It’s not exactly reassuring to know that President Trump doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, but it sure seems as though some members of his administration wouldn’t mind an escalating conflict.
News Thursday that Trump, who usually talks big about adversarial relationships, was downplaying the mounting storm and allegedly voicing his dismay to top advisers, is welcome.
In recent days, the Trump administration has been on high alert in response to what military and intelligence officials have deemed specific and credible threats from Iran against U.S. personnel in the Middle East.
Disagreements over assessing and responding to the recent intelligence — which includes a directive from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that some American officials interpret as a threat to U.S. personnel in the Middle East — are also fraying alliances with foreign allies, according to multiple officials in the United States and Europe.
Trump grew angry about what he sees as warlike planning that is getting ahead of his own thinking, said a senior administration official with knowledge of conversations Trump had regarding national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Trump is right to be concerned that Bolton and Pompeo are getting way out ahead of themselves.
Bolton, who advocated regime change in Iran before joining the White House last year, is “just in a different place” from Trump, although the president has been a fierce critic of Iran since long before he hired Bolton. Trump “wants to talk to the Iranians; he wants a deal” and is open to negotiation with the Iranian government, the official said.
Foreign policy wonks note the warpath to Iraq was paved with controversial claims, and Bolton played a central role in proliferating them. In March 2003, the U.S. led an invasion that ultimately overthrew Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who President George W. Bush and his administration had accused of possessing weapons of mass destruction.
Though the initial phase of the conflict was won relatively quickly, the lasting effects included a Sunni Muslim insurgency that went on to empower the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. It also provided an opportunity for Iran to further export its own revolutionary ideology to its majority-Shiite Muslim neighbor.
The U.S. found itself entrenched in a second major post-9/11 conflict, accompanied by the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan, as evidence of Hussein’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons aspirations never materialized.
We don’t need that again.
We welcome Trump’s apparent restraint, and hope that cooler heads prevail. No one should be comfortable with talk of regime change until other options have been exhausted. No one wants a repeat of the messy removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and all of the war mongering that occurred before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Trump has said he is not inclined to respond forcefully unless there is a “big move” from the Iranians. Still, the president is willing to respond forcefully if there are American deaths or a dramatic escalation, one official warned.
We remain cautiously optimistic.
But there still are mixed messages, and apparent power grabs at play. Even Trump isn’t staying on message. Despite irritation with senior advisers, Trump has also denied there is any “infighting” related to his Middle East policies.
“There is no infighting whatsoever,” Trump said in a tweet. “Different opinions are expressed and I make a decisive and final decision — it is a very simple process. All sides, views, and policies are covered. I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon.”
On Wednesday morning, the president allegedly attended a Situation Room briefing on Iran. Pentagon and intelligence officials have said that three distinct Iranian actions have triggered alarms: information suggesting an Iranian threat against U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Irbil; U.S. concerns that Iran may be preparing to mount rocket or missile launchers on small ships in the Persian Gulf; and a directive from Khamenei to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and regular Iranian military units that some U.S. officials have interpreted as a potential threat to U.S. military and diplomatic personnel. On Wednesday, the State Department ordered nonessential personnel to leave the U.S. missions in Baghdad and Irbil.
Those are early signs of trouble. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that a cool head lasts (but it is almost an election year).