Iranians shot down an unmanned U.S. drone Monday in a location that isn’t clear and for reasons that aren’t clear. In response, President Trump authorized a strike on Iranian military sites, which would be a major escalation in the recent tensions between the two countries. He stopped the strikes just before they were about to launch because he was worried about casualties.
Don’t take my word for it. In a remarkably public airing of a normally secretive process, Trump tweeted Friday morning his thought process on whether to strike Iran:
What does this say about Trump’s ability to handle a potential military conflict?
It’s tough to definitely tell. Here are some interpretations of Trump’s actions.
Trump thinks having called off the strike makes him look decisive and in command: That’s according to someone familiar with Trump’s thinking who spoke to the New York Times.
You could also say he looks ill prepared: Read Trump’s tweets closely. He says that 10 minutes before the strike, he asked how many people might die, even though Trump approved the strike earlier in the day. Why was that information not acquired to make his decision? We know Trump eschews briefing books and details that bore him. Is that what happened here?
Or that he is incredibly hard to read, either intentionally or because he is indecisive: First Trump said the downed drone was “a very big mistake.” But, when asked by reporters how he’d respond, Trump was noncommittal. “Let’s see what happens,” he said. Turns out there was a strike “cocked & loaded,” in his own words. Then he called it off.
Either Trump himself didn’t know what was going on or he was intentionally trying to confuse Iran. Trump played that game early in his term in his war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — he threatened to bomb him, then ended up meeting with him. This fits into what has been called a “madman” strategy: Can you confuse your opponents enough to scare them off? If that’s what Trump is doing, it’s certainly being tested, writes The Fix’s Aaron Blake.
Can Congress put up guardrails on Trump?
Technically yes, but practically maybe not. Congress is the only branch of government that can authorize war, but constitutional experts I spoke to when Trump launched a missile strike in Syria in 2017 mostly agree that the president has the authority for a one-off attack.
If Trump wanted to go further than that, he’d need an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF for short) from Congress. There are some lawmakers who want Congress to debate next week on whether to give Trump that.
“One of the best ways to avoid bumbling into war, a war that nobody wants, is to have a robust open debate and for Congress to have a real say,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. “We learned that lesson in the run-up to Iraq.”
But authorization of military force is one of the hardest votes for lawmakers to take, because it puts Congress on the hook for a potentially unpopular military conflict. And the legacy of the Iraq War is still hanging around. AUMFs can have unintentionally long tails. President Barack Obama asked Congress for a new AUMF for Afghanistan and Iraq but also insisted he could do airstrikes based on one enacted in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
With an election coming up next year and so many members of Congress running for reelection or for president, expect members to be especially reluctant to officially chime in on what Trump should do on Iran.
Correction: A previous version of this story had a photo of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft with a caption that incorrectly referred to the aircraft as similar to a drone.