Terry H. Schwadron
June 16, 2019
The only thing that seems clear about American response towards Iran is that we don’t know what we’re doing. That is not to say that we lack military responses or even the possibility of diplomatic alternatives, but it is to underscore that the White House seems hopelessly lost in its self-gaze.
The more we learn about the attacks this week on two international oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, the weirder the situation seems.
One Japanese tanker crew was rescued by the U.S. Navy; the other, also headed for Asia, was taken in by Iran. There is a video of what is described by Americans as an Irani Quds-force boat taking an unexploded mine off a tanker, even as crew members from the other said the attack came from the air. And the attacks coincided with the arrival of Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe, reportedly carrying a personal letter from Donald Trump to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and with the presence of a U.S. Navy air carrier flotilla in the Persian Gulf.
On the whole, more experts seem to believe that the use of mines and the military deftness requires to place them means that Iran was behind the attacks, but, as evidence, it feels a little short. European allies apparently are expressing open skepticism, believing that the White House is putting its opinionated thumb on the causation scale.
What makes it worse is that it has become obvious that this White House does not believe in the power of law or treaties or alliances or protocols. The White House does not even believe in its intelligence agencies. But now, the world is supposed to believe in findings and deductions by exactly those disdained agencies.
About now, a more recognizable White House would be dispatching its best and brightest to build a coalition of allies committed to dealing with Iran in a united front. We are not seeing that.
The Trump boast-back pedal-boast cycle is leaving America more isolated and more vulnerable to attacks. I wrote a column last week about the roller-coaster of foreign policy declarations; days later, we are seeing the confusion play out on the world stage.
There has been a repeated military provocation. What are we doing about it? And why do we think it won’t happen again, right under our naval nose.
We seem to be insistent on moving in different, simultaneous directions. We’re taking the case, night videos included, to the United National Security Council, even as we insist on America First and only in Iran. We’re looking for international support as we disdain it. Trump is looking for another Kim Jong Un moment through personal diplomacy even as his secretary of state and national security advisers are threatening military response.
The ayatollahs, meanwhile, have made clear they want no part in negotiations with Trump.
We have to wonder aloud just how strong the voice is of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in all this, or Saudi Crown Prince Muhuammad Bin Sultan, or the sheiks of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who seem to have the president’s ear. They all have reasons to push back hard against Iran. The White House advisers like John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have long held controntational views towards Iran.
As with his domestic woes, the root cause for the scatter-shot American response is that Trump himself insisted on pulling out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, separating from European partners whom he has threatened with sanctions for continuing to do business (oil in particular) with Iran. He got what he wanted, though the action has never been supported by Congressional vote, but the results should that the initial action was never completely thought through.
What is sure is that Americans have little interest in starting another Middle East war — and Trump, who campaigned against that idea, even less. But somehow, the same Trump believes that belligerent talk will magically persuade Iran’s leaders to give up dreams of owning nuclear weapons and a position of military leadership and adventurism in in the region.
What comes across as consistent is only that Trump is in the center ring.
We have no idea why Iran would want to provoke the Americans by attacking a Japanese tanker, or possibly embarrass a Japanese prime minister by timing the attack during his visit, or whether this was Iran or one of its puppet militias acting on its own.
Overall, it is troubling to think in what is emerging as an actual crisis, we are depending on steadiness from this anything-but-stable White House.