ANALYSIS — Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates wanted President Donald Trump to explain his Iran strategy Wednesday. What they got was a hodgepodge of policy whims and a few unexpected twists as the drums of war faded.
On the one hand, the commander in chief told the world he had no interest in using the U.S. military. But on the other, he all but threatened to use America’s combat arsenal to take out Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure if the government there ramps up its atomic program.
“The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion. [The] U.S. armed forces are stronger than ever before. Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal and fast. Under construction are many hypersonic missiles,” Trump said during one saber-rattling portion of remarks hours after Iran hit U.S. military facilities.
But then, in the next breath, the president who frustrated most members of his party by running in 2016 as an “America first” isolationist sheathed his sword.
“The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” he said in a shift from his warnings in recent days that led Democratic members and foreign policy experts to warn the United States was on the brink of another Middle East War.
“American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent,” Trump said just four days after threatening to hit Iran hard if it did exactly what it did Tuesday night when it launched missile strikes on U.S. military facilities inside Iraq.
“We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way...and without hesitation!” he tweeted Saturday. “They attacked us, & we hit back. If they attack again, which I would strongly advise them not to do, we will hit them harder than they have ever been hit before!”
Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2020
Even before he said “good morning” Wednesday to the staff and media in the White House’s grand foyer, Trump sounded hawkish.
“As long as I am president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” he said in a not-so-veiled threat.
But late in his 9-minute speech, the president essentially offered to help build an Iranian utopia as he called on America’s allies to follow him and Iranian leaders out of the Obama administration’s nuclear accord.
“They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal, or JCPOA, and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place,” he said. “We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential. Iran can be a great country.”
But in the next breath, he again vacillated back to sounding more like a hawk.
“Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred and war,” he said, flanked by several of the men he has called “my generals.”
“The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer. It will not be allowed to go forward,” he said.
Before the president spoke, Democratic members had a collective message that perhaps could be summarized this way: Where’s the strategy, Mr. President?
Rep. Eliot Engel, Foreign Affairs chairman, said Iran’s Tuesday evening strikes could be seen as an opening for deescalation with Iran and he hoped it will be used as such. "We should seize on it," he said the next day.
Just what Trump is trying to grab, however, is murky at best.
One major reason is his announcement that he intends to slap new sanctions on Tehran. Regional experts say economic penalties he has applied since taking office have squeezed the government there, caused domestic unrest, and pushed Iranian officials to lash out with attacks like one on a U.S. facility there that killed an American contractor.
It was that death that prompted Trump to launch missile strikes on Iranian targets inside Iraq, which prompted a violent protest that damaged the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which appeared to motivate Trump to order the targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force.
William Ruger, a Charles Koch Institute analyst and U.S. Navy Reserve officer, said Wednesday that Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign, championed by some of his advisers, has increased hostilities between the two countries that threatened an unnecessary war.”
“We implore President Trump to continue to show appropriate military restraint in response to the Iranian attacks last night and to pursue the diplomatic path that he suggested in his remarks today,” Ruger said.
The diplomat in chief walked into the Grand Foyer on Wednesday. But which Trump shows up Wednesday evening, after he settles in for an evening of Fox News reaction to his speech, is anyone’s guess.
“I’m encouraged that President Trump spoke of reducing military tensions,” said New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, a member of the sanctions-overseeing Finance Committee. “However, it remains a very dangerous and volatile situation, and it is critical that the Administration continues working to deescalate the conflict.”
Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.