It appears that Iran may be giving President Donald Trump a politically palatable off-ramp from further clashes. And it's an off-ramp that Trump, according to his initial comments, appears inclined to take.
Trump announced Wednesday morning that there were no American casualties and only "minimal" damage to the bases, and Iraq's government says it didn't suffer any either. Iran also followed up its attacks by giving conflicting signals about whether this could be the end of its military response to Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani's death at American hands.
If this is the end of the retaliation — and that's very much an open question — it would mean Iran's response to the killing of its most powerful military figure will have been to inflict damage on Iraqi military bases. If you were given that trade at the start of the week, before Trump made the decision to take Soleimani out, it's very difficult to say you wouldn't take it in a heartbeat.
It's important to emphasize how much Trump views international affairs in terms of wins and losses. Not only could Trump say that he took out a man who is said to have killed hundreds of Americans without a more serious response from the Iranians, but the president could also say that dire Democratic and pundit predictions of impending war with Iran — or even World War III — were overcooked.
The situation is, of course, fluid. Trump will continue to have to deal with Iran for the remainder of his presidency, whether one year or five years. For now, though, we can perhaps be optimistic that this situation hasn't escalated further. Trump seems to be.
Aaron Blake, Washington Post
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After losing its top strategist, military commander and arch-terrorist, Suleimani, the Iranian theocracy is weighing responses.
One, Iran can quiet down and cease military provocations. But if unchecked, American economic pressure could eventually lead to a popular rebellion that would topple the theocracy. A return to the status quo is unlikely.
Two, Iran can agree to re-enter talks about its nuclear program and offer a few concessions. Yet a return to direct negotiations with Washington is also unlikely, especially since Iran once enjoyed a lopsided gift from the United States. Renegotiating anything less would be too humiliating.
Three, Iran can escalate its military operations and its use of terrorist surrogates. The death of Suleimani is Iran's most grievous setback in decades, and Iran seeks vengeance. But waging an all-out war with the U.S. would be suicidal, and Iran knows it.
Four, Iran can continue its periodic attacks on U.S. allies and on troops and contractors in the region. The strategic aim in such endless tit-for-tat would be to wear down the patience of the U.S. public in an election year and hope for a President Elizabeth Warren or President Bernie Sanders.
But that scenario, too, is unlikely. As long as Trump replies with air power disproportionate to any Iranian attacks, he, not Tehran, governs the tempo of the confrontation.
Iran created the current crisis. It has choices — but for now they are all bad.
Victor Davis Hanson, Tribune News Service
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One of two things will cost Trump his re-election: a recession or a war with Iran. The never-Trumpers, the stalwarts of the pro-war wing of the Bush Washington Republican establishment, loathe Trump. They supported America's disastrous, never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now they sing Trump's praises for his killing of Soleimani. Trump voters hear them sing their song, and they worry. They've had enough of wars. And he'd lose them if another war begins. Iran must surely know this and fold that into its calculations.
Americans can handle the killing of Soleimani. What Americans don't want is war, troops on the ground, and that is where Trump is being led.
Think back to the 2016 campaign. Trump fighting it out with the Bush family, condemning their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as wasteful of American blood and American treasure.
One rule of politics is that all politicians lie. But if you lie to your base, and they know it, you’re lost.
If this spins out of control, Democrats who hate Trump and the establishment Bush Republicans who now praise him will have accomplished their goal: The end of Trump.
John Kass, Chicago Tribune
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There's an underlying consistency in Trump's goals, even if his messages are contradictory and his methods chaotic.
He wants to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East — but only if he can portray the exit as a victory march. He wants to make deals with American's adversaries, including Iran and North Korea — but only if he can claim the deal was an unalloyed win for the United States. He believes applying "maximum pressure" will force his adversaries to back down — whether the adversary is China on trade or Iran in the Middle East's proxy wars. So far, the tactic hasn't worked.
Now, his slow-motion nuclear talks with North Korea are at an impasse. And with Iran's missile attacks on two bases used by U.S. forces in Iraq, we are at risk of full-scale war with Iran.
Trump says he wants to de-escalate the conflict with Tehran, and his record suggests that his desire is genuine.
And what if Trump wins a second term?
Then the restraint on his actions imposed by voters would disappear. Trump could pursue the goals he's believed in for decades: an end to multilateral trade agreements, withdrawal of U.S. troops from overseas, an exit from NATO — a modern version of isolationism.
That's when we and the world will learn what Trump Unbound is really like.
Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times
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There's a temptation to characterize the Iranian missile attacks on an Iraqi base on Tuesday night as a letting off of steam by the Islamic Republic — after which the two sides can begin to parley. Color me skeptical. The regime in Tehran, having whipped itself into a hysteria, is unlikely to satisfy itself with a mere volley of missiles; and the fact that no Americans were killed will do little to slake Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's bloodlust.
Another interesting feature of Tuesday night's missile barrage is that the Iranians showed not even a pretense of concern for Iraqi sovereignty. It suggests the Islamic Republic will no longer hold to its practice of using Arab proxies to kill Arabs, a risky change of tactics at a time when many Iraqis, Lebanese and other Arabs are already outraged by Iranian meddling in their countries.
Rather than putting a lid on tensions in Iraq and the Middle East, Iran's missile attacks will almost certainly turn the dial up a notch.
Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg News
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This standoff is so consequential that it’s been hard not to impute some logic to the president’s actions, even as many observers acknowledge the lies and dysfunction. It’s only natural. As humans, we want to impose order on what we see. As Americans, we want to believe our leaders understand the gravity of war.
Trump is not a steady hand. He’s never been one. He is self-involved, unethical and unstable — a dangerous combination to have for the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military forces, under pressure from impeachment and a re-election campaign.
I think most observers know this. But the implications are terrifying. They suggest a much more dangerous world than the one we already believe we live in, where in a fit of pique, a single action taken by a single man could have catastrophic consequences for millions of people.
In his careless thrashing, the president may have started a war with no plan to end it and no regard for the lives that will be lost. The situation is precarious. It’s scary to think about. But we cannot look away.
Jamelle Bouie, New York Times
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Trump is facing the greatest test of his presidency. For the past three years, he has questioned the role of the U.S. global leadership, criticized alliances and often ignored the guidance of his more experienced military and diplomatic advisers. The reality of a potential war has caught up with his tweets.
The fate of his presidency and the fate of the nation depends on whether the president will finally get serious about the threat of war and his responsibilities as commander in chief. Military power alone will not be enough. The most sobering lesson of 21st-century wars is that, absent strong leadership, more American lives will be lost.
Leon E. Panetta, Washington Post
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In fairness to Trump, it should be noted that President Barack Obama escalated drone assassinations in several countries to an unprecedented degree, often killing innocent bystanders in the process. The primary difference is that Trump chose a higher-value target, but the logic of drone assassinations — if you accept it — argues for going after higher-value targets. Thus I don't find current criticisms of the strike very convincing. The better argument is simply that both Obama and Trump have opened up a Pandora’s box that Americans will someday come to regret.
And what about the other options?
Attacking or bombing military targets is an old deterrence standby, but these days it doesn't seem to send much of a signal. Did the U.S. missile strike on the Shayrat air base in Syria in 2017 have much of an impact? Cyberattacks have been used to limit the Iranian nuclear program, and perhaps in other instances. But they don't deliver an obvious public message.
Escalating proxy wars might be another option. But doing so would play into the hands of the Iranian government, which cares about those conflicts more than the U.S. does.
And so on the spectrum of possible responses, assassinating military leaders emerges as the best idea, relatively speaking. But the deeper question is how America got itself into a situation where the best retaliatory idea is still pretty bad, especially in the longer run.
Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg Opinion
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Here is the formula the “no more war” crowd refuses to accept. Iran and its proxies kill U.S. troops, along with Iranian and foreign civilians, and we are supposed to take it. If America responds to Iran, as Trump has done (unlike Obama and Clinton), we are the enemy of peace and guilty of “escalating” the conflict.
War is never a one-way street, unless one side pre-emptively surrenders. Victory must be our goal.
Perhaps feckless European nations, Saudi Arabia and other countries will see clearly now that we have been at war with these fanatics at least since 1979 when Iranian college students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 people hostage for 444 days until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, when the hostages were released. Maybe the Iranians feared Reagan would do then what Trump has done now, which is to punch back when attacked.
Yes, Iran must not be allowed to create nuclear weapons. Most in the West and Israel believe that. There will not be an invasion of Iran, but cyberattacks, computer viruses, targeting missile sites and increased sanctions are all options. So is supporting those inside Iran who hate their government and wish to replace it.
Perhaps Iran’s retaliatory attack was about “saving face” for the Iranian regime. Since no Americans were killed, and Trump has said that is a red line for him, this could be the end of the latest conflict. It will most assuredly not be the end of this war. But no one should be under any illusion that what the U.S. and the West does short of surrender will affect the stated goals of the fanatics, who are in it to win it.
The ultimate question is, are we?
Cal Thomas, Tribune News Service
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Americans should know by now that when our leaders take us into wars, they will do it on the basis of disinformation. President Lyndon Johnson got the authority to escalate in Vietnam by exploiting a minor 1964 naval incident in the Tonkin Gulf to accuse North Vietnam of “open aggression on the high seas” — which was false.
His successor, President Richard Nixon, expanded the war with a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia, undertaken in secrecy.
The George W. Bush administration justified the Iraq war on the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. President Barack Obama felt no compulsion to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan and justified his intervention in the Libyan civil war as a way to prevent the slaughter of civilians, but eventually — without saying so — expanded the mission to regime change.
Politicians realize that if citizens are to be mobilized in support of wars of choice, they must be fed a diet of lies. Last summer, a Gallup Poll found that only 18% of Americans favored military action against Iran.
If public support doesn’t materialize, we can be sure the administration will concoct more fictions. There is a long history of presidential mendacity regarding war. No one is better suited to uphold that tradition than Trump.
Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune