By Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times: Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, once scoffed that Saudi Arabia “wants to fight the Iranians to the last American.”
The danger is that we slip toward that nightmare. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Iran has committed an “act of war” by attacking Saudi oil processing centers. Influential hawks like Senator Lindsey Graham have suggested carrying out strikes on Iranian oil refineries.
Meanwhile, Iran is warning that it will retaliate for any strike with a “rapid and crushing” response.
President Trump faces a conundrum. If Iran was behind the attack on Saudi Arabia, that was a serious provocation. It’s reasonable to wonder if Iranian leaders are emboldened because they see Trump as someone full of just bluster and bombast.
“He is not a lion, he is a rabbit,” said Ali Bigdeli, a political analyst in Tehran, according to a Times article by David D. Kirkpatrick and Farnaz Fassihi.
Iran may have concluded that Trump is the mother of all bunny rabbits after the lack of any kinetic response to attacks on oil shipping in May and June, or to Iran’s shooting down of an American drone in June.
The upshot is that hawks are urging Trump to be tougher this time and to consider bombing Iranian targets. That would be even more dangerous than a perception of weakness, for it could quickly escalate. Iran would strike back at sites in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, and it would target American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.
A full war with Iran would be a catastrophe. Iran has twice the population of Iraq and would be a much more formidable foe than Iraq was.
So Trump has a genuine dilemma: Inaction may be perceived as weakness, while military strikes may escalate and drag us into cataclysm. But this is a dilemma of Trump’s own making.
We are in this mess because Trump abandoned the landmark 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Hawks argued that we could apply maximum pressure on Iran and inflict such pain that it would buckle, without appreciating that Iran could also ramp up the pressure on us.
That’s the problem with hawks. They plan out their chess games and triumphantly plot a checkmate without appreciating the basic lesson of Sun Tzu or Clausewitz that the other side also gets to move.
Unfortunately, without the Iran nuclear deal, all options are bad. We should be searching for ways to return to the agreement, with face-saving tweaks that would allow both Trump and the Iranian supreme leader to claim victory.
Instead, I’m afraid we risk slipping into conflict. Nobody wants a war, but getting out of this will require skillful diplomacy, which isn’t something the Trump team has much demonstrated.
We need not be Saudi Arabia’s guard dog, or lap dog. Yes, Iran is a threat to international security — but so is Saudi Arabia. It is Saudi Arabia that kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister, caused a schism with Qatar and created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Attacking Saudi oil installations was a breach of global norms — as was murdering and dismembering a columnist for The Washington Post who was a resident of the United States. Saudi Arabia has the gall to call for an international inquiry into the attack on its oil installations, even as it blocks any international investigation into the murder of my friend Jamal Khashoggi.
Macabre new transcripts show that the Saudi hit squad was discussing the dismemberment even before Jamal walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. “I know how to cut very well,” one member of the team said. “I have never worked on a warm body, though.”
Saudi Arabia continues to imprison a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Loujain al-Hathloul, after earlier torturing and sexually assaulting her for advocating women’s rights. The kingdom apparently offered Hathloul freedom if she would publicly deny that she had been tortured; she bravely refused.
Trump might seek Saudi input on whether to go to war with Iran by placing a call not only to a killer on a throne but also to a hero in prison.
If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to respond militarily to the airstrikes on its oil facilities, he can go ahead with the kingdom’s own fighter jets and missiles. But this is not our fight. Nor should it be our graveyard.
This is a struggle between two misogynistic, repressive regimes that are both destabilizing the region. And Trump’s suggestion that we will be well paid for defending Saudi Arabia is an insult to our troops, casting them as mercenaries working for a thuggish potentate.
Our task instead should be to cooperate with European countries to get out of this muck and find a way back into the Iranian nuclear agreement.
First published in The New York Times. Cartoon by Pat Bagley.
Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can sign up for his free, twice-weekly email newsletter and follow him on Instagram.