Indecision As Foreign Policy

Ken AshfordIran, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

Things have been ratcheting up with Iran for a few weeks, starting last week with a questionable attack by Iran on a US oil tanker, accompanied by weak, grainy photographic evidence. But it went into overdrive this week when Iran shot down a U.S. drone over… well, Iran or international waters, depending on who you listen to.

Trump’s response was… well…

President Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for downing an American surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night after a day of escalating tensions.

As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.

Officials said the president had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, like radar and missile batteries.

The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said. Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down, the official said.

The abrupt reversal put a halt to what would have been the president’s third military action against targets in the Middle East. Mr. Trump had struck twice at targets in Syria, in 2017 and 2018.

It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.

I’m like 99% sure whatever reason he stopped was dumb and that he won’t learn any lesson about whose advice is good and whose advice is so bad they should be fired.

This moment of truth was probably inevitable since the day in 2018 that Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the international nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama and decided to unilaterally reimpose crippling sanctions. With its economy crumbling, Iran was always prone to lash out, forcing Mr. Trump to choose between war and peace.

Even if no American casualties were expected in an initial set of strikes, we have thousands of Americans in the region. Pompeo and others said we had intel about Iran targeting American citizens in Iraq recently. We also know Iran targets our allies, so Iran’s response could have had fatal consequences. Any responsible NSC process would have included an intel assessment of what Iran is currently up to AND how they would respond to US strikes.

Irresponsibly engaging in that process leads us to where we are today – Iran can use this latest episode to play the victim card and they can use this recent Trump change of heart as the basis for ramping up their own “defensive” activities which could escalate the situation.

Calling off the strikes was the right thing to do from a security perspective. Striking Iranian assets because of their downing of a drone would not have been proportional and it would have put thousands of Americans (if not more) at risk. But this very public flip flop is not cost free. It makes the US look indecisive.

It also highlights the folly of Trump’s approach in foreign policy. Trump has always been a commander in chief of contradictions. He has adopted a modified version of Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim when it comes to overseas military threats — speak loudly and carry a small stick. Or carry a big stick but wave it around without actually using it much.

He talks like a bellicose warmonger but acts like an isolationist peacenik. He warns enemies that he will rain down “fire and fury”on them while striving to avoid more of the foreign wars he blames his predecessors for waging. Trump is surrounded within his own team by hawks like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, who favor a strong response to Iran, even as the president resists. The contrast in their perceived positions has created a deep confusion at home and in the region about the administration’s policy.

You have Bolton and Pompeo on one side and Trump and the Joint Chiefs on the other. And now we have a problem because we have no strategic coherence.

Even Trump’s unofficial advisers are split: last night on Fox, Tucker Carlson railed against war with Iran, while Sean Hannity beat the war drums as loud as he could, getting into a scrape with Fox’s Geraldo Rivera.

Some might suggest that the flip-flop was intentional, it was all a big performance.  — as if Trump and his team are playing 12 dimensional chess, i.e., Trump’s team is trying to have it both ways — acting restrained but talking tough. In this view, Trump loved the feeling of being at the controls of the war machine—an even more dramatic and exciting experience than sitting in the cab of a Mack truck on the White House grounds and pretending to drive it. Pulling back the strikes wasn’t a sign of shaky resolve—it was a stage-managed turn, allowing Trump to show his power by declining to exercise it, like an ancient king granting clemency only once the condemned was at the gallows. These are the gut-clenching and -unclenching tactics that Trump learned in television, and he deploys them far more instinctively than he does the military.

But at the end of the day, how is it different than the sort of wobbliness on red lines that Obama exhibited? Iran hawks in Washington will say it is. But though Trump likes to talk up his strength and toughness, he has repeatedly blinked.

In a series of tweets this morning, Trump explained his decision: he called off the strikes after being informed that 150 people would die.

This is key, if true:

In other words, Trump drew a red line, then blinked when they called his bluff.

UPDATE: Trump still explaining…

This is questionable. The military would have done an assessment of possible casualty numbers prior to being asked. That would have been part of any plan. He didn’t have to ask, and even if he did, they would have the answer at their fingertips.