A Threat Foreign and Domestic: U.S.-Iran War Drums Risk Dividing Trump's Base

Some conservatives expressed disappointment when the president called off a retaliatory airstrike against Tehran, while others heralded his decision. What he does next could decide the 2020 election

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressing judiciary officials in Tehran, June 26, and President Donald Trump speaking in the White House, June 25, 2019.
AP / Carolyn Kaster, AP

WASHINGTON — Listeners tuning in to Hugh Hewitt’s radio show last Friday heard something rare and unusual: strong criticism of President Donald Trump.

Hewitt, a popular conservative talk show host, is usually supportive of Trump’s policies. But hours after it was revealed that he had canceled a retaliatory strike against Iran for the shooting down of a U.S. drone, he had some harsh words for the president. 

He called the last-minute cancellation of the airstrike “a defining moment,” comparing it to President Barack Obama’s decision not to bomb the Assad regime in 2013 after its use of chemical weapons — something Trump’s predecessor in the White House had defined as a “red line” for the United States.

The comparison was an extremely negative one for Trump, because Obama’s retreat from his own “red line” had resulted in heated criticism from Republicans during his last two years in office. Hewitt dubbed Trump’s maneuver on Iran “redline [sic] redux.”

His main guest on Friday morning’s show, Rep. Liz Cheney (Republican of Wyoming), was also critical of the decision. She warned that “weakness is provocative,” essentially accusing Trump of being weak on Iran. She added that “a world in which response to attacks on American assets is to pull back or to accept the attack is a world in which America won’t be able to successfully defend our interests.”

In an article addressed directly to Trump, Hewitt wrote this weekend: “You told us you were going to ‘Make America Great Again,’ and yet your last-minute decision not to strike [Iran] has done nothing but make us appear weak and feckless.”

These comments reflect how Iran is one of the few issues that can divide Trump’s political base, at a time when close to 90 percent of Republicans express support for the president in public opinion polls.

Trump’s judicial appointments and his tax policies enjoy a consensus within his party. But on foreign policy issues — specifically, the question of how to deal with Iran — there appear to be cracks within the pro-Trump coalition. While Hewitt was criticizing Trump for not going through with the strike on three Iranian targets, other right-wing commentators were praising him for that very same decision.

The most prominent of them was Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who holds isolationist views and has been advising Trump behind the scenes on foreign policy in recent weeks. According to the New York Times, Carlson warned Trump that if a strike on Iran led to all-out war, he would lose next year’s presidential election. In one of his recent shows, Carlson mocked other conservatives for wanting to “start a war over a robot,” referring to the unmanned drone shot down by the Iranians.

Another Fox News host and ardent Trump supporter, Laura Ingraham, made a similar warning — publicly — following his cancellation of the airstrike. “The only obstacles that I see to Trump’s winning in 2020 are, one, an economic collapse; and two, a new American war,” she said on her show “The Ingraham Angle.” She added: “Whatever response America is mulling, we must be wary of doing anything that will draw us into another long-term conflict in the region.”

Trump, it seems, has taken note of those warnings.

Pressure campaign

“The Trump base is definitely split when it comes to foreign policy,” a Republican political staffer tells Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal polling information.

“The base hates Iran and hated Obama’s nuclear deal. But many Trump voters, at the same time, don’t want any more wars in the Middle East. It’s tough to balance between these sentiments. I’ve seen polls where more than half of Republicans say they are against any new wars at the moment,” the staffer adds.

The split between hawks and isolationists isn’t a new problem for Trump. He previously faced it, for example, in April 2017 after ordering a limited military strike against Syria, following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun. While the hawkish wing of the party praised him for that decision, some of his loudest isolationist supporters expressed disappointment and a sense of betrayal.

This time, with the Iran-strike-that-wasn’t, the reactions are more diverse.

Some hawks have criticized Trump for not following through with the strike, while others have come out in his defense, stating that his broader pressure campaign against Iran is more important than a single strike.

Michael Doran, who served as a senior director on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, rejected the comparison between Trump’s canceled strike and Obama’s “red line.” Doran was a leading critic of Obama’s Iran policy and is supportive of Trump’s handling of the issue thus far.

“I don’t agree with the Syria redline analogy,” he wrote on Twitter in response to Hewitt’s comment. “Trump is still imposing crippling sanctions on Iran. The big fight, the strategic fight, is about keeping those sanctions in place.” Doran added that “this is not a defining moment like the Syria redline. It’s an event among many.”

Trump also received the support of right-wing columnist Marc A. Thiessen, who wrote in the Washington Post on Tuesday regarding the “red line” comparison: “Sorry, the two situations are completely different. Trump was right to show restraint, and his Iran policy is working.”

According to Thiessen, “Unlike the Syrian regime, which used chemical weapons on civilians in direct defiance of Obama’s threat to use military force, the Iranian regime did not cross any ‘red line’ drawn by the Trump administration.”

Trump made a similar point in some of his statements and tweets, highlighting that Iran did not kill or injure any Americans. He also threatened to react much more forcefully if that were to happen.

Your move, Iran

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that has advocated a tough line against Iran and opposed the 2015 nuclear deal. He tells Haaretz that “the decision-making process last week wasn’t very inspiring,” but that the final result wasn’t necessarily bad for the administration.

“The whole thing was confusing, and it could turn out to be a loss of our deterrence. But there’s also a chance that it could help Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran,” Schanzer says. “His decision not to carry out an airstrike could help push back against accusations that he is trying to deliberately start a war with Iran.”

Schanzer acknowledges that Trump’s political base “likes the economic pressure campaign against Iran, but doesn’t want it to turn into a military campaign. Trump sees that the pressure campaign is working, the Iranians are getting squeezed, so he’s calling on Iran to come to the table and have negotiations. Now the next move is in Iran’s hands.”

Yet Iran’s next move could once more cause splits within Trump’s coalition. If the Iranians intensify their attacks against vessels in the Persian Gulf, or take other violent actions, the pressure on Trump to retaliate would grow from within his own party. One prominent Republican senator, Tom Cotton (Arkansas), was already urging Trump to use military force against Iran even before last week’s drone incident. Others could join in if Iran continues to carry out provocative acts.

The other option — Iran agreeing to enter negotiations with Trump — seems unlikely at this point, but could bring its own political risks for the president.

“What happens if Trump starts treating Iran like he’s been treating North Korea for the past year?” wonders the Republican staffer. “On the one hand, many Republicans have learned to accept his embrace of Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, Iran’s regime — these are people who yell ‘Death to America’ and threaten to destroy Israel. Even some of Trump’s biggest fans would have a problem if Trump changed his tune and became soft on them.”

At the moment, and despite the canceled airstrike, Trump appears to be going in the opposite direction. His administration placed new sanctions on Iran this week, and two of his most senior advisers — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton — are in the Middle East for discussions focusing on the Iranian crisis.

Bolton, who just spent two days in Jerusalem meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shared a combative Trump tweet directed at the Iranians on Tuesday. Bolton wrote that he spoke with Trump and that the president “asked me to get the message out.” Officially, that message was aimed at Iran. But in practice, Trump’s tweets — and Bolton’s own comment — were actually directed at the president’s own voters, in an attempt to minimize any damage caused by events of the past weekend.