By the slimmest margin, the United States managed to escape another Middle East war. After preparations had been made to strike Iran, President Donald Trump abruptly said he’d decided against retaliating for a downed American drone. Killing some 150 Iranians in response to the destruction of an unmanned aircraft, he believed, was disproportionate.
It was a good call. But the episode reminds us that the president is almost alone in his administration in wanting to avoid a conflict. And he is violating the Constitution by acting as if he is at all authorized to start a war.
Iran predictably claimed that the drone was within its airspace. American officials asserted that it was in international airspace. Reported The New York Times: “a senior Trump administration official said there was concern inside the United States government about whether the drone, or another American surveillance aircraft, or even the P-8A manned aircraft flown by a military aircrew, actually did violate Iranian airspace at some point. The official said the doubt was one of the reasons Mr. Trump called off the strike.”
The point is worth repeating. The military was prepared to blast away when it wasn’t even certain whether America was in the right. The episode brings to mind the 1988 shootdown of an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf by the guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes. Initially the U.S. Navy justified its action, making a series of false claims about Iran Air Flight 655, which carried 290 passengers and crew members. Eventually Washington did admit that it had made a horrific mistake, though the Vincennes captain was later decorated.
The possibility that the United States might be committing an act of war under false pretenses apparently did little to discourage the president’s principal foreign policy advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, from pushing a military response. Tehran’s action was presented as raw aggression, an act of war that deserved retaliation.
The president apparently complained to a close associate, “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting.” According to The Wall Street Journal, he further opined, “We don’t need any more wars.” He’s right. But then why has Trump chosen to surround himself with advisers apparently so at variance with his views?
Presumably the president believes that he can control his war-happy subordinates, using them as he sees fit. However, his overweening hubris ignores their power to set the agenda and influence his choices. Consider the basic question of objectives regarding Iran. Trump now says all he wants to do is keep nukes out of Tehran’s hands: “Never can Iran have a nuclear weapon,” he intoned after halting the proposed reprisal, adding that “restraint” has its limits. But the nuclear accord was drafted to forestall an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran is preparing to breach the limits established by the agreement because Washington repudiated it. It is evident that the president doesn’t understand the JCPOA or the nuclear issue more generally.
Moreover, though he is focused on nuclear issues, his appointees have been demanding far more of Tehran, forestalling negotiations. For instance, last year, Pompeo ordered Iran to abandon its independent foreign policy and dismantle its missile deterrent, while accepting Saudi and American domination of the region. These mandates were an obvious non-starter—what sovereign nation voluntarily accepts puppet status? In fact, Pompeo admitted that he didn’t expect Iran to surrender, but instead hoped for a popular revolution. In recently stating that the administration would negotiate without preconditions, he added that Washington expected Iran to act like “a normal nation,” meaning behaving just as he’d demanded last year. (Notably, there was no offer for America to act like a normal country.)
Pompeo’s demands look a bit like the ultimatum to Serbia in June 1914 after a nationalist backed by Serbian military intelligence assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Austrians set only 10, rather than 12, requirements, but they also were intended to be rejected. Vienna explained to its ally Germany that “the possibility of its acceptance is practically excluded.”
Once it became evident that no one would willingly back down and conflict was likely, Germany’s Kaiser and Russia’s Tsar tried to halt the rush to war. However, they found themselves hemmed in by the war plans created by their nominal subordinates. With Austria-Hungary mobilizing against Serbia, Russia had to act to protect the latter. Germany then faced a two-front war. Thus, to aid its ally in Vienna, the Germans had to mobilize quickly in an attempt to defeat France before Russia could put its massive army into the field. No one had sufficient time for diplomacy.
However, cousins Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas did engage in a last minute “Willy-Nicky” exchange of telegrams. Wilhelm warned Nicholas that general Russian mobilization would require Germany to act, with war the result. In response, the tsar switched from general to partial mobilization. But he was soon besieged by his top officials who insisted that the entire army had to be called up.
Understanding that general mobilization meant war, the tsar observed: “Think of the responsibility you are asking me to take! Think of the thousands and thousands of men who will be sent to their deaths.” But he gave in, approving mobilization on the evening of July 30. Nicholas’s concern was warranted. More than 1.7 million Russian soldiers, along with hundreds of thousands of civilians, died in the conflict. The ensuing Russian Civil War was even more deadly, indeed far more so for noncombatants, among them the tsar and his family.
Kaiser Wilhelm was equally at the mercy of the “France-first” Schlieffen Plan. To wait would be to invite destruction between the French and Russians, so he approved German mobilization on August 1. He predicted the war would lead to “endless misery,” and so it did. In 1918, he was forced to abdicate and he lived out his life in exile.
Pompeo, Bolton, and like-minded officials tried and failed to force another war last week. Next time they may succeed in leaving the president with no practical choice but the one they favor. In which case he will find himself starting the very conflict that he had declared against.
Ongoing administration machinations—exacerbated by the opportunity to manipulate a president—offer an important reminder as to the Founders’ wisdom. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention made clear their intention to break with monarchical practice, minimizing the president’s authority. Congress was assigned the powers to raise armies, decide on the rules of war, issue letters of marque and reprisal, and ratify treaties. Most importantly, the legislative branch alone could declare war.
As commander-in-chief, the president could defend against attack, but he could not even order a retaliatory strike without congressional authority. Wrote James Madison to Thomas Jefferson: “The Constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legislature.” Delegate James Wilson insisted that the Constitution was intended to “guard against” being hurried into war: “It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress, for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large.”
Most important, placing the war power with Congress ensured that the people would be heard. Of course, even that is not enough today. Presidents have adeptly concocted “evidence” and misled the public, such as during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
They were living out what Hermann Goering, on trial at Nuremberg, described in a private conversation to an American officer: “voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.” Tragically, he’s probably right.
However, the Iraq debacle has resulted in greater skepticism of presidential claims. The Trump administration’s unsupported judgment that Iran was behind attacks on oil tankers was greeted at home and abroad with a demand for more evidence. People were conscious of having been repeatedly played by Washington and did not want a repeat. Many found the U.S. government no more trustworthy than Iranian authorities, a humbling equivalence. And given the doubts apparently voiced by Pentagon officials out of public view, such skepticism was well-founded.
Last week, Donald Trump declared, “I want to get out of these endless wars.” Unlike his predecessors, the president apparently recognizes the temptation to sacrifice lives for political gain. However, alone he will find it nearly impossible to face down the bipartisan War Party. The best way to get out of endless wars is to not get in them in the first place. And that requires changing personnel and respecting the constitutional limits established by the nation’s Founders.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.