President Trump ordered an attack on Iran on Thursday in retaliation for the downing of a surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz but called the operation off just hours before it was due to occur, officials said.
Administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive national security decisions, said the president approved the strikes after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps earlier in the day shot down a Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk operating off Iran’s southern coast, a move Trump described as a “very big mistake.”
But he later changed his mind, the officials said. It was not immediately clear why Trump decided to pull back the operation or what it would have included.

This is disconcerting at the very least, raising questions about whether Trump is confused, paralyzed, uncertain or all of the above.

To make matters even more confused, he tweeted: “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. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it.” How in the world did things get this far, and why did Trump not ask this hours, if not days, earlier? He has now transmitted his chaotic decision-making and undercut, if not humiliated, those who came up with the plan.

Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin says it is “surprising this did not emerge as a consideration in initial discussion of the strike proposal.” He adds, “I think it’s a bit like a ride on a faulty elevator. You’re not sure you’re going to get to a conclusion and you never know what floor you’re stopping on.”

Moreover, “If the President is not serious about military action to curb Iran, then he’s just shown the world his threats are hollow, and put military forces in harm’s way, and encouraged other nations to test our resolve and defenses,” says Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “After all the GOP criticism of [President Barack] Obama’s foreign policy, I’d like to hear from them how this ramp up, get punched, then hesitate with Iran is part of a national security strategy.” He adds, “I also think Trump, in the same way he can’t fire someone to their face, is terrified of a war, especially when all of his generals have left him.”

I asked former Defense Department official and military expert Mark Jacobson whether Trump was faltering. “Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question today.” He says "this could reflect [Trump’s] internal contradiction: [He] talks tough/appears tough but doesn’t want a major war.”

The internal battles among the new acting defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo now have burst into public view, accentuating the portrait of chaos and faltering presidential leadership.

On the bright side, “I’m glad we didn’t strike as it’s not clear there were any off-ramps and doesn’t appear there’s a broader strategy besides acting tough,” Jacobson says.

It’s hard to remember a time when there was less confidence in the commander in chief. After a briefing at the White House on Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told the media he was concerned that we might “bumble” into a war. That’s a remarkable statement of no confidence.

Part of that uncertainty stems from the dearth of seasoned, respected national security professionals around Trump. “His experienced hands are gone; it’s just Bolton and Pompeo running national security and there’s no level head at the Department of Defense running things,” says Watts.

Republicans who have enabled Trump and excused his erratic, incoherent foreign policy as part of some grand plan bear a huge amount of responsibility for the current mess. Uber-hawks such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are all too anxious to goad Trump into military war, but without regard to Trump’s own capacity to lead such an effort and without a cogent strategy.

And that at bottom is the problem: Pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without our allies and acting belligerently did not make for an effective or even rational policy. Iran was not simply going to crumble and accede to Trump’s demands. Did the Trump administration not imagine that Iran would respond? Did it have a backup plan if Iran didn’t throw up its hands and surrender?

As in Venezuela, the Trump team is under the misimpression that Trump can bluff and bluster his way to success. But our foes don’t fear, respect or even believe Trump.

All of this leaves us in a precarious position. “The decision to go and then stand down just shows how they don’t have any idea what they are doing,” says Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress. We know it. Our allies know it. And worst of all, Iran and every other foe on the planet know it as well.

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