Analysis: Trump seeks election-year out after Iran strikes

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President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

NEW YORK, NY – President Donald Trump said Iran was “standing down” from possible conflict with the U.S. But Trump himself was just as eager for an out.

Trump, by declining to take military action in retaliation for Iranian missile strikes against Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops, edged the nation back from the brink of a war that could have destabilized the Middle East. That fits with his broader foreign policy pattern: talk tough but stay away from armed conflict.

And that approach, mixed with a bit of luck and Iran’s own desire to avoid open conflict, could allow Trump to pull off dual election-year goals of projecting strength while placating those who backed him because of his promise to withdraw the United States from "endless" wars in the Middle East.

“This was clearly a speech that was designed to avoid the need to take further military action or open war, which I don’t think is the president’s desire or Iran’s desire,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, NATO's former supreme allied commander. “He’s in a very narrow space here: He wants to look tough and presidential but he campaigned on getting us out of these wars.”

Trump began casting about for an off-ramp as tens of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike and Tehran talked vengeance. When Iranian rockets flew over Iraq and slammed into two bases housing American soldiers Tuesday night, the president and his team waited before deciding on a response.

After daylight broke, and it became clear that there were no American casualties, Trump took to the podium at the White House to frame the attack as a win for the U.S. He said the next move from Washington would be sanctions, not missiles.

“Our great American forces are prepared for anything. Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said from the White House.

But Trump's moment of self-styled triumph could be fleeting, particularly in a region as volatile as the Middle East. There is no guarantee that Tuesday's rockets will be the end of Iran's retaliation, and future operations could involve covert militia action or cyber warfare that would be tougher for the U.S. to pin on Tehran.