President Trump is ending 2020 the same way he began this awful year — by ratcheting up the possibility of a stupid and unnecessary war with Iran.
The New York Times reported this week that the president — in between rounds of golf and tweets falsely claiming to have won the election — had asked his senior advisers about the possibility of taking military action against Iran during the waning weeks of his term, to retaliate against that country for growing its stockpile of nuclear material that could potentially be used in a bomb.
Trump's aides reportedly believed they had dissuaded him from launching a missile attack against Iran, but the president "might still be looking at ways to strike Iranian assets and allies, including militias in Iraq, officials said." (Cyber attacks were reportedly also on the list of possible U.S. actions.)
This news is creating a sense of deja vu.
The president, you'll remember, started the year by ordering the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's Quds force. Trump offered a shifting series of explanations for the killing — suggesting that an attack on American forces was imminent. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged that he hadn't seen evidence of Trump's claim that Iranians were plotting an assault on four United States embassies abroad. The two countries appeared on the brink of war, before Iran launched missiles at American base in Iran. The attack caused no fatalities, but it did seem to end the matter for the moment.
Now the tension has returned.
That is hardly a surprise. The GOP's longstanding fantasy of a war with Iran remains a powerful urge in the party's hawkish wing. Former President George W. Bush memorably named Iran — along with Iraq and North Korea — to his "Axis of Evil" in 2002, and seemed poised for a conflict until the occupation of Iraq went so disastrously wrong and curtailed America's ability and ambitions to remake the Middle East.
It is true that Iran's uranium stockpile has grown considerably. But — as has been exhaustively documented — that is because the Trump administration pulled out of the accord that President Obama and other countries negotiated to halt the nuclear program, replacing the carrot of engagement with the stick of a "maximum pressure" policy of sanctions to destabilize the regime. No longer beholden to rules forcing them to halt the nuclear program, Iran's leaders quite naturally resumed it.
American officials, bewilderingly, think this is a success. "The Maximum Pressure campaign against the Iranian regime continues to be effective," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted this week. "It deprives the regime of funds to carry out its malign activities." If that were true, though, Iran's collection of uranium would not be growing. The president wants to bomb his way out of a problem he created with his abandonment of diplomacy.
This is a terrible idea. The one lesson America should have learned from the 21st century is that it is easy to start a war in the Middle East — and almost impossible to end one. Next fall will mark the 20th anniversary of America's toppling of Afghanistan's Taliban government after 9/11; U.S. troops are still trying to stabilize the country. And America's invasion of Iraq failed on its own terms — there weren't weapons of mass destruction, remember — before becoming a deadly slog that helped set the stage for the birth and rise of ISIS. U.S. troops are still active in that country.
U.S. military leaders are concerned that even a small-scale strike on Iran — say, an attack just on its nuclear facilities — "could easily escalate into a broader conflict." It is both wrong and deeply unfair for Trump to potentially leave his successor with a brand-new shooting war on his hands.
Then again, creating problems for President-elect Joe Biden might be the point. We already know that Trump is planning to "box in" Biden by adopting new hardline sanctions and trade restrictions with China that the new president might have a difficult time reversing. It makes sense that increasing tensions with Iran might also make it more difficult for Biden to meet his promise of rejoining the Obama-era nuclear accord.
The odd factor in all of this is that Trump seems to want to be known as a peacemaker — he has ordered a reduction of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his allies spent the campaign season touting the lack of new wars on his watch. But this president also has an instinct for trouble, and two months left in the White House. Attacking Iran would be big trouble.
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