“You, the American people, should be extremely grateful and happy,” Donald Trump announced the morning after Iran launched missiles at two US bases in Iraq after the assassination of Iran’s top general. “No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack.”
In Trump’s madcap presidency, even his efforts at deescalation threaten to give peace a bad name, as previously exemplified by his betrayal of the Kurds in an aborted attempt to remove US troops from Syria. Now his capricious use of the military exposes once more the folly of our misadventures in the Middle East. Progressives—and a reinvigorated peace movement—must take the lead in demanding an end to this decades-long debacle.
Trump is like the spoiled, delinquent teenager you would never trust with the keys to your car. Sadly, a minority of Americans managed to give him the keys to the White House—and the US military. He exhibits all the hallmarks of petulant adolescence: revolt against authority, juvenile posturing, thoughtless risk-taking, and trying to cover his crack-ups by lying, blaming others, and tweeting tantrums.
Trump’s ignorance is exacerbated by his conflicting instincts. He scorns the failed foreign policy establishment yet surrounds himself with its most bellicose outliers. He wants to end wars without losing them, to order military strikes without provoking a response. He thinks America can stand alone and wants allies to clean up his messes. He seeks credit for ending the wars in the Middle East while dispatching an additional 17,500 troops to the region. The results are whiplash-inducing reversals and chaos.
His incoherent speech the morning after Iran’s missiles struck reveals just how daft this approach is. He pledged that Iran would never develop nuclear weapons yet offered no clue how he would fulfill that promise. Indeed, rather than seek negotiations, he promised even more “punishing economic sanctions,” ratcheting up the tensions in the region.
At the same time, he intimated that we don’t have to be there at all: US energy independence means “we do not need Middle East oil,” that new “options” there have become “available.” He invited our allies to get more involved in the region but neglected to note that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was already headed to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin and coordinate efforts to defuse tensions. He opined that the destruction of ISIS was good for Iran and that we should “work together on this and other shared priorities,” without mentioning that he had just assassinated the man who led the Iranian effort against ISIS.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the debacle deepens. The Iraqi parliament voted to demand the withdrawal of all US forces, and the American military suspended its training efforts and active campaigns against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in favor of protecting its troops, turning them from troops into targets.
Not surprisingly, the president outrages the mandarins of the US foreign policy establishment and the career officials of the national security apparatus. They scold him for undermining our allies and weakening the US global order. The House impeachment hearings featured professionals offended by Trump’s corruption of our foreign policy for his political purposes.
This tempts the Democrats—ever defensive about appearing weak on national security—to become the establishment’s defenders. Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg criticize Trump not for the illegal assassination of a foreign official in the capital of an ally but for procedural offenses—for failing to consult Congress or inform allies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi named Representative Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA and Pentagon analyst, to lead the debate on a war powers resolution that would require Congress to be consulted before further war with Iran. Significantly, Pelosi chose Slotkin over Representative Barbara Lee, the only legislator to understand the dangers of the military blank check given to George W. Bush after 9/11 and vote against it.
This posture is simple folly. The foreign policy establishment, Democratic and Republican alike, is deeply committed to policing the world, to a generational commitment to remaking the Middle East, and to a renewed Cold War with Russia and China. Trump’s follies extend their failures.
Progressive Democrats must champion another course. This is the moment when Democrats should take up Trump’s broken promise to pull our troops out of the Middle East, and they must also curb the terrifying powers of any president, Republican or Democratic, to order an assassination at whim. Poll after poll shows that most Americans—including most Republicans—say they want US troops out of the Middle East.
The war powers resolution passed by the House is a good first step in this direction, a clear statement of Congress reasserting its powers. If Tim Kaine’s concurrent resolution passes in the Senate, it would force a presidential veto. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna have been joined by dozens of lawmakers in both houses in a No War Against Iran bill that would prohibit the use of funds in such a war without congressional approval. In an election year, getting lawmakers on the record will help elevate the issue in 2020 campaigns.
The public also would also benefit from the modern equivalent of the Fulbright hearings, the widely televised hearings in the 1960s and ’70s that exposed the catastrophe in Vietnam, which were led by a Democratic senator and initially challenged a Democratic president. Sadly, the gelded Republican Senate caucus shows no signs of that leadership. And it is difficult for the House Foreign Affairs Committee to play a similar role, given the clown show that the Republican minority guarantees.
Trump’s serial fiascoes have exposed the reality of his presidency: He’s not going to win the wars in the Middle East, and he’s not going to end them, either. He’s simply going to waste more lives and more resources attempting not to lose them—or worse, provoke a far worse conflagration with Iran. Trump has betrayed one of the few sensible statements that he made in his presidency: that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” Now progressives must ensure that Democrats are committed to leading the way out.