Fortunately, it couldn’t happen that way in real life because the president of the United States is a calm, reasoned, careful decision-maker who would never do something rash or impulsive. He and his national security team are united and focused, all working together to avoid unnecessary conflict, restore stability and make sure the interests of the United States are protected.
Just kidding — that’s a fictional version of the U.S. government. Our actual government is consumed by incompetence and riven by internal divisions, with the president himself the least rational and worst equipped of anyone to handle a foreign policy crisis. We’re left with only one hope to avoid the situation spinning out of control: that the president will once again talk tough for a while and then back down.
Here’s what we know at the moment. On Saturday, two oil-processing facilities in Saudi Arabia were attacked. Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Iran and who have been waging a war against a coalition led by the Saudis, claimed that they carried out the attack with drones. Saudi Arabia says that the attack came not from Yemen to the south but perhaps from Iran or Iraq, and that the weapons used were Iranian; Iran denies any involvement. Prices on the oil market have spiked.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, long a hawk who has supported aggressive action against Iran, tweeted that “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” His boss, however, seems less than sure:
You can see Trump’s contradictory and disturbing impulses in this tweet. There’s the bellicosity, the insistence that he’s tough and strong and ready to fight; when he says that “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification,” that means that once verification is obtained, we’ll launch some sort of attack, for which we are locked and loaded.
But even that he can’t stand by; not long after, the White House sent out Marc Short, the vice president’s chief of staff, to say rather comically, “I think that locked and loaded is a broad term and talks about the realities that we’re all far safer and more secure domestically from energy independence.” Oh, so that’s what it means.
Then there’s the repulsive obsequiousness toward the Saudis, from whom the United States is now apparently taking orders about “under what terms we would proceed.”
If this all sounds like a mess where it’s impossible to know what the administration actually believes or what it might do, it shouldn’t be surprising. That’s how things work in the Trump era. The complexity of this situation makes it even worse, since there are multiple possible sources of the attack and it could have occurred for multiple purposes. It might, for instance, have been engineered by Iranian hard-liners looking to increase tensions between Iran and the United States.
So we’re in a situation where claims and counterclaims are flying around, and the government of the United States will have zero credibility with anyone in the world when it decides who it believes was at fault and says what it will do about it. While this is all going on, the president has angrily called the suggestion that he has said he’ll meet with the Iranian president without preconditions “Fake News,” when in fact he and other administration officials have said exactly that over and over.
Trump just spent day after day lying about the weather for Pete’s sake, and dragooned agencies of the government into lying about it on his behalf so he wouldn’t have to say he made a mistake. When he comes out and says “This is who’s at fault for the attack on the oil facilities,” who is going to believe him?
That’s if he and his administration can decide what they think at all. Trump is currently on his second secretary of state, his third secretary of defense and his fourth national security adviser (counting those who have held those positions on an “acting” basis). His administration remains chaotic, in national security as in everything else. Meanwhile, the people Trump trusts most — the nincompoops on “Fox & Friends” — are encouraging him to use military force.
Here’s the optimistic view. Figures like Pompeo may be spoiling for a military conflict, but what we’ve seen over and over again is a pattern where Trump beats his chest and then withdraws; just three months ago, he approved and then aborted an attack on Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American drone. So once again we’re left in the position of hoping desperately that what may be Trump’s sole redeeming policy impulse — his reluctance to get into another war in the Middle East — will save us from catastrophe. Right now it’s about all we’ve got.