The official explanation for President Trump’s last-minute decision to postpone a strike on Iran contains two separate claims. First, the move shows that Trump is capable of restraint, forbearance and great temperamental poise. Second, his resolve and willingness to unleash spectacular military might should not be underestimated.
Those two things aren’t necessarily contradictory. Indeed, the argument is that Trump is judiciously balancing those two impulses. This is crucial to Trump’s story: He wants to convince domestic audiences both that he isn’t recklessly hurtling into war and that he’s strong and tough. He also wants Iran to fear him more, now that he’s launching “major additional sanctions” in hopes of forcing total capitulation.
But here’s the problem: It’s hard to square this narrative with the known facts and public statements we now have about what happened. And the real emerging story says something important about how Trump’s worldview landed us in this mess.
Pence’s revealing CNN interview
Vice President Pence’s Sunday interview on CNN was unintentionally revealing in this regard. Pence reiterated the message that Trump concluded “late in the process” that the potential casualties from a strike were “not proportionate” to Iran’s shooting down of an unmanned drone.
But then Tapper pressed Pence further. Last week, Trump tweeted that he halted strikes after being informed 150 people would die. Then, asked why he’d ordered the strikes before getting a casualty count, Trump told reporters he’d initially received “very odd” casualty numbers before getting reliable ones.
Tapper prodded Pence on what this meant:
TAPPER: Why would the president have only gotten the casualty numbers, as you put it, “very late in the process”?
PENCE: What I can tell you … is that the president was provided with casualty assessments and a whole range of information --
TAPPER: But only at the end …
PENCE: Really throughout. But as the president indicated, late in the process there were more specific projections given to him relative to the targets that he was prepared to use force against and he concluded that it was not a proportionate response.
Here Pence conceded Trump actually had been given casualty estimates early on, and greenlighted the strikes anyway, but that they were somehow not as specific as the estimate at the last second.
This demands further scrutiny
Ned Price, who was President Barack Obama’s special assistant on national security, told me that Pence’s account doesn’t square with how this process — which should give the president highly specific information at the outset — is supposed to work.
“Among the first points that the president and his top advisers would be briefed on are casualty estimates that are as specific as intelligence would allow,” Price, who sat in on multiple such sessions with Obama, told me. “They would account for potential casualties for a range of scenarios.”
Price noted that Pence may have implicitly conceded that the process was distorted in some way, perhaps by advisers (such as national security adviser John Bolton) who want war.
“The vice president seemed to acknowledge that the estimates sent to the president changed over time,” Price told me, adding that this raises questions as to whether such advisers “may be orchestrating a process that not only filters but potentially manipulates information making its way to the president.”
“He was given information that he hadn’t previously been briefed on,” Price said. While it’s always possible military targets might change, Price noted, “that is not typically something that would happen if these briefings were on the level.”
To some degree, this dovetails with detailed reporting by The Post, which confirmed that Trump had been given casualty counts earlier than he said, and had signed off on the attack (before nixing it).
It’s hard to know whether Trump was given the 150 estimate in particular early on. But either he was given that number (in which case he’s lying about why he changed his mind) or he was given something else (in which case the process might have gone awry or gotten manipulated). Neither is reassuring, and more scrutiny is warranted.
The deeper problem here
In the end, though, the real problem revealed by this mess lies in Trump’s worldview. Pence said repeatedly that Trump exercised “restraint,” but that this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of “resolve” to use force.
Iran recently said it might soon violate the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s sanctions are designed to completely cripple the Iranian economy to prevent that and to force additional concessions, though those demands appear deliberately designed by administration hawks not to be met.
But the Iran deal actually had been constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet Trump pulled out of it, anyway.
In an important essay, Gabriel Schoenfeld of the Niskanen Center notes that a key feature of the “malignant nationalism” animating Trump and his intellectual supporters is the notion that international integration that requires accepting any constraints on the nation’s prerogatives cannot ever be acknowledged to be succeeding.
Trump’s worldview did not permit an acknowledgment that the Iran deal — an imperfect but carefully negotiated settlement that our allies continued to favor — was preventing nuclear weapons. So he had to say it was weak and a failure, and he had to pull out. Instead, Trump vowed to be so unilaterally tough that he’d force total capitulation (without firing a shot) alone.
This has made war more likely, and as Susan E. Rice points out, avoiding it would involve recommitting to a diplomatic solution that would entail settling for something short of total capitulation. But Trump can’t do that. Yet he doesn’t appear to want war, either.
So, as the Pence interview shows, we’re trapped in a situation where Trump is lurching wildly between reluctance and belligerence, even as the situation continues to escalate.