Sometimes it’s important to write a column about something you’re pretty sure isn’t going to happen. In this case, that thing is war with Iran, which Donald Trump clearly doesn’t want, and which he will therefore probably avoid. But since the president’s current foreign policy is making war more likely, it’s still worth saying clearly that it would be a terrible idea for the United States to enter into a serious armed conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the past I have argued that there is a certain coherence to the Trump foreign policy, even if it’s just an accidental synthesis of a chaotic White House’s competing impulses. According to that synthesis, recent American presidents have been overly optimistic about democratic transformation, embracing naively utopian hopes in the Islamic world and naively accommodating the rise of China. So what is needed instead is a retrenchment in the greater Middle East, an abandonment of occupations and nation-building efforts and a return to kill-your-enemies, back-your-friends realpolitik, which in turn will make it easier for the United States to pivot to a more confrontational approach with Beijing.
In practice, this retrenchment has included backing out (or trying to) from the Bush-era military commitment to Afghanistan and jettisoning the Obama-era effort to woo Iran into détente. Spun in realpolitik terms, the Trump White House’s hard line toward Tehran reflects a belief that the mullahs’ enmity is an ineradicable fact, that deals with them in one area inevitably just enable aggression elsewhere, and that it’s better to just back our Sunni and Israeli allies rather than reaching for an unlikely realignment and just reaping more mischief in return.
But the (arguable) coherence of this approach has been breaking down as the Trump administration has moved into its “maximum pressure” phase of sanctions against Tehran. Because if you impose maximum pressure on a regional power you are, by definition, no longer trying to maintain a Middle Eastern status quo while pivoting to Asia. Instead, you’re effectively returning to the last two administration’s more dramatic Middle East ambitions: You are assuming either that some great diplomatic coup awaits (so Barack Obama was right to seek détente, just wrong to settle) or that your pressure will lead to regime change and democratisation (so George W. Bush was right about the freedom agenda after all).
I suspect that Trump is making the first assumption, imagining all this pressure as a prelude to a dramatic deal, while John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are making the second one, imagining the Iranian regime suddenly buckling like the Soviet Union in 1991.
But whatever the core assumption, the maximalist approach inevitably increases the risk of war. If the White House is wrong about the Iranian regime’s willingness to make more concessions, then they’re turning a dial that can produce only two policy responses: endurance or armed reaction. And if they’re right that regime change is a possibility, then the regime they’re trying to change will become more likely to lash out the closer it gets to its own breaking point.
Either way, there is nothing about the current situation in the Middle East, or globally, that makes the chance of war with Iran worth taking — as hawks as well as doves concede.
For instance: National Review’s David French, generally far more hawkish than I am, describes a potential conflict with Iran as possibly worse than any of our wars since 9/11, and a terrible idea “absent the most serious, urgent and compelling need.” David Frum, once a notable Iraq War supporter, writes that war with Iran would recapitulate our Iraq blunders on “a much bigger scale, without allies, without justification, and without any plan at all for what comes next.”
There is no explicitly pro-war rejoinder to these points; there’s only the sort of half-hawkish argument offered by Eli Lake of Bloomberg, who writes that of course nobody wants war, and the recent flurry of US moves is just all about establishing deterrence.
But even Lake acknowledges that “this strategy is fraught,” and “as tensions rise, so does the risk of miscalculation.” Which brings us back to the question of whether the larger context in which tensions are rising — the broad “maximum pressure” approach by the US — makes clear strategic sense.
I think that it does not. The United States can treat Iran as an enemy without going all in for brinkmanship; it can leave the nuclear deal without taking steps that make a conventional war more immediately likely.
Trump’s 2016 campaign rhetoric made a case against a hawkish Republican foreign policy consensus that seemingly wanted to confront all our enemies, at once, everywhere. The president is now in the middle of a trade war with China that by his own logic is far more important to long-term US interests than some immediate breakthrough or regime breakdown in Tehran. So he should return to that campaign-season wisdom, and to the maxim it suggested: Whenever possible, one war a time.
© 2019 New York Times News Service