David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic. In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.
... Trump has no legal authority of any kind to wage war against Iran—not from Congress, not from the UN. He has no allies, and has in fact imposed trade punishments on the European Union, Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and many others, above and beyond the escalating trade conflict with China. America’s most militarily capable ally, the United Kingdom, is paralyzed by the Brexit process, which Trump did everything in his power to urge forward.
The supposed provocations by Iran cited by administration sources as the reason for a U.S. response look petty, even assuming they are genuinely Iran’s doing.
Iran is a formidable state, home to a great civilization. And while the Iranian regime has acquired even more regional enemies than 2003 Iraq, its interests also converge in ways Iraq’s never did with the interests of other major powers, Russia most of all.
Iran’s theocratic state rightly inspires protest and complaint inside Iran. But there’s no evidence that Iranians would welcome military action by foreigners against their cities and military. The regime can mobilize shows of support and participation when it wants to. It rules by repression, not by terror. The regime has demonstrated global reach, sponsoring terror attacks in Europe and Argentina. U.S. officials have alleged that Iran even planned an assassination attempt against the Saudi ambassador to Washington in 2011. If the U.S. attempts surgical air strikes, Iran has proved it can retaliate against American allies. And if the Trump administration intends outright regime change, it has evidently done none of the requisite planning.
The administration has not made any public case for war. What would that case sound like, if anybody bothered to articulate it? By 2003, Iraq had spent more than a decade repeatedly cheating on the terms of the 1991 cease-fire that ended the first Gulf War. It had menaced Kuwait again in 1994, carried on forbidden military operations against the Kurds, been caught in a clandestine chemical and biological program in 1996, and evaded sanctions via a complex system of bribes and payoffs.
But in 2019, the U.S. is the international scofflaw. It ripped up a multilateral nuclear arms–control agreement with Iran. Whatever that treaty’s deficiencies, few inside the U.S.—and nobody outside it—deny that Iran complied with its terms. Iran’s behavior in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza is vicious and destructive, as it has been for decades. But where’s the casus belli here? What declared-in-advance U.S. red lines has Iran tripped? Any U.S. military action will look to the world like a bolt-from-the-blue act of aggression. It will look that way for the excellent reason that it’s precisely what it would be.
In any conflict with Iran, the U.S. would find itself without allies except for Israel and the Gulf states. The Trump administration would find itself even more isolated politically at home. Most Americans do not support, trust, or respect Trump's leadership. There is no Colin Powell–like figure in this administration, no senior official who commands respect across party lines. Pitifully few people in this administration command respect even /within /party lines. The administration’s record of casual incompetence at minor tasks raises terrifying questions about its capacity for a gigantic undertaking like a land war against a Central Asian state.
Even as a bluff, the war talk violates the rule: Don’t threaten to do something so obviously stupid, nobody will believe that you would actually deliver on your threat. You get the worst of all worlds in that case. The threat will not frighten, because it will not be believed. That, in turn, will either push you to do the obviously stupid thing you never intended to do, or force you to walk away from your threats and expose yourself as a bullying blowhard.
If you will not do it, you should not talk about it. If you are thinking about doing it, stop. And if you are talking without thinking? The U.S. and the world have had more than enough of that from Washington, and not only since January 2017.
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