Is Donald Trump going to invade Iran? The most likely answer, like so many these days, is a resounding “who knows.”
Right now, the Trump administration’s strategy looks
to me a whole lot like an incredibly moronic game of chicken that could very well have disastrous circumstances, but will likely (hopefully) result in an enormous amount of relatively bloodless posturing. Still, the fact remains: we are dealing with idiots playing with very big guns to score political points.
Here’s the scene: John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, has been horny for a war with Iran for the better part of two decades. Bolton openly wants any provocation to escalate tensions with Iran, and in the past few weeks Trump has been amenable to his ludicrous demands, diverting an aircraft carrier strike group to the region and claiming that Iranian-backed Iraqi militias pose a nebulous threat to U.S. forces and interests in the region. The latter justification led to the partial evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad today and a drawdown of international training missions in Iraq, and ratcheted up both tension and speculation that we were going to do 2003 all over again, despite how deeply, deeply unpopular such a war would be.
To me, this stinks of the utterly idiotic brinksmanship the Trump regime has already tried, and mostly failed at, in the past. Per the Atlantic’s analysis of the situation by Kathy Gilsinian and Mike Giglio:
North Korea circa 2017 may be a better analogy for understanding current developments than Iraq circa 2003. That summer and fall, North Korea was testing missiles and nuclear weapons, Trump was threatening fire and fury, and news reports were citing military plans and internal struggles within the Trump administration over which path to pursue. There was even an episode in which Trump said he was “sending an armada” to the Sea of Japan to deter the North Koreans, at a moment when the aircraft carrier under discussion was in fact thousands of miles away and heading in the opposite direction. In the end, Trump appeared to be using the brinkmanship as leverage to strike a deal—one that has so far eluded him. And regardless, tensions ramped down considerably and suddenly.
As the Atlantic also points out, the actual forces the U.S. has committed to the region are relatively trivial: the aircraft carrier that’s being sent was already headed for the region, and the single missile battery only replaces one of the four similar weapons that were moved out recently.
More concerning, however, is the plan floated earlier this week to send 120,000 troops back to the region, a massive escalation from the roughly 5,200 troops currently in Iraq, the 1,000 or so in Syria and others across the Persian Gulf that would give Bolton the manpower for an invasion. But even that feels like a stunt, a ludicrous geopolitical version of massing troops on the Southern border to stoke fear during the midterm elections. But even that feels like another facet of an idiotic gambit. It’s unclear exactly how receptive the American public would be to war with Iran, but considering over half of Americans think the war in Iraq was a failure and nearly half regret it, it seems unlikely there’s an appetite to do the whole thing over again in the next country over.
The Atlantic again:
Trump may lack a strong worldview, but one consistent theme for him ever since his campaign has been his desire to withdraw from conflicts in the Middle East. Many of his supporters shared this aim, and it would be difficult for him to justify starting a new one. American officials have in recent days reiterated that they do not seek a military conflict, though notably are willing to engage in one if necessary. The assumption that such brinkmanship can drive Iran to the table in the same way may be flawed, given that the Iranians feel burned by Trump’s withdrawal from the last deal they struck with the Americans. And Iran, lacking its own leverage, may seek to accumulate its own leverage by raising tensions.
The president himself has hinted that this is all a bullshit negotiating tactic:
Trump’s base—or those who speak for them—aren’t clamoring for war with Iran. Tucker Carlson on Tuesday ranted about the disastrous idea of invading Iran, calling it “Christmas” for John Bolton, and even Trump’s preferred press secretary Laura Ingraham noted that it was a very very bad idea.
Other Republican leaders, such as freshman Sen. and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, aren’t convinced either:
Furthermore, the New York Times notes Iraqis themselves aren’t particularly concerned the U.S. is going to stage another invasion in their back yard, and coalition commanders in the region are almost wholly unfazed by whatever threats Bolton is trying to lean on.
All of this is to say that few of the moves and provocations the Trump Administration is taking in the Middle East are unprecedented for his administration. They haven’t led to actual war yet, although it’s stupid to think that this precedent would mean jack shit if the president could be convinced said war will help his chances in 2020.
Right now, it doesn’t look likely. But the terrifying part of brinksmanship is, well, the brink part—especially when the person balancing us on it is a moron.