War Stories

Sleepwalking Into War With Iran

Trump is drifting toward conflict and has no idea how to stop it.

Two armed members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero.
Two armed members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard inspect the British-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday. Morteza Akhoondi/Mehr News Agency via AP

Here is where we stand in the ongoing crisis (and it is a crisis) with Iran. The British navy is unable to defend a British tanker in the narrow Strait of Hormuz. President Donald Trump made it clear he wouldn’t help; he doesn’t want war, period, but is doing little or nothing to avert it. Meanwhile, the Iranians are escalating the conflict, hoping the West will back down. One can imagine the history book about all this 50 years from now, titled The Sleepwalkers: How the World Went to War in 2019.

Many routes to peace have been proposed, or rumored, in recent weeks. French President Emmanuel Macron offered himself as an intermediary between Trump and the Iranian leadership. Sen. Rand Paul has put out feelers to Iran’s foreign minister. Then there was the message that Trump himself gave the Swiss back in May—his personal phone number, to pass on to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with a plea: “Call me.”

Nothing has yet come of these gambits. The Iranian position is that Trump is the one who started all this by withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, which the other five signatories (and the IAEA inspectors) thought was working fine. The way to stave off conflict, in this view, is for Trump to rejoin the accord. At this point, some say, the Iranians would be fine with cosmetic changes to the deal—for instance, renaming it—and letting Trump pretend that he wrote it so he wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of embracing Barack Obama’s diplomatic triumph.
But this level of humbling seems improbable.

And so both sides—the Americans and the Iranians—are letting the moves and countermoves unwind, almost as if on autopilot. “One man’s escalation is another’s tit-for-tat,” as Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, puts it in his latest newsletter, and that’s what we’re seeing, as one tanker-grab sparks another, and the shoot-down of a drone triggers retaliation in kind. What comes next? Will one party take a step, or prompt a response that crosses some red line in the eyes of the other? Wars have been triggered over less.

Though the Iranians are right that Trump started all this, they’re taking some big risks for a small power. Some of their latest moves—breaking some limits of the nuclear deal (even though the deal allows that if another party has broken the deal first), seizing foreign vessels, and thumping their chests in various ways—make sense only if they think Washington will back down.

But the problem in Washington is that Trump has neither a strategy nor any strategists at his side—or at least none whom he’s keen to hear. He’s particularly disenchanted with his national security adviser, John Bolton; in recent weeks, he’s bad-mouthed Bolton for his war-happy ways to several of his friends (and to at least one friend of mine whom Trump had never met before). Last month, when Trump sent Bolton off to Mongolia instead of bringing him along to Japan for the G-20 summit, that seemed a clear sign that his days were numbered.

According to Jonathan Swan in Axios, Trump has told associates that he’s kept Bolton on as a “bargaining chip”—the bad cop to Trump’s good cop—to prod negotiations with adversaries. It’s an intriguing notion. In the 1950s, when Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay was commander of Strategic Air Command—which controlled the U.S. nuclear arsenal—some civilian wags in the Pentagon joked that the fierce, cigar-chomping LeMay was great for scaring the Russians as a deterrent—but if things got out of hand and a real war seemed imminent, it should be the vice commander’s job to shoot him.

The premise of the gag was that, with LeMay gone, the grown-ups would take over. In the Trump administration, the grown-ups are long gone. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mainly agrees with Bolton but above all parrots whatever views Trump seems to hold. There is no secretary of defense and hasn’t been a confirmed one since January. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose formal job description is chief military adviser to the president, is for the most part out of the loop. Trump trusts Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un more than he trusts his hand-picked CIA director.

If Trump uses Bolton mainly as a prop, who is, in fact, his national security adviser? The sad answer is: He doesn’t have one. Or, rather, he asks advice from several people, but many of them are random, ranging from Tucker Carlson to some wealthy donor he ran into at Mar-a-Lago. There is no functioning National Security Council, no deliberative process of any sort. This critique may sound overly academic or formalistic, but take such formalities away—especially when the commander in chief knows so little about history, policy, or any of the countries he has to deal with—and you have the aimless drift we’re witnessing now.

The United States is like someone running through traffic in a blindfold, carrying crates of dynamite with a lit fuse. Maybe Trump will finally figure it out, open his eyes, and dampen the fuse. Or maybe not.