It was reported on Monday that the Trump administration has concocted a plan that involves sending 120,000 troops to the Middle East to counter a potential Iranian attack on American forces. Whatever threat may exist is almost entirely of the president’s own design. Since Trump rebuffed allies, experts and his own administration in removing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last year, tension between the two nations has escalated steadily. Both have seemed especially jittery in the past few months as the U.S. continues to ramp up sanctions aimed at crippling Iran’s economy.
But it seems like the threat of military aggression from Iran isn’t what the Trump administration wants people to believe. On Tuesday, a British military official told reporters at the Pentagon that there isn’t evidence Iran is any more of a threat that it has been in the past. “We are aware of their presence clearly and we monitor them along with a whole range of others because of the environment we are in,” said Major General Chris Ghika, adding that “there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.”
According to the New York Times, these early machinations for conflict have largely been set in motion by National Security Adviser John Bolton, a war hawk who supported the invasion of Iraq and unsuccessfully pushed George W. Bush to take action against Iran. The plan to send 120,000 troops was reportedly his idea, as has been the idea that military action against Iran could soon be warranted. The Times notes that, according to intelligence and military officials in both the United States and Europe, “most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran but in Washington — where Bolton has prodded Trump into backing Iran into a corner.”
One American official said, according to the paper, that the intelligence supporting the idea that Iran is a threat is “small stuff,” and that Bolton wants to goad Iran into taking action against American forces, thus, in his mind, justifying a military response. Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told the Times the current tension with Iran is “a crisis that has entirely been manufactured by the Trump administration.”
“One American official said the new intelligence of an increased Iranian threat was “small stuff” and did not merit the military planning being driven by Bolton. The official said the ultimate goal of the pressure campaign was to draw Iran into an armed conflict with the US.”
— Joe Cirincione (@Cirincione) May 15, 2019
Democratic politicians feel similarly. When asked by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes whether he trusts the administration to not manipulate intelligence reports, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said he doesn’t. “As a member of the Senate, I actually also have information about the things the U.S. is doing to provoke and poke Iran,” he said. “I think there is an effort underway by the U.S. to try to instigate Iran into doing something, and if they do something in response to U.S. provocation, the administration … will use that as their pretext for 125,000 troops, or as the president said today, more.”
Though some Republicans have cautioned against the administration getting ahead of itself in regard to Iran, others practically seem giddy at the idea of unleashing America’s military might on the nation. “Two strikes, the first strike and the last strike,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) said flatly of how the United States would wipe out the nation during an appearance on Firing Line With Margaret Hoover.
Senator @TomCottonAR tells Firing Line if it comes to war with Iran, he is confident the United States would win, and would win swiftly. “Two strikes, the first strike and the last strike,” says the Senator. pic.twitter.com/twTdrFTwHu
— Firing Line with Margaret Hoover (@FiringLineShow) May 14, 2019
As Daily Beast reporter Lachlan Marchly noted on Twitter, former defense secretary Jim Mattis gave a more tempered response when asked about a potential conflict in Iran before Trump took office. “We can handle Iran. I have no doubt,” he said. “It would be bloody awful. It would be a catastrophe if we have to have another war in the Middle East like that. But could we handle it from a military point of view? Absolutely.”
But Mattis, who also advocated for remaining in the Iran nuclear deal, is gone now. He resigned late last year out of frustration with the president continually undermining him. In his place is Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who, as Politico recently reported, is being “overpowered” in internal debates by war-crazy officials like Bolton. Unlike Mattis, Shanahan doesn’t seem to have any inclination to push back against Trump, who seems perfectly willing to indulge Bolton’s thirst for conflict.
When asked on Tuesday about the report that the administration’s devised a plan to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East, Trump naturally called it “fake news” but then said he “absolutely” would do it, and that “if we did that we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Q: "Are you planning to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East in response to Iran?"
President Trump: "I think it's fake news. Okay? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But, we have not planned for that. Hopefully we're not going to have to plan for that." pic.twitter.com/7lu0uX4U7O
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 14, 2019
In December, the president, who now doesn’t seem to mind the idea of sending “a hell of a lot more” than 120,000 troops to fight Iran, made a big show of opposing foreign wars, abruptly deciding he wanted to pull American troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. He justified the move by repeatedly and falsely claiming ISIS had been defeated, and that there was no longer any reason for troops to be over there. “We’re no longer the suckers, folks,” he explained during a brief visit to Iraq later that month.
If his stated opposition to entanglements in the Middle East and his administration’s strategy toward Iran don’t seem to jibe, it’s because they don’t. Trump has no overarching foreign policy philosophy. Everything he does is done according to what he thinks is most politically expedient in the moment. One would hope that he’d stop short of going to war for political purposes, but this is of course not true. Years ago, he repeatedly theorized that a “desperate” President Obama was planning to attack Iran in order to “save face” and “get re-elected.” This is just how Trump thinks. Everything is done solely for one’s own self interest, nothing more.
Trump has repeatedly depicted war with Iran an something a president would do for domestic political gain.
Here are four examples 👇 pic.twitter.com/JdR1qM0BM8
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) July 23, 2018
What political purpose would be served by going to war with Iran? Plenty, but most pressing for Trump is probably the onslaught of investigations Democrats have launched into his administration. You probably didn’t think about any of them over the course of reading this article. That’s the point.