Open newspapers this week, and you’ll see hand-wringing galore. Supposedly we’re about to go to war with Iran, suspected in last weekend’s unmanned bombing of the world’s largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia.
“The Middle East is on the brink,” warns The Guardian.
“We’re a lot closer to war than you’ve been told,” says The Daily Beast.
“We are at the predictable brink of an even wider war,” says Ben Rhodes, former national security aide to Barack Obama.
Maybe war will happen. The capital is loaded with people who want one, and “regime change” in Iran has for ages been an adolescent fixation of hawks on the Hill. Those armchair conquerors are well represented in the Trump administration, even after the recent ouster of warmonger extraordinaire John Bolton.
But is Donald Trump himself beating the drum for war? Please. In remarks to reporters about Iran Monday in the Oval Office, Trump looked like a child preparing to confess to parents that he’d just burned the backyard shed down by mistake. He knows he wants out, but he just doesn’t know how.
One of the major worries before Trump entered the White House was what the man would do with the most awesome army in human history at his disposal. In all other areas, Trump is a man who flexes whatever he has, as often as he can. Would he wake up some morning and raze Reunion Island or Belgium on a whim, the same way he took shots at Serge Kovaleski or Carly Fiorina’s face?
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Wars have been the go-to indulgence for most of history’s narcissistic autocrats, and although our undeclared bombing campaigns have increased since his election, he has tiptoed away from full-scale invasion scenarios in Syria, Venezuela and other arenas that might have tempted other presidents.
Nobody really knows why. It’s one of the mysteries of Trump’s presidency. He may be secretly afraid of making a mess of military command. He may also have a (correct) instinct that war in the current political climate would hurt him electorally. He might even, who knows, genuinely believe wars are a “bad deal.”
There’s also this: Trump is a man with few guiding principles, but call it an organizing dynamic of the man’s personality that he rarely fights anyone who can fight back. Put another way: He doesn’t like to commit financial or political capital to real confrontation when he can just take credit for things by talking instead.
Like every bully ever, he tends to be all bluster in the cafeteria but absent for the scheduled after-school rumble. Anyone who followed him on the campaign trail knows Trump, in word, can be limitlessly abusive, but if he has to face verbal targets, he often starts backpedaling before he’s through the door.
Trump opened his 2015 campaign barking about rapists over the border and thundering that he’d build a southern wall and make Mexico pay for it. A year later he was enjoying the “great, great honor” of a visit with the Mexican president.
President Enrique Pena Nieto welcomed Trump by announcing he was not paying for any damned wall. He tweeted it, too, so the world would know. Trump reportedly “avoided direct confrontation” in response, blew town without saying a peep and then resumed the tough talk once he was roughly a thousand miles away.
He’s engaged in similar contortions multiple times, the most famous probably being a promise as a candidate to feed Chinese Xi Jinping a “double-size Big Mac” if they ever met. He ended up serving Xi Dover sole, haricots verts, and New York strip steak at Mar-a-Lago.
None of this proves that Trump has an aversion to military conflict, but signs do point in that direction. Just as Trump in his business prefers selling his name and letting others do the work of developing and managing properties, he seems reluctant to take on the massive logistical and political challenges of a full-blown war.
Which brings us to Iran. Trump In 2016 Trump said he would demand up-front concessions in any negotiations with Iran. By this year, he was offering to meet with “no pre-conditions,” abasing himself in pursuit of nervous détente even more than Obama supposedly had. The Iranians, mimicking Pena Nieto’s middle-finger approach, refused even this offer, amusingly leaving Trump to twist in the wind.
Suddenly Trump’s ambivalence to conflict is being commented upon, not always positively. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post said on MSNBC that Trump has a “very strong instinct against taking military action.” On that same broadcast, former CIA director John Brennan, in his new role as media mouthpiece for the intelligence community, noted with what seemed like sincere disdain that Trump is “very reluctant to engage in a new conflict on the Middle East.”
Gerald Feierstein, the former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, suggested the assault on the Abqaiq oil processing facility — a devastating attack by drone or cruise missile that disrupted 5% of the world’s oil supply — shows Iran didn’t believe Trump would strike back with real force.
“Clearly, the Iranians look inclined to test the Trump administration, to call Donald Trump’s bluff, if you will, to see if he really has the will to really go all the way, “ Feierstein said.
Trump in June said America was “cocked and loaded” to attack Iran after a drone was downed. Then he supposedly called off an attack because casualty estimates made him sad (maybe he was up late watching the analog scene in The American President?). Then he fired Bolton.
Iran was naturally emboldened by all of this, and unlikely to be impressed by Trump’s Sunday tweet that America is “locked and loaded.” Every time he makes one of these empty boasts, he makes actual bloodless solutions more elusive. Trump’s mouth keeps forcing Trump’s presidency into dilemmas Trump’s brain can’t untangle. The Iran mess is one of the worst.
As candidate for president, Trump went so far as to suggest Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran without certain conditions meant he was compromised in his dealings with a foreign autocrat (how’s that for irony!). In Biloxi, Mississippi in early 2016, Trump said, “It’s almost like there has to be something else going on.”
If elected, he promised he’d walk away from the Obama deal, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for temporary abandonment of nuclear “enrichment” capacity.
This turned out to be a rare campaign promise Trump decided to fulfill. He bailed on the nuke deal last May, reinstating all the sanctions the Obama deal had lifted and imposing a range of new ones as part of a “maximum pressure” strategy.
But now that we’re staring real war in the face, Trump seems desperate for an Iran solution that won’t have generals living in the Oval Office for the next two years, souring his MAGA re-election campaign events with daily leaks of how his crap strategic decisions are getting soldiers killed.
He likely wants to strike a deal functionally identical to the Obama deal, so he can re-christen it the “Maximum Pressure Trump Victory Treaty” or whatever and steam into 2020 patting himself on the back. For sanity’s sake, everyone should probably just let him do this.
Unfortunately, it may not pan out that way. Washington is filled with people quietly pushing for the lake-of-blood endgame, and why not? Regime-changers would get all the benefits of an insane, expensive, protracted military adventure, while Trump would assume the political risks of war. Win-win!
Superficially, most media voices are still kinda-sorta urging restraint in this mess. But the subtext of a lot of the editorializing about Iran all year has been a need to restore “credibility” in our dealings with the “malign actor” and “rogue state.”
After last weekend’s bombing, this will translate into demands that Trump do something to make sure this aggression will not stand, man. As Brennan put it, we cannot “let this devastating attack… go unanswered.”
But “answering” would probably turn the region into a hellscape and put another generation of foreign and American lives into a thresher, adding to the ongoing catastrophes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, etc. Better to just quickly and quietly find a way to let the whole thing blow over, perhaps by letting France go forward with its plan to give Iran a sequel to the Obama deal. Let them offer $15 billion in credit in exchange for whatever list of nuclear concessions from Iran we could all call a victory, and let’s quietly walk away and start getting ready for Halloween.
“Responsible” people in Washington should find a way to let Trump be the pusillanimous double-talker he desperately wants to be. The alternative would set an awful precedent for full-blown war as a means of Trumpian expression. We’ve seen already on multiple occasions — in two bombing episodes involving Bashar al-Assad, and in reversals on stated plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria — that Trump hates being called weak and will cave to “experts” on military matters if pressured.
This would be a huge mistake. The idea that America needs to retain “credibility” in the Middle East or anywhere else is absurd. It’s a little late for credibility — Donald Trump is our president! Trump’s own reluctance to launch wars shows that on some level even he understands this. If he’s not up for starting another bloody boondoggle, who are we to tell him otherwise?