President Trump’s finest moment in his presidency came last week when he publicly stated his reason for pulling back at the last moment from a military strike on Iran. He said the attack would be disproportionate, and would result in an unacceptable loss of about 150 Iranian civilian lives.
In doing so, he proved once again that he is the most unconventional president ever. His action may or may not have been based on brinkmanship, as some commentators have suggested, and his decision-making process on this seemed ad hoc and chaotic. Still, his public words struck a very different note. He displayed prudence, humaneness, empathy, and strength—the strength to withstand the inevitable “wimp” attacks from many in the foreign policy establishment.
Trump decidedly isn’t a Washington foreign policy insider, and he demonstrated it in spades. Whether one is a neoconservative or a liberal interventionist, one is always supposed to be gung-ho about every new military foray, and never to show any doubt or forethought.
In this airtight echo chamber, there is no accountability, and nothing is learned from past wars of choice and from past horrendous mistakes. Instead, the same “experts” with horrible track records are wheeled in at every new international crisis to prescribe more of the same.
To be fair, President Obama displayed similar strength and prudence when he called off U.S. air strikes in Syria in 2013 in the famous “red line” episode.
Ironically, Trump’s recent interview with Chuck Todd put the lie to what we’ve been hearing for the last two-and-a-half years: that Trump is an unhinged sociopath who lacks empathy. Rather, he talked like how a real person would think: Possibly starting a war over the shooting down of an unmanned drone is silly, and losing 150 lives over it is disproportionate. So let’s back off and try to talk it over with Iran.
When was the last time you heard a U.S. president express hesitancy and moral qualms about the loss of innocent lives through our military interventions? Probably never. American presidents and our foreign policy establishment are loath to ever acknowledge any heartache over the tragic human costs of war. The loss of foreign civilian lives is almost never seriously part of the calculus when going to war, and if it is, they are dismissed as collateral damage.
We spent the last decade and half in Iraq and Afghanistan causing immense loss of civilian life, something our leaders still don’t publicly acknowledge despite repeated Amnesty International reports about it. They shrug it off as the inevitable price to pay for national security, and for extending and maintaining the American empire. And we refuse to acknowledge that our military forays breed the next generation of hardened anti-American radicals.
The president I voted for twice, Barack Obama, won in 2008 in part because he took a strong stance against the Iraq War. But by the time he left in 2016, while he didn’t bequeath a new war to his successor, he had vastly extended our drone strikes in the U.S. covert war on terror.
In 2016, the year Obama left office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs (at the rate of 72 bombs every day) in seven Muslim countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. Needless to say, many innocent lives were lost in these strikes.
Sometimes I think we put too much credence on norms, conventions, and manners. If Hillary had been president, yes, she’d have been a “conventional” president. She’d most likely have listened to our foreign policy establishment and started wars abroad. Joe Biden, whom former defense secretary Robert Gates described in his book as being “wrong on almost every foreign policy and national security issue for the last four decades,” would probably do so as well if elected president in 2020.
But Trump’s instincts on this seem pretty solid. As even The New York Times was forced to admit, “Belligerent and confrontational as he is in his public persona, Mr. Trump has at times pulled back from the use of force, and… pointless Middle East wars.”
Of course, with Trump you never know. He may end up responding militarily to Iran’s provocations next week, but this snapshot of him was bracing, refreshing, and worth commending.