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Trump smothers his own military threats

President Donald Trump’s apparent hopes that rhetoric and threats of military action would bully America’s adversaries into caving to his demands have yet to produce desired results. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Foreign Policy

Faced with evidence of nefarious activities by such countries, and pushed by hawkish advisers to mount a military response, Trump keeps stepping back from the ledge.

Updated

President Donald Trump has long talked a big game when it comes to standing up to U.S. adversaries. He’s threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea, hinted at military action in Venezuela and warned that he could bring about the “official end of Iran.”

But, when faced with evidence of nefarious activities by such countries and pushed by hawkish advisers to mount a military response, Trump keeps stepping back from the ledge.

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The president’s latest move, canceling an imminent U.S. military strike against Iran after Tehran shot down a U.S. drone, risks creating a “Boy who cried ‘wolf!’” scenario: Trump’s future threats may not be taken seriously and adversaries could dangerously miscalculate how he will react, former U.S. officials and analysts across the political spectrum warned.

“President Trump’s handling of rising Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf is undermining American global credibility — which is the currency for foreign policy and the bedrock of deterrence — and our vital interests,” said Michael Makovsky, chief executive of the right-leaning Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

Trump came to White House 2½ years ago from the bombastic world of New York real estate and the illusionist stage of reality TV. But his apparent hopes that rhetoric and threats of military action would bully America’s adversaries into caving to his demands have yet to produce the desired results, despite Trump’s claims to the contrary.

When those same countries have pushed back, the president — reluctant to actually engage in a new war — has regularly tried to minimize what happened. This past week, for example, he suggested that Iran had mistakenly shot down the U.S. drone. He also downplayed recent attacks on oil tankers that the U.S. blames on Iran as being “very minor.”

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“Trump is caught between his aversion to military entanglements and his need to look tough, and he’s also caught between his own cautious instincts and some of his advisers’ excessively bellicose ones,” said Rob Malley, head of the International Crisis Group and a former Obama administration official. “When those factors are in tension, he looks for a way — any way — to minimize the contradiction.”

Trump’s decision to cancel the military strike on Iran went against the recommendations of several top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, CIA Director Gina Haspel and national security adviser John Bolton, according to The New York Times.

Instead, Iranian leaders said Trump sent a back-channel message to them via the country of Oman requesting talks, according to Reuters. (Late Friday, the State Department denied the report, calling it “pure Iranian propaganda.”) And on Twitter Friday morning, the president put a humanitarian spin on his decision.

“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it,” Trump said.

Many responded to the move with relief, including some of the most outspoken opponents of Iran’s Islamist regime who applauded Trump for exercising caution.

“Don’t get into a shooting war with regime on their timeline and on their terms,” said Mark Dubowitz, head of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has pushed for pressuring the government in Tehran through heavy U.S. sanctions.

But even persistent Trump critics happy to see him call off the strike acknowledged that his unpredictable nature, and his obvious disagreements with his own top aides, undermines U.S. credibility.

“Trump’s message to Iran is clear: He wants to negotiate,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. “The problem is that the rest of his war cabinet do not. So Iran and the rest of the world cannot understand what the U.S. strategy actually is.”

During his first few months in office, Trump seemed more willing to back up his rhetoric with the use of military force. He ordered missiles to rain down on Syria after the U.S. determined that the Arab country’s strongman leader, Bashar Assad, was behind vicious chemical attack on civilians. Trump later ordered a second strike in Syria for similar reasons.

The moves were especially striking because it separated Trump from his predecessor, President Barack Obama, often a motivating factor for Trump. Obama chose not to attack Syrian assets after Assad ignored his warning not to use chemical weapons, leading to criticism that he was weak.

Now, after backing down himself, Trump has opened himself up to similar criticism

Still, Trump’s increasing reliance on rhetoric has, at times, arguably paid off.

He exchanged furious verbal fire with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, warning of raining “fire and fury” down on the young dictator and claiming that he has the “bigger” nuclear button. Kim, whose country has amassed a nuclear arsenal the U.S. has long sought to eliminate, called Trump a “dotard.”

Trump supporters argue that his rhetoric, combined with heavy economic sanctions he placed on North Korea, helped spur Kim to meet twice with Trump and reduce his nuclear-related testing. Trump now says he has a great relationship with Kim.

But while tensions with North Korea today are lower than during Trump’s first year in office, the two countries have made little progress on inking a nuclear agreement. More recently, North Korea has stepped up its anti-U.S. rhetoric, though it has spared Trump from personal insults so far.

North Korea has also resumed test-launching projectiles — likely missiles. Normally, such maneuvers would invite a tough U.S. rebuke, at least verbally. But Trump has downplayed the tests, saying the missiles are short-range. “I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all,” he said.

Trump also approved sanctions and other U.S. pressure on Venezuela’s strongman leader, Nicolás Maduro, whom the U.S. president has said he no longer recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader. Trump has in the past also suggested the U.S. military could play a role in Venezuela.

But as the pressure campaign has failed to work against the Venezuelan autocrat, Trump and his aides have all but stopped talking about the crisis in the Latin American country, where many citizens are desperate for food and basic medicines.

As is always the case, it’s hard to compare a president’s reactions to various national security scenarios. Each has unique characteristics. North Korea is a nuclear-armed state, for instance, making the prospect of a war exceptionally dangerous. And while Venezuela is less of a threat, a U.S. military move there could infuriate other Latin American countries in the Western Hemisphere, even if they dislike Maduro.

Iran poses perhaps the trickiest of all the cases, given its proximity to so many U.S. allies like Israel, its role in the international oil market and its ability to use proxy militias against U.S. targets throughout the Middle East.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran negotiated under Obama. He’s promised to negotiate a better, more comprehensive deal with Tehran, one that covers Iran’s non-nuclear military activities as well as its nuclear ones.

But to date, Trump has offered little in the way of carrots for the Iranians to come to the negotiating table. Instead, he’s heaped U.S. sanctions on Iran, labeled one of its most powerful military units a terrorist group and deployed military assets to the Middle East.

And while Trump has pulled back from a military strike Thursday night, the risk remains of a military confrontation between the two countries.

One trigger point looms: Iran has said it would resume parts of its nuclear program by the middle of next week. That move is a response to Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, which had offered Iran relief from international sanctions.

If Iran takes any more military action against the United States or its allies in the Middle East, Trump might feel compelled to react with a military strike of his own. The crisis could spiral from there.

“Tehran has called his bluff, but they haven’t yet achieved what they want and need — mitigation of economic pressure. So they have every incentive to continue escalating,” said Suzanne Maloney, a Brookings Institution expert on the Islamic Republic.

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