Trump’s Iran Escalation Makes Him Look Weak

Kevin Doremus | @k_doremus

President Donald Trump has placed himself in a situation that he cannot easily pull out. His strongman persona is under threat by his response to Iran’s decision to down a US drone. While Trump made the correct decision, the situation with Iran demonstrated weakness and indecision. The combination of tough talk and his hawkish advisers led the US towards a war no one wants.

The Cusps of War with Iran

On June 20, 2019, Iran shot down a United States high altitude surveillance drone because it entered Iranian territorial waters. The US claims Iran was not justified because the drone was in international waters.

Trump showed mixed messages by tweeting, “Iran made a very big mistake” and saying Iran unintentionally shot down the drone, “I find it hard to believe it was intentional if you want to know the truth. It could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.”  Later in the day, Trump decided not to strike Iran militarily.  He took to Twitter to explain his decision.

A US war with Iran has been speculated throughout Trump’s presidency.  Spencer Kellogg long ago predicted the president’s “watery stance” as an indication that war was a possibility.  Meanwhile, A. Trevor Thrall, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, thought the chances of war in May 2019 were about 25%; with the 2020 election coming close, he thinks it would be politically suicidal to launch a war.

Escalation Instead of Deterrence

The US has engaged a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran in an attempt to deter the Persian state from developing a nuclear weapon. First, Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA (Iran Deal 2015) claiming the deal was not sufficient to stop Iran from developing nuclear capabilities. Second, the US and its allies engaged in proxy wars to halt Iran’s sphere of influence from expanding across the Middle East. Third, economic sanctions were placed again in an attempt to compel Iran to reenter talks with the US. But the “deterrence” only resulted in escalation.

Benjamin H. Friedman, Defense Priorities Policy Director, wrote “It does not surprise foreign policy realists that Bolton and Pompeo’s approach has resulted in Iran acting desperately to escape maximum pressure and economic devastation, not surrender. These are predictable outcomes of unrealistic U.S. policies, not justification for military strikes or war.”

The escalation by both the US and Iran created a security dilemma. As Aaron Stein demonstrates, both states increased their military strength in an attempt to balance against the defenses of the other.  A vicious spiral forms when “The other sees these defensive preparations and fears an attack, even more, creating a cycle of escalation that neither intended…”

A Rational Rival

Some would say, “no rational Iranian could believe that an attack on us could result in anything but disaster for his country.” However, rationality can be limited by emotions and belief that military action has a chance to succeed. Considering the history between the US and Iran, emotions are quite high after a US naval ship shot down Iran Air 655. Trump destroyed any form of trust Iran had with the US by pulling out the JCPOA (Iran deal).  ran’s foreign policy interests are not considered when Sec. of State Pompeo called Iran to withdraw its influence in the Middle East and reduce its defensive capabilities. Why on Earth would Iranian leadership surrender their weapons to a power who has John Bolton as an advisor? Iranian leadership probably sees the maximum pressure, hawkish rhetoric, and movement of US forces as a sign the US is preparing for war.

John Allen Gay is correct when he says, “We should not expect Iran to go along with our plan to crush them. They are not ‘an inanimate mass’ upon which our plans can work their magic. Instead, they are a living force, reacting to our efforts and desperately seeking to avoid being crushed…Washington just backed out on the last set of promises to Tehran. Without trust, we’re asking Iran to stand defenseless against their strongest enemy. Good luck.”

The Image of Weakness

Trump’s rhetoric has placed himself in a hard position. He is a fan of John Bolton’s tough talk but has reservations on using force to solve every problem. Bolton, on the other hand, appears to be isolating Trump from critics of war and luring him into dangerous positions. The bluster only creates further uncertainty in a highly tense situation. Diplomacy works best when dialogue is direct and straightforward. If Trump cannot walk the talk, maybe it is time to change the tone. Trump’s last-minute decision demonstrates he is indecisive, hesitant, and weak when someone challenges him to back up his talk.

Before Trump made his decision, some speculated that Trump would try to appease Russia.

In response to Trump’s decision, some US media outlets ran articles saying that the president chickened out or claimed that he was just a keyboard warrior.  NBCNews questioned if Trump “could handle a real crisis.”  Others are comparing Trump’s response to former President Obama’s infamous “red line.”

One of the Fox News’ morning show hosts called out the president, “Where is America’s response to Iran’s belligerence? They blow up four tankers and we do nothing. When they blow up our drone that costs $130 million and we do nothing. We know it’s not going to end there. So at some point, in the Middle East, no action looks like weakness, and weakness begets more attacks.”

Scholars at the Hudson Institute were also displeased. The US is used to states falling in line with its demands.  Now its credibility as a global leader is being delegitimized by Iran standing up for itself.

Right, but Weak

While Trump made the correct decision, he is being called weak from all sides of the media.  He is no hero for exercising restraint in a crisis his administration created.  The advisors that surround the president would like to see a war.  He needs to understand that talking tough only matters when the US has credibility.  No one is certain what Trump will do, which makes it hard to form alliances and start a dialogue.

At the moment, war seems to be off the table for now.

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