Were the establishment media to be believed, President Trump is spoiling for a shooting war with Iran. In articles mostly targeting fiercely mustachioed National Security Adviser John Bolton, The New York Times, CNN, NBC, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and even USA Today are running hot takes contending we are marching to the brink.
A closer look suggests the story so far is much less about Trump war-mongering and more about media fear-mongering. With Special Counsel Robert Mueller putting to rest years of media speculation that Trump was a Russian asset, it is as if Trump’s opponents need a new reason why he should frighten voters.
At the generally neoconservative Commentary magazine, Noah Rothman set forth the case that the war drums are not beating at the White House. In response, Jonathan Chait wrote a column headlined “Conservative Columnist Urges War With Iran Over 2 Percent Oil Price Hike,” even though Rothman wrote military action “would be counterproductive to the [Trump] strategy they are currently pursuing, which consists of imposing broad economic sanctions on Iran to harden grassroots resistance to the regime in the hopes of catalyzing a revolution.” It seems as though the antiwar left will not take “no war” for an answer.
Rothman’s column highlights the reporting of an outlet with no love for Trump, The New York Times:
Officials said the new deployments were part of the original request made last weekend by the military’s Central Command after the Trump administration said new intelligence showed that Iran was mobilizing proxy groups in Iraq and Syria to attack American forces. As a result, the Pentagon sent B-52 bombers this week to Al Udeid air base in Qatar, and the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier passed through the Suez Canal on its way to the Persian Gulf.
The new steps are meant to be measured and limited, in part because a new intelligence analysis by American and allied spy services has concluded that the Iranian government, declining in popularity amid economic woes, is trying to provoke the United States into a military overreaction to cement its hold on power, according to American and allied intelligence officials. The American intelligence community has not yet done a broader official assessment that would incorporate views from multiple agencies.
Iranian mullahs clinging to power by playing the nationalist card with America as the enemy is an old story, not a new one. Even the movement of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln—which was on a scheduled deployment—appears to have been previously planned.
The administration is war-planning for a worst-case scenario, as prudent governments do. But President Trump was quick to dismiss claims that he was gearing up for war as “fake news,” a position consistent with his generally non-interventionist leanings.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration is “not going to do a military exercise inside Iran” to expedite a regime change. Both Pompeo and Bolton have said the United States does not seek war with Iran, but will respond if our interests are attacked, which is pretty standard American foreign policy. Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan may be even less inclined to military action at this time.
Instead, the administration has relied on sanctions against Iran and hopes long-running internal protests will eventually topple the regime. This approach has been similar to the administration’s position regarding Venezuela.
The differences are that Iran has been more provocative and our allies have been less supportive, despite Iran openly abandoning its nuclear deal. That lack of support may reinforce Trump’s opinion that our alliances favor our allies more than ourselves, but it also is likely to reinforce Trump’s instincts against military intervention.
The effort to portray Trump as itching for armed conflict with Iran echoes the left’s claim that he backs a right-wing coup in Venezuela, when he (and many other governments) support the constitutionally legitimate socialist opposition to the current authoritarian regime run by Nicolas Maduro and backed by Russia, Cuba, and narcotics profits.
Ironically, the administration’s Venezuela policy is among the latest in its opposition to Russia, contradicting the years-long media narrative that someday there would be proof Trump shared a bed with Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Trump’s critics have been left to complain his policies toward Russia have been undercut by his kind words for Vladimir Putin. Mixed messages may be a legitimate concern, but Putin likely cares far more about actions over words.
A skeptic might wonder whether Trump’s reflexive opponents, having spent years assuming Trump was a Russian asset and working backwards, now assume Trump wants to start wars and look for any evidence in support of their theory. This assumption is dangerous, because the bigger risk is not of immediate war with Iran, but escalation that stumbles into a war. If mixed messaging in foreign policy is a concern, so is the tendency of Trump’s critics inside and outside the media to create public confusion over the administration’s intent regarding Iran.
A skeptic also might wonder whether the collapse of the Russian collusion story is causing Trump’s opponents to look for a new way to frighten voters on foreign policy, particularly if the economy remains strong. At the very least, covering an imagined war with Iran is a convenient distraction from covering stories more favorable to Trump and less favorable to those who suggested he was a Manchurian Candidate.
Convincing voters that Trump, who generally ran against the foreign interventions of the Bush and Obama administrations, is looking to drop in on Tehran like Major Kong astride a bomb in “Dr. Strangelove” may have difficulty making the sale. Absent serious provocation from Iran or Venezuela, Trump is unlikely to pursue a war of choice.
Moreover, given decades of the Iranian theocracy condemning the United States as the Great Satan, and years of Maduro starving the people of Venezuela, it seems unlikely the average voter is going to side with the defenders of Iran and Maduro over Trump.