It seems unlikely that the pundits who praised Donald Trump for showing resolve and growing into his office when he ordered airstrikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in April 2017, will offer similar compliments now, after Trump pulled back from strikes against Iran at the last minute Thursday night—though the latter is arguably a truer example of presidential leadership.
Granted, it’s not encouraging that the president of the United States appears to trust Tucker Carlson more than his own advisers, and it’s hard to believe his tweeted assertion this morning that he was only told about the potential casualties after the military was “cocked & loaded” to strike. But Trump was also under enormous pressure from both political allies and his own advisers to respond. It appears he didn’t like the looks of what he was getting himself—and the country—into, and he withdrew over the advice of the administration’s top officials. Doing that sometimes is a big part of his job. The troubling question, though, is whether the president even realizes the impossible foreign policy position he’s created for himself.
If Trump deserves criticism, it’s for letting the situation escalate to the point that he was on the verge of ordering a high-casualty military strike—and risking a full-blown war—over a downed drone. Everything that’s happened between the U.S. and Iran in the past year is a predictable result of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose conditions on the Iranian regime that amount to a demand for complete surrender. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt (who has never been fully sold on Trump’s foreign policy) accused him this morning of going “full @BarackObama on a red line.” The comparison in this case is fair: Obama’s “red line” comment about Syria’s chemical weapons program brought him to the brink of launching a military intervention in 2013 that he clearly did not want to launch.
What should be clear after Thursday night is that, for all his bluster and threats, Trump is not actually a hawk. He doesn’t want to start any new wars or topple any foreign regimes. Again and again during this administration—with North Korea, with Venezuela, with Iran—military action has appeared to be imminent, doves in the media and on Capitol Hill have panicked, neocons have salivated, and then nothing has come of it. It’s probably time for both sides to stop taking the bait. It’s also clear that the dark Rasputin-like powers of John Bolton are somewhat overestimated. The president may be happy to let his national security adviser wage his passionate lifelong crusade against the International Criminal Court, but when it comes to big matters of war and peace—matters that could impact Trump’s reelection chances—Boltonism does not reign supreme.
The divide in the administration can create moments of startling cognitive dissonance. On Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, Trump launched his reelection campaign by boasting that “great nations do not want to fight endless wars” and that the U.S. is “starting to remove a lot of troops.” Those boasts, though, came just a day after the Pentagon announced that 1,000 new troops were being deployed to Middle East.
Trump keeps running into these contradictions because his team does not share his goals and because the image he’s trying to project makes his policy aims practically unachievable. He may want a foreign policy of military restraint, wherein U.S. security interests are defined narrowly and the focus is on border security, counterterrorism, and trade rather than ideological crusades, misbegotten human rights advocacy, or long-term military commitments. There are smart people in Washington who might be perfectly happy to help Trump implement such a policy. But they are not the people who surround him. Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel were the officials who, according to the New York Times, were arguing forcefully for a strike on Iran Thursday. Despite Trump’s own reluctance to deploy significant military force, he also wants to be seen as a tough guy, to act with swagger, threaten foreign governments, kill and torture terrorists, surround himself with the trappings of military power, shock the Europeans, and trigger the libs. This machismo has led him to hire either military figures like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who have conventionally hawkish views, or Fox News reactionaries like Bolton who have unconventionally hawkish views. The risk here is that, as with the stepped-up campaign of digital incursions into Russia’s power grid that the Times revealed last weekend, officials with less aversion to military action may increasingly just cut the president out of the decision-making process.
Most of all, Trump seems to want easy wins. In a Wednesday Washington Post article about the president’s growing frustrations with his administration’s Venezuela policy, one official explains:
Trump has clearly been frustrated about a foreign policy issue he “always thought of … as low-hanging fruit” on which he “could get a win and tout it as a major foreign policy victory,” the former official said. “Five or six months later … it’s not coming together.”
The dynamic appears much the same with Iran. Washington think tank hawks and Republicans on Capitol Hill may have applauded Trump’s move on the Iran deal and his “maximum pressure” campaign, and they may feel encouraged that the U.S. is finally taking a hard line against Iranian influence in the Middle East. But Trump, with his pro-Russia sympathies and desire to get out of Syria as quickly as possible, has never appeared quite as interested in Iran. For instance, others may see U.S. support for Saudi Arabia—despite its dismal human rights record and its own regionally destabilizing actions—as necessary to counter Iran, but Trump tends to emphasize the economic importance of Saudi arms sales.
It was telling how Trump began his tweetstorm Friday morning: “President Obama made a desperate and terrible deal with Iran - Gave them 150 Billion Dollars plus I.8 Billion Dollars in CASH!” It’s as if he’s saying: All I wanted to do was get our money back, and now I’m on the brink of a massive war. Trump may have hoped his Iran deal decision was a way to undo a key part of Obama’s legacy. He knew it made some of his voters and donors and his friends in Israel and Saudi Arabia happy. He may also genuinely believe that Obama allowed the U.S. to get ripped off. If he was thinking ahead at all when he exited the deal, he may have genuinely believed that either something like the status quo would continue or that Iran would buckle under the pressure and come to the table to give him another Kim Jong-un–style summit. That is not what happened.
Just because Trump doesn’t want war doesn’t mean he still won’t get one. The administration’s actions, and Iran’s responses, have left him with few options for a diplomatic resolution. And having already applied “maximum pressure,” there are few options left for responding to further Iranian provocations beyond force. The next Iranian attack could result in the loss of an American life, not just a drone. Pompeo has now explicitly called that a red line, which even Trump may feel compelled to enforce.
Trump may not like the situation he’s in, but it’s one largely of his own making—and it’s not going to be easy to get out of.