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End Three Wars, Then Blow Up Iran?

What exactly is going on in the mind of Donald Trump?

What in the world is going through the mind of Donald Trump? That question might have been asked at any time in any place over the past five years, yet it has special weight today, given that it involves matters of war and peace.

First there was this, from the New York Times on Monday:

President Trump asked senior advisers in an Oval Office meeting on Thursday whether he had options to take action against Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks. The meeting occurred a day after international inspectors reported a significant increase in the country’s stockpile of nuclear material, four current and former U.S. officials said on Monday.

A range of senior advisers dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike. The advisers — including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, the acting defense secretary; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — warned that a strike against Iran’s facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Just when you think you’ve got Trump’s foreign policy figured out, you’re leaning on Mike Pompeo to stop the bombs from flying. Trump, of course, has always exempted Iran from any restraint he might show in the Middle East. The likely site of his proposed strike, Iran’s Natanz facility, has beefed up its uranium stockpile significantly since the president pulled out of the nuclear deal back in 2018. In other words, Trump himself provoked the very threat he now itches to address. Escalations beget further escalations. How many times must the old realist adage be vindicated?

The tub-thumping towards Iran makes even less sense when paired with this:

President Trump is expected to order the U.S. military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by the time he leaves office in January, using the end of his time in power to significantly pull back American forces from far-flung conflicts around the world.

On its own, this isn’t especially surprising. The United States earlier this year negotiated a deal with the Taliban to remove its troop presence from Afghanistan. Iraq, too, has been on the president’s downsizing list, and the parliament in Baghdad back in January voted out our military entirely. The Pentagon has also been drawing down Special Operations troops in Africa, as Trump pounds the table for a full Somalia pullout. All this is in keeping with his expressed contempt for pointless Middle East wars as well as the desire among some in the establishment to at last achieve the chimeric pivot to Asia.

Still, a broader and accelerated withdrawal in the lame-duck period is nothing if not ambitious. So why the schizophrenia? Why at the same time that we’re drawing down are we on the cusp of a war with Iran?

Some on the left have posited that Trump is a kind of pan-national Joker, wanting only to create chaos, to watch the world burn on his way out. But that seems too cute by half.

First, with regard to Iran, my guess is that Trump has been talking to his dear friend Bibi Netanyahu. That isn’t fever-swamp leering at Israel: the Times notes that in 2008, “Israeli officials, concerned that the incoming Obama administration would seek to block it from striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, sought bunker-busting bombs, bombers and intelligence assistance from the United States for an Israeli-led strike.” Bush turned Tel Aviv down (!), opting instead for a cyber-attack, and today, Netanyahu faces a similar situation. Joe Biden has pledged to reenter the nuclear deal with Iran and take a less maximalist position towards Tehran. It makes sense Israel would want to do whatever damage it can before that comes to pass. And Netanyahu is surely well aware that Trump has a habit of listening to the last person in his ear.

Second, the fact remains that Trump isn’t going anywhere. Whether he launches his Trump TV network (which I imagine as a kind of love-child between One America and QVC) or mounts another presidential run in 2024, politics is his family business now. And for Trump, politics has always been a covenant between himself and his customers, his voters. They elect him; he delivers what they want. And he’s all too aware that one of his most distinctive promises, bringing the troops home, has been largely slow-walked. Hence the deal with the Taliban; hence the sudden pullout from Germany, with spiting Angela Merkel only a nice bonus.

Of course, here at TAC, we support the withdrawals and oppose the attempted Iran war. Such predictability is no doubt why none of us are making the calls in this seething Gotham we call America. The truth is that Trump isn’t the Joker; he’s the isolationist we deserve if not the one we need right now. And if he can pull off these latest withdrawals without leveling Iran in the process, he’ll get credit even from me.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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