(Andrew Harnik/AP)
Opinion writer

In August 2002, as the Bush administration was deep into its propaganda effort to convince the public that if we didn’t invade Iraq then Saddam Hussein would kill us all with weapons of mass destruction, a British official described to Newsweek the prevailing sentiment: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”

You might have thought that the catastrophe of the Iraq War would have given even the most ardent hawk second thoughts about the wisdom of a U.S. war against Iran. But it didn’t. Now those hawks may well be trying to move events toward the military confrontation they’ve wanted for so long.

And because President Trump is so impulsive, so unpredictable and so easily manipulated, they just might succeed.

We are right now in a state of what’s referred to as “rising tensions,” which usually means people on both sides getting worked up over events and statements that are objectively trivial but could nonetheless produce disaster if the parties are dumb enough. Let’s consider this article in The Post:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has privately delivered warnings intended for Iranian leaders that any attack by Tehran or its proxies resulting in the death of even one American service member will generate a military counterattack, U.S. officials said.

The potential for a significant military response to even an isolated event has fueled a broader internal debate among top Trump officials about whether the administration’s policy exceeds President Trump’s specific goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, the officials said.

One such message about retaliation was delivered during a hastily arranged visit to Baghdad by Pompeo in May after officials detected a spike in intelligence indicating that Iran’s militia proxies might resume assaults on U.S. forces operating in proximity to them across Iraq. While such attacks were common during the Iraq War, Pompeo told Iraqi leaders in a message he knew would be relayed to Tehran that a single American fatality would prompt the United States to hit back. That specific warning has not been previously reported.

Now that this has been reported — and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Pompeo himself arranged for the leak — it means the United States has publicly committed itself to attacking Iran if even a single U.S. service member is killed by Iran or one of its proxies. That could happen at any moment in Iraq, a dangerous place where bombs often go off and there are many U.S. forces and Iranian proxies walking around.

Would Trump follow through if that happened? We know that he hates nothing more than being perceived as “weak,” so he well might, even if he didn’t want to for other reasons.

And by all accounts, he doesn’t. Trump is plainly uninterested in getting caught in an Iraq-style quagmire; it’s one of the few sensible positions he takes. This week he characterized alleged attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman supposedly carried out by Iran as “very minor,” in contrast to other Republicans who saw them as practically a new Gulf of Tonkin incident, the trip wire for another glorious war.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for instance, said Sunday, "I think this unprovoked attack on commercial shipping warrants retaliatory military strikes,” and he reportedly has been telling the president so privately.

Then there’s national security adviser John Bolton, who has wanted war with Iran for as long as anyone can remember. “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” was the headline for an op-ed he wrote in 2015. “The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran,” he told an Iranian exile group in 2017. Bolton recently ordered a Pentagon plan for sending as many as 120,000 troops to the region to fight Iran — you know, just in case.

Let’s not forget that those tanker attacks are likely the direct result of the “maximum pressure” campaign the Trump administration has waged against Iran, crippling its economy to force it to renegotiate the nuclear deal in a way that gives us whatever we ask for, with us giving up nothing in return.

But now the Iranian government has announced that it intends to exceed the limits on its stocks of uranium imposed by the nuclear deal. As the Associated Press put it, this has left the Trump administration “in the awkward position of demanding that Iran comply with a nuclear accord that the president derided as the worst deal in history.”

So let’s sum up. At the start of 2017, we had a painstakingly crafted deal with Iran that was successfully restraining whatever nuclear ambitions they had. Trump broke that agreement, because it was negotiated under President Barack Obama. Now the Iranians are allegedly taking provocative actions near the Persian Gulf. We’re sending 1,000 more troops to the Middle East “for defensive purposes.” And the administration has been making the case that it doesn’t need congressional approval to attack Iran, just in case anyone was wondering.

Meanwhile, we just traded one acting secretary of defense for another. On top of that, as Fred Kaplan reports for Slate, “Civilian authority in the Pentagon has significantly eroded during Trump’s presidency, sparking an exodus of midlevel officials. Senior military officers have also lost influence."

And guess who’s filling the resulting “vacuum in defense circles,” per Kaplan’s reporting? Bolton and Pompeo.

A month ago, The Post reported that Trump was frustrated with Bolton and Pompeo for pushing toward a confrontation with Iran that he didn’t want. But the truth is that Trump has no plan on Iran — all he has are impulses and inclinations. You can bet your bottom dollar, on the other hand, that Bolton does have a plan.

So it isn’t hard to imagine Bolton and Pompeo maneuvering Trump into a position where the conflict between the United States and Iran keeps ratcheting up higher and higher. Now we have a stated policy that even a single American death will be followed by a military strike. If that happens and the Iranians find some way to retaliate, they’ll say, “Mr. President, you can’t allow that to go unpunished — you’ll look weak!” If he follows their advice, the conflict grows.

And before you know it, the hawks might get their war.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Trump has a credibility problem with Iran. Shanahan’s departure makes it worse.

Jennifer Rubin: What’s our Iran policy? Trump just sows confusion.

Max Boot: In Iran crisis, our worst fears about Trump are realized

David Ignatius: Is the Iran-U.S. tinderbox about to ignite?