Washington Post Quotes JINSA President & CEO Mike Makovsky on Iran Tensions

Trump struggles to balance looking tough on Iran with reticence to involve U.S. in conflicts abroad

By Anne Gearan

President Trump considered military strikes against Iran and then called them off at close to the last minute Thursday evening — but it’s not clear he ever really wanted to go through with the attack.

The on-again, off-again airstrikes were perhaps the most visible sign yet of the tension between Trump’s antipathy toward Iran, furthered by hawkish aides who have called the Islamic republic evil, and his own political instincts that favor a more isolationist approach to foreign policy.

In a set of morning tweets, Trump sought to project an air of toughness toward Iran calling it a “much weakened nation today” thanks to increased sanctions and his ending of the nuclear deal with Tehran, while explaining why he decided, against the advice of some of his advisers and allies, to call off a military strike responding to Iran’s downing of a U.S. drone.

“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,” he wrote. “10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

Questions continued to swirl Friday over the deliberations that led to a near attack and what Trump knew throughout Thursday about the potential impact of the strikes before he made his decision to call them off.

[White House did not impose new Iran sanctions Thursday, despite Trump’s claim]

Hours after he tweeted out the account of his decision he provided a less dramatic version in an interview of NBC News, saying that he had never given final approval for an attack, no planes were in the air and that a plan was in place but it was “subject to my approval.”

“And I didn’t like it, I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was proportionate,” he said.

All of it illustrated the chief conflict within Trump’s foreign policy approach as his desire to look like he’s taking a tough approach toward one of the world’s bad actors collided with his reticence to involve the U.S. in conflicts abroad.

Like past presidents, Trump had to weigh the value of projecting American military strength as a warning to hostile powers against the risk of tit-for-tat escalation toward war and the possibility of casualties.

But unlike his most recent predecessors, Trump’s political brand was built partly on rejecting conventional ideas about war and diplomacy. His “America First” agenda says the United States won’t be the world’s policeman, even as he boasts of bigger Pentagon budgets.

Trump campaigned on the conviction that the Iraq War was “the dumbest war ever fought,” and as recently as his reelection announcement on Tuesday he took credit for reordering American priorities.

“Great nations do not want to fight endless wars. They’ve been going on forever. Starting to remove a lot of troops,” he told an enthusiastic crowd in Orlando, Florida. “We’re finally putting America first.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) said Friday that members of Congress who met with Trump at the White House on Thursday had delivered a bipartisan message favoring “de-escalating.”

“We left with the impression that the president was going to consider some options,” Pelosi said, adding that she was not informed of his decision either to go forward or to reverse course. She said she was pleased with the eventual choice.

“I don’t know how imminent the strike was, you hear different things,” she told reporters. “But, a strike of that amount of collateral damage would be very provocative and I’m glad the president did not take that.”

But Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official under President George W. Bush and president of the conservative Jewish Institute for National Security of America accused Trump of wimping out.

“President Trump’s handling of rising Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf is undermining American global credibility, which is the currency for foreign policy and the bedrock of deterrence,” Makovsky wrote on Twitter. “Trump has given the impression he lost his nerve.”

Trump has appeared torn or indecisive in recent days over how to handle Iran’s provocations.

Speaking Thursday, hours before the then-secret operation was to begin, Trump sent mixed signals. He suggested that U.S. retaliation was a real possibility, but also seemed to bend backward to give Iran the benefit of the doubt about the intent and severity of the attack.

“I think, probably, Iran made a mistake. I would imagine it was a general or somebody that made a mistake in shooting that drone down,” Trump said, adding later that he didn’t think the strike was “intentional” despite the conclusions of his own government and Iran taking credit for the attack.

Iran said it had fired on the jetliner-sized drone after issuing warnings. Iran claims it was flying over Iranian territory, which Trump rejected as false. His administration maintains the aircraft was flying over international waters.

“Fortunately, that drone was unarmed,” Trump added. “There was no man in it, and there was no — it was just — it was over international waters; clearly over international waters. But we didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you. It would have made a big, big difference.”

The Trump administration also blames Iran for attacks on two tankers last week near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denies it. But the tankers do not belong to the United States. The strike on the drone represented a significant escalation on Iran’s part, and one aimed squarely at Washington.

Iran’s motives are difficult to determine, but some analysts see the drone attack as a show of strength before a potential negotiation with Trump over the Iranian nuclear program. Others see it as a semi-rogue move by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, a vast and powerful military force that does not always directly coordinate with Iran’s political leadership.

Trump did not rule out negotiations Thursday, although he had said last week that neither side is ready.

“I have a feeling — I may be wrong and I may right, but I’m right a lot. I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn’t have been doing what they did,” Trump said of the strike. “I think they made a mistake. And I’m not just talking the country made a mistake. I think that somebody under the command of that country made a big mistake.”

The Pentagon always has a menu of target options for potential conflicts, and could recommend targets for U.S. retaliation that are calibrated to match the severity of a first strike on U.S. assets.

But any U.S. show of force could set off a chain reaction, and potentially drag the United States into a deeper conflict. Before this series of events, Trump had gone out of his way to say that he did not favor “regime change” in Iran, which was widely read as an invitation to talk. And Trump’s discomfort with the pro-war views of national security adviser John Bolton are well known.

So it may have been more a change of mind than a change of heart when Trump reversed course. Or maybe not. Trump likes to keep people guessing.

“Look, I said I want to get out of these endless wars. I campaigned on that: I want to get out. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 19 years,” Trump said as he sat with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office on Thursday.

“But this is something — this is a new wrinkle. This is a new fly in the ointment, what happened shooting down the drone. And this country will not stand for it, that I can tell you.”

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