No matter how the current crisis between the United States and Iran turns out, it should have one result: an end to the fear that President Donald Trump would be a warmonger.
Trump has been strikingly consistent that he would rather talk than fight. Time and again, he’s threatened other countries, sometimes in bloodcurdling terms, but then made clear that he’d prefer to negotiate.
Take Iran. Last month, as tensions rose, the president threatened to destroy the entire country, or at least its Islamic regime. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he tweeted. He never made clear what he meant by “the official end,” but it sounded dire.
Then Trump pivoted. He sent a series of messages to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that all he really wants is to roll back what’s left of Tehran’s dormant nuclear program — a shiny new Trump deal to replace the Obama-era deal he blew up.
“We’re not looking for regime change. I want to make that clear,” Trump said. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
So when limpet mines damaged two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and the Pentagon blamed Iran, Trump brushed the incident aside. “Very minor,” he said, adding that ships from Norway and Japan weren’t America’s problem.
When Iran shot down a U.S. military drone last week, Trump again gave Khamenei the benefit of the doubt. “I would imagine it was a general or somebody who made a mistake,” he said.
And on Friday morning, the president tweeted that he had ordered retaliatory strikes on Iran, only to change his mind. “I am in no hurry,” he wrote. “Sanctions are biting ... . Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
These are not the words of a man with an itchy trigger finger.
Trump’s decision to abort the raid did not go down well with Republican hawks. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a second-generation saber rattler, warned: “The failure to respond to this kind of direct provocation ... (could) be a very serious mistake.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others agreed.
But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Trump’s reluctance to use force, especially against an adversary that might retaliate, is beginning to look predictable — an adjective rarely attached to his policymaking.
In 2017 and 2018, the president ordered two missile strikes in Syria after Bashar Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against civilians. But Trump has not ordered further strikes despite persistent reports that Syria still is using poison gas.
In the summer of 2017, the president threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” with “fire and fury” if Kim Jong Un continued testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles that could strike the United States.
The “Trump Doctrine” may come down to this: The United States is stronger than we think, other countries are weaker than they admit, and if we throw our weight around, we can always get our way.
It’s a beguiling theory, but it comes with two flaws.
One is that it leads Trump to bludgeon long-standing U.S. allies, and that weakens vitally important relationships. The other is that Trump’s strategy doesn’t always work — and he appears to have no fallback strategy if it fails.