This time Donald Trump is unlikely to storm out of the room in a huff. He’s invited the top congressional leadership from both parties to a meeting at the White House this afternoon to discuss Iran. Now that Iran has shot down a US naval surveillance drone, Trump is in a bind. Instead of looking like Mr Big, he’s starting to resemble a paper tiger.
At first Trump tweeted, ‘Iran made a very big mistake!’ which made it sound like he was going to take military action against the mullahs. But then a more emollient Trump appeared, telling reporters, ‘I have a feeling…that it was a mistake made by somebody’ who was freelancing rather than acting on orders from on high.
Not likely. The truth is that Iran is calling Trump’s bluff. It’s clear that, unlike his secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, Trump is allergic to the idea of entering into a war with Iran. If Trump stumbled into war, he would resemble Kaiser Wilhelm during World War I, who backed Austria, only to be sidelined by his generals once the conflict began. Trump would be utterly at sea in trying to preside over a war in the Persian Gulf that could easily spiral out of control. If Trump can’t even appoint a permanent defense secretary, why would anyone imagine he has the competence to conduct a war against Tehran?
His biggest impediment to avoiding a war, however, may not be Iran’s actions. It could be the duo of Bolton and Pompeo. Trump has assembled a war cabinet. The departure of Patrick Shanahan from the Defense Department and his replacement by a Pompeo crony named Mark Esper to be acting secretary means that the military has essentially been neutered. Pompeo has been advancing loopy theories, reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s folderol on the eve of the second Gulf War, that the Iranians are in cahoots with al-Qaeda.
But opposition to the administration’s sword-waving is mounting. Sen. Kamala Harris has it right: ‘Either the Trump administration is angling for another disastrous war in the Middle East, or they’ve spent two years saber-rattling against Iran with no strategy and no endgame.’ Either way, Trump gets hoist by his own petard.
It looks like conservative opponents of war are down to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who’s been steadily warning Trump that a war would put the kibosh on a second term. In any case, given Trump’s exuberant declaration to TIME magazine that his base of supporters is so powerful that he doesn’t even need to condescend to reach out to swing voters—’I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that,’—a second term may be looking rather iffy.