It’s a bit of a chimera, truth be told: The president who has endlessly and redundantly attacked open-ended military commitments and expensive and extended conventional warfare has taken an action that many experts think will push Iran to launch a full-on regional war, perhaps even involving interested bystanders like Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could be the mother of all quagmires. So how did this happen and what will Trump do if the sudden strike he authorized sparks significant retaliatory measures from Iran?
We may not know for years, if ever, exactly what transpired in the White House, but the two relevant things to remember about the commander-in-chief are (a) he is by nature a bully, whose creed has always been winning by intimidation with superior force (or in business, via ruinous lawsuits) and (b) to the extent he thinks about war and peace he’s a total throwback to Andrew Jackson and represents Old Hickory’s peculiar combination of non-interventionism and violent militarism. I explained this latter characteristic when he launched an attack on Syria back in 2017:
Trump [is] a self-consciously “Jacksonian” president who simultaneously reveres military force while despising the “globalist” ideologies that have both justified and restrained its use so often in U.S. history. “Jacksonians” typically oppose entangling alliances and international nation-building exercises, but not only accept but welcome massive violence when America is “crossed.” For Trump in particular, intimidation of enemies is as important to international affairs as it is to business life. That is why Trump constantly attacked Barack Obama for failing to back up his “red line” threats against Syria’s use of chemical weapons (an attack he repeated before launching the cruise missiles last night) even as Trump himself denied any interest in “taking sides” in that country’s messy civil war …
Trump’s decision to act without consulting, much less asking authorization from, Congress makes perfect sense. For one thing, the “strategy” or “comprehensive plan” that so many senators asked for in their own initial reactions to the attacks on Syria last night may very well not exist. If the missiles were simply intended to put things right after Obama’s “cowardice” and send a message to the world, then there is not and will never be a “strategy” or “plan” with respect to Syria; the violence was an end in itself.
It’s very likely that is the case today, too. And projecting his own taste for high-stakes gamesmanship onto the Iranians, he may well believe one show of righteous and lethal American power will make them back down:
You don’t reason with these people, he seems to believe: You just have to show ‘em Uncle Sam is the boss.
But what if Trump has miscalculated by assassinating a figure so central to Iran’s national and religious sensibilities that their own sense of honor demands they do not back down? Or what if they believe they can bully the bully thanks to his well-known distaste for getting tied down into an extended military conflict?
Clearly Trump hopes this is a one-off game that he’s already won. In his brief remarks today from Mar-a-Lago, he treated the assassination of Soleimani as a preventive act that interrupted “sinister attacks” on U.S. personnel. And he pointedly said: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” But it might not be entirely up to him.
It’s at this juncture that things could get really scary. Even if Trump somehow erroneously thinks a conventional war with Iran would ensure his reelection, he is unlikely to want to burden his second term with the kind of endless no-win commitment that sank the despised George W. Bush, in Trump’s own contemptuous estimation. So in the Jacksonian tradition, the most appropriate response to any serious Iranian escalation toward all-out war would be a counter-escalation of great ferocity, which would deliberately ignore any sense of proportion or calibration and display America’s might at its fullest. And if that is Trump’s inclination, it’s unclear whether any of the people around him — or his Republican allies in Congress — who have mostly been frothing for war with Iran for years, would restrain him. It’s certainly doubtful that two of Trump’s favorite allies this side of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, would object to the U.S. getting medieval on their ancient enemy.
Given Trump’s combined taste for violence and distaste for messy conventional warfare, and his limited concern for the lives of non-Americans, you have to assume the worst is possible. Remember this comment (per Alex Ward) he made last summer about Afghanistan?
Ahead of a Monday meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump told reporters at the White House that he could win the war in Afghanistan in just one week if he really, really wanted to. But Trump says he won’t do that because he doesn’t want millions to die.
“I don’t want to kill 10 million people,” he said. “I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over in literally 10 days.”
If Trump has plans to nuke Afghanistan, he most definitely has plans to nuke Iran, particularly given global worries about Tehran’s own nuclear program. I’m not predicting he’d do anything quite that insane, but the Jacksonian logic of sudden and terrifying force as a first and last resort means nothing lethal is going to be off the table. Lord have mercy on us all.