Trump’s Iran mistake, regret to follow

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US National Security Adviser Mike Flynn speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 1, 2017. Flynn signaled a more hardline American stance on Iran Wednesday, condemning a recent missile test and declaring he was "officially putting Iran on notice." / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

After less than two weeks in office, President Donald Trump’s team has set its own red line. This Trump may soon regret.

Watching National Security Advisor Michael Flynn take the podium in the White House briefing room and declare that the U.S. is putting Iran “on notice” for its nefarious behavior, one could not help but think of a similar moment more than four years ago, when President Barack Obama stood in that very same spot and said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line,” warranting some kind of American response.

As a Pentagon official in Aug. 2012 whose responsibilities included Syria, I remember hearing Obama’s words and thinking, “So, what does that mean?” While we all knew that any use of Syria’s of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, we had not made any decisions about what to do. Obama’s statement had not been the result of an exhaustive interagency policy process (which was rare for him, since he normally demanded that every decision be considered from every angle), but instead was an off-the-cuff answer to a hypothetical question posed by a reporter. While Flynn’s statement on Wednesday was not improvised, there is no evidence that it was backed by a policy process. In fact, Defense Secretary James Mattis was apparently out of the loop, and in a background call yesterday, National Security Council officials made clear that they had not yet started exploring possible options (military and otherwise) and U.S. Central Command sources said that nothing had changed in terms of their military posture. So just as we scrambled for months to figure out what it meant to enforce Obama’s “red line,” I am sure Pentagon planners are now trying to piece together the meaning of Trump’s “on notice.”

As some of my Shadow Government colleagues have correctly observed, there is a good reasons for calling out Iran’s destabilizing behavior, even if the Trump administration could have done so more artfully and with a greater chance of bringing other countries along (including Russia). But the challenge for Trump now will be similar to what Obama faced: By sending such a message, every step over the line on Iran’s part can be portrayed as a test of manhood — with the press, national security hawks, and certain allies goading the president into action.

Obama often said that “great powers don’t bluff,” meaning the U.S. should not threaten military action unless it was ready to follow through. This was driven by a keen — some would say too narrow — sense of American interests, and a desire to avoid getting into military conflicts that were not commensurate with larger U.S. goals. Although Obama was not afraid to pull the trigger, he was very focused on the danger of escalation. He prized flexibility and wanted to preserve his policy options, maintaining what his top aides called “decision space.” He tried hard to avoid rhetorical traps — and arguably, the “red line” comment is the most significant example of his instincts failing him.

Trump, on the other hand, is a leader built on bluff. He is not someone accustomed to thinking things through. He is prone to boxing himself in through his words, reducing his own decision space. Maybe this is all by design, and like any good student of the late strategist Thomas Schelling, Trump knows the value of a threat that leaves something to chance. But I doubt it. For Trump, to be tough one must sound tough — loose talk is his trademark, and according to his worldview, chest-thumping, macho rhetoric is an intrinsic part of “strength.” His administration does not believe in speaking softly. But is it ready to carry a big stick?

This is why the Trump team may come to regret the “on notice” remark. For a president who has repeatedly said the Iraq War was a disaster (putting aside the revisionist history), these two words may put him on a path towards another military confrontation in the Middle East that he — or his supporters, many of whom agree with his view of the Iraq War — really may not want.

So what to do? We can help by giving Trump more leeway with “on notice” than Obama’s critics gave him after uttering the “red line.” Trump may have a penchant for taking away his own decision space, and usually doubles-down (as his tweetstorm proved). But on this issue, a loyal opposition should not make his problems worse.

When Iran does act out again — which it will — we should not taunt Trump about being weak or bait him into acting militarily. We should not howl about his soiling U.S. credibility — he is doing a pretty good job of that already. Instead, we should help temper expectations about what a response might be, let his team take their time to plan, and offer ideas to ratchet up military and economic pressure while controlling escalation. Obama was self-confident enough not to be bullied into reckless action, which is something he remains proud of to this day. I’m afraid the same can’t be said of Trump.

BY DEREK CHOLLET
FOREIGN POLICY

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