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Opinion With Iran, Trump needs to put up or shut up

President Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on June 18 in Washington. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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President Trump is an inveterate liar, but some of his lies are more significant than others. The lies he told about his change of heart over attacking Iran after Iran shot down a U.S. drone are particularly telling. “We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” Trump tweeted on Friday morning. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not … proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”

In fact, accounts from both The Post and the New York Times agree that, as per standard practice, the Pentagon had provided collateral damage estimates early on Thursday along with its options for striking Iran. Moreover, as noted, the “150 figure was on the high end of a range of possibilities”; 150 dead was the worst-case scenario if U.S. bombs and missiles had hit the proposed Iranian targets — radars and missile batteries — in the middle of the day. The option that Trump initially approved, however, was to attack during the night to minimize loss of life. Finally, the newspapers’ accounts agree that Trump called off the strikes not 10 minutes beforehand but roughly two hours ahead of time, at around 7 p.m.

These lies may seem small, but they are actually quite telling, because they go to the issue of motivation. Trump would like the world to believe that he called off the airstrikes because he is a humanitarian and “not a warmonger.” But the evidence suggests he was really motivated by conversations with the likes of Tucker Carlson, who told him, according to the Times, that the “hawks” urging retaliation against Iran “did not have the president’s best interests at heart … [and] if Mr. Trump got into a war with Iran, he could kiss his chances of re-election goodbye.”

In short, Trump refused to pull the trigger not because he got new information but because he got cold feet. This looks a lot like President Barack Obama’s failure to carry out threatened airstrikes in 2013 after Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. “Red line statement was a disaster for President Obama,” Trump tweeted at the time. His hesitations and zigzags with Iran are no less a disaster for him.

As President Trump planned to impose additional sanctions on Iran, politicians on both sides of the aisle responded on June 23. (Video: The Washington Post)

This is part of a pattern with Trump, who roars like a tiger but usually acts like a scaredy-cat. This is the same president, after all, who has repeatedly threatened to close the border with Mexico or slap it with prohibitive tariffs unless it ended illegal immigration — and never once made good on his threats. He’s also the president who tweeted last week, “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States” — and then on Saturday called off raids that would have targeted not millions of people but 2,000 families. He also threatened in 2017 to rain “fire and fury” down on North Korea but has since gushed about how he receives “beautiful” letters from Kim Jong Un and professes to be in “love” with the North Korean tyrant whose nuclear program continues full speed ahead.

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The examples are endless, and they all point to an undeniable conclusion: Trump is a Twitter tiger whose threats cannot be taken seriously. As I wrote after he backed down from his threat to close the Mexico border in April: “Trump is the maestro of empty threats. The pontiff of broken promises. The bard of bluster, bluff and BS.”

This is a dangerous position for a president. National security adviser John Bolton warned on Sunday: “Neither Iran nor any other hostile actor should mistake U.S. prudence and discretion for weakness.” In fact, what has been on display is not prudence and discretion but indecision and chaos. The message that will go out to enemy capitals is, in fact, that the president is weak. Russian state TV is already mocking Trump for his stand-down with Iran.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Trump should have attacked Iran. The proposed strike would have been worse than useless; it was so small that it would have signaled irresolution and weakness even if it had gone ahead, but it was big enough that it could have triggered a tit-for-tat cycle of escalation leading to much bigger hostilities. As I wrote a month ago, all-out war with Iran would be “the mother of all quagmires.”

But if Trump has no intention of attacking Iran, he should not pursue a policy of exiting the nuclear deal and imposing punishing sanctions, pushing Iran into a corner and making conflict much more likely. He should not keep senior advisers (read: Bolton) who, he says, are “disgusting” because they “want to push us into a war.” And he should not issue bloodcurdling threats such as: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Trump needs to either put up or shut up. But he won’t do either. He continues to run his mouth — or, more accurately, his Twitter account — without making good on his threats. This is the worst of all worlds.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s Iran reversal exposes one of his most dangerous lies

The Post’s View: Trump was right not to bomb Iran. Now he needs a strategy.

Max Boot: The only constant with Trump is that he always changes his mind

Jennifer Rubin: Trump is seen as all bluff and no policy on Iran

Max Boot: A war with Iran would be the mother of all quagmires