Donald Trump is not a dove. The president is also not a neocon, and will not allow the U.S. to become entangled in a protracted ground war with Iran or anyone else. But the departure of John Bolton as national security adviser is one of a number of signs to Iran that this president is shy on the trigger — one of the worst messages America can send to its adversaries.
It might even be the case that the attack on Saudi oil facilities last week by an Iranian regime keenly feeling the pinch of economic “maximum pressure” from the U.S. was spurred by both Bolton’s exit and Trump’s change of mind in June about military strikes on Iran after it downed of a U.S. drone. There are just too many signals of timidity coming from this White House, and for the world’s foremost terrorist state it’s the matador waving the red muleta at a charging bull.
Add to this the president’s apparent willingness to talk to any of the world’s worst actors at any time. Just this month, for instance, he nearly hosted the Taliban at Camp David on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, refraining from doing so only after a Taliban car bomb attack killed 12, including a U.S. soldier, near the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The stage was even set for a meeting between Trump and Iran’s sly President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations in New York, with the president in the end rebuffed by Tehran. He has apparently even been mulling the weakening of sanctions on Iran for purposes of diplomatic overture.
This is not a critique of Trump’s prodigious, long-standing talents as a dealmaker. The president, through his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, might indeed still make a breakthrough with nuclear-armed North Korea, which has eluded his three immediate predecessors. And were he to sit at a table, in a definite position of strength, across from Rouhani or the Taliban, we could expect agreements that strongly favor U.S. interests and go a long way toward reducing terrorism. Similarly, American business expects Trump to produce a favorable U.S.- China deal, and that’s a good bet.
But even the savviest players can foolishly agree to meet their opponents on a field tilted to their disadvantage. It is largely forgotten that Ronald Reagan never even met with three successive Soviet premiers spanning his entire first term as president, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko, despite the hysterics of Sen. Ted Kennedy and other liberal Democrats that he was courting nuclear war. It was only some eight months after Mikhail Gorbachev took power in Moscow that Reagan met him in Geneva — nearly five years into his presidency. Far from sparking nuclear war, it led to the demise of the Soviet Union without the firing of a shot.
It is impossible to imagine Trump being that patient.
America Cannot Be Seen Blinking, Again And Again
There are suggestions that the president thought tough sanctions alone would make Tehran cry uncle, which is not an outlandish hope considering the toll they have taken on the Iranian economy; indeed Trump this week is intensifying sanctions. But this is not a normal tyrannical regime that adheres to rational rules of behavior.
Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who came to power after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago, apparently believes himself to be the facilitator of the coming of the Twelfth Imam, who will lead an apocalyptic war against Israel and America, and Khamenei warns that in the meantime jihad (holy war) will continue until the U.S. is destroyed.
“This battle will only end when the society can get rid of the oppressors’ front, with America at the head of it,” the ayatollah has said.
Tehran knows only too well that the U.S. is willing to conduct economic warfare against Iran, and a good thing it is we’re doing it. But the mullahs are increasingly coming to believe that Trump is unwilling to attack Iran militarily — especially during the next 13-and-a-half months as he seeks re-election. As Slate columnist and longtime liberal defense analyst Fred Kaplan writes, “it’s possible that, given his recent behavior, the Iranians think Trump won’t strike back.”
Iran’s rulers look through a messianic lens. Pressure on Tehran, whether economic or military, will work only if it threatens their hold on power, which is why the U.S., whatever else it does, should be talking up the possibility of the popular uprising of the Iranian people. If Rouhani and Khamenei believe the U.S. commander in chief will blink, again and again, rather than return fire, it might encourage their apocalyptic strategies to advance well beyond last week’s audacious attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.
Whether it is America or the Saudis themselves with U.S. backing, a military response seems necessary to convince Tehran it is not dealing with pusillanimous opponents.
— Written by Thomas McArdle
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