Just as happened six years ago with Barack Obama, whom he so reviles, Donald Trump made a breathtaking U-turn this past week. In 2013, Obama was about to order heavy airstrikes on targets tied to the Assad regime in Syria, after the U.S. president received convincing intelligence that the regime had killed civilians using chemical weapons.
When Obama discovered that he was alone in his plans, unable to win support in Congress or from the British parliament, he halted preparations for the attack. In Obama’s final three years in office, his Republican opponents berated him repeatedly over the incident, which was portrayed as reliable proof that he was weak.
On Thursday night, his successor in the Oval Office did more or less the same thing. According to The New York Times – and most of the details were basically confirmed by Trump in a television interview – U.S. planes were on alert to strike Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American drone a day earlier.
Trump said he had approved the attack but at the last moment asked his generals what the price would be in Iranian dead. When they told him that the number could be as high as 150, he called it off and said it wouldn’t have been a “proportionate” response. Who’d have thought he’d be so sensitive to the number of victims in an adversary country?
But Trump was right. Mass killing in response to an incident involving an unmanned drone, as he awkwardly described it, would have been disproportionate indeed. And even if Trump didn’t describe the circumstances of the decision with precision and use arguments he never needed in the past, one consideration is consistent in his administration’s policies over the past two and a half years.
Trump is a proponent of projecting U.S. power, but he prefers to do this in the economic realm. He doesn’t relish going to war, and in general there’s considerable disparity between his aggressive rhetoric and the military action that he signs off on.
Also, from a strategic standpoint, it’s not worth it for the United States to get dragged into a war with the Iranians over local incidents initiated by the other side. Washington’s steps since withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal in May 2018 have been aimed at upping the economic pressure on Tehran to force it to reconsider its moves and maybe make it renegotiate the terms of the nuclear agreement.
According to Western intelligence assessments, Iran seeks to break the economic siege that the Americans have imposed on it and make clear that there’s a price to be paid for the heavy damage to its oil industry.
In fact, it says that within the next few days, it will violate the nuclear accord by producing a bit more enriched uranium than the deal allows. As a result, the European signatories to the agreement may be forced to reconsider and be more receptive to the U.S. position. But if they’re dragged into a bloody military confrontation over action initiated by Iran, soon no one will be busy with the nuclear issue.
Trump also needs to take domestic opposition into consideration. Because he’s caught out on lies or inaccuracies several times a day, his Democratic rivals have no confidence in him. If matters slide into a war in the Gulf, Trump won’t have the backing of even half the American public. His maneuver room doesn’t appear great.
Two and a half years with Trump at the helm of the free world has taught us that any effort to predict his intentions is doomed to failure. The president often shoots from the hip. He himself said he decided to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights five minutes after the proposal was presented to him.
But even if his term is portrayed as a nonstop roller-coaster ride, he hasn’t had to face a major foreign policy crisis such as the war in Yugoslavia that the Clinton administration had to deal with, September 11 and the following wars that George W. Bush faced, or the instability in the Arab world that the Obama administration encountered.
About two years ago, it appeared that Trump was headed for a confrontation with North Korea, but he quickly relented and resorted to praising North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The world doesn’t seem to have entirely digested the significance of a major crisis under Trump’s capricious leadership, but we may be about to find out.
Israel’s official silence
Despite the crisis, official Israel is remaining silent, which seems a wise move. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in coordination with the Saudi regime, is the one who to a large extent has pushed Trump into taking a strong stance, which has included a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord and the resumption of harsh sanctions on Iran. The consequences of a conflagration in the Gulf could also reach Israel.
It has been reported that Netanyahu has again recently told the cabinet members not to comment on the Iranian question. The prime minister may have done better heeding his own advice, but on Thursday he released a video calling on the international community not to let Iran violate the nuclear agreement. In what may be a first, he was filmed with the Israeli and American flags as a backdrop. This wasn’t at an official event with the Americans. It was a video shot and released by his office.
If we thought that a new low in flattery had been recorded over the strange dedication of the imaginary Trump Heights village in the Golan Heights, it seems we were mistaken. And if Netanyahu is interested in turning Israel into an American colony in the run-up to the September 17 Knesset election, shouldn’t he inform the voters?
But Israel has nothing exclusive when it comes to statements that are best not uttered. Over the past week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a senior Republican and close acquaintance of Netanyahu, told reporters that “there is one nation on the planet that is not going to give the Iranians the pass on their nuclear program; that’s Israel.”
In other words, the long-serving senator is encouraging Israel to attack the nuclear sites if it thinks that’s necessary, but he isn’t declaring an American commitment to the task. No doubt about it, these are dangerous times in the Gulf.
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