“Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear … to attack,” said Dr Strangelove in the classic cold war movie. Some of Donald Trump’s defenders have taken to citing that comic masterpiece in defence of his drone strike last week on Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military figure. It was the first time since the second world war the US had overtly targeted a foreign government official. Mr Trump can be impulsive, his defenders concede. He may even take his advisers by surprise. But at least he keeps the enemy off balance. The fact that Iran confined its missile retaliation early on Wednesday morning to military buildings that host US troops in Iraq only reinforced their view. The US president’s surprise strike had cowed Iran’s clerics, they said.
“Iran appears to be standing down,” said Mr Trump in an address on Wednesday following Iran’s casualty-free riposte. “We must all work together towards making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.” That was the upbeat script on Mr Trump’s teleprompter. It was greeted with awkward silence by America’s allies. This was true in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, America’s closest Gulf allies, kept their counsel following Soleimani’s assassination.
Even Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who is usually the first to back Mr Trump, instructed his cabinet to keep quiet. “The killing of Soleimani is a US event, not an Israeli event, and we should stay out of it,” Mr Netanyahu reportedly told the Israeli cabinet.
It was also true in Europe, where the leaders of the UK, France and Germany called on both sides to show restraint. Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, even rebuked Mr Trump for threatening to target Iranian cultural sites.