Donald Trump’s response to Iran’s various provocations of the last week — most notably the shooting down of a $220 million U.S. unmanned aircraft in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz — has been so wide-ranging and incoherent as to put U.S. servicemembers at risk. To wit:
He first appeared to downplay the attack on the drone, saying “I find it hard to believe it was intentional” and that “it would have made a big, big difference” if Iran had instead shot down a manned aircraft. For good measure, he called it “foolish and stupid.”
Later Thursday, though, after deliberations with his advisers, he approved strikes against the Islamic Republic before dramatically calling them off.
And then, Friday morning, he tweeted about it.
While it might look as though Trump is sowing confusion, he’s actually sending a very clear signal. Unfortunately, that signal is that he is an irresolute commander in chief. Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Trump, as he has shown with Russia, Syria, North Korea, and now Iran, speaks loudly and carries a giant carrot.
He backed down from a confrontation with Iran, whose power is vastly inferior to that of China and Russia. Indecisiveness will only invite more attacks from Iran and more aggression from other bad actors like China and Russia.
One justification the president gave for calling off the strike was that it was a disproportionate response, as advisers told him it could kill 150 people. But this doesn’t hold up. Any response won’t be just about an unmanned aircraft. It will be about sending a signal that American was finally ready to respond to four decades of Iranian aggression, terrorism, and disruption and hundreds of dead Americans and Israelis. It would also have been about preserving free navigation of seas and air.
Trump’s decision to back down at the last minute imparts a dangerous shortsightedness, as it views this as an isolated incident not the continuation of 40 years of aggression against the United States and the liberal world order.
The most troublesome detail of the story is irrelevant to Iran. The president’s claimed in his tweet that he found out about the potential casualties 10 minutes before the strike was about to happen. Was he involved in the planning? If so, why didn’t he ask about casualties then? None of it makes sense.
The commander in chief’s job is not to simply approve of operations. It is to oversee and direct them. Strategizing is not the military’s job; carrying out the president’s strategy is. But this will only happen if the president is willing to enforce his authority and has the most basic strategic imagination.
As tempers have flared, there has been talk that the administration is itching for a war with Iran. In reality, it is Iran that is itching for a military confrontation, while President Trump and his National Security Advisor Tucker Carlson are doing everything they can to avoid it.
Why is Iran choosing to act now?
Here are three plausible reasons for that.
First, Iran’s economy has been in a free fall for a few years. The recent cancellation of oil sanctions waivers to the seven biggest importers of Iranian oil will certainly accelerate this fall. Iran is likely to be looking for financial relief. Combine this with Iran’s threat to resume high-grade uranium enrichment— an ultimatum to Europe and not the United States—prompts one to arrive at the conclusion that Iran wants to receive some relief from Europe in a classic European critical engagement strategy, otherwise known as “let’s give them some money to ease the tensions.”
Similarly, blocking the Strait of Hormuz will drive up oil prices. Given that the blockade will be imposed by Iran and that Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserve, is facing sanctions that hamper its ability to export oil, Iranian oil will be an expensive commodity that could pass through the strait to reach consumers.
Finally, as the regime has never been more unpopular, the government hopes that a foreign military attack will inspire “resistance” mentality among the Iranian people against foreigners and unite them behind the regime—the devil they know against the devil they don’t know.
Which brings us to why it is dangerous not to respond.
If the regime is itching for a fight, won’t a response give it what it wants? Three points on that:
First, not giving them what they want will lead to further escalation, maybe a direct attack against human American targets, to get it. American diplomacy, along with existing ties between Europe and Iran’s regional enemies—the Europeans need the Saudi oil and the Emirati financial center–should keep the Europeans from offering relief. The American military can liberate the Strait of Hormuz within days against Iran. And there is a gamble that an American attack will unite the people around the regime, but it is far from certain and more likely that it will not.
The United States should respond, with careful calculation. First of all, the administration should keep the Europeans in the loop to prevent them from going around the United States there. Second of all, a military strike against one or a few IRGC bases outside the cities will cause a significant blow to the corps, but it will not cause any civilian casualties. The vast majority of Iranians view the IRGC as a corrupt organization and the root of most of their problems. The only institution that might be more unpopular than the IRGC is the supreme leader. There is as much a chance that Iranians will celebrate the attack as there is that they will condemn it.
Finally, the response MUST come from the United States and only the United States. Iranians love Americans as much as they hate Arabs. And Israel is still a hot button issue. If the regime attacks America’s allies through its proxies, the United States needs to do everything in its power to keep those allies out of the conflict. A response coming from any other Middle Eastern power than the United States will indeed unite the public behind the regime.
But the president’s disjointed response is a problem because now he will have to walk back his own statements. He has created a lose-lose situation for himself and the United States; it’s either the commander in chief contradicting himself or in inviting more aggression.
The administration’s Iran strategy, as far as there is one, seems to aim for putting so much internal pressure on the regime that it sparks a revolution. The current behavior by the Islamic Republic suggests that they are forecasting that catastrophe and have pushed the panic button. Why else would it invite the American military to attack? If Iran receives financial relief, the United States’ strategy will fall apart. But if we respond—and that response could easily be through missile strikes from the sea so as not to risk any American servicemember’s life–not only we will impose a morale blow to Iran, but we might also save American lives. Not responding also will prompt Iran to escalate, which risks the Europeans’ providing relief to ease the tension—this could completely ruin Trump administration’s strategy.
The moment of truth has come. Is the Trump administration up to the task?