Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Trump Doesn’t Know the Meaning of Deescalation

It shouldn't have surprised anyone that an erratic, impulsive president chose the most aggressive and reckless option made available to him
trump iran

Over the last few hours, the president has been making various threats of further escalation against Iran:

If the president wished to avoid war, he would not publicly commit the U.S. to massive retaliation for any Iranian response to the Soleimani assassination. If Trump were interested in deescalation, he would not be promising to commit war crimes against Iranian civilian sites as he did in his deranged threat to attack sites important to Iranian culture. If killing Soleimani “restored deterrence,” it would be unnecessary to issue blood-curdling threats against Iran a mere forty-eight hours later.

Of course, Trump doesn’t care about deescalation. He cares first and foremost about not appearing “weak,” and that makes him more likely to overreact to every incident. The president isn’t interested in avoiding war as much as he is interested in not being pilloried by hawks for not being “tough.” The purpose of killing Soleimani wasn’t to “restore deterrence” or prevent an “imminent” attack. It was just meant to satisfy the need to lash out regardless of the consequences. Now that the president is confronted with the consequences of what he did, he has been reduced to making increasingly belligerent noises to try to contain the damage of his earlier folly. He is threatening to take the U.S. into an unauthorized and unnecessary war as a result of his own terrible decision to order the drone attack, and we have to assume that he will order more attacks now that he has ordered the first one.

The unfortunate reality is that the option to kill Soleimani was included as an option because it was so dangerous that it would make less extreme actions seem preferable:

The Pentagon also tacked on the choice of targeting General Suleimani, mainly to make other options seem reasonable.

Targeting Soleimani had nothing to do with deterring future attacks, and now it is practically guaranteed to be the cause of many more. When the president actually chose the extreme option that a reasonable president wouldn’t choose, military officials were stunned:

When Mr. Trump chose the option of killing General Suleimani, top military officials, flabbergasted, were immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that an erratic, impulsive president chose the most aggressive and reckless option made available to him. After almost three years, it is disturbing that these officials didn’t understand the president they were dealing with. They offered him a stick of dynamite and then marveled when he lit it and threw it at a gunpowder magazine. Why would we expect him to make better decisions about whether to escalate in the future? Trump doesn’t know the meaning of deescalation, and it is up to Congress to shut down this war before it goes any further.