As a dozen Iranian missiles rained down on military bases in Iraq housing American troops on Tuesday, the most reassuring news of the night was what didn’t happen. There was some chatter that Donald Trump would take to the airwaves to address the latest escalation in the conflict with Iran. Such a speech could have been a disaster, since Trump would have been tempted to talk tough and rally the nation for war. Instead of a chest-thumping oration, Trump offered instead a typically off-kilter tweet: “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”
Trump’s chipper words (“All is well!” and “So far, so good!”) seem inappropriate, even idiotic, as a response to a military attack, even though there were no American or Iraqi casualties. Still, given the range of words he could have written, it was reassuring that Trump decided not to immediately respond with further escalation. According to New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, “Some around POTUS think he is looking for an off-ramp.”
If Trump is looking to de-escalate, then he’s showing uncharacteristic wisdom. While the Iranian bombing might be portrayed by hawks as provocative, there’s every reason to think that the Iranian government was trying to make a face-saving but carefully calibrated gesture in response to the American assassination of their Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani. That’s certainly the implied message of Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who tweeted, “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
As Negar Mortazavi, diplomatic correspondent for The Independent, noted, “Iran was going to retaliate sooner or later, one way or the other. There was no way they would let this go. But Iran is now trying to make it clear that this is a retaliation for one action, not an escalation into a full-on war. There is no appetite for war in Iran.”
Mortazavi is probably right about Iran, but there’s certainly an appetite for war among a small but influential minority of Americans. Donald Trump is the most devoted viewer Fox News has; the president has repeatedly tailored his policies to suit the right-wing cable news network. Unfortunately, with the exception of Tucker Carlson’s show, the overwhelming message Trump gets from Fox is one cheering on war. On his nightly program, host Sean Hannity called for the bombing of Iranian oil refineries, while Texas Senator Ted Cruz nodded in approval. “They have three major refineries in Iran, senator,” Hannity noted. “Three. I would imagine those refineries blew up one day, they got themselves a hell of a domestic problem, because that’s going to result in major poverty for the people of Iran.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, like Cruz a guest on Hannity’s show, described the missile attack as an “act of war” and called for Trump to “restore deterrence.”
If Trump wants to take the off-ramp from war, he’ll have to contend with these influential hawkish voices within his own party and, indeed, within his own administration. It was these hawks who started this new cycle of hostility by convincing Trump to leave the Iran nuclear deal. One of those hawks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, played a crucial role in convincing Trump to assassinate Suleimani.
Trump has few strong foreign policy convictions, often acting like a man responding to cross-pressures. He has a desire to placate Republican hawks, but he also knows he owes some of his success in 2016 to his promise as a candidate to avoid new large-scale wars. Trump’s lack of conviction helps explain the fundamental incoherence of his foreign policy, which has repeatedly stirred up conflicts in Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela but then backed down. Theodore Roosevelt’s motto was “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump’s modus operandi might be described as “Speak loudly but back down before you get into a stick fight.” The danger, of course, is that these games of chicken could lead to genuine large-scale war.
Trump’s lack of any overarching strategy has led to a confused foreign policy. In the Middle East, as Peter Baker of The New York Times characterized the situation, the Trump administration is scrambling “to explain its mission and goals in the region amid a chaotic brew of conflicting statements, crossed signals and mixed messages.”
Listing the hodgepodge of incoherent actions, Baker observes,
The president who promised to bring troops home from the Middle East is now dispatching more instead. The Pentagon sent a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to disavow it as a mistake. The State Department talked about “de-escalation” while Mr. Trump beat the war drums describing all the ways he would devastate Iran if it harmed more Americans. And even then, the president was forced to back off his threat to target Iranian cultural sites after his own defense secretary publicly said doing that was a war crime.
But it’s precisely because Trump has no firm convictions that he is also susceptible to pressures from anti-war forces as well as pro-war ones. The current flux provides an opportunity for anti-war mass movements to send a clear message of “no war with Iran” in order to force Trump to take that off-ramp he might be looking for.
It helps that the anti-war cause is popular. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday night, 54 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s handling of Iran, as against 37 percent who support it. Given these numbers are lower than Trump’s approval ratings, this means that some members of his own coalition are against ramping up war. The anti-war segment of Trump’s coalition can be heard on Tucker Carlson’s show, and in the speeches of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. These are voices that progressives might otherwise dislike, but they could play a significant role in convincing Trump to de-escalate.
But beyond the few right-wing voices who are decrying the Iranian conflict, there’s a much larger anti-war movement on the left. Indivisible is already announcing more than 100 rallies to protest the war.
The Democratic Party has also shown greater unity in opposing the current conflict than it mustered against the 2003 Iraq War. Congressional Democrats could, if they wanted, turn up the heat on Trump by investigating his foreign policy and getting military leaders to go on the record opposing ideas he’s floated like targeting Iranian cultural sites. All the major Democratic presidential candidates have been critical of Trump’s Iran policy. Speaking at a rally on Tuesday night, Senator Elizabeth Warren simply said, “The American people do not want a war in Iran.” That’s a clear message—and a winning one.