After Barack Obama abruptly called off a missile strike on Syria, in August, 2013, he appeared in the Rose Garden on a Saturday afternoon, alongside his Vice-President, Joe Biden, to explain that his decision was driven by a desire to obtain congressional authorization. (The authorization never came; neither did the strike.) Donald Trump’s Rose Garden is Twitter. So, on Friday morning, the world was anxiously monitoring the @realDonaldTrump feed to see what he had to say about the decision he made on Thursday evening, to call off a missile strike on Iran. According to a blockbuster report in the Times, Trump authorized the strike in response to Iran’s downing of an unmanned American spy plane, only to change his mind, even as U.S. warplanes tasked with carrying out the mission were already in the air. (In an interview with Chuck Todd, Trump said that he had not yet approved the strike when it was cancelled, and that the planes had not taken off.) Sure enough, shortly after 9 A.M., Eastern Time, Trump posted four long tweets in which he sought to explain what happened. First, he recounted his decision to end the nuclear agreement that Iran reached with the United States and five other countries in 2015. As he has in the past, he called the agreement a “terrible deal” and falsely claimed that it gave Iran “a free path” to nuclear weapons. Then he moved on to the Iranian downing of the RQ-4A Global Hawk spy plane, which took place on Wednesday evening, Washington time, and claimed that the drone had been flying in international waters. (Iran claims that it was in Iranian airspace.)
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” Trump wrote. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not . . . proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
As with virtually everything that Trump does, the immediate responses to his turnabout were mixed. In this instance, though, the criticism largely came from the Republican side, and some of the praise came from the unlikeliest of quarters, including John Brennan, the former C.I.A. director who has repeatedly blasted the President as a corrupt authoritarian. “I do applaud Trump’s decision not to carry out what would have been a disproportionate strike . . . that could have led to a dangerous escalatory spiral,” Brennan told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “I give him credit for being almost the adult up in the room, because of the war hawks like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo who are pushing towards this confrontation, which is not in anyone’s interest, especially the United States.”
According to the Times, Bolton, Pompeo, and Gina Haspel, the current head of the C.I.A., all favored a military response, whereas top Pentagon officials took Brennan’s line, cautioning that “such an action could result in a spiralling escalation with risks for American forces in the region.” (In an interview with Reuters, an anonymous Administration official disputed such a split, saying, “There was complete unanimity amongst the president’s advisers and DOD leadership on an appropriate response to Iran’s activities.”) In any event, earlier this week, the Pentagon dispatched another thousand troops to the Middle East, with the specific goal of securing U.S. bases and installations against possible attacks from Iranian forces and their proxy groups.
Nonetheless, on Friday, a number of Republicans criticized Trump’s decision not to go ahead with the strike, and some of them compared it to Obama’s reversal in 2013. The Republican representative Adam Kinzinger, who is a pilot in the National Guard, wrote on Twitter, “America is facing a crisis in confidence. Obama’s decision to cancel a strike in Syria in 2013 has had ramifications that are still being felt today. We cannot let the provocations and attacks by Iran go unanswered.” In a television interview, Kinzinger followed up this tweet by saying that the cancellation of the strike “sends a message that you don’t really know what the red line is . . . the red line may not be so red.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a faithful Trump stooge, sought to defend his decision, saying, “He has a long-term game plan here.” But, of course, such a game plan is exactly what Trump lacks. For more than two years now, his Administration has been building up the pressure on Iran by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, employing aggressive rhetoric, and imposing ever-tighter economic sanctions. To many observers in the Middle East and elsewhere, it appears that the Administration’s real goal is a regime change in Tehran, even though Trump has recently denied that. But what is undeniable is that Trump’s policy has been inexorably leading us to a moment like this one.
“Now what we see is we are trapped between the belligerent rhetoric of Trump towards Iran . . . and the Donald Trump who said he didn’t want to get us into another war in the Middle East,” Ben Rhodes, a former Obama Administration official, said on MSNBC. “They are at a point of complete strategic incoherence. They are saying they don’t want a war but everything they are doing is making a war more likely.” On Thursday night, Trump stepped back from the brink. But the policy that got him into this mess is still firmly in place.
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