Like Old Hickory, Trump believes it’s essential if America is provoked to react violently and immediately and worry about the consequences later. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images It’s a bit of a chimera, truth be told: The president who has endlessly and redundantly attacked open-ended military commitments and expensive and extended conventional warfare has taken an…


Like Old Hickory, Trump believes it’s essential if America is provoked to react violently and immediately and worry about the consequences later. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s a bit of a chimera, truth be told: The president who has endlessly and redundantly attacked open-ended military commitments and expensive and extended conventional warfare has taken an action that many experts think will push Iran to launch a full-on regional war, perhaps even involving interested bystanders like Israel and Saudi Arabia. It could be the mother of all quagmires. So how did this happen and what will Trump do if the sudden strike he authorized sparks significant retaliatory measures from Iran?

We may not know for years, if ever, exactly what transpired in the White House, but the two relevant things to remember about the commander-in-chief are (a) he is by nature a bully, whose creed has always been winning by intimidation with superior force (or in business, via ruinous lawsuits) and (b) to the extent he thinks about war and peace he’s a total throwback to Andrew Jackson and represents Old Hickory’s peculiar combination of non-interventionism and violent militarism. I explained this latter characteristic when he launched an attack on Syria back in 2017:

repeated before launching the cruise missiles last night) even as Trump himself denied any interest in “taking sides” in that country’s messy civil war …

Trump’s decision to act without consulting, much less asking authorization from, Congress makes perfect sense. For one thing, the “strategy” or “comprehensive plan” that so many senators asked for in their own initial reactions to the attacks on Syria last night may very well not exist. If the missiles were simply intended to put things right after Obama’s “cowardice” and send a message to the world, then there is not and will never be a “strategy” or “plan” with respect to Syria; the violence was an end in itself.

It’s very likely that is the case today, too. And projecting his own taste for high-stakes gamesmanship onto the Iranians, he may well believe one show of righteous and lethal American power will make them back down:

January 3, 2020

You don’t reason with these people, he seems to believe: You just have to show ‘em Uncle Sam is the boss.

But what if Trump has miscalculated by assassinating a figure so central to Iran’s national and religious sensibilities that their own sense of honor demands they do not back down? Or what if they believe they can bully the bully thanks to his well-known distaste for getting tied down into an extended military conflict?

remarks today from Mar-a-Lago, he treated the assassination of Soleimani as a preventive act that interrupted “sinister attacks” on U.S. personnel. And he pointedly said: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” But it might not be entirely up to him.

It’s at this juncture that things could get really scary. Even if Trump somehow erroneously thinks a conventional war with Iran would ensure his reelection, he is unlikely to want to burden his second term with the kind of endless no-win commitment that sank the despised George W. Bush, in Trump’s own contemptuous estimation. So in the Jacksonian tradition, the most appropriate response to any serious Iranian escalation toward all-out war would be a counter-escalation of great ferocity, which would deliberately ignore any sense of proportion or calibration and display America’s might at its fullest. And if that is Trump’s inclination, it’s unclear whether any of the people around him — or his Republican allies in Congress — who have mostly been frothing for war with Iran foryears, would restrain him. It’s certainly doubtful that two of Trump’s favorite allies this side of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Israel, would object to the U.S. getting medieval on their ancient enemy.

comment (per Alex Ward) he made last summer about Afghanistan? said. “I have plans on Afghanistan that if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth, it would be gone, it would be over in literally 10 days.”

If Trump has plans to nuke Afghanistan, he most definitely has plans to nuke Iran, particularly given global worries about Tehran’s own nuclear program. I’m not predicting he’d do anything quite that insane, but the Jacksonian logic of sudden and terrifying force as a first and last resort means nothing lethal is going to be off the table. Lord have mercy on us all.

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If Trump Can’t Bully Iran, Things Could Get Scary Fast

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