This will be Trump's war

If conflict between the U.S. and Iran escalates, the president will deserve the lion's share of the blame

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP, Mohammad Mohsenifar/Mehr News Agency via AP)

We don't yet know how the United States will respond to Iran firing a dozen ballistic missiles at American forces at two military bases in Iraq on Tuesday night. But we do know that if the cycle of escalation continues and culminates in an outright military conflict between the two countries, it will be President Trump's war from top to bottom.

When Trump entered office, Iran was abiding by the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and several of America's closest allies. The Iranians weren't our friends and continued to act in destabilizing ways in various parts of the Middle East, but they were no longer quite the enemy they used to be. We had found enough common ground, enough areas of overlapping interests, to halt Iran's progress on developing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade in return for the lifting of sanctions and partial normalization of relations. That's what international affairs is supposed to be all about: nations figuring out how to get along and avoid outright conflict despite sometimes serious differences.

But of course, Trump's understanding of the world is decisively shaped by the right-wing bravado-addicts at Fox News — a place where the Iran deal had been portrayed as an abomination from day one — and he's motivated above all else by the meatheaded reflex to reverse every policy Obama ever pursued. So without prompting, he pointlessly pulled out of the deal and imposed punishing sanctions on Iran. That is the necessary condition for the situation in which we now find ourselves.

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But it isn't sufficient to explain how we got here. For that we need to delve deeper into the president's idiocy and incompetence.

Some well-meaning people in the anti-war precincts of the right have expended considerable energy and reputational capital trying to put flesh on the bones of Trump's rhetorical gestures toward "ending America's endless wars." The faith and hope are rooted in things Trump has been saying since his primary campaign in 2016, so it isn't entirely delusional. But the reality is that Trump's promises to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan have amounted to nothing. (U.S. forces get moved around, but they don't come home.) And when it comes to the all-important issue of staffing his administration, the president has chosen over and over again to hire hawks.

Some have been tough and sober soldiers like former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, while others, like another former national security adviser, John Bolton, are war-hungry ideologues. Either way, an administration staffed with such men was never going to opt for the exits in our various wars in the Greater Middle East. We know that because Trump's decision to surround himself with hawks demonstrated something important about the way he thinks. But more than that, we know it because the people who enact policy have enormous influence on shaping policy. That's especially true in an administration where the commander in chief knows nothing at all about the world and so must overwhelmingly rely on what he is told by his staff.

That's where the two Mikes come in — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence. Both men are passionately, unwaveringly hostile to Iran. They despise its government with all the intensity of a lonely and loveless recluse still smarting from being dumped by his girlfriend 40 years in the past. They consider the Iran deal a catastrophe and any effort to normalize relations with the country an insult and potentially fatal demonstration of weakness. Iran is the Soviet Union and Al Qaeda rolled into one — the focal point of evil in the region and the world.

This is a cartoon version of Iran, though admittedly one that the Iranian leadership itself plays into with its lunatic rhetorical threats toward Israel and the United States. Yet these are also threats Iran hasn't acted on since the Carter administration. It's bluster, mainly for domestic consumption. Just as American anti-Iran hawks like Pompeo and Pence latch onto and hype that rhetoric for consumption at home, specifically within the Republican electoral coalition, while downplaying evidence of much greater caution and restraint.

These are the people Trump has chosen to surround himself with — in an administration that has displayed outright contempt for diplomacy from the very start. (The contempt is so thoroughgoing that the nation's secretary of state speaks and acts more like a trigger-happy defense secretary than its top diplomat.) How much does Pompeo crave confrontation with Iran? So much so that in the months following Trump's decision to call off a retaliatory strike against Iran last June, Pompeo sulked and made noises about departing the administration to run for the Senate in Kansas. But not anymore. Having finally talked the president into acting on his (potentially fleeting) impulse to kill Qassem Soleimani, the bounce is now back in his step, with the Senate race no longer much of a temptation.

But the war that might await us won't be Pompeo's war. It will be Trump's. It's the president's ignorance of the world, impulsiveness, toughness fetish, and penchant for surrounding himself with ideologues that will deserve the lion's share of the blame if he chooses to push even further down the road to all-out war on which his words and his actions have deliberately set our country and the world.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.