"The critical moment will come when American personnel are killed"
This piece by Christopher Dickey is one of the smartest I've read about where we are with Trump and Iran:
Could American policy toward Iran look any more reckless, feckless, or just plain nuts? One is tempted to ask: What happens when your actions are based on a madman theory, but conducted by an actual madman?
He cites a number of other examples. Of course, at least semi-sane people were in the executive branch at the time and however malevolent their goals, they did at least have a strategy and some idea of the consequences of their actions. We have a very different set of circumstances today.
Nothing good. And the last few hours are an illustration. On Thursday, the Iranians shot down a big, high-flying, very, very expensive unmanned American surveillance drone that they say was in their airspace near the strategic Strait of Hormuz. The Americans say the drone was over international waters, and administration hawks wanted to teach a lesson to whoever in Iran had the effrontery to do such a thing.
Then President Donald J. Trump went on a confusion offensive, starting with a tweet saying Iran had made a “big mistake!” A few hours later during a photo op with Canada’s prime minister,Trump compounded the befuddlement by saying he thought the downing of the drone might have been a mistake like, you know, an accident, but hinted there would be a big bad response.
Overnight we read reports he had indeed ordered attacks on Iranian installations, sending ships speeding across the seas and planes soaring into the air, but then changed his mind and had everybody stand down.
Friday morning, after fulminating about other topics like “the Russia hoax,” the president took to Twitter again to do a little Trumpsplaining, insisting that after the drone was shot down (on Monday, he said, contrary to all other information), “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.”
So, back to our original question: Is there method to this madness? The increasingly obvious answer is no, in the sense of any long-term policy or strategy. But Trump’s actions do have their own internal logic.
First of all, the president may be a warmonger, but his weapon of preference is the dollar, using tariffs and sanctions to try to bring other leaders to their knees. He dreads the idea of conventional wars in far away places
Trump is the man who once paid $94,801 in 1987 to place ads in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe attacking President Ronald Reagan's naval deployment in the Persian Gulf to defend oil tankers from Iranian attacks. Trump’s full page advertisements said the world was laughing at American politicians for protecting "ships we don't own, carrying oil we don't need for allies who won't help." One might say the same thing today, and Trump knows it.
Trump listens, up to a point, to U.S. generals itching to give Iran a "bloody nose," and to the Boltons and Pompeos who fantasize about regime change. But “Art of the Deal” Trump's objective always was and remains to get a better deal with Iran than Barack Obama did, which, as he made clear in his Friday tweetstorm, was why he provoked this crisis in the first place by pulling out of the nuclear accord last year.
It must gall Trump to realize, as some day he must, that that is not going to happen.
The best thing about Trump is his aversion to war. The worst is his addiction to tough-guy posturing. Where Iran is concerned, the combination is a series of bluffs that beg to be called. And the mullahs and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will keep testing.
What they are learning is that there’s not going to be any fire and fury. More likely there will be what Trump called “proportionate” response by American forces, a tactic with which the Middle East is mightily familiar. It was the characteristic of the long-forgotten “Tanker War” that Reagan waged and Trump deplored back in 1987 and 1988.
Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was central to that State Department end of that operation 32 years ago, and now heads the Institute for Study of Diplomacy at Georgtown University, notes that the Iranians, famous as chess players and poker players, “are not generally rash.”
“One of the things that struck me at the time of the tanker protection regime [in ’87-’88] and even more so in retrospect its that they seemed to calculate very carefully how far they could push and not get a reaction from us, and we were very careful about how far we could push them,” she says. “That went on for two years.”
The critical moment will come when American personnel are killed, which would fit a classic pattern when an American administration wants to go to war. It starts with picking villains, then picking a fight, and carrying out a series of provocative moves to push them into a corner, until someone at some level in the target regime kills an American. Then the U.S. responds with a major military action, very likely intending to knock off the top guy in the regime as well. The American bombing of Libya in 1986 after a disco bombing in Berlin and the invasion of Panama in 1989 after a violent traffic stop near the Canal Zone would be two examples.
Dickey points out in that piece that Trump's "weapon of preference is the dollar, using tariffs and sanctions to try to bring other leaders to their knees. He dreads the idea of conventional wars in far away places." This is true. Trump's goal is total economic dominance. But he also built up the American military as a tool to back up his economic threats. Witness his willingness to use troops at the Mexican border. He also likes to threaten to withdraw American security guarantees if allies don't bow to his will.
He's too simple to understand how he's using these threats of violence to dominate the world. He thinks he's a peacenik who doesn't want war because he isn't running around openly threatening to invade other countries. But doing what he's doing is essentially the same thing.
Trump's preference is to threaten to destroy a country's economy rather than use an invading army to do it. But let's not pretend that having the worlds most powerful military isn't an intrinsic part of that threat. We see this with Iran. He wanted to "break" them economically and force them to negotiate a "deal" that was more to his liking. But we are now dealing with threats of military force.
That's how these things tend to go.