Home/Daniel Larison/The Poisonous Fruit of the Iran Obsession

The Poisonous Fruit of the Iran Obsession

President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.

Rod Dreher comments on Tucker Carlson’s apparent role in persuading Trump not to launch an attack on Iran:

We have come to the point at which pretty much the only thing standing between America and a new war is a prime time conservative talk show host.

Carlson deserves credit for helping convince Trump not to follow through on the attack that he had intended to launch, but we shouldn’t forget that this is not how our system is supposed to work. It is not up to the president to decide on a whim to start a foreign war, and he doesn’t deserve applause when he calls off an illegal attack that he isn’t allowed to order in the first place. It is fortunate that he happened to hear from an influential opponent of attacking Iran in the days leading up to the aborted attack, but the decision on whether the U.S. should go to war does not belong to the president. We ought to be at least as furious about that as we are relieved that he changed his mind at the last second. Once we concede that the president gets to start a war on his own, we have given up on representative and republican government in this country.

Our constitutional system has decayed to such an extent that there is very little discussion that the attack Trump had ordered was completely unauthorized, illegal, and a violation of his oath of office. You don’t get credit when you plan to do something illegal but don’t carry out the plan. Like the illegal attacks he ordered against the Syrian government, this episode is being talked about in terms of Trump’s competing “instincts” and the factors that led to his decision one way or the other, but that misses what really matters. It can’t be emphasized enough that it is not up to him to decide this.

The planned attack on Thursday night was unjustified, but no less important the president had no authority to initiate hostilities against another state in any case. Under the Constitution, the president does not get to do this. Trump’s usual contempt for Congress was even more obvious on Thursday when he did not inform Congressional leaders that there was going to be an attack:

“No,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday when asked whether she was notified by the White House about the planned strikes.

It would be customary for the White House to inform the House speaker and other congressional leaders of any military operation that had been approved.

That shows enormous disrespect to the public by leaving us and our representatives completely in the dark about what our government is doing.

It also turns out that the Iranian claim that the drone or another U.S. aircraft violated their airspace may have been accurate:

But 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.

Leave aside for a moment the insanity of going to war over a drone, and consider that the administration was publicly adamant that the drone never came close to Iranian airspace at any time. If there was “concern” inside the government that this wasn’t true, it was irresponsible and dishonest when administration officials said that the Iranian claim was false. The administration was on the verge of going to war over an incident that may very well have been their own fault, and that incident was the result of a crisis they created.

The particulars of the drone incident should not cause us to forget that the crisis would not be happening were it not for the administration’s relentless economic war on Iran. One might think that coming so close to starting an unnecessary war with Iran as a result of the disastrous “maximum pressure” campaign would prompt a reassessment of the assumptions behind that campaign, but of course that isn’t happening. Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t seem to have learned anything from this experience. He ultimately made the right decision to call of the attack after taking us to the edge of the abyss, but he remains committed to the dead-end policy of collective punishment through sanctions:

U.S. President Donald Trump said Saturday he will impose additional sanctions on Iran in an effort to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, adding that military action was still a possibility.

Trump, who was speaking to reporters at the White House, made his comments after recently calling off military action against Iran to retaliate for the downing of a U.S. military drone.

“We are putting additional sanctions on Iran,” Trump said. “In some cases we are going slowly, but in other cases we are moving rapidly.”

The president said military action “is always on the table” against Iran.

Putting more sanctions on Iran amounts to escalating the economic war that is responsible for the increased tensions between our governments. It is the next-worse thing to starting a shooting war, and that is what Trump wants to do. The president’s remarks from earlier today sum up just how stupid and pointlessly destructive his Iran policy is:

If preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon were the real goal, Trump could declare victory today. Iran already agreed not to do that and made verifiable commitments that make it practically impossible for them to do it. Thanks to Trump’s reckless and irrational decision to renege on the JCPOA, the U.S. has been working overtime to push Iran to abandon the nonproliferation commitments it made. That is why it is so difficult to believe Trump when he says that stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is all that matters to him. Everything he has done related to Iran over the last thirteen months has been to undermine the successful non-proliferation agreement that already achieved what he says he wants, and he has brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war out of a combination of his and his administration’s stupidity, cruelty, and vanity. Iran cannot trust what Trump says when he blatantly lies about what the nuclear deal allows. He says they can be a “wealthy country” if they agree not to have nuclear weapons, but they agreed to significant restrictions on their program and intrusive inspections of their facilities and he has been seeking to impoverish them anyway.

Trump’s knee-jerk, ill-informed opposition to the nuclear deal has been one of the few constants in his foreign policy worldview over the last four years, and his decision to renege on the deal has proven to be one of the most significant and most harmful decisions he has made as president. Without that disastrous decision in May 2018, it is extremely unlikely that U.S.-Iranian tensions would be as high as they are now and there is no way that our governments would be so close to war. The president fully bought into a policy of confrontation and coercion, and it is no surprise that it has made an unnecessary war much more likely. Trump’s hawkish allies understood that is where this policy was headed all along, and that is why they have supported it. If the president doesn’t want to drive off the cliff’s edge that he has been racing towards, he has to make radical changes to his Iran policy and to the personnel serving in his administration. If he can’t or won’t do that, the U.S. and Iran will be unacceptably close to war for the remainder of his term. If Trump presses ahead with the same bankrupt Iran policy, it is just a matter of time before there is another incident.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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