foreign interests

Trump Is Too Tough on Balloons to Be Antiwar

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President Biden has made restricting China’s economic development into official U.S. policy. He has repeatedly said that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a communist invasion of the island, ostensibly flouting America’s decades-old commitment to “strategic ambiguity.” When an apparent Chinese spy balloon appeared over U.S. airspace last week, Biden sent a F-22 fighter jet to blow it up as soon as it was over open water.

Nevertheless, Republicans are assailing the president for his timidity toward Beijing.

“Biden is letting China walk all over us,” likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley tweeted last week. “It’s time to make America strong again.” Mitch McConnell lamented Biden’s failure to “send a message of strength” by incinerating the balloon the moment it entered U.S. airspace. Donald Trump declared Biden’s handling of the situation a “disgrace,” while House Republicans mulled a formal condemnation of the president’s refusal to rain flaming debris down on the American homeland.

The president, for his part, has responded to these criticisms by insisting that he had ordered the Pentagon to shoot the balloon down “as soon as possible,” and it was the military leadership’s idea to avoid dispersing the burning shards of an airship the size of three school buses over territory where humans might live.

In sum: The climate of D.C.’s debate over U.S. policy toward China is less than temperate.

Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly planning to campaign for the presidency in 2024 as an “antiwar” candidate. More specifically, the former president believes that his (supposed) antipathy for military adventurism will helpfully distinguish him from his Republican rivals. “Trump is the peace president and he’s the first president in two generations to not start a war,” a person close to the Trump campaign told Politico on Monday, “whereas if you look at DeSantis’s congressional record, he’s voted for more engagement and more military engagement overseas.”

The Trump team’s commitment to this line is reflected in Ohio senator J.D. Vance’s recent endorsement of the mogul’s 2024 campaign. In a column for The Wall Street Journal, Vance wrote that Trump “has my support in 2024 because I know he won’t recklessly send Americans to fight overseas.”

But the notion that Trump’s foreign policy was characterized by martial restraint is a fiction. The idea that we can trust America’s favorite insurrectionist to avoid recklessly escalating geopolitical conflicts would be dubious in any context. In the present moment of anti-Beijing bellicosity, it is especially ludicrous.

To be sure, Trump has disavowed U.S. attempts at nation-building in the Middle East in exceptionally strong terms. No other Republican presidential aspirant has ever condemned the Iraq War as “a tremendous disservice to humanity.” And as president, Trump did withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria and strike a peace deal with the Taliban. He also meaningfully shifted the terms of red America’s internal debate over foreign affairs. Absent Trump’s 2016 victory, it is hard to imagine that a significant bloc of congressional Republicans would oppose open-ended U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense.

But Trump’s idiosyncrasies should not be mistaken for an “antiwar” ideology. The former president has a narrow conception of U.S. global interests, one that does not include the protection of fledgling democracies against Russian autocracy, or any other kind of humanitarian intervention. That does not mean, however, that he has any staunch commitment to avoiding geopolitical conflict. Trump is ultimately much less interested in scaling back America’s imperial ambitions than in appearing “tough” on cable news. And the latter interest led him to very nearly start a new U.S. war in the Middle East three years ago.

Cataclysms have a way of memory-holing the events that immediately precede them. So it would be understandable if few remembered that, during the first week of 2020, the potential disaster wracking the world’s nerves was not the COVID pandemic but rather a war between the U.S. and Iran.

In late December 2019, an Iranian-backed militia fired more than 30 rockets at America’s K-1 Air Base in Iraq, killing one U.S. defense contractor. Days later, the U.S. bombed several of the militia’s weapons-storage facilities and command-and-control centers, killing 25 of its members. Following the funeral for those fighters, dozens of militiamen broke into the U.S. embassy, set fire to its reception area, and littered it with anti-American graffiti.

In the wake of the initial rocket attack, the Pentagon had presented Trump with a menu of options for retaliation. As the New York Times later reported, following the onset of the war on terror, the military had established the convention of including “improbable” and extreme options on such lists, mostly “to make other possibilities appear more palatable.” On the menu presented to Trump, the “so extreme it makes other forms of aggression look more reasonable” option was to assassinate Iran’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani. This initially worked as intended; Trump chose the air campaign against the militia’s weapons and command centers instead.

But the president did not forget the suggestion. And when images of a U.S. embassy under siege filled his TV screen, Trump ordered the hit on Soleimani.

This was an extraordinary measure for a “peace president” to take. An Iranian proxy had killed one American and trashed parts of an embassy in a foreign nation. The U.S. responded by executing a high-ranking Iranian official. If U.S.-backed Ukrainian forces had killed a single Russian in a rocket attack and then launched a disruptive protest against a Russian embassy in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin responded by assassinating Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, few would hesitate to declare that a nigh-psychotic act of escalation and forthright declaration of war on the United States. Even if one disputes this analogy on the grounds that Soleimani was a uniquely vile war criminal, it is indisputable that Trump “skipped tens of rungs on the escalation ladder,” as defense scholars at the Brookings Institution wrote in January 2020.

What led our “peace president” to commit an act of war against the Iranian government? The Washington Post provided the following account:

Officials reminded Trump that after the Iranians mined ships, downed the U.S. drone and allegedly attacked a Saudi oil facility, he had not responded … Trump was also motivated to act by what he felt was negative coverage after his 2019 decision to call off the airstrike after Iran downed the U.S. surveillance drone, officials said. Trump was also frustrated that the details of his internal deliberations had leaked out and felt he looked weak, the officials said.

… Trump also had history on his mind. The president has long fixated on 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, and the Obama administration’s response to them, said lawmakers and aides who have spoken to him, and he felt the response to this week’s attack on the embassy and the killing of an American contractor would make him look stronger compared with his predecessor.

“Benghazi has loomed large in his mind,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in an interview, explaining the response this week.

In other words, Trump killed one of the most powerful officials in the Iranian government because he did not want to be cast as “weak” in sensationalist media coverage.

The reason why this extraordinary action did not lead to full-scale war had less to do with Trump’s aversion to conflict than Iran’s. To avenge the murder of its national hero, Iran fired 22 missiles at two of America’s hardest targets in Iraq — after effectively giving the U.S. forewarning, thereby allowing it to strengthen security at its bases. The attack did not produce a single American casualty, seemingly by design. Trump and his conservative allies had spent years portraying Tehran as not merely a loathsome regime (which it surely is) but a suicidally irrational one: The reason why Iran needed to be stopped from securing a nuclear weapon at all costs, even though Tehran couldn’t actually use such a weapon without ensuring its own destruction, was because the revolutionary regime might value Israel’s destruction more than its own survival. As it happened, Tehran apparently valued the evasion of a direct, conventional military conflict with the U.S. over a proportionate response to the killing of its top commander.

In any event, this precedent does not inspire confidence that Trump’s periodic forays into paleoconservatism would stop him from impulsively escalating conflict with China, given how little the present political and media climates reward restraint on questions of U.S.-Sino relations.

And there are further reasons for doubting Trump’s antiwar bonafides in general, and his commitment to minimizing the odds of conflict with China in particular.

With regard to the former, Trump escalated America’s drone war, increasing both the number of airstrikes and casualties directed at supposed terrorists in the Middle East. Biden, by contrast, has drastically reduced such violence relative to both Trump and Obama.

Graphic: New America
Graphic: New America

Separately, Trump’s handpicked secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is quite possibly the single most reckless U.S. actor on contemporary issues related to China. Today, there are few bigger imperatives for proponents of peace than minimizing the risk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Such an event could well bring the world’s two greatest powers into direct armed conflict. One of the most likely triggers of war in the Taiwan Strait, according to countless analysts of the region, would be for Taiwan to declare formal independence. For this reason, the U.S. government has long maintained a simultaneous opposition to Taiwanese independence and to any non-peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan.

On a trip to Taipei last year, Pompeo said that the United States government should immediately “offer the Republic of China (Taiwan) America’s diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country,” going on to say that there is “no need for Taiwan to declare independence, because it’s already an independent nation.”

There is no guarantee, of course, that Pompeo would have a prominent role in a second Trump administration. But Pompeo’s exalted place in Trump’s first White House, like John Bolton’s (admittedly brief) stint as Trump’s national security adviser, belies the notion that the former president kept America’s most hawkish factions out of power.

In this era of rising geopolitical tensions, the United States needs a president who fears launching a war of choice more than suffering a bad news cycle. Donald Trump has already risked doing the former to avoid the latter once. No advocate for peace should give him the chance to do so again.

Trump Is Too Tough on Balloons to Be Antiwar