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Opinion In his showdown with Iran, Trump blinks

President Trump speaks at the White House on Sept. 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump must have something in his eye, because he keeps blinking. He blinked in June when Iran allegedly attacked oil tankers in international waters and shot down a U.S. drone. Trump ordered airstrikes in retaliation and then called them off. He claimed he was worried about all of the Iranians who could get killed. But does anyone imagine Trump is a born-again humanitarian? The truth is he simply lost his nerve — as President Barack Obama did when he decided against airstrikes on Syria. In Trump’s case, his reversal came after Tucker Carlson said a war with Iran wouldn’t be popular with his base.

Now Trump appears to have blinked again, after saying that “it would look to most like it was Iran” that was behind a devastating attack that knocked out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Trump said he was “locked and loaded” for a response, but rather than hitting back militarily, he has (so far at least) merely chosen to order more sanctions. It’s hard to imagine the mullahs will be impressed given how many sanctions the United States has already piled on as part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy. Is this the supermax policy?

This is not an argument for attacking Iran — which Trump might still do. A small U.S. airstrike won’t deter Iran — and a big one risks a major conflict. As I have written, a war with Iran has the potential to be “the mother of all quagmires.” But then, that’s why I thought it was a mistake to leave a nuclear accord that Iran was abiding by — and why I think it’s imperative to rejoin if possible. Most experts feared Trump’s move to leave the nuclear deal would only embolden Iranian hard-liners who never liked the deal in the first place — and that is precisely what has happened.

Rather than decrease the danger from Iran, Trump has turbocharged it. Iran is enriching more uranium and still supporting brutal proxies. Either Iran or its Houthi allies — the difference is cosmetic — are responsible for a long series of missile attacks on Saudi airports and oil infrastructure. These attacks are, at least in part, retaliation for Saudi Arabia’s unsuccessful and unconscionable war in Yemen. But that doesn’t change the fact that Iran is almost certainly guilty of cross-border aggression — an “act of war,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. All the more so if, as leaks from the U.S. government claim, the latest attack was launched directly from Iranian soil. Iran is practically daring Trump to retaliate — but having goaded Iran into the latest round of aggression, he is incapable of formulating an effective response.

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And how can he? Trump doesn’t listen to his own aides and gets rid of those who disagree with him. Hence the ouster of John Bolton as national security adviser and his replacement with Robert C. O’Brien, a presidential envoy whose claim to fame is observing the trial of A$AP Rocky in Sweden. His chief qualification seems to be his willingness to flatter Trump. Bolton shredded the national security decision-making process, and it’s unlikely O’Brien will revive it, because Trump is averse to regimentation. He thinks he has all the answers (Trump said the job of the national security adviser is “easy” because “I make all the decisions”), and he won’t listen to information that contradicts his preconceptions. He dismissed intelligence-community assessments that Iran was abiding by the nuclear accord even as he now cites the intelligence community to blame Iran for attacks in the region.

Trump is probably right about Iran’s responsibility for recent attacks, but no one will believe a president who has uttered 12,000-plus falsehoods. In the summer, Trump tried to assemble a coalition to safeguard shipping in the Persian Gulf. He largely failed because most of our allies don’t want to be dragged into a war with Iran and don’t have any faith in Trump. Even the United Arab Emirates is bailing out of the anti-Iran coalition — it is scaling back its involvement in the war in Yemen and entering into talks with Iran over maritime security. Trump is left with only one ally — Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — and even he so far shies away from a direct confrontation with Iran. And for good cause: The attack on Saudi oil facilities exposed the inadequacy of the kingdom’s expensive, U.S.-made air defenses.

Trump could not be doing more damage to U.S. standing and security if he tried. For the record, I don’t think his epic failure is dictated from Moscow. He simply doesn’t know what he is doing. He doesn’t think before he acts — or tweets. He makes threats that he can’t — and shouldn’t — back up. He bullies the weak but cowers before the strong. As my colleague Dana Milbank quipped, he is pursuing “big-shtick diplomacy.”

“Iranian hard-liners consider Trump’s inconsistency to be weakness,” Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history, told the New York Times. The Iranian hard-liners are right: Trump is weakening the United States with his incoherent foreign policy. Our enemies don’t fear us, and our allies don’t trust us.

Read more:

Kenneth M. Pollack: How Trump played himself and gave Iran’s hard-liners what they wanted

Josh Rogin: How Trump can punish Iran, without starting a war

Jason Rezaian: The Saudi-Iran rivalry isn’t new, but it’s getting riskier by the hour

The Post’s View: Trump has dug himself into a hole with Iran

Jennifer Rubin: How the Iran conflict would have unfolded under a normal president