“It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” ~ Robert E. Lee
Yeah, but he lost his war. He would say that. Donald Trump would never say such a thing. He always wins, and that means that now America always wins, which is glorious. But then again, sometimes one should back down:
President Trump backed away Wednesday from potential war with Iran, indicating he would not respond militarily to the launch of more than a dozen ballistic missiles at bases housing American troops, as the United States and Iran blamed each other for provoking the most direct conflict between the two adversaries since Iran seized American diplomats in 1979.
But all they fired was blame, not bullets:
The war footing that took hold last week after Trump approved the targeted killing of a senior Iranian military commander he accused of plotting to kill Americans appeared to ease by mutual agreement, following days of chest-thumping in both Washington and Tehran and what Iran called its rightful response.
No one was killed in Iran’s attack on two military bases in Iraq, according to the administration, and Trump dismissed the damage to U.S. facilities as “minimal.” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called the attack a “slap in the face” of the United States and insufficient to end the U.S. presence in the region, but he did not threaten any specific further military action.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said at the White House on Wednesday morning. “No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces and an early-warning system that worked very well.”
This was odd. Trump was taunting them – “You didn’t hurt us!” They were crowing – “We really hurt those Americans!” Neither was quite true but no one wanted to argue about it, so it was back to where it was a week ago, or a year ago, or more:
The president included an ultimatum against Iran developing a nuclear bomb in an offer for new negotiations, but it’s unclear what would bring Iran back to the table after Trump scrapped the deal it struck with the Obama administration and other world powers in 2015. He said new sanctions would be imposed, but the Iranian economy has already been hit hard by the United States. And Trump issued only a general warning against Iranian action that would trigger a U.S. military response after previously threatening severe consequences.
In short, nothing had changed. We had nothing to say to them. We would increase their pain. They would submit or die, or something. But it wasn’t personal:
“To the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future and a great future – one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world,” Trump said. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
But we WILL hurt you, bad!
What? No one was fooled, and the folks stuck in the middle of this were a bit unhappy:
Iraqi leaders said they remain concerned about the possibility of more conflict on their soil, with President Barham Salih describing the intensifying U.S.-Iranian showdown as a “dangerous” development.
In a statement early Wednesday, Salih condemned Iran’s overnight rocket attacks “against Iraqi military locations” and said he rejects attempts to turn Iraq into a proxy battlefield. Iraq alone will decide whether to expel U.S. forces after a 17-year military presence in the country, Salih said.
Despite acknowledging that it notified the Iraqi government that it was “repositioning” troops, the Pentagon says that it has no immediate plans to close out its mission countering Islamic State militants.
The Pentagon may have no say in that soon, so our president suggested that NATO and the rest should jump in and fix this – not really our problem – and this was all Obama’s fault anyway:
In mostly measured tones, the president, whose focus on Iran has been a constant from the start of his political career, issued an invitation for new international diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program and an apparent reassurance to Iran’s leaders that the United States does not seek their overthrow.
In slamming the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated under President Barack Obama, Trump also asserted without evidence that Iran is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons and that “the missiles fired last night were paid for by the funds made available by the last administration” under the accord that eased economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran curtailing what it claimed was a peaceful nuclear energy program.
Trump was walking away from it all, and his people were explaining to Congress that this was none of their business:
Lawmakers left a closed-door briefing Wednesday with some of the Trump administration’s most senior national security officials deeply divided over whether the administration was authorized to carry out the strike on Soleimani in Baghdad last week.
Democrats said the briefing did not make a convincing case that any looming threat against the United States was averted when Soleimani was killed.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) said he did not leave the briefing persuaded of an “imminent threat” and that his committee would invite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hearings next week.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) said she wasn’t certain officials who came to Capitol Hill even understood why Soleimani was killed. “I don’t know that they know the rationale,” she said. “Certainly they didn’t tell me what it was.”
Was this Trump’s whim? Did his serious lack of impulse control set all this in motion? Some said no and others weren’t so sure:
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said officials walked lawmakers through the history of Soleimani’s threats against the United States and its allies, adding that “the fact that he was plotting further attacks to kill Americans made it clear that it was time to take him out.”
“And obviously, you can’t go into full detail about the intelligence of those future attacks,” Scalise said. “But how much is enough?”
But one Republican senator, Mike Lee of Utah, called the administration’s classified national security briefing “probably the worst briefing I’ve seen at least on a military issue in the nine years I’ve served in the United States Senate.”
He was angry:
Lee said the message from the administration officials was that lawmakers need to be “good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public” – an instruction he described as “insane.”
“Drive-by notification or after-the-fact, lame briefings like the one we just received aren’t adequate,” Lee said.
But it was the demand that they not debate, at all, whether the president had had the authority to take out a senior member of a foreign government, blowing him to pieces in a third country, because somehow or other, that debate would be a direct and humiliating insult to our troops. That really ticked off Mike Lee – and Rand Paul too. This is still a democracy, at the moment.
Paul Waldman wonders about that:
Having prepared carefully to deliver inspiring words that would bring all Americans together as they worry about the possibility of another war in the Middle East, President Trump stepped to the podium Wednesday morning and instead gave a brief speech that was vintage Trump: lacking in even the barest eloquence, replete with lies, delivered with garbled pronunciation and weirdly somnolent affect, and unintentionally revealing.
And what it revealed is that Trump’s Iran policy has been a catastrophic failure:
“The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer,” Trump said. But that in itself is an acknowledgment of his own failure.
When the president came into office, we had a painstakingly negotiated agreement that by the consensus of the entire international community was successfully restraining Iran’s nuclear program. Trump not only abandoned that deal, he instituted a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, arguing that if we crippled their economy, they’d become less aggressive in the region and crawl back to the negotiating table, whereupon they’d give us whatever concessions we asked for.
The very fact that we’re in the position we are now demonstrates that this policy has failed.
Rather than ceasing provocative operations, Iran has continued and even increased them. Indeed, they’ve become so aggressive that the Trump administration decided to assassinate their most important military official, a step that surely would have been unnecessary if “maximum pressure” was working the way it was supposed to. Trump himself implicitly acknowledged this by ticking off a list of recent Iranian actions to show how nefarious they are.
And of course Trump is still obsessed with Barack Obama:
For whatever combination of reasons, Trump has long been obsessed with President Barack Obama and comparisons anyone might make between the two men. Perhaps this is because Obama embodies just about every personal virtue in which Trump is lacking; more likely it’s the fact that Obama enjoys a level of respect and admiration at home and around the world that Trump knows he will never come close to achieving.
While other, less petty presidents would refrain at moments like this from taking bogus potshots at their predecessors, Trump simply cannot resist the opportunity to blame what happens on his watch on Obama. “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” he said. “The very defective [Iran nuclear agreement] expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” None of those things is true.
And there’s this:
Trump is comically insecure about his manhood. “Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast,” Trump said.
Sometimes a missile is just a missile, but sometimes it’s an expression of your desperate fear that people will point and laugh at you.
And then there’s the one big issue:
Trump still has no idea what he wants to accomplish with regard to Iran or how to do it. Much of Trump’s speech – the parts that weren’t devoted to how great the U.S. economy is or how we’ve now reached energy independence, neither of which have anything to do with the current crisis – was about Iran’s misdeeds and how we’re now going to be hitting them with sanctions to punish them and change their behavior – which is something you could have heard a U.S. president say at any time in the past couple of decades.
So why is that going to work now? What is the ultimate goal Trump is pursuing? Does he even know? Does he have any idea how to get from where we are now to there?
The question answers itself:
Apparently not – but if nothing else, at least we know that Trump doesn’t seem to want to escalate the military conflict further. Not for the first time, his tendency to beat his chest fiercely and then back down may put a limit on how much damage he does.
That’s comforting, but Thomas Friedman finds no comfort in any of this:
When I step back and get some distance on this latest clash between President Trump and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it becomes obvious to me that what we have here are two bald men fighting over a comb.
We have two old men, with old ideas, fighting over a country that neither should want – Iraq – and over a 20th-century resource – oil – that is decreasingly relevant to a 21st-century nation’s economy and for a strategic goal – to dominate the Middle East – that no sane leader should want to achieve, because all that you win is a bill.
In short, this is a fight about the wrong thing:
Data is the new oil. Who has it and how do you distill the insights from it, and then productize and monetize those insights, is the new economic driver that in the long run will determine a country’s wealth and security in the 21st century – not black crude. That is why former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s old warning – the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; it ended because we invented new tools – is more relevant today than ever.
If so then all of this seems a bit absurd:
Both Trump and Khamenei will now each claim some sort of victory: Trump for killing an Iranian killer with lots of American, Arab and Iranian blood on his hands. (Suleimani got what he deserved.) And Khamenei for “retaliating” by launching 22 rockets at two bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed. (He saved some face.)
That’s about it, except for the underlying conflict:
I suspect that the U.S. will get some improved deterrence from killing Suleimani – precisely because it went against the rules of the game as it had been played between the U.S. and Iran all these years: Don’t target each other’s leaders. The Iranian leadership now has to assume that Trump may be crazy and could react even more harshly and unpredictably in response to any further Iranian retaliation or escalation.
This is surely disorienting for Iran’s clerics. Iran and Suleimani always assumed that they could out-crazy everybody else through proxies and cutouts. They or their proxy Hezbollah could brazenly blow up the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri, or blow up a key Saudi Arabian oil pumping facility, and then turn around and say to the world: “Gosh, who did that? What a tragedy.”
Trump is the first U.S. president whom the Iranians worry they may not be able to out-crazy. Suleimani’s successors now know they will have to operate with much greater discretion and security concerns than did Suleimani, who thought he was attack-proof.
Our guy is crazier than yours! We win! But that’s just not true:
While Trump may think he can out-crazy the Iranians, that is an illusion in the long run. Unlike Iran’s supreme leader, Trump will be constrained by our Congress, Constitution, free press, American codes of conduct and a coming election.
So that will not work, but Friedman says this will:
The only win-win that matters is not one that gives a temporary political boost to Trump and Khamenei but one that serves the long-term interests of both countries – and that is restoring the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump pulled out of in May 2018.
It is a vital U.S. interest that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, because it would threaten Europe and U.S. allies in the region and because it would most likely prompt Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt also to acquire nuclear bombs, making the unstable Middle East a nuclear powder keg. At the same time, it is a vital Iranian interest to get out from under Trump’s oil sanctions, which are bankrupting its economy.
But I question if Trump has the political courage to compromise with Iran; he keeps demanding too much.
Okay, forget that, so worry about this:
If you want to judge what Trump just did in Iraq, ask yourself these questions: Are we now consumed in fighting for yesterday’s economic assets or tomorrow’s? Are our tactics – targeted assassination – ones we can really repeat over and over, or do we need to focus on the real win-win deal: a simple, clean, definitive nuclear agreement. Is our threatening to leave the region not more meaningful than vowing to double down there? And, finally, is our return to obsessing about the Middle East more in China’s interest or ours?
And does Trump think about any of that? Roger Cohen suggests not:
Take the most combustible, scarred, dysfunctional relationship the United States has with any country in the world and place it in the hands of an impulsive, ignorant, bullying American leader and you are likely to sleepwalk to the brink of war. That is what just happened with President Trump and Iran. It was no surprise. He has been fiddling with this grenade since he took office.
By killing Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security forces and the iron fist of the Islamic republic’s theocratic ideology, Trump tossed that grenade at the Middle East. It was a reckless act, like the president’s scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal. It united, for now, a divided Iran. It ensured that a half-century from now Suleimani’s name will be hurled at any American visitor to Tehran as evidence of the perennial perfidy of the United States.
Someone wasn’t thinking, but others were:
The Iranian response, a ballistic-missile attack on military bases housing American troops in Iraq that killed nobody and did limited damage, was typical of a regime that has survived more than 40 years through prudence…
The mullahs are not the “messianic apocalyptic cult” once evoked by Benjamin Netanyahu. They are cold calculators. Their primary objective is survival.
The response did just enough to appease popular anger and satisfy the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while avoiding provocation of the United States, a far superior military power and far more resilient body politic.
In short, they’re not dumb, and there will be no war at the moment, and no peace either:
This is not a society ready for war. As a result, war is not imminent. Nor is any rapprochement between the United States and Iran. Those suddenly mouthing about diplomatic opportunity can dream on.
There are no quick fixes for this one; and those are the only kinds of fixes that Trump-the-needy knows or can imagine.
The president took the one plank for possible conciliation – a nuclear deal that had gotten Americans and Iranians talking to each other at last – and blew it up. That deal’s other signatories – in Europe, Russia and China – are not about to follow suit, as Trump again urged them to do today. This crisis has brought home Trump’s isolation. He has shouted and lied and whined his way to a solitary perch on the world stage.
And there’s a word for that:
Iran is an ancient civilization with a long memory. It is not for amateurs. Trump is an amateur…
Iran will not be browbeaten into submission – certainly not by the redoubled economic sanctions Trump announced or by taunts that it is “standing down.” It is proud and will not lose face. The grasp of its psychology in the White House is nonexistent.
The grasp of anything in this White House is an issue, as Fred Kaplan notes here:
So much for the notion that, after Tuesday’s Iranian missile strikes, President Donald Trump would start winding this crisis down. To the contrary, he said in his Wednesday morning speech that the crisis is still on and that he is stepping up pressure on Tehran.
“We are continuing to evaluate options” in response to Iran’s aggression, Trump said, with the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff standing behind him, suggesting that military escalation is still a possibility. Meanwhile, he added, he would impose “new sanctions” on Iran’s economy until the regime “changes its behavior,” scuttling rumors and reports from the night before that Trump would seek an “off-ramp” to the growing tensions between the two nations.
In particular, Trump continued to denounce the Iran nuclear deal as “foolish” and claimed that Tehran’s “terrorist spree” was funded by the money that President Barack Obama gave the regime as part of the deal.
This was a false charge in three ways. First, the money consisted of Iranian assets that had been frozen because of Iran’s illegal nuclear program and that were, therefore, freed when the program was dismantled. Second, during the three years that the nuclear deal was in place, Iran launched no attacks on oil tankers or U.S. military bases; those began only after Trump pulled out of the deal. Third, Iran’s attacks haven’t cost much to execute; they could have been done if sanctions had never been lifted (and they were lifted only partially before they were reimposed).
More to the point in this context, Trump’s remarks indicate that he has no interest in reviving the deal or returning to the negotiating table – a step that many have seen as a prerequisite to ending the current standoff between the two nations.
Trump is holding fire for now, but he made it very clear that he is reserving the right to return more – and that, meanwhile, he is taking no steps toward a peaceful resolution of the broader conflict. All concessions will have to come from Tehran.
In short, nothing has changed at all:
We are right back where we were two weeks ago, before the round of escalating strikes began. The tensions that sparked the crisis remain unresolved. If anything, they’ve been aggravated. This story is not yet over; we’re probably closer to its beginning than we are to its end.
War is still likely. It’s still in the air. And we have grown fond of this. Things aren’t that terrible now. Robert E. Lee warned us about that. Trump probably will be reelected.