(AP) — The election was always going to be about Donald Trump.
But over the span of a few days, the year-long focus on the Republican president’s performance on the economy, health care and immigration has been overtaken by an urgent debate over foreign policy and war. And as the sprint to Iowa’s February 3 caucuses begins, both Trump and his Democratic rivals are being forced to navigate a delicate and dangerous military conflict with Iran that injects a new level of uncertainty into the 2020 contest.
For Democrats, the politics of war now could play a major role in shaping how voters view the winnowing field. And for Trump, who relentlessly cheerleads the American economy, it marked a departure from the standard fare of his rallies and tweets and became the most dangerous moment of his 3-year-old presidency.
In a carefully scripted speech, the brash president met the moment with a rare dose of restraint. Less than 24 hours after missiles from Iran rained down on military bases housing US troops in Iraq, he downplayed the impact of the attack.
“The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” a solemn Trump declared.
The measured approach reflects the political sensitivity of a situation that Trump helped create by ordering the killing of Iran’s top general late last week.
The Republican president is leading a political party openly feuding with itself over America’s role in global affairs. One faction is cheering his ‘America First’ campaign promises to stop “endless wars”. Another wants Iran to pay a painful price for an attack that violated the clear red line Trump outlined in a social media post days earlier.
For a day at least, Trump appeared to placate both factions with a speech that toed the line between humility and strength.
Fox News host Sean Hannity, who appeared to be cheering for a fierce US counter– attack before Trump’s speech, was unusually silent in the hours afterward. Senator Rand Paul, perhaps the Senate GOP’s most fervent isolationist, tweeted that he was “pleased that President Trump has pulled back and taken the preferred path of no further military action.”
This phase of the conflict has only just begun, however.
The president’s actions in the coming days and weeks will mean far more than the scripted words in one speech. Trump, of course, has struggled with discipline and consistency throughout his presidency — especially on social media.
One misplaced tweet or off-handed comment at a political rally could shatter the fragile peace. He is scheduled to face thousands of his supporters Thursday night in Ohio, where his thoughts on Iran almost certainly won’t be as scripted.
“Trump’s not out of the woods,” said Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who predicted that remnants of the military conflict would help shape the 2020 election even if no further military action takes place.
Indeed, even if the infighting within his party dies down, Trump will face legitimate questions in the months ahead about his muddled foreign policy, which has scrambled alliances across the globe and emboldened some of America’s most dangerous adversaries, including Russia and North Korea.