Giving Credit Where Credit is Due on Iran

Trump and Iran.

Let me start off by doing something that I do not often do: state that Trump did the right thing this week by calling off a retaliatory strike against Iran. Escalation in what has become a highly tense situation would only have made things worse.

Further, I have been pleased that Trump has downplayed the mine attacks on two oil tankers, calling them “very minor” and likewise his rhetoric on the drone attack, while a bit all over the place at times, has not been as inflammatory as it could have been.

Now, do I believe that he called off the attack because he learned, mere minutes before launch, that 150 people would be killed.? No, I do not. If anything, it is inconceivable that he was not given a damage assessment during the planning stages to include casualty estimates.* I suppose it believable he wasn’t paying attention during the briefing and learned the information later, but the whole scenario as tweeted was a bit too movie-of-the-week to be believable.

Sadly, however, it is wholly believable that a cable news talking head talked him out of the attack:

He heard from his generals and his diplomats. Lawmakers weighed in and so did his advisers. But among the voices that rang powerfully for President Trump was that of one of his favorite Fox News hosts: Tucker Carlson.

While national security advisers were urging a military strike against Iran, Mr. Carlson in recent days had told Mr. Trump that responding to Tehran’s provocations with force was crazy. The hawks did not have the president’s best interests at heart, he said. And if Mr. Trump got into a war with Iran, he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye.

Source: NYT: Urged to Launch an Attack, Trump Listened to the Skeptics Who Said It Would Be a Costly Mistake

So, calling off an attack that would have unnecessarily escalated tensions in the Persian Gulf with no clear objectives beyond more escalation? Good. Having a president who seeks advise for such decisions from entertainers? Bad.

I guess in a perverse way I can also say “yay for democracy!” insofar as Trump made the right decision because he was worried about re-election.

However, if the goal here is to give credit, let’s give credit.

First, and foremost, we would not be in the situation if Trump had not unilaterally withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka “the Iran nuclear deal.”

Second, the increased sanctions on Iran are making Iran more prone to striking out. We can’t forget that the US is currently engaged in economic warfare against Iran.**

Third, to add to an already volatile mix, very publicly increasing US military presence in the region has also ramped up tensions considerably.

Fourth, Trump appointed John Bolton as National Security Adviser and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. Both, especially Bolton, are known hawks vis-à-vis Iran. Add to that mix the lack of permanent Secretary of Defense since the start of the year (and, up and until this week, an acting SecDef whose primary experience was the defense industry, not military policy).

In other words, the administration has largely been putting tinder around an already dried-out wooden building. That Trump forestalled placing a match to it this week has clearly avoided starting a fire, but let’s not forget who placed the fuel in the first place.

Indeed, let’s face facts: in perhaps one of the most complicated parts of the world Trump has no clear understanding or vision and being pulled in various directions by his own persona, a problematic staff, and his reliance on, of all things, television personalities.

His persona is one of a deal-maker. This is, empically, a joke. It only works in controlled environments (e.g., in books he has hired people to write on his behalf or on over-produced reality TV shows as both as designed to sell Trump as deal-maker extraordinaire to an audience already primed to accept him as such).

In reality, as opposed to reality TV, where are the deals? The North Korea “deal” is nothing more than a vague joint statement. New NAFTA is not all that new, and it hasn’t been approved legislatively yet. The agreement with Mexico over immigration is thin. There is no deal over tariffs and trade with China. The list goes on.

Indeed, Trump learned the wrong lessons from North Korea. NK was, in many ways, perfect for Trump’s reality show approach to governance. As dangerous as NK is, the reality is that they have limited options for real action and therefore prefer spectacle and rhetoric.

Consider: while North Korea can develop and test weapons, and even engage in occasional provocative actions towards the South, the reality is that their choices are war and not war.

Any serious attack on South Korea (or on Japan or on Guam, etc.) would mean massive retaliation by the United States. Such a scenario would lead to the death of the Kim regime. And regime survival is the paramount goal of Kim Jong Un. Further, Kim is constrained by China (which wants neither a war nor the humanitarian crisis such a war would create on its border).

Kim is not looking to be a regional hegemon like Iran is. NK can’t be a regional hegemon in a region that includes China, Japan, South Korea as well as a number of US military bases.

Again: Kim wants to survive. That requires enough military ability to keep the US from wanting to risk a direct military confrontation as well as enough internal control to ward off coups or popular uprisings. It should be noted that being treated like an equal by the President of the United States was a huge boon domestically.

Iran wants to survive, yes, but it also wants to dominate its region. It is, unlike, North Korea, a regional power. While NK may have nuclear weapons, it lacks an ability to influence its region broadly. Iran, however, has regional significance. It can act in ways the North Koreans can only dream of.

Plus: as devastating as a war with North Korea would be, it would likely be short (with the aftermath being a horror). War with Iran would be long, costly, and would potentially not have a clean ending (e.g., a war that did not dislodge the regime is a real possibility).

I should note, too, a war with Iran would have global economic consequences given what it would do to the price of oil. Also: can the US really afford yet another debt-financed war? What would that self-inflicted wound do to the global economy?

Iran doesn’t want press events. They are not interested in empty joint statements. Trump is playing with fire with Iran, and let’s not forget to give credit in that way as well.


*Indeed, WaPo reported “administration officials said Trump was told earlier Thursday how many casualties could occur if a strike on Iran were carried out and that he had given the green light that morning to prepare the operation.” Also, in regards to the 150 figure, the NYT reports: ¨But an administration official informed about the discussions privately disputed that account. The 150-dead casualty estimate came not from a general but from a lawyer, according to the official. The estimate was developed by Pentagon lawyers drafting worst-case scenarios that, the official said, did not account for whether the strike was carried out during daytime, when more people might be present at the targets, or in the dark hours before sunrise, as the military planned.¨

**Side note: it is always amazing to see members of the US government, and its supporters, pretend like other countries should just sit back and take provocations from the US that the US would never stand for.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Iran, National Security, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. The part of Trump’s explanation that makes no sense is his claim that he didn’t learn about the casualty estimate until after he had given the order to proceed. This is not how the Pentagon operates. The military officials that would have briefed him on the attack would have included a casualty estimate in their briefing.

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  2. @Doug Mataconis: This is clearly the case (although as I noted in a footnote, the NYT is reporting that the 150 figure was from Pentagon lawyers and not the briefing–but there is no way that the briefing did not include causality estimates).

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Why does Trump deserve credit merely for not further escalating a crisis he is entirely responsible for creating? It’s like saying a bank robber deserves praise for not shooting the hostages during the robbery.

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  4. @Stormy Dragon: Well, I am glad he didn’t light the fire. But, of course, the rest of the post makes clear exactly how much credit I am giving him, and for what.

  5. I mean, if I really was unclear: he made the right decision but is to blame for the whole mess.

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  6. (I think you are reacting to the headline and subtitle and not the post)

  7. CSK says:

    It”s terrifying that a talk show host could talk Trump out of something his advisors, presumably experts, could not.

  8. mattbernius says:

    First, I agree that Trump deciding to cancel the attack is unequivocally a good thing.

    That out of the way, I want to point out three giant problems with the idea of him successfully negotiating with Iran.

    First, his decision to approve and then cancel the attack signal to the Iranians what he’s willing to militarily escalate over. And now they have a sense of how far they can push. So the reality is that they can probably keep doing what they are doing and know that Trump isn’t willing to disproportionately retaliate. TO BE CLEAR: I DON’T SUPPORT MILITARY ESCALATION AT THIS POINT. However, as much as Trump can say “all options are on the table” his actual actions show that isn’t the case.

    So that alone removes some of the urgency of coming to the table.

    Beyond that, Trump’s decision to scuttle the JCPOA actually undercut his position as well. It demonstrated to the Iranians that any non-treaty agreement with the US is only as stable as the current presidency. Given that Trump’s first term ends in 2020 and there is no guarantee he’s getting a second term, why should they even start a prolonged negotiation process? Especially knowing that whoever follows him could just scuttle the deal again.

    To your point, Steven, the great deal-maker has essentially cut his own legs out from underneath himself before anyone has come to the table.

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  9. mattbernius says:

    Aside: If it was in fact Carlson who convinced Trump to cancel the attack, then he did a good thing.

    However, I have to wonder how much the order and abort was in fact a sort of kabuki theatre intended by Trump to at once signal “how resolute” and also “how rational” his is at once in the hopes of strengthening his negotiating position.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @CSK: His top level advisors weren’t really trying to talk him out of anything. John Bolton, for instance, is an expert in finding excuses to blow up the Middle East. Trump has surrounded himself with advisors that are apparently even worse than Tucker Carlson.

    Here’s a horrible question for everyone: would you support replacing Bolton with Tucker Carlson?

    Also, whoever leaked this to the NYTimes was trying to embarrass and humiliate the president into just going along with the pro-war crowd next time. Trump’s a weak, horrible human being with very little spine, and has surrounded himself with some of the most dangerous crazies possible — and someone wants you to know that he is listening to the racist idiots on Fox over his advisors.

  11. Barry says:

    Mattbernius, let’s start with the fact that there’s no evidence that Iran has done anything yet.

    I second your opinion on the trustworthiness of the US and add that it’s in respect to the entire Middle East for a start. It’s clear that the USA will back Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE over anybody, no matter what they do.

  12. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    First, his decision to approve and then cancel the attack signal to the Iranians what he’s willing to militarily escalate over. And now they have a sense of how far they can push. So the reality is that they can probably keep doing what they are doing and know that Trump isn’t willing to disproportionately retaliate. TO BE CLEAR: I DON’T SUPPORT MILITARY ESCALATION AT THIS POINT. However, as much as Trump can say “all options are on the table” his actual actions show that isn’t the case.

    I don’t think Trump can do that again. If the lesson the Iranians learn is that they can keep shooting down several hundred million dollar drones with impunity, then this will escalate further.

    Beyond that, Trump’s decision to scuttle the JCPOA actually undercut his position as well. It demonstrated to the Iranians that any non-treaty agreement with the US is only as stable as the current presidency. Given that Trump’s first term ends in 2020 and there is no guarantee he’s getting a second term, why should they even start a prolonged negotiation process? Especially knowing that whoever follows him could just scuttle the deal again.

    Well, there is the North Korea lesson — write him a beautiful letter, flatter him, and then the crisis goes away. Or the NAFTA lesson — make some cosmetic changes with no enforcement mechanism, and let him declare victory before it even gets ratified. Or the Mexican Border Agreement lesson — tell him what he wants to hear and then do nothing. Or just enter into negotiations that last for longer than Trump.

    Since the Iranians want the JCPOA, I’d recommend the NAFTA route, but a big beautiful letter is never a bad idea.

  13. mattbernius says:

    @Barry:

    Mattbernius, let’s start with the fact that there’s no evidence that Iran has done anything yet.

    While there is question about whose air space it was in, there is – to my knowledge – no doubt at this point that Iran downed it. That is a major provocation.

    I agree with your point about the Isrealis and the Saudis, but there is little question that Iran, just like the Saudis, has been also taking hostile actions in the region and fighting proxy wars.

    Again, none of that justifies our military involvement or an escalation thereof.

  14. charon says:

    @mattbernius:

    While there is question about whose air space it was in, there is – to my knowledge – no doubt at this point that Iran downed it. That is a major provocation.

    The Iranians recovered parts of the drone in Iranian waters. Most of the world recognizes the Law of the Sea treaty as definitive about where territorial boundries exist, but the U.S. does not, so the dispute may just be over what is Iranian airspace.

    If the U.S. was flying a surveillance drone in Iranian airspace, the only provocation is by the U.S., Iran was within their rights to shoot down the drone.

    Say, as a hypothetical, the Chinese were flying a surveillance drone a few miles offshore the big naval base in San Diego. What do you suppose the U.S. might do? Something like what Russia did to the U-2 perhaps?

  15. Matt says:

    @mattbernius: If the Iranians or Russians were flying potentially armed drones that close to our coast you know damned well we’d be shooting them down…

  16. michael reynolds says:

    If the drone was in Iranian airspace the provocation was ours, not theirs, and their action is understandable. I’ve seen no convincing evidence on the tanker attacks.

    Trump has the advisers a man like that attracts: lowlifes, hustlers, conmen, incompetents and cretins. Tucker Carlson – a dishonest, race-baiting TV goon – had more sense than the clown college Trump has assembled around himself.

    Trump is not smart enough to follow events, not strong enough to know his own mind and is therefore led around by the nose, and is too much of a creep to attract the kind of help that might keep him reined in.

    Oh, and he’s a rapist. Not a sexual assaulter, or a sexual harasser, he’s a rapist.

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  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Dr. Taylor,
    Allowing for your admission that you do not often give credit to the administration, how many times has this administration given anyone cause to credit it with anything? The rarity of the event in and of itself warrants noting that they finally got something right.

    On who is the catalyst, again kudos to Tucker for getting one right. The disadvantage to Tucker being the catalyst is more that having picked the right option this time is closer to having miraculously “drawn into a royal flush on the river” than it is an indication of his clear-eyed vision on foreign policy. Shorter: the next time Trump listens to him, it’s likely to be a mistake.

  18. @Just nutha ignint cracker: There is a definite “a broken clock is right twice a day” vibe to all of this.

  19. mattbernius says:

    Ok just want to be clear on a couple points, first I think it is most likely the case we were in Iranian airspace. In fact there is a long history in that region of saying that things happened in international spaces only to later walk then back.

    And I agree that any invasion of airspace is a provocation.

    I do question the “well if it’s in your airspace you shoot it down no question” line of thinking. A lot of that has to do with where and when. This is a lesson of the cold war.

    All that said, I also think that some folks are acting Iran like a completely innocent party here. And that’s a an over-correction in the opposite direction.

    The bigger issue is that there are no honest actors in this space. Which is why we shouldn’t be involved. And if we choose to be involved, it’s why diplomacy is so important. Which gets back to the bigger issue of abandoning the JCPOA and the subsequent loss of a diplomatic channel to Iran (which gets to the broader eff-up that is Trump foreign policy).

  20. mattbernius says:

    On a different note, there’s a scary implication of the possibility that Carlson was the deciding factor in calling off the strike. It’s a reminder that Trump appears to put strong weight on the analysis of Fox hosts. Which would mean that their constant drum beat against the JCPOA could have been the deciding factor in his decision to leave the deal — despite all the evidence of Iran’s compliance.

    Which only adds further irony to Trump’s assertion that’s what’s needed in this moment is an agreement that prevents Iran from getting Nuclear Weapons.

  21. Ken_L says:

    Trump supporters have wasted no time cobbling together a predictable but risible narrative that this was more brilliant multi-dimensional chess by the master deal-maker, and if Obama had done it we’d all be calling for him to get another Nobel (yes the RNC literally said that).

    However this is just the latest episode to demonstrate Trump (or ‘PDT’ as his fans have taken to calling him, in the vain hope of having him inherit the aura of FDR and JFK) is a one-trick pony. His threats are words “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Consider:

    – He vowed never to talk to North Korea until they denuclearized … then talked.
    – He vowed to close the Mexican border … then didn’t.
    – He vowed to impose tariffs on Mexico … then didn’t.
    – He vowed to impose tariffs on another $300 billion of Chinese imports … then didn’t.
    – He vowed to punish companies which moved operations offshore … then didn’t.
    – He decided to attack Iran … then didn’t.
    – And today we learn the ‘mass deportations’ by ICE that he made such a fanfare about last week … aren’t going to happen after all.

    Anyone else seeing a pattern here?

  22. Ken_L says:

    @mattbernius: Trump’s claim that all he wants is “no nuclear weapon” is, of course, a direct contradiction of the policy speech made by his Secretary of State a few months ago. Attempts by Trump fans to pretend this incoherence within the administration is all part of a cunning strategy are increasingly pathetic.

  23. mattbernius says:

    @Ken_L:
    Completely agree. This has been an issue since the beginning. I honestly think for all his support of the Military, Trump’s tendencies are actually more dove than hawk. The issue is that he’s built an entire cabinet of hawks (and it keeps getting more hawkish). And that is a huge issue and only leads to more chaos and confusion.

    And I honestly believe in the end that the staff always wins. Which personally scares the hell out of me. So far we’ve kept dodging bullets. But basic laws of probability tell us that this cannot go on forever.

  24. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    All that said, I also think that some folks are acting Iran like a completely innocent party here. And that’s a an over-correction in the opposite direction.

    90-10 US vs Iranian fault in all of this. The sanctions are really hurting people, and the Iranians were complying with the JCPOA.

    Beyond that, proxy wars and asymmetrical warfare are common in the region. The expansion of Iranian power has been into the vacuum left by the destruction of Iraqi power.

    They may be bad actors, but there aren’t a lot of good actors in the region. They aren’t chopping up American resident journalists in their consulates. So, there’s that.

  25. An Interested Party says:

    It’s more than a little scary that whether or not we go to war with Iran depends on the whims of this dipshit…

  26. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Side note: it is always amazing to see members of the US government, and its supporters, pretend like other countries should just sit back and talk provocations from the US that the US would never stand for.

    American Privilege, the bastard child of White Privilege.

    @mattbernius: Late to the game but a couple points:

    And I agree that any invasion of airspace is a provocation.

    I do question the “well if it’s in your airspace you shoot it down no question” line of thinking. A lot of that has to do with where and when. This is a lesson of the cold war.

    And what. This was an unmanned surveillance drone. The Iranians made a very calculated move in downing it.

    All that said, I also think that some folks are acting Iran like a completely innocent party here. And that’s a an over-correction in the opposite direction.

    I have seen nothing of the sort. I have seen a very healthy skepticism of any narrative coming out of the White House. If trump says it, one HAS to assume he is lying until proven otherwise out of mere self preservation. Nobody with half a functioning brain thinks the Iranians are innocent, just not guilty of the present charges beyond anything in the same universe of a reasonable doubt.

    The bigger issue is that there are no honest actors in this space.

    That goes top to bottom, left to right, front to back, and right now it is perfectly reasonable to assume we are the most dishonest. There are no ‘good’ actors or ‘bad’ actors in the ME, only self interested actors, and by meddling there we are stirring up a hornets nest for no good reason.

  27. charon says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    and right now it is perfectly reasonable to assume we are the most dishonest.

    I put us no worse than number 3. I rate Saudi Arabia the worst actors, followed by Israel.