WASHINGTON — With a competent president in the White House, the escalating confrontation with Iran would not rise to the level of crisis. With President Donald Trump calling the shots, we should be afraid. Very afraid.
A rational president, of course, would not have abandoned the landmark deal that halted Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. A reasonable president would not take provocative steps that seem designed to goad the Iranians into a military clash. A sensible president would study the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and learn the sobering lessons they teach.
Instead, we have Trump.
He campaigned on a promise to end unwinnable wars and bring the troops home, which may be what he truly wants to do. But this instinct is thwarted by the president's insecure need to act like a swaggering bully on the world stage, pushing around our allies and punishing the adversaries he perceives as weak.
The sharp rise in tension with Iran cannot be entirely blamed on John Bolton, Trump's hawkish national security adviser, who has long made clear that his goal is nothing less than regime change. Ultimately, it was Trump who decided to pull out of the nuclear deal, against the advice of his then-defense secretary, James Mattis; Trump who ordered scorched-earth sanctions designed not to cripple but to destroy the Iranian economy; Trump who approved designating a unit of Iran's armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a terrorist organization.
But Bolton is guiding Trump down this dangerous path. I am no apologist for Iran's repressive, theocratic regime, which is a destructive and deadly influence in the Middle East (though hardly the only one). In shrewd and subtle hands, a push-pull policy of pressure and rewards might have a positive effect on the Iranian government's behavior.
Instead, we have Trump.
The president has allowed the traditional U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia — Iran's bitter rival for military, political and religious dominance in the region — to be turned into what amounts to a Vulcan mind-meld, with the role of Spock being played by the de facto Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump took no effective action against bin Salman, not even a stern finger-wagging, for ordering the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The president has turned a blind eye to the near-genocidal war bin Salman is waging in Yemen. And now, Trump appears to be doing the Saudi potentate's bidding with regard to Iran.
Trump administration talk of sending up to 120,000 troops to the region if Iran or its proxies attack American forces is, at this point, just talk. But ordering home hundreds of non-essential diplomatic personnel from neighboring Iraq, as the administration announced Wednesday, is the kind of concrete step that often precedes hostilities.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to convince European foreign ministers that the administration is acting on credible intelligence suggesting that Iran may be planning some kind of attack. But he "didn't show us any evidence," one senior European official told the Washington Post. U.S. officials were quoted anonymously as blaming Iran for somehow damaging four oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz in recent days. But the administration has not provided information about how the damage was inflicted or proof that Iran was responsible.
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Look at a map. Iran is nearly four times as big as Iraq and has twice the population. Tehran does not have nuclear weapons — we know that thanks to the nuclear deal that the Obama administration negotiated and Trump ripped up — but it does have robust air and naval defenses. As we should know by now, Iranians would likely react to a clash with the United States not by turning on their leaders, however unpopular they might be, but by rallying around the flag.
Trump may believe his hard-line policies will force the Iranian government to capitulate and negotiate a new agreement encompassing not just nuclear technology but also Iran's toxic influence in the region and its ballistic missile program. To me, however, it looks as if the administration is trying to provoke Iran into lashing out. If Trump doesn't want a war, he needs to make that clear — not just to the Iranians, but to Bolton and Pompeo as well.
The president is blowing the chance to lead an allied coalition in applying appropriate pressure to Iran, just as he is blowing the chance to orchestrate a multilateral stand on China's unfair trade practices. We already have a trade war. I fear Trump may stumble into a real one.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2019 Washington Post Writers Group