The best Iran crisis explanation? Trump’s obsession with Obama.

January 2020

Then-President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump talk to members of the media at the White House on Nov. 10, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Eugene Robinson

President Trump’s Ahab-like obsession with erasing the legacy of Barack Obama almost set the Middle East on fire this week. It might still.

There is no better explanation for Trump’s rash decision to assassinate Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, especially in light of the president’s weird, self-congratulatory, self-contradictory speech Wednesday purporting to declare an end to the crisis he created. The whole thing seems as much about Trump’s Obama fixation as anything else.

The tell was Trump’s false and slanderous claim that “the missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.”

Seriously? Does Obama take up that much space inside Trump’s head? Does the president stay up late at night sticking pins in an Obama voodoo doll?

After some predictable boasting and chest-thumping, Trump laid out what he wants: an end to Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions. But that happens to be precisely what Obama had already achieved, with the comprehensive and highly effective nuclear deal that Trump pulled the United States out of.

The true Iran hawks — such as former national security adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — want much more. Bolton has already made clear that he believes the U.S. goal should be regime change. The hawks want, at a minimum, an end to Iran’s use of proxy forces throughout the Middle East and its ambitions to be a regional great power.

But Trump doesn’t have the patience or the stomach to seek — much less achieve — all of that. He demonstrated once again this week that he has no interest in being a wartime president. After the Iranian ballistic missiles fell harmlessly while U.S. troops waited safely in their bunkers, Trump quickly decided not to retaliate against Iran’s retaliation. As soon as he saw a door marked “EXIT,” he took it.

It’s not possible to take Trump’s aversion to war for granted, however, because seemingly everything is subsidiary to the erase-Obama imperative. Clearly, it’s not about policy. It must be about something else.

You’ll recall that the vehicle Trump used to transform himself from a harmless New York character into a malevolent political force was birtherism — the absurd, fictional and racist claim that the nation’s first African American president was not actually born in the United States. I have met Trump supporters who still believe in this thoroughly debunked fairy tale.

Obama’s election and reelection made a powerful statement about the nation and its growing diversity. Trump, however, portrayed that statement as a threat. Whether he genuinely felt a sense of racial panic or just pretended to do so is irrelevant. That’s how he played it, and he rode Obama-hatred to the White House.

It is tragic that Trump has tried so hard to demolish the Affordable Care Act, apparently because it is popularly known as Obamacare. It is heartbreaking that he has tried so hard to roll back the Obama administration’s environmental regulations, though that may have more to do with Trump’s bizarre denial of climate change. And I almost laughed out loud Wednesday when Trump, after so often scoffing at Obama’s faith in multilateralism, called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process.”

As with so much about Trump, the whole Obama thing would be amusing if he did not have the power to make life-or-death decisions.

Repercussions from the Soleimani killing are not over by a long shot. Hawks who are crowing about how “deterrence works” ignore the fact that the Iranian regime can be both patient and strategic. Trump has been talked into sending 18,000 more troops to the Middle East since last spring — creating a target-rich environment for Iran’s proxy forces, should the decision be made to stage some kind of attack.

In his mania to be the anti-Obama, Trump appears to have set a hair trigger: Any U.S. casualties caused directly or indirectly by Iran will prompt a military response. The government in Tehran might decide to call his bluff, and that could lead to all-out war.

Meanwhile, Iran is closer to being able to make a nuclear weapon now than when Trump took office, because of his foolish abandonment of the nuclear deal. The mullahs might even decide that the only way to ensure their safety is to race to build a bomb — which could also lead to all-out war.

I don’t like being alarmist. But I’m alarmed.