Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
In any fight, keeping your opponent off balance is critical, and telegraphing your punches is dangerous. Feints and tactical retreats are ways to avoid becoming predictable. Even threats and bravado can be used to confuse the enemy, as boxing legend Muhammed Ali proved. But eventually, you have to punch your opponent in the face hard enough to knock him flat.
Whether by design or instinct, Donald Trump’s foreign policy so far has followed this age-old strategy. He has abandoned the West’s predictable foreign-policy narrative that conflicts can be resolved with “diplomatic engagement,” “international summits,” “UN Resolutions,” “multilateral agreements,” and all the other verbal rituals for avoiding risky action while the enemy uses the time for working more mischief. His direct, blunt, sometimes wild public pronouncements blow through the understated, vapid, stylized diplo-speak of “grave concern” and “deeply troubling” that are mere verbal place-holders, ways of providing the press copy without saying anything significant. And he has dropped the pretense that thugs and fanatics deserve to be treated with the “mutual respect” due to legitimate leaders of free nations.
But two years of Trump’s using this strategy with Iran may be becoming predictable, at least to the mullahs. In the last few months, attacks on six commercial vessels in the Gulf, and now the destruction of one of our drones flying over international waters, suggest Iran believes that for all his tough talk, Trump is a typical Western leader who will not back his words with action.
Take the drone incident. Conflicting reports say that the president ordered a strike on three of Iran’s military sites, then called it off after the jets were already in the air, though the president disputes the claim that the strike was “cancelled,” but rather is “on hold.” More baffling are Trump’s reasons for holding back. He speculated that a rogue Iranian officer was “loose” and did “something stupid” not approved by the regime. That’s not likely with a military tightly controlled by the ayatollahs, who have demonstrated in the past the brutal wages of acting without their approval.
At the same time, according to the Iranians, Trump sent them a back-channel message that he wants to talk, and he repeatedly claims he doesn’t want war: “We’re not looking to hurt Iran,” the president has said. “I want them to be strong and great.” Meanwhile, Iran slyly threatened the U.S. by claiming they thought about downing a U.S. plane accompanying the drone, which would have killed 38 military personnel. Trump countered with yet another threat, saying that if war comes, there will be “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.” Is Trump just sowing uncertainty in the mullahs’ minds about whether he wants to talk or fight?
Even more troubling, Trump says he called off the attack because a general estimated 150 Iranians would be killed, and that toll would not have been “proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.” I suppose the cyberattacks he ordered on Saturday, and the tougher sanctions promised for Monday, are “proportionate,” but as non-lethal responses, they hardly will act as a deterrent. The Stuxnet virus, which incapacitated Iran’s uranium centrifuges, was just a bump in the road on their way to a nuclear bomb.
Indeed, “proportionate” is one of those weasel-words favored by the globalist diplomats, especially when they are condemning Israel for defending itself against terrorist murderers who hide behind their own women and children. Actions meant to deter should be disproportionate. The stakes must be raised to make the enemy consider if it’s worth the pain to him to pay the escalating price. And even in a “cold” war, people are going to die, as Americans have died in Iran’s openly declared war on the U.S. But in war it’s the aggressor who is morally responsible for his people’s deaths, not those defending themselves against his aggression. The Iranians who would have died are military personnel, and the sites are military sites, not day-care centers.
Again, with Trump we don’t know if this squeamishness is just a feint, or he really believes it. Perhaps such tweets are a tactic to keep the Iranians off balance, wondering whether or not he really means it. But we can’t tell if the president realizes that our jihadist enemy’s contempt for us–– an enemy who has for 14 centuries told the West that “they love death as we love life”–– in part comes from our fear of casualties, our reticence not just to lose our own people, but those of the enemy. Osama bin Laden repeatedly told his trainees that America ran from Vietnam, from Beirut, from Mogadishu because we can’t take the images of dead Americans and lines of body-bags. The insane rules of engagement imposed on our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which seemingly valued the lives of enemy civilians over those of our own troops, was similarly interpreted. Whatever their distance from reality, these perceptions damage our prestige and invite aggression.
Another inhibitor of action, one the Iranians are well aware of, is politics. They know the 2020 presidential election campaign has already started. They are wagering that the last thing the president wants is an escalating conflict in which eventually some Americans will die. They’re savvy enough to know that the Democrats are antiwar by default, and will use the violence and casualties to divert attention from their roster of mediocre candidates and their wacky policy positions such as the Green New Deal and other socialist fantasies. And the Iranians are aware that Trump ran for office on a platform opposing “foreign entanglements” and “neocon” adventurism. They know his base’s view, as articulated by FOX News’ Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, is dead-set against wasting lives and money in another Middle East “quagmire.”
Iran, then, believes it can win this game of chicken. If Trump doesn’t act, they have damaged his credibility, enhanced their own prestige, and created the perception that for all his tough talk he is just like the bipartisan series of leaders who for 40 years have failed to punish Iran’s aggression (with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s 1988 decisive, disproportionate response to Iran’s attacks on international shipping during the Iran-Iraq war). The mullahs can continue spinning their centrifuges, supporting terrorism, and plotting terrorist attacks in Europe. And they can agree to renegotiate the Iran deal from a stronger position, having faced down a superpower. If Trump does attack and people die, he will pay the price with a displeased base, and lessen his chances of reelection. That is Iran’s primary goal: To have another Democrat “rules based international order” functionary in the White House who will rejoin the lethally stupid Iran Deal that paid them billions to keep working towards acquiring nuclear weapons.
Finally, the argument against action predicted on Iran’s dysfunctional economy and demographic death-spiral involves risks we cannot afford to take. Yes, the economy is crumbling, the people are restive, and the sanctions are making things worse every day. We are self-sufficient in oil, making Iran’s threat to block the Straits of Hormuz a problem for those countries like China that need Iranian oil. Can’t we just sit and wait, tighten the sanctions screws, and let Iran implode?
At different times Trump has suggested an endorsement of this strategy. But we should remember some recent history. During the Nineties we were told that Saddam Hussein was “in the box,” hemmed in by sanctions and by no-fly zones patrolled by our fighter jets. Yet up until 9/11 gruesomely exposed the wages of inaction against al Qaeda and its state sponsors, France and Russia were working to undo the sanctions, the corrupt UN “oil for food” program was putting billions in Hussein’s coffers, and we had no clue whether or not he possessed stockpiles of WMDs, or the infrastructure for building them.
With hindsight it’s easy today to fault the war against Hussein, especially because it morphed into a Wilsonian fantasy of democratizing a nation without any of the cultural infrastructure for liberal democracy. But with the ruins in Manhattan still smoking, what leader could have rolled the dice and just assumed that a proven genocidal tyrant would remain “in the box” forever, when he had already climbed half-way out? The Senate’s bipartisan authorization of the war certainly didn’t think that was a good idea, despite the Dems’ post facto, specious argument that they were gulled by false intelligence.
So too with Iran. On its way to likely collapse, it nonetheless possesses the expertise and infrastructure necessary for make nuclear weapons, not to mention the will to use them. Nor do we know for sure how far they have advanced down that road. We do know that for 40 years Iran has been at war with us, and has proved it by killing our soldiers and supporting our terrorist enemies like Hezbollah. As the Iranian military bases and troops in Syria show, the attempts to keep Iran “in the box” have failed, and time is running ever shorter for keeping the mullahs from creating weapons that will make them untouchable, except by the Israelis, who can’t afford our geopolitical insouciance. But it’s morally unseemly to continually rely on Israel to be the Dirty Harry of the Middle East, at such a great risk to their very existence. With our NATO “allies” hell-bent on appeasement, it’s up to us to stop Iran and defend our security and interests and those of one of our most important allies.
I don’t know if Trump is rope-a-doping Iran and confusing them with his contradictory statements and actions, or is just free-lancing day-to-day. It doesn’t matter, for we are running out of rounds. Only kinetic action, that missish euphemism for mass violence, will get the mullahs’ minds right. A good place to start is to punish them for knocking down our drone, and then follow up with an escalating series of responses to any new aggression that move from naval assets, to shore batteries, and to the systematic degradation of the regime’s military assets, economic holdings, and personnel.
Keeping the enemy off balance and uncertain is only a tactic for achieving the strategic goal: defeating him. It’s time for Iran to get put down for the count.