Mad for War

“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.

Ah, no:

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.

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Of Course This Happened

“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.

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Madness Minus Method

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.

Who knows?

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.

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A Matter of Escalation Dominance

That was an odd weekend. But it settled quite a few things. Donald Trump came into his own and now Americans know just what they signed up for in 2016 – all the speculation about what he really might do, or wouldn’t dare do, was over. He’d change everything:

The consequences of the American killing of a top Iranian general rippled across the Middle East and beyond on Sunday, with Iran all but abandoning a landmark nuclear agreement and Iraqi lawmakers voting to expel American forces from their country.

Steeling for retaliation from Iran, an American-led coalition in Iraq and Syria suspended the campaign it has waged against the Islamic State for years, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the street to mourn the general, Qassim Suleimani.

This is new. US officials unanimously say we should expect retaliatory attacks on US assets. That was certain. And the Iranian nuclear program is back in business. They’ll create a nuclear arsenal as soon as possible. And the Iraqi parliament has voted to demand that US forces leave its territory. And the war on ISIS – which Trump said we won long ago – has been put on hold. Our few allies working with us on that have been told to take a break. We’ll get back to that later, if we can. We need to protect our people and our regional assets right now. Sorry, we’re a bit busy at the moment.

But the details are odd:

“Iran’s nuclear program will have no limitations in production, including enrichment capacity,” the Iranian government said in an announcement Sunday that seemed to signal the de facto collapse of the 2015 agreement.

Warning Iran not to attack, President Trump said the United States had pinpointed 52 targets in Iran – including cultural sites. The sites, he said, represented the 52 American hostages held at the United States Embassy in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Amid outrage in Iran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that “targeting cultural sites is a war crime” and predicted that the “end of U.S. malign presence in West Asia has begun.”

Targeting cultural sites actually is a war crime, but the mention of it pisses off the Iranians, and that’s delicious. So Trump had to mention that, and there was this:

Mr. Trump also directed his anger at Iraq, warning it not to expel American forces, and pointing to an air base the United State built there. “We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it,” he said.

He could sue them, you know, but it comes down to this:

Mr. Trump has said that the killing of General Suleimani on Friday was aimed at preventing war.

Irony is not dead, or this man is pathologically without even a hint of self-awareness. And that makes him easy to play:

On Sunday, the Iranian government said it was abandoning its “final limitations in the nuclear deal,” the international agreement intended to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. The decision leaves no restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, the statement said, including on uranium enrichment, production, research and expansion.

Iran will, however, continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and return to the nuclear limits if the economic sanctions imposed on it are removed and Iran’s interests guaranteed, the government said.

Trump has backed himself into a corner and now, because of his pride, and his base, can never agree to either, so the Iranians look like the good guys here, and there’s this:

Lawmakers in Iraq voted on Sunday to require the government to end the presence of American troops in the country after Mr. Trump ordered the killing on Iraqi soil.

The vote will not be final until it is signed by the prime minister, and it was unclear whether Iraq’s current caretaker government had the authority to end the relationship with the United States military.

Few doubted, however, that the country would take whatever legal actions were necessary to compel a United States departure over the coming months. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi drafted the language and submitted the bill approved by Parliament on Sunday, leaving little doubt about his support.

And that infuriated Trump:

Mr. Trump warned Iraq on Sunday that there would be dire consequences for expelling American forces.

“We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” he said. “It cost billions of dollars to build, long before my time.”

“If they do ask us to leave,” he added, “if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”

But he was working himself up over what might be nothing much:

Although the vote in Parliament was 170-0, lawmakers were more divided on the issue of ousting American troops than that tally may suggest. Many of the 328 members of Parliament, primarily those representing the country’s ethnic Kurdish and Sunni Muslim minorities, did not attend the session and did not vote. Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority dominates the Iraqi government.

While groups that grew out of Shiite militia organizations have pushed hard for the expulsion, Sunni Muslim factions and the Kurds have wanted the United States to stay.

Trump hadn’t read the resolution:

The legislation threads a fine needle: While using strong language demanding that the government “end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil and prevent the use of Iraqi airspace, soil and water for any reason” by foreign forces, it gives no timetable for doing so.

It was symbolic, but symbols matter:

Iran summoned the Swiss envoy representing American interests in Tehran on Sunday to protest Mr. Trump’s threat that Washington would target Iranian sites. And Mr. Trump’s tweet became a rallying cry among Iranians, many of whom shared it widely on social media with the message, “Attend the funeral for our cultural heritage.”

Iran’s information and telecommunications minister, Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, denounced Mr. Trump as “a terrorist in a suit.”

The killing of General Suleimani was aimed at preventing war, right? Well, don’t tell these folks:

The attack on the Iranian general left America’s European allies scrambling to address the safety of their troops in the Middle East and complaining that they had been given no warning about the strike. European leaders called for a de-escalation of the tensions between Iran and the United States.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, invited Mr. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, to Brussels for talks. Mr. Borrell said that he had spoken with Mr. Zarif, urging “Iran to exercise restraint and carefully consider any reaction to avoid further escalation, which harms the entire region and its people.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said he would seek direct talks with Iran. Europe wants to continue the fight against the Islamic State, Mr. Maas said, and Germany is anxious about the safety of its troops training Iraqi forces.

Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said in a statement: “Iraq cannot be allowed to sink into chaos, and certainly not under the control of extremists. Therefore, it is important not to let up now in the fight against Islamic State.”

But they were making a distinction that Trump doesn’t make:

In general, the Europeans did not specifically criticize Mr. Trump for his decision, and share the American view that Iran has been a destabilizing force in the Middle East and a supporter of terrorism. At the same time, no European government praised the killing of General Suleimani, emphasizing instead the increased risks to their citizens, troops and interests.

Trump never considers any increased risks. The guy had to go. Trump had him killed. The rest isn’t Trump’s problem. But our allies are worried:

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain was reported to be angry with Mr. Trump for not informing him or other allies with troops in Iraq about the decision to kill General Suleimani. While carried out by the Americans, the killing is seen as having put all European citizens and troops in Iraq and the wider region at heightened risk.

Mr. Johnson, who was said to be returning early from a vacation in the Caribbean, is expected to discuss the issues with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Mr. Trump in the next few days, a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

That called for an official sneer:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complained that the response by European allies had not been “helpful.”

He seemed to imply that the French, in particular, know nothing and they’re quite stupid. Pompeo may have just assured Trump’s reelection in a landslide. At least Trump will now win the votes of American women who are increasingly finding him repulsive. French women are infuriatingly thin and elegantly chic and cool. Frumpy and frustrated American women can now vote for Trump and show them a thing or two. No comments about the damned French are ever wasted. Politicians know that. Mike Pompeo knows that.

It seems that strange forces have now been unleashed. How did this happen? The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman offers this:

Beneath wind-swept palm trees and gilded chandeliers, President Trump dined with Rush Limbaugh and congratulated Keith Hernandez, the Mets announcer and former first baseman, on his wedding. He consulted with his national security and campaign advisers while basking in 80-degree weather, and, as always, he tweeted.

He also authorized a military strike that has roiled the Middle East and is likely to endure as one of the most consequential acts of his presidency.

For three years, Mr. Trump’s winter visits to Mar-a-Lago, his private club, have allowed him time to combine his personal and presidential business, often in the midst of the club’s wealthy members and his adoring friends.

But the jarring juxtapositions this year seemed to highlight some central elements in the way Mr. Trump has governed: the little interest he has in planning beyond the day in front of him, his need for positive feedback and an unwillingness to modulate his behavior, whatever the circumstance.

In short, this was a casual and reactionary thing:

The days were generally marked by casual-wear trips to his nearby golf club, where he would talk with members and meet with White House advisers. The evenings were marked by elaborate dinners at Mar-a-Lago that included his family members, his campaign advisers and his national security aides.

But Mr. Trump’s vacation was more than the usual refuge from negative news coverage and official Washington. He was agitated by uncertainty about what comes next in the impeachment process, and expressed gnawing concerns about how much the billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg is spending on his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in the election that Mr. Trump hopes to win.

Throughout Christmas week, the president watched the news coverage on impeachment and tweeted his frustrations with Speaker Nancy Pelosi for slowing down the process by refusing to send to the Senate the articles charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors. He spoke with advisers about what the Senate trial might look like.

And he also phoned various people he thought had betrayed him on this topic or that, and screamed at them, but once that made him feel better it was back to business:

Then it was time to get back to White House work, and Mr. Trump huddled with advisers offering him a range of options on how to respond to the death of an American civilian contractor killed on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. The menu of choices included the most extreme one – killing Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander.

He liked that one but moved on:

On New Year’s Eve, Mr. Trump hosted his annual party at Mar-a-Lago, arriving in a tuxedo with the first lady, Melania Trump, and playing M.C. to a crowd that included his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

On Jan. 2, the president began his day at his golf club. But mindful of not appearing weak in the face the rocket attack and concerned that an assault on the American Embassy in Baghdad that United States officials said was orchestrated by Iran could have ended in devastation, Mr. Trump had already settled on a course of action.

In the middle of a meeting with campaign advisers, he left the table to give the final authorization to kill General Suleimani.

And that was that and it was back to the usual stuff:

Next up was Miami, and there, at the King Jesus International Ministry, he excoriated the “fake news,” declared from the dais that two progressive congresswomen “hate” Jewish people, taunted the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for his faith, and said God was “on our side.”

The president’s final day of vacation, Saturday, was spent at the golf club, and was punctuated by a handful of tweets.

That night, Mr. Trump strolled through Mar-a-Lago, a phalanx of aides in tow, as Mr. Hernandez got married in an adjacent room, according to attendees. The president did not attend the wedding, but did offer congratulations.

But it wasn’t that simple, as the New York Times reports here:

In the chaotic days leading to the death of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander, top American military officials put the option of killing him – which they viewed as the most extreme response to recent Iranian-led violence in Iraq – on the menu they presented to President Donald Trump.

They didn’t think he would take it. In the wars waged since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable.

That was a mistake:

After initially rejecting the Soleimani option on Dec. 28 and authorizing airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia group instead, a few days later Trump watched, fuming, as television reports showed Iranian-backed attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, according to Defense Department and administration officials.

By late Thursday, the president had gone for the extreme option. Top Pentagon officials were stunned.

That wasn’t supposed to happen:

Trump made the decision, senior officials said Saturday, despite disputes in the administration about the significance of what some officials said was a new stream of intelligence that warned of threats to U.S. embassies, consulates and military personnel in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon…

Some officials voiced private skepticism about the rationale for a strike on Soleimani, who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops over the years. According to one U.S. official, the new intelligence indicated “a normal Monday in the Middle East” – Dec. 30 – and Soleimani’s travels amounted to “business as usual.”

That official described the intelligence as thin and said that Soleimani’s attack was not imminent because of communications the U.S. had between Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Soleimani showing that the ayatollah had not yet approved any plans by the general for an attack. The ayatollah, according to the communications, had asked Soleimani to come to Tehran for further discussions at least a week before his death.

Trump wasn’t listening and the rest was inevitable:

In Iran, the ayatollah vowed “forceful revenge” as the country mourned the death of Soleimani.

In Palm Beach, Florida, Trump lashed back, promising to strike 52 sites across Iran – representing the number of American hostages taken by Iran in 1979 – if Iran attacked Americans or American interests. On Saturday night, Trump warned on Twitter that some sites were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

The president issued those warnings after U.S. spy agencies Saturday detected that Iranian ballistic missile units across the country had gone to a heightened state of readiness, a U.S. official said Saturday night.

That was dire, unless that wasn’t dire:

Other officials said it was unclear whether Iran was dispersing its ballistic missile units – the heart of the Iranian military – to avoid an American attack or was mobilizing the units for a major strike against U.S. targets or allies in the region in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

No one knew, but some people knew this:

Two senior US officials on Sunday described widespread opposition within the administration to targeting cultural sites in Iran should the United States launch retaliatory strikes against Tehran, despite President Donald Trump saying a day before that such sites are among dozens the US has identified as potential targets.

“Nothing rallies people like the deliberate destruction of beloved cultural sites. Whether ISIS’s destruction of religious monuments or the burning of the Leuven Library in WWI, history shows targeting locations giving civilization meaning is not only immoral but self-defeating,” one of the officials told CNN.

“The Persian people hold a deeply influential and beautiful history of poetry, logic, art and science. Iran’s leaders do not live up to that history. But America would be better served by leaders who embrace Persian culture, not threaten to destroy it,” they added.

“Consistent with laws and norms of armed conflict, we would respect Iranian culture,” the second senior US official said.

Another official who formerly worked in both the Trump and Obama administrations told CNN: “As a matter of principle, we as a nation and as a military do not attack the culture sites of any adversary.”

Trump may have to fire those people:

President Trump on Sunday evening doubled down on his claim that he would target Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated for the targeted killing of one of its top generals, and threatened “very big sanctions” on Iraq if American troops are forced to leave the country.

Aboard Air Force One on his way back from his holiday trip to Florida, Mr. Trump reiterated to reporters the spirit of a Twitter post on Saturday, when he said the United States government had identified 52 sites for retaliation against Iran if there were a response to Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani’s death. Some, he tweeted, were of “cultural” significance.

Such a move could be considered a war crime under international laws, but Mr. Trump said Sunday that he was undeterred.

“They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people,” the president said. “And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”

The killing of General Suleimani was aimed at preventing war, right? Well, maybe not:

The remarks came just hours after the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, walked back Mr. Trump’s tweets and said that whatever was done in any military engagement with Iran would be within the bounds of the law.

Mr. Trump also sounded fatalistic about the possibility of an Iranian escalation.

“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “If they do anything, there will be major retaliation”

It seems we’re at war now, and Ryan Crocker, our former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, and a diplomat in residence at Princeton, does confirm that:

That war goes back to Lebanon in the early 1980s, where General Suleimani’s predecessors created what became Hezbollah. Iran, with Syria, helped stage the 1983 bombings of the American Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans involved in a peacekeeping mission. As a young Foreign Service officer who survived those bombings, I saw how Iran succeeded in forcing the United States to withdraw its forces from Lebanon through terrorism.

Later, as ambassador in Lebanon, I helped load the remains of two Americans killed by Hezbollah – the Beirut CIA station chief, William Buckley, and Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins – on a helicopter just before Christmas 1991. In Syria, as ambassador from 1998 to 2001, I witnessed the coordination between Syria and Iran in support of Hezbollah and the close embrace of Hezbollah’s leader by President Bashar al-Assad. As ambassador to Iraq years later, I stood at ramp ceremonies honoring our service members killed by Shiite militias supported by General Suleimani.

So when his death was confirmed, it was a moment of quiet satisfaction for me: A formidable enemy of the United States was gone, and he will not be easily replaced. That is some vindication for the hundreds of American lives he had taken over the years.

But that has little to do with the problem now:

The United States is engaged in something I call escalation dominance. This means we need to calculate how an adversary is likely to respond to a given action of ours. What are the United States’ vulnerabilities? What are theirs? Depending on the adversary’s reactions, what is our range of follow up moves? In short, how does the United States increase pain for the Iranians while denying them the opportunity to counter escalate?

In the complex context of Iran, this becomes multidimensional chess. We have forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as a military presence throughout the Gulf: in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman. These are assets, but they are also potential targets, as are the countries where they are located. We will also have to consult very closely with Israel.

And thus one cannot simply rant and rage:

Escalation dominance is not a simple measure of raw power. It is about which party is more likely to dominate in a given context, something that is a function of abilities but also determination, prioritization and patience.

If so, we’re in trouble:

The United States will have military options that it did not exercise in 1983, including direct, large scale attacks on Iran. How far are we prepared to go in an escalatory spiral? I hope the administration worked through that before the Suleimani strike.

The Trump administration will have to understand the full complexity of the conflict it just escalated, assemble and utilize a large cadre of area specialists, work closely with allies and above all, commit to seeing through to an end of what already has been a very long war. These are not attributes that have characterized the Trump presidency thus far.

Crocker put that diplomatically, perhaps out of habit, but Peter Baker reports this:

For three years, President Trump’s critics have expressed concern over how he would handle a genuine international crisis, warning that a commander in chief known for impulsive action might overreach with dangerous consequences.

In the angry and frenzied aftermath of the American drone strike that killed Iran’s top general, with vows of revenge hanging in the air, Mr. Trump confronts a decisive moment that will test whether those critics were right or whether they misjudged him.

“The moment we all feared is likely upon us,” Senator Christopher Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and vocal critic of Mr. Trump, wrote on Twitter over the weekend. “An unstable President in way over his head, panicking, with all his experienced advisers having quit, and only the sycophantic amateurs remaining. Assassinating foreign leaders, announcing plans to bomb civilians. A nightmare.”

Ah, but maybe that’s the point:

Some experts on the region suggested that Mr. Trump’s very unpredictability was a deterrent in itself, arguing that the killing of General Suleimani may have been so brazen and shocking to Iranian leaders that they will be wary of provoking an American president evidently willing to escalate in ways his predecessors were not.

“Trump actually has a very strong hand vis-à-vis the clerical regime,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA specialist on Iran at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization that has rallied opposition to Iran’s government. “Whether he chooses to play it, I don’t know. He’s not a strategist. But his tactical game hasn’t been bad. The hit on Suleimani was genius – totally flummoxed his opponent.”

He might nuke Tehran tomorrow, or he might not – but he probably will – or he won’t – so he wins this game. At least that’s the theory. That’s brilliantly played escalation dominance. Or that’s simply a total lack of impulse control and we’re all gonna die!

At least now Americans know just what they signed up for a few years ago. Everyone should have expected this. The man is who he is.

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That Same Question Again

It seems so long ago, and it was, but some of us remember the arguments. We went over and removed Saddam Hussein. But there were no weapons of mass destruction. And things quickly fell apart. We installed a Shiite strongman who marginalized and humiliated every Sunni in Iraq, just as Saddam Hussein had marginalized and humiliated every Shiite in sight for decades. The Sunnis were in trouble in Iraq this time, not the Shiites, and result was a sectarian civil war – with a new group popping up, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The local Sunnis had organized.

Our famous “surge” was supposed to end that sectarian civil war – we bribed the Sunni militias at the time to fight the new al-Qaeda in Iraq, their Sunni brothers, and told them that any new Shiite leader would promise to be nice to Sunnis, because we’d tell him to. But that wasn’t going to happen. Iraq would never be a whole nation of equals – there was too much bad blood. And then Al-Qaeda in Iraq turned into ISIS, so, some argued, the whole thing has been a bad idea. There were no weapons of mass destruction, there never had been, so we had made a mess of things there, a mess that would only get worse – and it certainly did. And it’s still a mess. And we did this for no good reason.

But the main problem was no one at the time seemed to have considered the consequences of overthrowing a sitting government with no plan for what to do next. Dick Cheney’s plan was to install his University of Chicago friend, Ahmed Chalabi, as head of the new Iraqi government over there and then come on home – but Chalabi has been convicted for bank fraud in Petra – in absentia – and no one in Iraq knew him – except for those few who did know him, and hated him. So that wasn’t much of plan.

And then there was the counterargument. Saddam Hussein was, or had been, a very bad man. Did you want to see him remain in power? Everyone knew he had to go. Maybe there had been no weapons of mass destruction, and yes, it seems that he had nothing to do with 9/11 at all, and maybe we stirred up a hornets’ nest never realizing how bad things might go, because we never planned for anything but quick total success in a war that would be over by Christmas and pay for itself ten times over (with Iraqi oil) – but Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. He had to go. Sure, George Bush (or Dick Cheney) made a total mess of things, but you can NOT say they were wrong to do this. If you say that, you’re saying you wish Saddam Hussein was back in power. You’re saying that Saddam Hussein is (was) a good man. You’re saying that you’re a big fan of Saddam Hussein – always have been and always will be. George Bush did screw up the Middle East forever, for reasons that fall apart rather quickly – but Saddam Hussein had been a very bad man. So why are you defending him? Why are you defending a murderous dictator? What the hell is wrong with you? That was the counterargument.

And then that was over. Republicans decided they didn’t want to talk about George Bush any longer, or ever again, and he stepped away from public life. And the argument ended. Now their man was John McCain. He never mentioned Bush. He never mentioned Saddam Hussein. His plan for Iraq was to get the Shiites and Sunnis together in a room and tell them to “knock it off” and his plan for Iran was to bomb that place back to the Stone Age before they could build any nukes. It was all quite simple, really. And he lost.

But their original argument has been potent. You say there were no weapons of mass destruction? You say we didn’t plan for or even understand the consequence of overthrowing a sitting government by getting rid of just one key bad guy? So why are you defending him? Why are you defending a murderous dictator? What the hell is wrong with you? What? You think it was wrong to take out Qassem Soleimani?

The name has changed. The argument is back. Republicans say he was a very bad man. He had to go. Democrats are saying he was a very bad man. Have you people thought through the consequences of taking him out?

That was the issue after the deed was done:

The United States and Iran exchanged escalating military threats on Friday as President Trump warned that he was “prepared to take whatever action is necessary” if Iran threatened Americans and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed to exact vengeance for the killing on Mr. Trump’s order of Iran’s most valued general.

Although the president insisted that he took the action to avoid a war with Iran, the continuing threats further rattled foreign capitals, global markets and Capitol Hill, where Democrats demanded more information about the strike and Mr. Trump’s grounds for taking such a provocative move without consulting Congress.

Democrats also pressed questions about the attack’s timing and whether it was meant to deflect attention from the president’s expected impeachment trial this month in the Senate. They said he risked suspicion that he was taking action overseas to distract from his political troubles at home, as in the political movie “Wag the Dog.”

That was an odd movie:

The President is caught making advances on an underage girl inside the Oval Office, less than two weeks before the election. Conrad Brean, a top spin doctor, is brought in by presidential aide Winifred Ames to take the public’s attention away from the scandal. He decides to construct a fictional war in Albania, hoping the media will concentrate on this instead. Brean contacts Hollywood producer Stanley Motss to create the war, complete with a theme song and fake film footage of a photogenic orphan. The hoax is initially successful, with the President quickly gaining ground in the polls appearing afterwards…

And so on and so forth, but this is real life:

Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters in a hastily arranged appearance at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, asserted that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who directed Iranian paramilitary forces throughout the Middle East, “was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Mr. Trump’s remarks, as did Robert C. O’Brien, the national security adviser. But General Milley, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. O’Brien and other senior administration officials did not describe any threats that were different from what American officials say General Suleimani had been orchestrating for years.

Democrats questioned the lack of specifics about any new threat that would justify Mr. Trump’s order to kill General Suleimani, which both Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush had rejected as too risky.

“What always kept both Democratic and Republican presidents from targeting Suleimani himself was the simple question: Was the strike worth the likely retaliation and the potential to pull us into protracted conflict?” Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan and a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, said in a statement. “The two administrations I worked for both determined that the ultimate ends didn’t justify the means.”

In fact, bad things can happen, so they did happen:

Iraq’s Parliament is set to meet on Saturday and could consider a measure to expel all United States forces from the country for the first time since 2003.

At Fort Bragg, N.C., some 3,500 members of the 82nd Airborne, ordered to the Middle East this week, prepared to deploy to Kuwait.

On Wall Street, the stock market fell as oil prices jumped after the news of the general’s death: The price of Brent oil, the international benchmark, surged in the early hours of Hong Kong trading to nearly $70 a barrel – an increase of $3.

And there was this:

Mr. Pompeo dismissed concerns raised by American allies, who expressed fear of a wider war in the Middle East. A French minister suggested that “we are waking up in a more dangerous world” after the strike.

“Yeah, well, the French are just wrong about that,” Mr. Pompeo said. “The world is a much safer place today. And I can assure you Americans in the region are much safer today after the demise of Qassim Suleimani.”

And then his own state department issued a directive that all American citizens leave Iraq right now because the place was now so dangerous – which he never explained – and there was this:

A top Chinese Communist Party official, Yang Jiechi, told Mr. Pompeo in a telephone call that China, Iran’s most powerful partner, was “highly concerned” about the situation in the Middle East and that “differences should be resolved through dialogue,” Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry official, tweeted.

Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia spoke by telephone and agreed to try to “prevent a new and dangerous escalation of tensions,” according to a summary issued by Mr. Macron’s office.

And meanwhile, in Baghdad:

The decision to hit General Suleimani complicates relations with Iraq’s government, which has tried to balance itself between the United States and Iran.

A senior Iraqi official said Friday that there was a good chance the Iraqi Parliament would vote to force American troops to leave the country. Top Iraqi leaders earlier had wanted to accommodate the troop presence because of the persistent threat from the Islamic State and other regional security matters.

They want out of this mess, but it’s too late for that:

Mr. Trump said that the killing early Friday of General Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, was long overdue, though he insisted he did not want a larger fight with Iran.

“We took action last night to stop a war,” the president said. “We did not take action to start a war.”

But moments later, he warned Iran that the American military had “already fully identified” potential targets for further attacks “if Americans anywhere are threatened.”

By early evening, as he came under growing criticism for what his critics called a reckless national security gamble, Mr. Trump said he wanted to contain the conflict.

“We do not seek war, we do not seek nation-building, we do not seek regime change,” Mr. Trump told a gathering of his evangelical supporters in Miami, seeming to draw a contrast with the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.

There are those who don’t believe that:

Hours earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei had warned Mr. Trump that there would be consequences for General Suleimani’s death, who died after an American MQ-9 Reaper drone fired missiles at his convoy as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport.

“His departure to God does not end his path or his mission,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a statement, “but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands.”

And there’s this:

Dalia Dassa Kaye, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, a research organization, said the killing of General Suleimani was a “major escalation beyond proxy conflict to a direct conflict with Iran that is likely to be viewed in existential terms on Iran’s side,” especially in the wider context of Mr. Trump’s continuing sanctions campaign to isolate Iran.

She added that likely costs included a rupture with the Iraqi government, which would weaken the fight against the Islamic State; a further alienation of American allies who have been seeking de-escalation this year between Western nations and Iran; and growing challenges to containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Just because the U.S. can take punitive actions doesn’t mean it should,” she said.

But the nation will continue to argue about that as it always has, and David Sanger adds this to that argument:

President Trump’s decision to strike and kill the second most powerful official in Iran turns a slow-simmering conflict with Tehran into a boiling one, and is the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The calculus was straightforward: Washington had to re-establish deterrence, and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response.

But while senior American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond, they do not know how quickly, or how furiously.

But the deed is done:

For a president who repeated his determination to withdraw from the caldron of the Middle East, the strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who for two decades has led Iran’s most fearsome and ruthless military unit, the Quds Force, means there will be no escape from the region for the rest of his presidency, whether that is one year or five. Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks vengeance.

“This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder,” wrote Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. “With Suleimani dead, war is coming – that seems certain, the only questions are where, in what form and when?”

And that’s where this gets a bit tricky:

The Iranians’ advantage is all in asymmetric conflict.

Their history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States.

For now, they cannot – at least in traditional ways.

But they have tried terrorism, including an abortive effort nine years ago to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was sending out reminders of Iran’s past and current efforts to attack the United States in cyberspace. Until now, that has been limited to breaches on American banks and scrutiny of dams and other critical infrastructure, but they so far have not shown they have the abilities of the Russians or the Chinese.

Their first escalation may well be in Iraq, where they back pro-Iranian militias. But even there, they are an unwelcome force. It was only a few weeks ago when people took to the streets in Iraq to protest Iranian, not American, interference in their politics. Still, there are soft targets throughout the region, as the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities showed.

No one knows what to expect, but that’s not all that’s going on here:

The nuclear future is more complex.

Mr. Trump walked away from the 2015 nuclear agreement more than a year ago, over the objections of many of his own aides and almost all American allies. At first, the Iranians reacted coolly, and stayed within the limits of the accord. That ended last year, as tensions escalated.

Before the strike, they were expected to announce, in the next week, their next nuclear move – and it seemed likely to be a move closer to enrichment of bomb-grade uranium. That seems far more likely now, and poses the possibility of the next escalation, if it prompts American or Israeli military or cyber-action against Iran’s known nuclear facilities.

Once it buries General Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – which oversaw the secret projects to build nuclear weapons two decades ago – may well determine that it is time to surge ahead. There is little question the United States is far less likely to challenge a country with an existing nuclear arsenal. The Iranians, like the North Koreans and the Pakistanis, could well take General Suleimani’s death as a warning about what happens to countries with no nuclear options.

Now add this:

Even those critical of the president’s nuclear move said they understood why the Iranian general was such a target.

“These guys are the personification of evil,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general who was an architect of the surge in Iraq, said in an interview Thursday night. “We calculated they were responsible for at least 600 deaths” of American soldiers.

But Mr. Petraeus offered a caution.

“There will be an escalation,” he said. “I assume they have to do something. And the only question is, over time, have we created more deterrence than if we had not acted.”

Who knows? But Fred Kaplan knows this:

The United States is now at war with Iran.

This is the inescapable result of President Donald Trump’s order to assassinate Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, arguably the most powerful military leader in the Middle East, and the most important person in Iran, except for the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

You don’t deliberately kill someone like Soleimani unless you’re at war with his country, and even then, you want to think long and hard before you do, given the near-certainty of blowback.

That means simply doing your homework:

To convey a sense of Suleimani’s significance, it would be as if, during the Iraq war, the ayatollah had ordered the assassination of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Jim Mattis, the head of Special Operations Command, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Suleimani’s responsibilities corresponded with all four of these roles. Even then, the analogy falls short because, among Shi’ite Muslims across the region, Soleimani also exuded the charisma of a religious icon, a holy warrior.

For the past 20 years, he had been the architect of Iran’s expansionist foreign policy, running subversive operations and controlling Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he shared intelligence about al-Qaida and the Taliban with U.S. officials, until President George W. Bush declared Iran to be part of the “axis of evil.” In the fight against ISIS, his militias were crucial in forcing the group’s fighters out of Iraq. But he was also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. troops during the Iraq insurgency. On Thursday night, the Pentagon justified its action by claiming that he was about to launch an offensive against American embassies and armed forces throughout the region.

Even if that is true, killing him doesn’t make much strategic sense.

And that leads Kapan to wonder why this is so:

It is hard to discern how Trump, who ordered the assassination personally, thinks this will play out. On New Year’s Eve, he told reporters that he wanted peace with Iran. Just two days later, did he think that killing Iran’s top military commander was somehow not an act of war? If he grasped that it was, did he – does he – believe that the blow would bring the regime to its knees or rouse the Iranian people to mount a revolution?

Many Iranians, especially in the cities, despise the mullahs in charge of their government, as shown by the massive protests that have swept the country in recent months, but they despise foreign intruders even more. The ghost of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister who was overthrown in a joint American-British coup in 1953, still haunts the Iranian landscape, animating every crisis since.

So, someone didn’t do their homework, not that it matters:

Did Trump have an endgame in mind when he ordered the attack, or was his action, like so many of his words and actions, simply impulsive? Did any of his advisers warn him of the legal implications and the potential political, military, and economic consequences? We now know that Congress wasn’t notified, much less consulted. Did the National Security Council even meet to weigh the pros and cons or to discuss alternative responses? Give Trump’s track record on deliberations, it’s unlikely.

In any case, whether Trump means to provoke a war or wants to pursue a diplomatic course at some point, there is no one around him very capable of doing either. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has no credibility with Iran, having openly advocated a regime-change policy. Secretary of Defense Mike Esper, a former aerospace lobbyist, has no background in this sort of thing. The policy bureaus in the Pentagon and State Department are desperately short of specialists in the region, most of them having either resigned or been fired. Trump may think this doesn’t matter, having said on many occasions that he knows more about making deals than any general or diplomat – which might be the most worrisome aspect of this crisis.

But in the end it comes down to this:

No one can confidently predict what might happen next. But those who don’t grasp the essence of what happened Thursday night – that Donald Trump declared war on Iran – are kidding themselves.

But that’s okay. We’re Americans. That’s what we do.

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Proudly Wildly Disproportionate

Oversimplification is sometimes useful. Donald Trump’s base loves defiance and doesn’t see defiance as counterproductive at all. Sure, their guy makes stuff up, and he’s offended all our allies – no one trusts the United States now that it’s America First in all things – but that’s fine. The whole world has been laughing at us, even our allies. Everyone is screwing us over – everyone! Everyone is out to get us!

Well, it’s time to humiliate them. When someone hits you, hit them back ten times harder. That’s in Trump’s books. That’s what he keeps saying. That will make America great again. America won’t just win. America will humiliate all others. Who the hell cares what they think? Our response now, to even the slightest slight, will be proudly wildly disproportionate. And people will love that, people who vote. America will no longer offer understanding. America delivers punishment. We bring on the pain.

Will that work in international relations? Who knows? But at least all other nations will now respect us, or really fear us, or even better, just shut up. We deliver massive pain. They’ll try to avoid that. They won’t be a bother.

So, once again, we brought on the pain:

President Trump ordered the killing of the powerful commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, in a drone strike on the Baghdad International Airport early Friday, American officials said.

General Suleimani’s death was confirmed by official Iranian media.

“General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “General Suleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.”

“This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans,” the statement added. “The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”

So, we assassinated a foreign leader, or at least a folk hero in the Shiite world, with a drone strike in a third-party country without that country’s approval or even knowledge. Like the Russians, we can assassinate anyone we like anywhere we’d like. But of course he was a bad guy:

The strikes followed a warning on Thursday afternoon from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who said the United States military would pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there were signs the paramilitary groups were planning more attacks against American bases and personnel in the region.

“If we get word of attacks, we will take pre-emptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” Mr. Esper said. “The game has changed.”

This is the Bush Doctrine updated a bit, but not that much. If we sense that some people might do something bad in the future, we will kill those people. They haven’t done anything, yet, but they might. They’re gone. And no place is safe. Putin poisons his enemies in Sussex or Cornwall. We have drones. And we certainly don’t care what the local government thinks:

The American drone strike hit two cars carrying Mr. Suleimani and several officials with Iranian-backed militias as they were leaving the airport. American officials said that multiple missiles hit the convoy in a strike carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command.

The strike killed five people, including the pro-Iranian chief of an umbrella group for Iraqi militias, Iraqi television reported and militia officials confirmed. The militia chief, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, was a strongly pro-Iranian figure.

The public relations chief for the umbrella group, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Mohammed Ridha Jabri, was killed as well.

It had to be done:

The strikes come days after American forces bombed three outposts of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack last week near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The United States said that Kataib Hezbollah fired 31 rockets into a base in Kirkuk Province, last week, killing an American contractor and wounding several American and Iraqi servicemen.

The Americans responded by bombing three sites of the Khataib Hezbollah militia near Qaim in western Iraq and two sites in Syria. Khataib Hezbollah denied involvement in the attack in Kirkuk.

Pro-Iranian militia members then marched on the American Embassy on Tuesday, effectively imprisoning its diplomats inside for more than 24 hours while thousands of militia members thronged outside. They burned the embassy’s reception area, planted militia flags on its roof and scrawled graffiti on its walls.

No injuries or deaths were reported, and the militia members did not enter the embassy building.

They withdrew late Wednesday afternoon…

Caught in the middle is the Iraqi government, which is too weak to establish any military authority over some of the more established Iranian-supported Shiite militias.

We wrote off the Iraqi government. Iraq is our country, not theirs. But there’s Wendy Sherman, a professor and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 2011 to 2015 and led our negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. And now she says this:

It is President Donald Trump’s failed policy toward Iran that has brought us to this combustible moment.

Iraq is a tough country under any circumstances, made more so after the 2003 U.S. invasion that upended the Middle East and cost so much in U.S. lives and treasure. But Iraq also created strange bedfellows. The U.S. troops worked alongside Iraqi and Iranian militia to destroy a common enemy, the Islamic State terrorism group. And even as Washington was confronting Iran over its nuclear program and malign behavior elsewhere, we maintained an uneasy coexistence in Iraq, where Tehran holds considerable sway.

That uneasy balance was destroyed when Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal. Like other critics of the agreement, Trump believed it should have resolved all of America’s issues with Iran. Trump believed we were giving Tehran benefits without a requisite return. He thought a “maximum pressure” campaign would ultimately bring Iran to its knees, or incite a popular uprising against its theocratic regime.

He thought wrong:

Like much of Trump’s national security and foreign policy, his Iran approach is tactical and not strategic. The results have been devastating to U.S. interests. Iran’s most extreme hard-liners, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds force, which never wanted the nuclear deal, have gained more power, arguing that the United States couldn’t be trusted to honor any agreement.

And now they’re sure of that:

Even some of the harshest critics of the Iran nuclear deal now understand that the perfect is, indeed, the enemy of the good; that in volatile international situations, solid, incremental progress trumps chaos. The Iran nuclear deal was meant to prevent Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. Such a capability would project even greater Iranian power in the Middle East and deter the ability of Washington and its allies to build a lasting peace in the region.

Ah, but that wasn’t enough, and instead we got this:

Three years into his presidency, Donald Trump owns the events and outcomes in Iraq and Iran, as he does in North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Middle East, Russia, China and Hong Kong. Having diminished our State Department, intelligence agencies and military, the very institutions that could have helped him construct an effective national security and foreign policy he is now on his own.

And that’s dangerous. Andrew Exum was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East Policy from 2015 to 2016 and he sees this:

Today the United States killed Major General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. The United States is now in a hot war with Iran after having waged war via proxies for the past several decades.

This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war.

I do not know of a single Iranian who was more indispensable to his government’s ambitions in the Middle East.

And he was a bad guy and more too:

Just as the United States often faces a shortage of human capital—not all general officers and diplomats are created equal, sadly, and we are not exactly blessed with a surplus of Arabic speakers in our government—Iran also doesn’t have a lot of talent to go around. One of the reasons I thought Iran erred so often in Yemen – giving strategic weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles to a bunch of undertrained Houthi yahoos, for example – was a lack of adult supervision.

Qassem Soleimani was the adult supervision. He was spread thin over the past decade, but he was nonetheless a serious if nefarious adversary of the United States and its partners in the region. And Iran and its partners will now feel his loss greatly.

And no one knows what will happen next:

I don’t think anyone can say for certain how Iran will respond – or how the United States and its partners are prepared – or not prepared – to weather that response.

Some do think about that, and some do not:

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.): “Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question. The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.): “Qassem Soleimani masterminded Iran’s reign of terror for decades, including the deaths of hundreds of Americans. Tonight, he got what he richly deserved, and all those American soldiers who died by his hand also got what they deserved: justice.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.): “Trump Admin owes a full explanation of airstrike reports – all the facts – to Congress and the American people. The present authorizations for use of military force in no way cover starting a possible new war. This step could bring the most consequential military confrontation in decades. My immediate concern is for our brave Americans serving in harm’s way.”

He may be right to worry, but Kevin Drum offers this:

As near as I can tell, President Trump is hell-bent on continuing to provoke Iran in hopes that eventually they’ll overreact and give him an excuse for all-out war. This is obvious enough that Iran is likely, at some point, to figure that there’s nothing they can do about it, so they might as well retaliate in a time and manner of their own choosing. I don’t know what that means, but I doubt that it will take the form of a bunch of random terrorist attacks around the world, as many people seem to be suggesting. If the Iranian leadership decides that war is inevitable, then it will engage in war: attacks on tankers in the Gulf; attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia; major escalations of hostilities in Iraq; and so forth.

Either way, I’ll make one prediction for sure: every time we kill someone like this, the replacement turns out to be even worse. We may consider Soleimani a state terrorist of the first order, but I’ll bet he seems like a cautious and prudent institutionalist compared to whoever takes over for him.

We can make this guy a hero yet, what with this:

Even the possibility that the U.S. had directly targeted Soleimani – especially on Iraqi soil – sent shockwaves around the globe, spiking oil prices and leading to instant assessments of the potential fallout. U.S. officials have long depicted Soleimani as a paramilitary and terrorist mastermind, deemed responsible for attacks on American troops in Iraq and against U.S. interests all over the world.

“It is hard to overstate the significance,” said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the “surge” of American troops in Iraq in the violent years after the 2003 U.S. invasion. “But there will be responses in Iraq and likely Syria and the region.”

Some current and former U.S. officials, as well as veteran Iran observers, said the killing was an escalatory move far beyond what they had ever expected.

“There’s no chance in hell that Iran won’t respond,” said Afshon Ostovar, an expert on Soleimani and author of “Vanguard of the Imam” a book about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

That’s the problem now, and Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution had this to say:

With Suleimani’s death there will be hell to pay – and because of Quds Force’s reach, Iran will have multiple theaters in which to attack the United States. Attacks on US forces and facilities in Iraq are particularly likely. Tehran has spent over 15 years building up extensive networks among militia groups and politicians in Iraq.

And add this:

Many Iraqi politicians, by necessity and in some cases by choice, have close ties to Iran, and pressure will grow to oust US forces from the country. If there is a back-and-forth between the United States and Iran, it is simply the case that Iran has more allies and more influence there, and many Iraqi leaders are likely to bow to Iranian pressure.

And add this:

US military forces in Afghanistan and Syria are also at risk, though both are already well defended due to threats from ISIS, the Taliban, and other dangerous groups. The IRGC and its proxies may also strike at official US embassies and other government-related targets. In 1983, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah blew up the US Embassy in Beirut as well as the Marine barracks there, killing 220 Marines, and dozens of other Americans. Civilians too may be in the crosshairs. Some of Iran’s proxies lack the skill to strike at well-defended official targets, so Tehran may also seek to send a broader message in order to intimidate the United States.

But on the other hand:

Although Iran is likely to strike back, the scale and scope of its response are hard to predict. Hardliners there will call for making the United States pay for Suleimani’s death. In addition, a conflict with the United States may prove a useful way for the regime to deflect attention from Iran’s declining economy and the massive protests that have rocked the country.

However, Iran has long recognized its military weakness compared to the United States, and its leaders know that it can only lose if there is an all-out confrontation. In the many years of US-Iran confrontations, Iran has provoked Washington with terrorist attacks and by supporting anti-US proxies but also tried to back down when things looked as if they might get out of control.

It is not clear, however, if the same script applies after the killing of a key figure like Suleimani.

Yeah, well, nothing is clear:

Deliberative thinking is not a strong suit of the Trump administration, and it is easy to focus on the immediate gratification that comes from killing an archenemy responsible for many American and allied deaths than thinking through the long-term implications of the strike.

What the United States most needs are allies. They are necessary to deter Iran, support further military operations against it if deterrence fails, help guard US facilities, and otherwise share the burden. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has spurned many traditional allies, thumbing its nose at NATO, Australia, and others.

In the Middle East, the administration refused to retaliate after Iran attacked a Saudi oil facility, a traditional red line, sending a message that the Kingdom was on its own for its security. It has also stood by as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE have worked at cross-purposes in countries like Syria and Libya, rather than trying to create a common position that would increase US influence and bargaining power in conflict with Iran. It is unclear if allies will now rally to Washington’s banner, and even if they do they may not be eager to stand by the United States.

President Trump himself has made no secret of his desire to end the US military presence in the Middle East. “We’re getting out. Let someone else fight over this long blood-stained sand. The job of our military is not to police the world,” he declared.

This will not end well at all:

The Suleimani killing and the targeting of pro-Iranian figures in Iraq is likely to be a pivotal moment for the United States in the region. How bloody the aftermath will be, and whether the United States can emerge stronger, will depend on whether the Trump administration can be steadfast, plan for the long term, and work closely with allies.

Trump’s Middle East policy so far, however, suggests the opposite is more likely. In the end, Suleimani’s death may prove a hollow and short-lived victory.

But of course this is about more than a few targeted American assassinations on foreign soil. Fred Kaplan says this:

President Donald Trump enters the new year – his year of reelection or rejection – with two of the world’s most perilous hot spots about to catch fire and with no strategy on how to douse the flames.

Iran and North Korea are once again inspiring banner headlines, and not in the ways that Trump had hoped for in 2019. He believed that “maximum pressure” would prod the mullahs of Tehran to come crawling back to the bargaining table – or, better still, to be ousted from power – and that his putative friendship with Kim Jong-un would unleash a new era of peace and disarmament in northeast Asia. But if anything, the opposite has occurred, either in spite or because of Trump’s actions.

So don’t forget North Korea:

North Korea poses Trump’s most intractable problem – and highlights his most mortifying folly. For a year and a half, ever since first meeting with Kim in Singapore, Trump has been singing the praises of the world’s cruelest dictator, heralding him as a “great leader” and a “man of his word” and fully expecting him to “denuclearize” without so much as defining the term.

But Kim ushered in 2020 with a seven-hour stem-winder to fellow members of the ruling Workers’ Party, outlining a new course of “arduous and protracted struggle” with the West and announcing, most dramatically, an end to his self-imposed moratorium – in effect for the past two years – on testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

Trump has waved away North Korea’s recent tests of several short-range missiles, despite the fact that they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and unnerved our allies in South Korea and Japan. To Trump, as long as Kim held to his pledge not to test-fire long-range missiles (i.e., missiles that could hit the United States), all was well.

And that just became absurd:

So what happens now if Kim tests precisely such a missile and maybe resumes testing nuclear weapons too? Will Trump realize what everyone else has known for 18 months – that the man with whom he “fell in love” after Singapore has, all along, been taking him for a ride? He’s played to Trump’s ego, writing him “beautiful letters” while continuing to expand his nuclear arsenal and sow divisions between the United States and its allies in the region.

If Trump experiences this epiphany, how will he react to the betrayal and humiliation?

Kim probably thinks Trump won’t react at all: He hasn’t responded with much force to any other provocation in the world; moreover, Kim might think, Trump is unlikely to start a war in Asia amid his impeachment trial and election campaign.

Kim might be right, but wars have been sparked by less drastic miscalculations.

And then there’s the immediate problem:

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, thousands of Iranian-backed militiamen spent New Year’s Eve smashing into the U.S. Embassy while chanting “Death to America.” The demonstrators pulled back two days later, after the Iraqi government – which initially let them cross into the Green Zone surrounding the embassy – pressured the leaders of Kataib Hezbollah, the main militia. Trump, who responded to the incident by ordering 4,000 more U.S. troops into Iraq, took the end of the siege as a triumph – “the Anti-Benghazi,” as he proclaimed.

Trump seems to think that the end of the siege marked an eclipse of Iranian strength, tweeting, “To those many millions of people in Iraq who want freedom and who don’t want to be dominated and controlled by Iran, this is your time!”

This is naïve. Iranian influence in Iraq’s politics is immovably strong; it has been since the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, and the incident that precipitated this week’s siege probably strengthened its hold.

And there’s that other matter:

Iran’s recent eruptions probably would have been avoided if Trump hadn’t withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, reimposed economic sanctions against Iran, and – to compound the aggravation – imposed further sanctions on any country that did business with Iran. The nuclear deal, signed in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama and the leaders of five other nations, required Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure – in exchange for which those nations would lift sanctions. International inspectors attested several times that Iran was obeying the terms of the deal, dismantling its nuclear program; as a result, the other nations started lifting sanctions – until Trump intervened, against the advice of all his top officials, mainly because he couldn’t bear to continue abiding by Obama’s signal diplomatic achievement.

That was a proudly and wildly disproportionate response to a rather narrow Obama achievement, and that backfired, but these things had to happen:

One problem is that no one in the Trump administration has any experience in negotiating with those countries. Another problem is that Trump doesn’t care. He has said several times that he knows more about making deals than any of his diplomats, and he might even believe it’s true. Many of our ablest career civilians, in the diplomatic corps and in the Pentagon, have been fired or have simply fled, and few with any talent have taken their place.

North Korea, Iran, and many other hot spots are hard problems for the most expert and dedicated public servants to solve. Without such public servants, they’re impossible.

But he did hit back ten times harder, so doesn’t Trump get points for that?

Nope, he just started a real war. And he’s proud of it. He doesn’t see wildly inappropriate defiance of everything and everyone as counterproductive at all. And here we go again.

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The Holiday

New Year’s Day is a holiday, right? Politicians took the day off. The cable news channels were running feel-good or nostalgia “specials” on other matters. There wasn’t much to work with. No one was “breaking” news. And most everyone was keeping their opinions to themselves, for a day. That shuts down the national conversation, for a day. So, no commentary this evening – give it a day. New Year’s Day really is a holiday.

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