Right now, every cocktail party conversation in Washington’s national security circles goes the same place in a hurry: “What do you hear about Iran?” and “What do they think they’re doing?” The conversations then wind through the latest controversies over intelligence, troop figures, and inside-the-Cabinet intrigue before they end at the same place. What’s going to stop either a slow slide or a quick escalation to war? And the same unlikely answer comes back: either Trump, or his base.
How can this be?
The intelligence debate is interesting but maybe irrelevant. The allegations made public — that Iran is shipping missiles to the Houthis fighting in Yemen and targeting vessels in the Persian Gulf, and that Iran’s operatives are preparing for attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq — are things we know Iran does and has done in the past. They are also the things analysts predicted Iran would do if the United States put the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on its terrorism list and attempted to shut off completely Iranian sales of oil. While Washington’s allies in the region — Israel and Saudi Arabia — have both added their own allegations to this list, European allies have been eager to distance themselves. This week the senior U.K. military figure in the Middle East made an unusual public announcement that the threat was not elevated, whereupon the Pentagon took the even more unusual step of contradicting an ally in the field.
The military preparations underway are enough to stir up tensions and invite escalation, but nowhere near sufficient to mount an actual land assault, much less defeat Iran’s government and implement regime change. The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been tasked with drawing up plans to send 120,000 troops to the Middle East; that is less than the number of troops the U.S. and its allies used in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (Iran is a significantly larger country with nearly twice as many people.) Trump both denied such a plan was in the works and said he “absolutely” would send “a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Trump’s team seems far from united at this dangerous moment. Even as his department raised concerns significantly by ordering the departure of non-emergency Embassy personnel in Iraq, Secretary of State Pompeo said we “fundamentally do not see a war with Iran.” (Contrast that with GOP senator and Trump cheerleader Tom Cotton, who stole a line from The Breakfast Club to assert that a war against Tehran would be quick: “Two strikes, the first strike and the last.”)
Insiders have begun telling the media that Trump is unhappy with National Security Adviser John Bolton, who is credited with the aggressive buildup toward Iran as well as the recent failed effort to push out Venezuelan president Maduro, which Bolton sought to help along through social media taunting. But, other insiders add, he’s nowhere near as frustrated with Bolton as he was with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson before firing him. So there.
Alert readers will notice I haven’t mentioned the secretary of Defense, who would normally be a key player here. Acting secretary Patrick Shanahan is in the awkward situation of having been only just been nominated, after four months in the role, to fill it on a permanent basis. He is in the even more awkward situation of being regarded as a lightweight, and having a surprising number of military moves be announced by Bolton, from the White House. Indeed, national security experts are wringing their hands at what seems to be the disappearance of the traditional inter-agency process through which multiple government agencies are supposed to have their views heard, criticisms voiced, and plans double-checked before something as big as troop movements, let alone war planning, goes public.
With no actual military options it can debate, no confidence that it’s getting a straight story on threat levels, and no clue how the process works, a curious fatalism has taken hold in Congress. Various members are preparing legislation to either make it explicit that the president is not authorized to go to war in the Persian Gulf without a vote, or to bar the Pentagon from spending money on offensive military operations there. But getting enough members of both parties to push back on dire threat assessments and vote for such measures is an uphill battle. And, given Trump’s willingness to ignore or veto Congress’ national security efforts to date, no one has much confidence either move would stop his administration from moving ahead.
This is where the experts turn to each other, just like every Trump opponent in the rest of America, and say, “but Trump doesn’t really want to do this, right?” He will want to back down, and find a way to do so, whether it’s targeting an Iranian proxy with cruise missiles, creating a negotiation to claim credit for, or moving on to a distraction elsewhere. (Who knows, maybe Bolton’s plans to remove Maduro will work next time.) Or, they say, Trump will see that a war would be unpopular with his base – Laura Ingraham has already opined that it is one of the “few paths” that could hurt his reelection chances — and preemptively declare victory. A Politico story today asserts that Trump routinely cites the reactions of his social media following as justifications for sensitive policy decisions — including his announcement last year that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
The laws, Constitution, and norms of the United States lay out paths through which policy experts, elected officials, the military that would have to do the fighting and dying, and the public at large all have a say over whether the United States goes to war — and all have access to facts about what is happening on the ground. A president monitoring his Twitter account is no substitute for them.
Trump — and all of us — have been lucky so far in world affairs. Given that the number of actors who actually want a drawn-out war in the Persian Gulf is rather small, we may get lucky again here. But even if we do, we will have descended far down a rabbit hole of personalized, secretive presidential rule over the world’s biggest and strongest armed forces — and social media metrics will not save us.