. He will be the first president to seek re-election after being impeached.
Trump has earned another "distinction" as well. He is America's first mercenary president. Machiavelli's famous treatise on politics, "The Prince," describes such people:
Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy.
Self-interest and corruption are the foundations of Trump's mercenary regime. Trump was impeached for abusing the power of the presidency in his attempts to blackmail and extort the government of Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election. Watchdog groups have documented hundreds if not thousands of examples of the ways Trump uses the office of the presidency to personally enrich himself, and engages in corrupt behavior of many other kinds. He forces the Secret Service and other government agencies to pay him for using his hotels and other properties. He overtly sells influence (or at least the promise of influence) to foreign governments, corporations and other private interests.
Trump's corruption has been highly lucrative for him and his family. It is estimated that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner — who also work as White House advisers — made at least $82 million in outside income during 2017.
Because of his innate personality and his authoritarian politics, Trump rejects the very notion of "public service" and the common good. He views the U.S. government as an extension of his will, personality and goals. To that end the public good is to be subsumed by what is good for Donald Trump (and his family and allies), whether personally, financially and politically. In all, Trumpism is the logic of organized crime imported into the White House and then applied to American government.
The mercenary nature of Trump's presidency is amplified by his almost total lack of transparency. Trump will not release his tax returns to the public, an obvious effort to conceal all the ways he puts his personal financial interests above those of the American people.
Trump's lack of transparency also raises profound and disturbing questions about his decision-making regarding Iran and other foreign countries. Is Trump personally profiting from investments in defense contractors? Are Trump and his family war profiteers?
And of course, do Trump's many foreign entanglements include debts to Russian oligarchs, as has been widely rumored? As a practical matter, does that mean that the president of the United States is Vladimir Putin's vassal?
Trump's lack of transparency is another manifestation, among many, of his illegitimacy. The Russia and Ukraine scandals have made clear that Trump has no respect for the Constitution, American democracy and the rule of law.
Trump remains extremely unpopular among the American people. He lost the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election by close to 3 million votes. He won the election anyway because of a the regional and geographical bias of the Electoral College — and perhaps because of Russian interference, the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton and numerous other marginal factors.
Trump leads a political cult and has no interest in expanding his base of support beyond a small group of supporters.
His chronic lying — as president, he has at least 15,000 times, according to the running count of the Washington Post — also undermines his legitimacy and credibility.
As Peter Nicholas of the Atlantic explains, Trump is in no position to convince Americans to support the "sacrifice and bloodshed" that would be required in a war with Iran: "He can't assume people will accept what he says as true, because millions have concluded it never is," and now must face "the gravest foreign-policy crisis of his tenure at a time when his credibility has been shredded."
Nicholas continues by arguing that Trump is "a unique case":
His approval rating has never cracked 50 percent in Gallup surveys, and experts on the presidency have rated him the most polarizing chief executive in history. Trump's handling of the crisis will test the reflexive loyalty Americans show in such fraught times. It's not at all clear that, outside of Trump's base, people will trust his motivations, especially when he's under serious political pressure. He is up for reelection in November, and he's facing a potential impeachment trial in the Senate. Tweets he sent out years ago show that he's well aware a president's popularity spikes in wartime: In 2011, a year before Obama won reelection, Trump claimed, "In order to get elected, Obama will start a war with Iran.".
Trump's critics suspect that he's inflaming tensions with Iran to suit his own needs, deliberate preparation be damned. They see a "wag the dog" scenario — the term for presidents who manufacture overseas crises to divert attention from embarrassments at home.
What was the political logic driving Trump's attack on Iran?
It was meant to distract from the impeachment drama and to create a "rally around the flag" effect that would work to Trump's benefit.
Did it work? That's not clear. The situation is still developing, and the aftermath is unknown.
Because a war or other extended conflict has been averted for the moment, Trump has not received a boost from (more) human tragedy and suffering Middle East. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that a majority of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of the Iran crisis.
But the mainstream news media has consistently normalized Donald Trump's aberrant and dangerous behavior, and that pattern continues. The standards for Trump and his regime are now so low that the self-evident fact that the president attacked a foreign country's senior leadership in order to distract the public from impeachment is not viewed as an especially significant story given the daily "firehose" of heretofore unimaginable and unfathomable behavior.
Donald Trump's cult members, especially white Christian evangelicals, will apparently remain forever loyal. They are attracted to a war in the Middle East for many reasons, in part because it fulfills their mythological fantasies about the "end times" and the coming Rapture.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump gave a speech about the Iran crisis. True to form, he appeared agitated and out of sorts. Some observers have speculated that Trump may have been heavily medicated: He slurred his words and spoke, at moments, in a barely coherent manner.
He proclaimed "victory," where of course the United States had no victory was.
Trump lied once again about Barack Obama by claiming that the former president had somehow financed the Iranian missiles used to attack U.S. and Iraqi forces. As we all know, Trump is an unrepentant racist who is obsessed with disparaging his predecessor, America's first black president.
As befits an autocrat and tyrant in waiting, Trump surrounded himself with generals and other members of the national security establishment in an effort to project a sense of gravitas and power as he threatened Iran with America's great and powerful weapons. Instead of demonstrating strength, dignity and power, Trump resembled a comical strongman from Woody Allen's classic "Bananas."
Trump has shown himself repeatedly to be a malignant narcissist and when he looks in the mirror he likely sees a god rather than a hapless buffoon. This is validated by his sycophants, minions, cult members and other enablers who constantly tell him that he is the greatest of all presidents, worthy of being an American emperor.
Those who believe such fables, unfortunately, are willing to force their nightmarish onto the American people and the world. They must be stopped before it becomes too late.