Thursday night was the night Donald Trump became president. You can imagine the hyperbolic hosannahs that would have been sung if Trump had gone ahead with his planned strikes against Iran, adding to the list of undeclared presidential wars. Instead he pulled back.
Hugh Hewitt called it the “big blink,” inviting Liz Cheney—who is very much her father’s daughter on foreign policy—on his show to warn, “Weakness is provocative.” Hewitt compared it to Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” in Syria. “Much worse” argued Kori Schake in The Atlantic. Other reporting focused on a “total breakdown in process.”
It was not a picture perfect approach to national security, to be sure. But it did sharply illustrate the Beltway’s strange priorities. When Trump twice bombed Syria, few of those who fret about his erosion of constitutional norms or authoritarian tendencies protested his failure to seek congressional authorization as required by the Constitution. There was a much larger process-related panic when Trump said late last year he wanted to bring American troops home from Syria.
A Republican-controlled Senate passed a non-binding resolution rebuking Trump for contemplating the end to a war Congress never authorized. Similarly, war with Iran is Congress’ call under the Constitution, not Trump’s. Still, with the single (but significant) exception of Yemen, Trump has faced more pushback when he has tried to keep his more antiwar campaign promises than when he has escalated the bombing and droning already going on, mostly without congressional authorization, all over the world.
While there is undoubtedly more to the story, Trump has publicly explained his Iran about-face by saying the death of 150 Iranians would be a disproportionate response to hitting an unmanned American drone. “An age of wonders,” tweeted Michael Brendan Dougherty. “A moral and spiritual reprobate articulates a classical Augustinian just war argument. And conservative Christians hate it.”
That might be a bit unfair to conservative Christians as a whole. The Right’s reaction to Trump’s Iran decision was split along largely predictable lines. But the critique applies to much of the establishment. The coverage of veteran Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward’s book Fear often treated Trump’s concerns about the war in Afghanistan as just another example of White House palace intrigue.
“How many more deaths? How many more lost limbs? How much longer are we going to be there?” Woodward quotes Trump as asking. One Post write-up folded these lines into a broader story about the White House’s “nervous breakdown” and the national security team’s impatience with the president. But these are morally serious questions, not exaggerated inaugural crowd size estimates.
Liberal opposition to the wars that have continued under Trump has been muted while the Never Trump Right has remained generally, resolutely hawkish. It is utterly bizarre to read people who believe Trump is unfit to be president seem disappointed, or even outraged, that he is not overseeing a war with a country larger than Iraq without a permanent, Senate-confirmed secretary of defense in place. It is even odder that Trump seems to be more skeptical of this idea than some of his biggest critics.
Let’s not nominate Trump for the Nobel peace prize yet (that’s been prematurely awarded to presidents before). The “maximum pressure” campaign that brought us to the brink is at least partially a product of his own unrealistic approach to diplomacy. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are his appointees. It does not require Nostradamus-like skills to anticipate how the good cop, bad cop routine Trump appears to be trying with Bolton in particular could end in disaster.
At the very least, the next strikes might be allowed to proceed with uncertain consequences like so many of our forever wars.
If Trump continues to break with this pattern, however, it will be less celebrated in Washington than it would deserve to be. Putting the unelected hawks in their proper place would be a truly presidential act.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The American Conservative.