President Trump on Wednesday signaled a retreat from further military action against Iran, and for that, for now, we’re grateful. He could have chosen to ramp up tensions with the Middle Eastern country and launch us into World War III, an impulsive move that would have seemed more in line with his earlier decision, kept secret from Congress, to order the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil last week.
“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Mr. Trump said in a White House address, spurred by Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes against two military bases in Iraq that have hosted American forces. There were no casualties, and no American injuries, the president said, opening the door for diplomacy by telling Iranians the U.S. wishes them “prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world” and is “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
It was reasoned rhetoric, and we were glad to hear it. But it does nothing to lessen the “what just happened here?” feeling we’ve had since Soleimani’s death. Why was he killed now, and what was the justification? Was there a reasonable alternative?
Americans aren’t getting much straight talk from those in charge. Of course we shouldn’t expect it out of the murderous regime in Tehran, but we’ve come to recognize that we won’t get it out of this White House either. And that’s truly terrifying.
With President Donald Trump, we don’t know if he created this crisis as an election season diversion or truly had to take action to thwart some imminent threat. He possesses neither trustworthiness, moral clarity, skills in diplomacy, nor a willingness to consult allies and formulate a cohesive, coherent foreign policy. He does not even have military experience.
Instead, he is a president who has been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for hijacking U.S. national security interests in Ukraine for selfish political purposes and then lying about it. He lacks impulse control and has a disregard for most career diplomats and world leaders, and only a superficial knowledge of the region’s complex politics.
Even in his measured response Wednesday, touting America’s military might but adding that we don’t have to use it, President Trump showed a disdain for the facts and for candor. He still has not explained what Soleimani was up to that invited assassination by airstrike. He still badly mischaracterizes the Iran nuclear deal and what a U.S. exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has wrought. His claim that the very missiles that were used by Iran were paid by billions of U.S. dollars associated with the deal (which was, in fact, a repayment of debt) is dubious at best. And the president’s promise that he will now seek a better deal with Iran in concert with allies is highly suspect given his track record.
Anyone who believes Iran is now sufficiently scolded and brought to heel, that President Trump has somehow taken that country out of the business of supporting terrorism or put the U.S. and its allies on a path toward a better nuclear accord than the JCPOA, is fooling themselves. The best that could be said is that things could be worse. A lot worse. A missile strike that killed American service members likely would have prompted another military strike by the U.S. and so forth and so on. Mr. Trump has gotten lucky, but it may not last. The conflict may simply play out elsewhere: in another country, in the form of a terrorist attack on a soft Western target, in a passenger jet at 30,000 feet.
Make no mistake, few if any Americans disagree with Mr. Trump’s claims about Iran or General Soleimani. They are bad actors. They need to be kept in check. Iran should never have a nuclear weapon. We even applaud calls for a more unified world response. But it’s lunacy to believe this president’s approach gets us any closer to those goals.
Since the days of Aeschylus, philosophers have observed that truth is the first casualty of war. The corollary might be that when truth is in short supply, war becomes all the more likely. Donald Trump has neither the skills nor the temperament to stake any high ground with Iran. That’s the sad reality of the matter.