Donald Trump pulled back from igniting a potentially disastrous war in the Persian Gulf on Thursday night with just 10 minutes to spare, but the super-hawks he surrounded himself with will probably try again, writes Joe Lauria.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
The commander-in-chief acted like one, if only briefly, on Thursday night when he said he called off air strikes on Iran—and potentially a devastating war in the Persian Gulf—with just ten minutes to spare, because he says a general told him to expect around 150 Iranian civilian deaths.
Donald Trump tweeted Friday morning:
“On Monday (sic) they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not……..proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!”
It seems unlikely that a president would have to ask at the last minute about potential civilian casualties, unless the Pentagon has become so callous as to not have figured that into its war planning. A more likely scenario is that Donald Trump was in an epic struggle with his most hawkish national security advisers—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton—and with himself, and that he could not decide what to do until literally the last ten minutes, using the excuse of civilian deaths to pull back.
Trump’s inner struggle on Iran has played out in public, mostly on Twitter. He has been sending seriously mixed signals to Iran: on the one hand he has told Iran he wants to negotiate with them to replace the nuclear deal he unwisely pulled out of last year and on the other hand he’s gone as far as threatening what amounts to genocide.
If Trump is engaged in a good-cop, bad-cop strategy with Iran, with Pompeo and Bolton playing very convincing bad cops, then Trump is a disaster as a good cop. He has been essentially playing good-cop, bad-cop with himself. We’ve got three bad cops here, Pompeo, Bolton and half of Trump, and one good cop, the other half of Trump.
If he were really committed to the anti-interventionist rhetoric of his campaign, which many of his followers still believe in, he would not have appointed Pompeo and Bolton to begin with, unless under extreme pressure from someone like Sheldon Adelson, the fanatically pro-Israel casino magnet and major Republican donor who once suggested the U.S. drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert as a warning. Pompeo, and especially Bolton, have demonstrated that they are trying to run U.S. policy on Iran on their own, managing, manipulating or attempting an end run around Trump.
Thus Bolton was the driving force to get a carrier strike force sent to the Persian Gulf and, according to The New York Times, on May 14, it was he who “ordered” a Pentagon plan to prepare 120,000 U.S. troops for the Gulf. These were to be deployed “if Iran attacked American forces or accelerated its work on nuclear weapons.”
Two months after Bolton was appointed national security adviser, in June 2018, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the six-nation deal that has seen Teheran curtail its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for relaxation of U.S. and international sanctions.
At the time of Bolton’s appointment in April 2018, Tom Countryman, who had been undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, as had Bolton, predicted to The Intercept that if Iran increased enrichment after the U.S. left the deal, it “would be the kind of excuse that a person like Bolton would look to to create a military provocation or direct attack on Iran.”
In response to ever tightening sanctions, Iran said on May 5 (May 6 in Teheran) that it would indeed increase nuclear enrichment. On the same day, Bolton announced the carrier strike group was headed to the Gulf. On June 10, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had made good on its threat to accelerate enrichment.
This has been followed by several suspicious attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, the most serious occurring last week on Japanese tankers while the Japanese prime minister was sitting with Iranian officials in Teheran trying to defuse the situation. The incident that ultimately led to Thursday’s close call with disaster was sparked by Iran shooting down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone. Iran says it was in Iranian airspace. The U.S. says it was over international waters. A U.S. air strike on Iran would almost surely invite retaliation by Teheran, risking the spread of a catastrophic war engulfing the Arab states on the opposite shores of the Gulf.
This would not be Saddam Hussein’s troops running away from advancing U.S. forces. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards warned Friday that U.S. military bases and the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier were within range of Iranian missiles.
In the Delegate’s Lounge at United Nations headquarters in New York several years ago I had a one-on-one conversation with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, who was then Teheran’s ambassador to the UN. I confided in him that I thought the U.S. was being the aggressor but I asked him, for the sake of his country and the region and to avoid a devastating conflict, whether Iran might make the very difficult decision to give in to Washington.
“We would rather fight and die than give in,” Zarif told me.
Instead of standing up to Bolton and Pompeo, who this week tried to peddle the ludicrous tale that Shi’ite Iran supports Sunni extremist al-Qaeda (while fighting it in Syria and just as the Bush administration tried to falsely tie al-Qaeda to Saddam), Trump instead runs to Fox News to whisper to the interviewer, as if they were alone, about the “military-industrial complex” being real and how much his advisers, presumably Pompeo and Bolton, “like war.”
He needs to tell them that. Last minute excuses about civilian deaths probably won’t work next time Pompeo and Bolton set Trump up for disaster.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Sunday Times of London and numerous other newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe .