What in the world is going through the mind of Donald Trump? That question might have been asked at any time in any place over the past five years, yet it has special weight today, given that it involves matters of war and peace.
First there was this, from the New York Times on Monday:
President Trump asked senior advisers in an Oval Office meeting on Thursday whether he had options to take action against Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks. The meeting occurred a day after international inspectors reported a significant increase in the country’s stockpile of nuclear material, four current and former U.S. officials said on Monday.
A range of senior advisers dissuaded the president from moving ahead with a military strike. The advisers – including Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Christopher C. Miller, the acting defense secretary; and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – warned that a strike against Iran’s facilities could easily escalate into a broader conflict in the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Just when you think you’ve got Trump’s foreign policy figured out, you’re leaning on Mike Pompeo to stop the bombs from flying. Trump, of course, has always exempted Iran from any restraint he might show in the Middle East. The likely site of his proposed strike, Iran’s Natanz facility, has beefed up its uranium stockpile significantly since the president pulled out of the nuclear deal back in 2018. In other words, Trump himself provoked the very threat he now itches to address. Escalations beget further escalations. How many times must the old realist adage be vindicated?
The tub-thumping towards Iran makes even less sense when paired with this:
President Trump is expected to order the US military to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia by the time he leaves office in January, using the end of his time in power to significantly pull back American forces from far-flung conflicts around the world.
On its own, this isn’t especially surprising. The United States earlier this year negotiated a deal with the Taliban to remove its troop presence from Afghanistan. Iraq, too, has been on the president’s downsizing list, and the parliament in Baghdad back in January voted out our military entirely. The Pentagon has also been drawing down Special Operations troops in Africa, as Trump pounds the table for a full Somalia pullout. All this is in keeping with his expressed contempt for pointless Middle East wars as well as the desire among some in the establishment to at last achieve the chimeric pivot to Asia.
Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.