WASHINGTON — For three years, President Trump’s critics have expressed concern over how he would handle a genuine international crisis, warning that a commander in chief known for impulsive action might overreach with dangerous consequences.
In the angry and frenzied aftermath of the American drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, with vows of revenge hanging in the air, Mr. Trump confronts a decisive moment that will test whether those critics were right or whether they misjudged him.
“The moment we all feared is likely upon us,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, wrote on Twitter over the weekend. “An unstable President in way over his head, panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining. Assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians. A nightmare.”
Mr. Trump’s advisers and allies dismissed the criticism as the predictable partisan blowback from political adversaries too timid to take strong action against foreign enemies who have targeted Americans for years with impunity. And some of Mr. Trump’s senior lieutenants were betting that any Iranian response proves less than meets the eye.
“It may be that there’s a little noise here in the interim, that the Iranians make the choice to respond,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” as he made the rounds of all five major television news talk shows. “I hope that they don’t. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do, that our response will be decisive and vigorous.”
But the ripple effects from the drone strike in Baghdad that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the visiting commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces, were playing out in rapid succession on Sunday. Iraq’s Parliament voted to expel American forces from the country for violating its sovereignty. Iran declared that it was abandoning some constraints on its nuclear program. And the American military halted operations against the Islamic State to focus on protecting itself from Iranian retaliation.
The result is a situation as volatile as it has been at any point in many years, one that will challenge an instinctive, combative and relatively inexperienced commander in chief to navigate his way through a perilous period without making the kind of mistake he has accused his predecessors of making. And he faces enormous skepticism from the critics who have long warned that he was too erratic to face moments of crisis.
The massive demonstrations and calls for retaliation in the region ultimately may not add up to more than “a little noise,” as Mr. Pompeo asserted. The Iraqi parliamentary vote to force American troops to leave was nonbinding and the caretaker government may not follow through if only to preserve a hedge against Iranian dominance. Even as Tehran vowed to move ahead with its nuclear program, it kept its options open by not expelling international inspectors.
And some experts on the region suggested that Mr. Trump’s very unpredictability was a deterrent in itself, arguing that the killing of General Suleimani may have been so brazen and shocking to Iranian leaders that they will be wary of provoking an American president evidently willing to escalate in ways his predecessors were not.
“Trump actually has a very strong hand vis-à-vis the clerical regime,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former C.I.A. specialist on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization that has rallied opposition to Iran’s government. “Whether he chooses to play it, I don’t know. He’s not a strategist. But his tactical game hasn’t been bad. The hit on Suleimani was genius — totally flummoxed his opponent.”
But these are high-risk gambles with much at stake.
For the moment, the United States faces a dramatic break with Iraq, a country it has deeply invested in for nearly 17 years, and hard-liners in Tehran have consolidated their domestic position by capitalizing on anger at America. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, may not immediately mount a response, but it is widely assumed that he will act at some point, whether through violence or cyber means.
“When that response occurs, and depending on what it is, the ball will be squarely back in Trump’s court, presenting him with an equally fateful decision,” said Robert Malley, the president of the International Crisis Group and a former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama. “Does he escalate further, as he has warned, and risk a far longer, bloodier and costlier military confrontation? Or does he seek an off ramp?”
Mr. Trump has said he took out General Suleimani, whose forces have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years, not to start a war but to stop one; his advisers asserted, without providing evidence, that the Iranian commander was plotting an “imminent” attack. At the same time, the president has ratcheted up his talk of war, vowing to respond to any Iranian provocations with overwhelming force, including strikes at Iranian cultural sites that some experts said would amount to a war crime.
He did not retreat from that on Sunday. “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site?” he told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One as he returned to Washington after his holidays in Florida. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Warming to the conflict, he even said he was ready to escalate against Iraq, the country America has worked so hard to stand up as a key ally in the region, threatening “very big sanctions” if it expels American troops.
“We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said of an air base in Iraq. “If they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
A longer, bloodier and costlier military confrontation in the Middle East is not what Mr. Trump forecast when he won the presidency in 2016 nor what he seemed to offer since taking office. Throughout the campaign, he promised to extricate the United States from a geopolitical viper’s nest that has cost so many lives and so much treasure and as late as Sunday, he repeated his conclusion that “going into the Middle East was the worst decision ever made in the history of our country.”
But many of his policy pronouncements on the campaign trail and since were vague and at times contradictory, allowing different voters to hear what they wanted.
As a candidate, he repeatedly called for an end to Middle East engagements, while also saying at other times that he might need as many as 30,000 troops in the region to defeat the Islamic State. He excoriated President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq while declaring himself a fan of that administration’s interrogation techniques, at one point declaring, “Torture works.”
Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who previously served in the State and Defense Departments and on the National Security Council staff, said Mr. Trump’s decision to kill General Suleimani represented “a partial evolution” for a president who denounced “endless wars.”
Where Mr. Trump may once have seen a clash with Iran as an opportunity to negotiate a better nuclear agreement than Mr. Obama did, he now sees an inextricable connection to Tehran’s malign actions in the region, fomenting wars and supporting terrorists, Mr. Doran said.
“But he is also more keenly aware of the power differential between us and the Iranians,” Mr. Doran said. “Once he realized that Khamenei thought Suleimani gave him a competitive advantage, Trump simply took Suleimani off the board. With a drone, not an invasion force.”
In scrambling the equation, Mr. Trump took the initiative, not as Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama did in their own very different ways, but in classic Trumpian fashion, keeping everyone off balance, projecting toughness and gambling that he will be able to handle whatever comes next.
Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from Palm Beach, Fla.