Iran Calls Trump’s Bluff

The President is caught between hawkish goals and dovish means.

By The Editorial Board


Photo: jim lo scalzo/Shutterstock


President Trump called off a military strike against Iran in mid-mission Thursday, and his supporters and even some of his critics are hailing it as an act of restraint and courage. The question for American interests is whether Iran and other adversaries will see it instead as a sign of weakness and indecision.

“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone,” Mr. Trump tweeted Friday morning.

It’s important to understand how extraordinary this is. The Commander in Chief ordered ships and planes into battle but recalled them because he hadn’t asked in advance what the damage and casualties might be? While the planes were in the air, he asked, oh, by the way? This is hard to take at face value.

More likely, he changed his mind because he had second thoughts about the military and political consequences of engaging in a conflict he promised as a candidate to avoid. Mr. Trump may have saved Iranian lives now, but his indecision and professed fear of casualties may be risking more American lives later.

Squeezed by the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign, Iran’s rulers are trying to pressure Mr. Trump in return. In recent weeks they have attacked oil pipelines, mined oil tankers, and this week brazenly shot down a $130 million U.S. drone monitoring shipping lanes over international waters. Iran’s bet is that Mr. Trump is so averse to military confrontation that he will ease U.S. sanctions. On the evidence of the aborted mission, they may be right.

The damage from Mr. Trump’s stand-down depends in part on how Iran’s leaders respond. If they agree to talks to revise the 2015 nuclear agreement, the restraint might pay off. Yet Iran’s leaders have shown no interest in talking as long as U.S. sanctions are in place. If Mr. Trump eases sanctions to get Iran to the bargaining table, he is back to the Obama nuclear deal.

On the other hand if the Iranians escalate again, Mr. Trump’s restraint will look misguided and weak. If Americans are now killed by Iranian proxies, his failure to use force to deter attacks will deserve some of the blame.

Laying out these potential stakes isn’t “war mongering,” as the new isolationists on the right claim. This is the reality of geopolitics in which credibility is crucial to deterrence. The more that adversaries think Mr. Trump’s threats of force aren’t credible, the more they will seek to exploit that knowledge.

After Barack Obama failed to enforce his “red line” in Syria in 2013, adversaries soon took advantage. Vladimir Putin snatched Crimea from Ukraine and moved into Syria, China pushed further into the South China Sea, and Iran expanded its proxy wars in the Middle East. Will they draw similar license now from Mr. Trump’s stand-down?

The great weakness of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is its volatility. He is unpredictable to a fault. He has doubted his own Venezuela policy from the first week he signed off on it. He called Kim Jong Un crazy but now says he’s a swell guy. He signed a trade deal with Mexico then threatened it with new tariffs.

On Iran he has adopted a policy goal favored by hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham but wants to use only the means of isolationist Sen. Rand Paul to achieve it. He warned that “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” but he lets Iran shoot down a drone and interfere with international shipping.

If Mr. Trump’s real policy is Mr. Paul’s, then he should be honest with Americans and return to the Obama nuclear deal. In the meantime, Iran appears to be calling Mr. Trump’s bluff.

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