“The mark of a good action is that it appears inevitable in retrospect.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson
But that’s the mark of a bad action too. Everyone knew this was inevitable:
Iran attacked two bases in Iraq that house American troops with a barrage of missiles early Wednesday, Iranian official news media and United States officials said, the start of what Tehran had promised would be retaliation for the killing of a top Iranian commander.
“The fierce revenge by the Revolutionary Guards has begun,” the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said in a statement on a Telegram messaging app channel.
This war was inevitable. Trump has decided that Obama had been wrong. The way to deal with Iran, to get them to agree to never have nukes and love Israel and Jesus and stop being a pain, was not to slowly work out agreements on this and that but to destroy their economy with massive sanctions and to mock and humiliate them – and then when they finally give in, to kick them in the face so the world would know we’re wonderful. And part of that humiliation was to take out one of the three top men in their government, their top general. He was a nasty man, but he seems to have been just a part of our plan. We would humiliate these people.
They decided that humiliation just wasn’t their thing. They refused to play along:
American officials in Washington said that Iran had fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. The Pentagon said it was assessing whether any American troops had been killed or injured in the strikes. United States officials said there were no immediate indications of American casualties.
But they weren’t saying anything. Trump met with his team. They must have advised silence “for now” and Trump, probably after a lot of angry shouting and threats to fire them all, must have given in:
After the strikes, President Trump, who has vowed a strong response to any Iranian attack on American targets, met at the White House with his top national security advisers, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss possible retaliatory options.
On Twitter a few hours later, Mr. Trump struck an upbeat tone and promised to make a statement on Wednesday morning. Some aides said they believed that Mr. Trump wanted to find a way to de-escalate the crisis.
“All is well!” he wrote. “Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
That said nothing, but he didn’t announce that he was going to nuke Tehran. Someone calmed him down, perhaps because there was this:
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, also seemed ready to stand down, for now. “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense,” Mr. Zarif tweeted. “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
What was the message? Let’s call it even? Trump’s team must have told him that might be best. No one likes a guy who nukes large cities. But this isn’t over:
Iran’s firing of ballistic missiles from inside its borders – not relying on rockets from Iranian-backed proxies – at two of the main military bases where many of the more than 5,000 American troops in Iraq are stationed was a significant escalation of force that threatened to ignite a widening conflict throughout the Middle East.
It was also a stark message from Tehran that it has the will and the ability to strike at American targets in neighboring Iraq.
Still, nothing else happened that evening:
Iran’s military planners had anticipated retaliatory strikes by the United States. Key military, oil and energy sites were placed on high alert, and underground missile defense systems were prepared to counterattack, said a person familiar with the planning.
Iranian officials awaited Mr. Trump to address to the nation on Tuesday night, and when he did not do so, they suspected the United States might wait to respond or not respond at all, the person said.
Two people close to the Revolutionary Guards said that if the United States did not strike, Iran would also de-escalate. But if the United States did attack, then Iran was preparing for at least a limited conflict.
And that’s where it stood as the day ended, in ambiguity, and the Washington Post team of Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey saw this:
For five straight days, President Trump warned, sometimes in all-caps, that he would retaliate against any Iranian attack on U.S. forces. He pledged to deploy the most “brand new beautiful” weaponry. He vowed to strike back in a “disproportionate manner.” And he said he would do so “without hesitation.”
But in the hours Tuesday after Iran fired a dozen ballistic missiles against two U.S. military bases in Iraq, Trump – at least publicly – was initially without words and the world was left to wonder what he might do next.
U.S. officials said Trump’s response was likely to hinge on whether Americans were killed, and there were no reports of any casualties by late Tuesday, though officials said the attack was still under review.
At 9:45 p.m., Trump’s first public comment was uncharacteristically sanguine, even a tad chirpy.
The rest is the usual detail from their anonymous sources, but really, there was nothing to report:
At the White House, where the president assembled his relatively skeletal war Cabinet after nightfall, there was a vacuum of information. Officials were tight-lipped and bleary-eyed. The press secretary did not answer questions, only briefly ducking out of her office a bit before 9 p.m. to head home for the evening. A presidential address was considered but not delivered. Trump’s Twitter feed, often a pulsating applause meter during live events, at first stayed frozen in time.
For a few hours, at least, with the United States at the dangerous precipice of a hot war with Iran, there was an outward appearance of calm at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue – or at least quiet.
And that satisfied no one. The New York Times’ Peter Baker notes that no one is satisfied with Trump:
If even the Pentagon does not know whether it is coming or going in Iraq, it might be hard to blame the rest of the world for being a little confused about President Trump’s strategy for the Middle East.
As Iranian missiles fell on bases with American troops on Tuesday in retaliation for the drone strike last week that killed Iran’s most powerful general, the administration has scrambled to explain its mission and goals in the region amid a chaotic brew of conflicting statements, crossed signals and mixed messages.
The president who promised to bring troops home from the Middle East is now dispatching more instead. The Pentagon sent a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to disavow it as a mistake. The State Department talked about “de-escalation” while Mr. Trump beat the war drums describing all the ways he would devastate Iran if it harmed more Americans. And even then, the president was forced to back off his threat to target Iranian cultural sites after his own defense secretary publicly said doing that was a war crime.
Likewise, the administration’s explanation for authorizing last week’s strike has varied depending on the moment. At first, officials emphasized that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces, was eliminated to prevent an “imminent” attack that could take hundreds of American lives. But in the last day or so, Mr. Trump and others focused more on retribution for General Suleimani’s past attacks on Americans.
And thus Baker sees this:
With Mr. Trump, so much of his presidency is situational – he careens like a bumper car from one crisis to another, many of them self-created, rarely pausing to set a straight-ahead course but never lacking for energy and always willing to ram into other vehicles. No matter how much aides try to impose an orderly process, he still prefers seat-of-the-pants governance, leaving advisers scrambling to adjust.
Mr. Trump has long said that he likes to be unpredictable and sees that as a strength – he can take enemies by surprise, as he did in taking out perhaps the second-most important figure in Iran, one with much American blood on his hands. But it leaves allies guessing just as much as adversaries, making it a challenge to build support for Mr. Trump’s decisions.
“The messy process explains the messy day after – sloppy explanations of the threat, disorganized public statements, and hasty diplomatic and military efforts,” said John Gans, a former chief Pentagon speechwriter and author of “White House Warriors,” a history of the National Security Council. “And it arguably limited the effectiveness of the policy and made it far riskier for the country and president.”
Of course it does:
Michèle A. Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under President Barack Obama who turned down a chance to serve as deputy defense secretary for Mr. Trump, said the chaotic nature of the current foreign policy stemmed from an “impulsive, inconsistent” president without a functional national security process that would ensure that “second- and third-order consequences” were fully considered.
There is “no real strategy or shared framework,” she said, “so tactical decisions are made in a vacuum or untethered from broader U.S. national security objectives.”
Well, there may be no real strategy here, but there is this:
In some ways, the strike against General Suleimani was seen by his advisers as a corrective to the president’s past decisions not to retaliate against Iran for various provocations, decisions that his team became persuaded were misunderstood in Tehran. In that sense, the strike was an attempt to recalibrate Mr. Trump’s policy in stronger terms.
“The president’s been very restrained and they took that restraint and that good will as the president tried to open negotiations with the Iranians – remember he offered to speak with them unconditionally – they took that as a sign of weakness,” Robert C. O’Brien, his national security adviser, said on Tuesday on Fox News. “I think they understand now this president means business. They made a bad mistake in how they read his restraint, which was admirable.”
But perhaps that wasn’t really restraint:
Unlike Mr. Obama or especially President George W. Bush, who gave long, comprehensive speeches explaining their approach to the wars of the Middle East, Mr. Trump rarely takes the time to lay out his thinking in any depth. Instead, he offers Americans edgy tweets or clipped sound bites in short encounters with reporters, leaving it to others to outline his strategy, although he plans a statement of his own on Wednesday morning.
But no one expects much from that speech, which has a limited objective, when this must be addressed:
The broader questions still center on Mr. Trump’s larger plans for the Middle East. He has veered between pulling out and building up, denouncing the disaster of American involvement in the region since Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 one moment while threatening a new war against Iran if it misbehaved.
He lost his previous defense secretary, Jim Mattis, after abruptly deciding to withdraw forces from Syria, then ended up keeping some troops there anyway. He later stunned America’s Kurdish allies by pulling troops from northern Syria, allowing Turkey to push the Kurds out of the territory. And the last time he authorized a strike against Iran – in retaliation for downing an unmanned American drone – Mr. Trump abruptly called it off with 10 minutes to go.
Even Mr. Trump’s best friends in the region are trying to figure out where he is headed at this point.
And there’s this:
Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to seven Israeli prime ministers, said even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the president’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, had “whiplash” from Mr. Trump’s latest action, having assumed the American president would not take decisive action against Iran this year.
“Everyone is scrambling now to decipher Trump’s intentions,” Mr. Lipner said, “with the fear being that this may have been his parting shot before exiting the region completely and leaving U.S. allies to fend for themselves.”
That may be Trump’s plan, or not. No one can tell, and Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley kind of misses the mess that was the Iraq war:
As a country, we’re not only reliving 2003. Much of what’s happening right now is actually more stupid and unreal than what was happening then.
For one, the president is Donald Trump. George W. Bush was a shallow and belligerent chief executive with contempt for details, but he was surrounded by people who projected (falsely, it turned out) the sort of competent ruthlessness that news organizations and pundits and much of the public associated with strong foreign policy. The Bush administration presented detailed (though untrue) arguments about invasion being a matter of national security, recruited at least some international allies to the cause ahead of time, and made a point of emphasizing its concern about human rights and respect for Islamic faith and culture. None of this prevented the invasion from being a brutal bungling disaster, or even made it look like a good idea in advance, but it gave a lot of influential people a lot of excuses to go along with it.
And now there’s this:
Trump doesn’t even provide the war enthusiasts with this protective cover. He says he is prepared to order the destruction of historic cultural sites in Iran, which is a no-doubt-about-it war crime. He also says he would like to attack 52 Iranian sites in total as revenge for the kidnapping of 52 Americans in Tehran in 1979. Lest the Muslim world think the United States had any good intentions at all, Donald Trump Jr. published photos of himself holding a semi-automatic rifle that was decorated to resemble a medieval knight’s helmet, illustrated with a pattern of five crosses used by Christian forces during the Crusades, and engraved with the word CRUSADER.
Additionally, a number of American citizens with familial ties to Iran say they were held for unusually long periods while attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada this weekend and that border agents asked them questions about their political views. Open advocacy of crimes against humanity, white/nonwhite civilizational blood zealotry, racist domestic profiling – all the stuff that the Bush administration at least had the good sense to claim it disapproved of, they’re gonna do right out in the open.
But wait, there’s more:
While the Bush administration promised a scenario of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and quickly replacing his Baath Party dictatorship with a stable, America-friendly government built hand-in-hand with grateful Iraqis, the Trump administration doesn’t even have a fantasy press secretary spin version of what a war with Iran is supposed to accomplish. There has been no elucidation, either by pro-war pundits or by the administration, of what the goal of attacking the country is – regime change, the resumption of negotiations over a nuclear agreement – or what kind of additional force it would involve if those goals aren’t met.
In sum, it’s not 2003 again; it’s 2003 as interpreted by 2020, which means more fascism and, somehow, even less competence.
But not all is lost:
The brutality and idiocy of it run so deep that they become a source of hope. Polling says that Trump is 15-odd points less popular now than Bush was before the invasion of Iraq. The Democratic Party’s anti-war caucus, led by presidential co-front-runner Bernie Sanders, is much stronger and more confident than it was then. Social media has made public discourse more egalitarian, and the mainstream pro-war figures have already been deluged with disbelief and outrage. Talking points about Iran’s support for terrorism should have less punch after the Iraq war and Libya intervention demonstrated that killing even the most depraved and destructive foreign leaders is not always a net “win” for the good guys.
Perhaps that will sink in, or not, but in the meantime, Frank Bruni sees this:
Donald Trump was chosen in a fit of long-building and largely warranted cynicism, as a gamble and protest. He hadn’t demonstrated any particular strength, only that he could perform a peculiar burlesque of it. He showed zilch in the way of honor, but had a genius for stoking doubts that it still existed in politics at all. His supporters thrilled to a pledge of disruption, not a promise of safe harbor.
And here we are, with an inexperienced, impulsive and perpetually aggrieved commander in chief precisely when we can’t afford one.
Americans may have made a mistake here:
There are reasons to be worried, or even terrified, and they’re rooted in his untraditional and sometimes irrational approach to the presidency – and in the wages of that…
All presidents are only as good as the counsel they seek and the counselors who provide it, and Trump has burned through so many top advisers and so much good will that he operates with a hollowed-out staff of half-baked experience.
His second (and current) defense secretary, Mark Esper, lacks the seasoning and stature of his first, Jim Mattis, who resigned 13 months ago when Trump rejected his pleas and vowed to pull American troops out of Syria. That, at least, was the specific prompt for Mattis’ departure. But Mattis also “found the president to be of limited cognitive ability and of generally dubious character,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, in a profile of Mattis last fall.
Limited cognition? Dubious character? Those may not matter when you’re choosing the gilt for a golf resort or skyscraper. They do when you’re deciding whether to put American lives on the line.
And there’s this:
Trump is on his fourth national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, whose résumé is thin for the job. And throughout the Trump administration, there are relevant posts unfilled or occupied by officials never confirmed by the Senate.
We’re estranged from some of our most important allies, who are exhausted by Trump’s moods, offended by his mockery of them and chilled by his ignorance. They have concluded that if he is America, America is no longer trustworthy.
So we are, finally, where we would inevitably land:
It’s hard to make sense of this. Erratic in so many other ways, Trump was fairly consistent in opposing American military entanglements in the Middle East, to the point of scornfully bashing Republicans who got us into Iraq and ignoring recommendations for reprisals against Iran before last week.
But in targeting Suleimani, he embraced a course that his predecessors in the Oval Office rejected as too extreme. According to The Times’s reporting, Pentagon officials were stunned.
Is Trump’s spectacular turnabout a function of fresh developments or a spasm of ego? We’re always yoked to a president’s psyche – to George W. Bush’s itch for separation from his father, to Barack Obama’s investment in his own unflappability. Trump’s self-soothing pantomimes of potency could strangle us.
That’s what worries Bruni:
Please, God, let Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of international relations – which held that an aura of recklessness might cow adversaries – have merit. Otherwise, there’s no telling where this mad man might drag us.
Yeah, well, some things are simply inevitable. We have a new war.