President Trump made the right decision in not launching a military strike against Iran that could have quickly led to war, but he arrived at this decision showing all of the egotism, ignorance and disorganization that has characterized the last two and a half years. Now the stakes are higher and there is nothing about his made-for-television moment recalling bombers in the air that should provide any comfort for the future.
Because Trump lies all the time and says only what he thinks will help him in the moment, it is hard to know what actually happened. It is agreed that an unmanned drone was shot down by Iran. A companion aircraft with military personnel aboard was also nearby but was not shot down.
Trump claims that Iran shot down the drone in international waters.This made him angry enough to tweet in all caps: “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.”
Trump also suggested that he had learned some rogue Iranian commander had ordered the drone to be shot down and so perhaps the incident did not reflect a policy decision of the Iranian government, presumably mitigating the wrong that was done. Was the original fire and fury necessary? He wants to be seen as tough; he does not want a costly war. Maybe, there should be negotiations; maybe threats; maybe blame Obama. A barrage of contradictory impulses, all showcased in real time.
Iran for its part says that the drone was over Iranian airspace and so its destruction was permitted under international law as a legitimate defense of its territory. Representatives of the country also said the manned military aircraft was in Iranian airspace but it did not shoot it down because it did not want to escalate the situation.
Iran has released video footage from the moment of the strike and has produced footage of drone wreckage retrieved from territorial waters. It also made its usual aggressive noises about defending its security interests.
I want to believe my President — I really do. And the Iranians, in my opinion, would certainly not hesitate to create facts on the ground (or, in this case, in the air) to support their position.
Yet we still don’t know where the drone or the plane was at the critical time. The problem with Trump’s claim that the drone was over international waters is that nothing that he says can be accepted at face value. Wherever the drone was, it shouldn’t be a cause for a wider war — but it does matter where it was located. And responding to false facts with military action destroys what may be left of our credibility throughout the world.
Trump decided in a few hours that there should be a retaliatory attack. All of his civilian advisers urged him to do so; tellingly, the military did not. He gave the order. The planes were in the air. The prospect of a live, shooting war with a country of 85 million people with a chokehold on the global oil supply was more than just possible: it was significant, and it was 10 minutes away.
And then, the coup de theatre — the President called the planes back. Why? Because, Trump claimed, he had asked a general after the mission was in process how many casualties there would be, and was told 150.
This was another lie. Any Pentagon recommendation for military action would contain a projection of potential casualties; so he should have known this before ordering the attack. But Trump is a famous non-reader and perhaps he skipped that part.
In any event, it was not a general who told him this; it was a civilian lawyer from the White House presenting the Pentagon estimate. Trump’s odd statement to NBC News was intended to allow us an insight into his thought process: “I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘You know what? They shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it,’ and here we are, sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead. And I didn’t like it.”
I agree wholeheartedly that risking significant casualties and the prospect of a major war in a strategic location with a formidable enemy over a lost piece of pricey technology makes little sense. But Trump’s sensible rationale is also unlikely to be true. The New York Times reported that Trump’s dispatch and recall of the plane fed his sense of his own heroic persona: “A person familiar with Mr Trump’s thinking said that the president, for one, was pleased with Thursday night’s events because he liked the ‘command’ of approving the strike, but also the decisiveness of calling it off.” Like an adolescent in a video arcade, Trump makes the planes fly and he makes them come back and it makes him feel powerful.
But Trump’s sense of his own heroic destiny requires not only to be in command in the moment but to stay in power — not to be a loser. Perhaps the most important determining factor was the input of Tucker Carlson, a Fox News acolyte with no discernible national security credentials who told the President the ultimate truth: “that if Mr Trump got into a war with Iran, he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye.”
Sometimes the imperatives of state and those of the narcissist in the Oval Office align. This was one of those times. But the wild rhetoric, the uncertain messages to friends and foes alike, and the push-pull of a man who thrives on chaos and has no patience for rationality is no guide for wise decisions in the future.
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