The old Mack Sennett Studios are over on Effie Street in Silver Lake – still in operation but now used to film commercials and by the major studios now and then when they need extra production space. But this was the home of the Keystone Cops – the gloriously incompetent policemen in the silent film slapstick comedies produced by Sennett for his Keystone Film Company between 1912 and 1917 – all filmed in the neighborhood here. The joke was that the cops, in charge of keeping everyone safe and secure, were a bunch of fools – amusing fools who didn’t matter much. They were useless. These comic “shorts” were libertarian. The cops were a joke. The government was a joke.
That was a message that stuck. In the late forties and early fifties, Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, with an office over on Sycamore – long ago when he was a “union man” – and he would move on to become the governor out here and president. And he always got a laugh with his favorite one-liner – “The scariest words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” That brought down the house every time. Reagan would make sure there was as little government as possible. He remembered the Keystone Cops. Everyone did. Government was like that.
The odd thing is that government is still like that:
The top US general said Monday a letter suggesting the US would withdraw troops from Iraq was released by mistake and poorly worded, telling reporters “that’s not what’s happening.”
But for over an hour, military officials in Washington and Baghdad were unable to offer a definitive answer about the letter’s veracity or whether it indicated that US troops were, in fact, about to be moved out of Iraq, and the lack of clarity fueled significant confusion about its meaning.
In the end, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, was able to provide some clarity, telling reporters that the letter itself was a draft and its release was an “honest mistake.”
Milley is a good guy – Milley is an honest guy – or so the Colonel in the family insists – so this was no big deal:
The document in question was an unsigned draft of a memo from the US Command in Baghdad notifying the Iraqi government that some US forces in the country would be repositioned.
It also seemed to suggest a removal of American forces from the country, prompting an immediate wave of questions, particularly after US officials in Baghdad said the letter was authentic but could not confirm whether it indicated a troop withdrawal.
At the Pentagon, Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper were asked about the letter by reporters.
“We are repositioning forces throughout the region,” Esper said. “That letter is inconsistent of where we are right now.”
But the confusion lingered even after the two men left the Pentagon briefing room and persisted until Milley returned to clarify further.
Milley cleaned this up, but Kevin Drum thinks that something else might be going on:
My guess is that the letter was meant as a way to call Iraq’s bluff. You want us to leave? Fine, we’ll leave. Then we all watch as the Iraqis panic and start begging us to stay. It’s all very Trumpish.
On the other hand, it doesn’t serve that purpose very well if we immediately turn around and say that it was all just a mistake and we’re not going anywhere.
On the third hand, maybe it was meant to call Iraq’s bluff, but then we panicked when the letter was leaked.
No one knows. But this does not inspire confidence in those who protect and serve and keep us safe. Who’s in charge here, Mack Sennett?
And who is in charge of what Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman report here:
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper sought to douse an international outcry on Monday by ruling out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran escalates further, despite President Trump’s threat to destroy some of the country’s treasured icons.
Mr. Esper acknowledged that striking cultural sites with no military value would be a war crime, putting him at odds with the president, who insisted such places would be legitimate targets. Mr. Trump’s threats generated condemnation at home and abroad while deeply discomfiting American military leaders who have made a career of upholding the laws of war.
“We will follow the laws of armed conflict,” Mr. Esper said at a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked if cultural sites would be targeted as the president had suggested over the weekend.
When a reporter asked if that meant “no” because the laws of war prohibit targeting cultural sites, Mr. Esper agreed. “That’s the law of armed conflict.”
And that trumps Trump. He’s not in charge of the laws of armed conflict, but that is the central problem now:
The furor was a classic controversy of Mr. Trump’s creation, the apparent result of an impulsive threat and his refusal to back down in the face of criticism…
“President Trump didn’t say he’d go after a cultural site,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted the next day on Fox News. “Read what he said very closely.”
But just hours later, Mr. Trump made very clear that he thought cultural sites were in fact legitimate targets. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told the reporters on Air Force One as he flew back to Washington from his winter holiday in Florida. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
By Monday, the White House was again denying that Mr. Trump actually made a threat. “He didn’t say he’s targeting cultural sites,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, told reporters. “He said that he was openly asking the question why in the world they’re allowed to maim people, put out roadside bombs, kill our people, torture our people.”
No, he said what he said, and everyone knew it, and that was an additional problem:
The comments drew protests from Iran and other American adversaries who said they showed that Mr. Trump is the aggressor – and not just against Iran’s government but against its people, its history and its very nationhood. Even some of America’s international partners weighed in, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain breaking with Mr. Trump by issuing a statement through an aide warning against targeting antiquities.
Military leaders were left in the awkward position of trying to reaffirm their commitment to generations of war-fighting rules without angering a volatile commander in chief by contradicting him.
But at least someone tried to talk Trump down:
“We’re not at war with the culture of the Iranian people,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and one of the president’s staunchest supporters in Congress, said on Monday. “We’re in a conflict with the theology, the ayatollah and his way of doing business.”
Mr. Graham, a retired military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said he delivered that message to Mr. Trump in a telephone call on Monday. “I think the president saying ‘we will hit you hard’ is the right message,” he said. “Cultural-sites is not hitting them hard; it’s creating more problems. We’re trying to show solidarity with the Iranian people.”
There’s no indication that any of that sunk in. There’s only this:
The United States is a signatory to a 1954 international agreement to protect cultural property in armed conflict and has been a leader in condemning rogue nations and groups that destroy antiquities, including the Islamic State’s destruction of sites in Mosul, Iraq, and Palmyra, Syria, and the Taliban’s demolition of the famed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001.
Trump may not know any of that, and then there’s this:
The Trump administration blocked Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat, from entering the United States, Foreign Policy first reported Monday.
The diplomat planned to come to the U.S. to address the United Nations Security Council in a meeting on Jan. 9, when he was expected to speak on the assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani by the U.S.
Unnamed diplomatic sources who told Foreign Policy about this move by the Trump administration also said it violates a 1947 agreement with the U.N. that the U.S. allow foreign officials into the country for U.N. affairs.
A Trump administration official called U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Monday to tell him Zarif would not be allowed in, a source told Foreign Policy.
That was Trump to the world stage – We will NOT discuss this and you can take you 1947 agreement and stuff it.
That doesn’t seem wise. But none of this does. And what’s the plan anyway?
Maybe there is none. That’s what Max Fisher explores here:
When the United States announced on Friday that it had killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, something about its explanation left many analysts puzzled.
The strike was intended to deter further Iranian attacks, administration officials said. But they also said it was also expected to provoke severe enough attacks by Iran that the Pentagon was deploying an additional several thousand troops to the region.
The apparent contradiction left many experts wondering about the strike’s intended goal, and the strategy behind it.
The next day did little to settle the matter. The strike had been intended to prevent an imminent Iranian attack, officials said publicly. Or to change the behavior of Iran’s surviving leaders. Or to cow those leaders, whose behavior would never change.
No one knew:
“There’s not a single person that I’ve spoken to who can tell you what Trump is up to with Iran,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
It’s not that experts or foreign officials suspect a secret agenda, but that the administration’s action fit no clear pattern or long-term strategy, she said. “It just doesn’t add up.”
And that’s a dangerous situation:
The killing, many say, deepens the uncertainty that has surrounded Mr. Trump’s ambitions toward Iran since he withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear accord and began a series of provocations that he terms maximum pressure.
The risk, experts say, is that if they cannot figure out the administration’s goals and priorities for Iran, its red lines and points of possible compromise, then foreign governments won’t be able to either…
“If it’s that hard for us to understand, imagine the Iranians,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs a Middle East policy center at RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research group.
Mixed signals, she said, make any effort to shape an adversary’s behavior “incredibly ineffective.” Uncertainty about Mr. Trump’s intentions also increases risks that the conflict could spiral out of control.
And then there is the man himself:
Part of the uncertainty is specific to Mr. Trump. His impulsive style and resistance to accepting difficult trade-offs have made his goals on Iran difficult to parse.
He has cycled between ambitions of withdrawing from the Middle East, positioning himself as a once-in-a-generation peacemaker and, more recently, promising to oppose Iran more forcefully than any recent president has.
He has also been pulled between his advisers, with some urging cautious adherence to the status quo and others arguing for overtly topping Iran’s government.
And there’s this:
Mr. Trump’s reputation for distortions and untruths has also made it difficult to separate bluster from agenda-setting.
He took the United States out of the nuclear agreement and imposed sanctions against Iran – which some see as setting off a crisis that continues today – on claims that it was “on the cusp” of acquiring nuclear weapons “in just a short period of time.”
But international inspectors and United States military leaders said that Iran was complying with requirements to freeze its nuclear development.
He did lie about that, or convinced himself that just wasn’t true, but Max Fisher sees this:
Suspicions have deepened that there may be no long-term strategy at all, even among those sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s policies.
Nicholas Burns, a senior State Department official under President George W. Bush, wrote on Twitter that the United States might have had a “legitimate right” to kill General Suleimani.
But, he asked, “Has Trump considered next 15 moves on chessboard? How to protect our people? Line up allies to support us? Contain Iran but avoid wider war? My guess is he hasn’t.”
And that matters quite a bit:
Ms. Geranmayeh stressed that the conflict between the United States and Iran also threatens to draw in a host of Middle Eastern and European countries.
To navigate tensions and avoid worsening them, allies and adversaries alike must astutely judge American intentions and anticipate American actions.
All of them, she said, seemed at a loss.
“Most experts and officials that I’ve spoken to from the Middle East, including close allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel – they also can’t tell you with confidence what Trump wants on Iran,” she said.
Without a clear understanding of what actions will lead the United States to ramp up or ramp down hostilities, she said, Iranian leaders are operating in the dark – and waiting to stumble past some unseen red line.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had already been ramping down tensions with Iran, Ms. Geranmayeh said, “because they have no idea how Trump will behave from one week to the next” and fear getting caught in the middle.
That’s bad enough, and then there’s this:
Brett McGurk, who until last year was the administration’s special envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, warned his former bosses, in an article for Foreign Affairs, that their maximalist demands had left “no plausible on-ramp for Iran to enter negotiations, since nobody, including the Iranians, knows what Iran is supposed to negotiate about.”
No one knows much of anything, and Slate’s Josh Keating sees this:
Over the weekend, the New York Times and the Associated Press both reported that the choice to launch the drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani had been on a “menu” of options that top officials had presented to President Donald Trump for how to respond to recent Iranian-orchestrated violence against U.S. personnel in Iraq. According to the Times, “Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable” – and they were surprised that he chose this one.
What were these officials possibly thinking? After three years of Trump repeatedly upending traditional U.S. military and foreign policy practice on a whim, what made Trump’s aides so confident he wouldn’t take the most “extreme” course of action? Perhaps they took him at his word that he wanted to make peace with Iran and avoid endless wars in the Middle East. But this episode suggests that the people whose job involves analyzing the behaviors of foreign countries’ leaders don’t have all that good a grasp of their own.
Max Boot sees that too:
“We took a bad guy off the battlefield. We made the right decision.” That is the sophomoric justification that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo provided for President Trump’s risky gambit of killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force.
If we have learned anything from the past 17 years, it is that killing a bad guy doesn’t necessarily make the situation any better. Saddam Hussein was as bad as a guy can get, but his ouster and execution only unleashed chaos. That’s why I regret my support for the Iraq War; Pompeo clearly does not. He and Trump (who supported the Iraq invasion before he opposed it) seem to have learned nothing from that fiasco. They are sucking the United States into another Middle East conflict with a surfeit of arrogance and a deficit of strategy.
And there’s no one left to stop that:
Naysayers such as former defense secretary Jim Mattis are long gone from Trump’s inner circle; if Mattis were still around, he probably would have blocked the strike on Soleimani. So Trump made what is perhaps the most important life-or-death decision of his presidency with his usual flippancy, in between golfing and campaign bull sessions. Normal people devote greater care and attention to buying a sofa, as David Brooks suggested in 2016, than Trump does to acts of war.
And none of it makes much sense:
Pompeo, who is a primary advocate for a get-tough-on Iran strategy, claimed that Trump had to act to stop an “imminent attack.” But the administration refuses to provide any public evidence, and members of Congress and Defense Department officials who have seen the intelligence are skeptical. Indeed, it’s hard to see how killing Soleimani would stop an attack that was already in motion.
No one is thinking anything through. There’s no method to this madness, but Paul Krugman sees how this makes sense to Trump:
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments – that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
There is, after all, a pattern here:
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
And that begs the obvious questions and an obvious answer:
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real – that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
And then Krugman raises another issue:
Trump has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
And now that’s gone:
Trump has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully – a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly abandon allies like the Kurds; we honor war criminals; we slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course, after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
But was that the plan in the first place? Is there a method to this madness?
No, this is Keystone Cops slapstick comedy played for laughs – and then everyone dies in the end. Mack Sennett never imagined that. Now we have to.