When it comes to starting new wars, Trump’s bark is worse than his bite

Perhaps the only redeeming feature of Donald Trump is that unlike previous presidents he seems deeply reluctant to get the US involved in new wars. He also seems to want to end the US involvement in its existing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while at the same time being willing to continue and even expand specific military actions in those countries, as can be seen in the recent drone attack in Afghanistan that killed 30 farmers and laborers and injured 40 more who had been resting after work..

The problem for Trump is that he likes to talk tough and thus uses highly belligerent language against any country that is a designated enemy when they do something that is seen as hostile to the US or any of its allies. This contradiction is seen most recently in his response to the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil refineries. Despite the Yemeni Houthis claiming responsibility for it, the US was quick to pin the blame for it on Iran, the current designated enemy of the US, and Trump immediately said that the US was ‘locked and loaded’ and only waiting for word from the Saudis to take action. In the end, though, the US decided not to take any direct military action against Iran and instead is sending a few hundred troops to Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon on Friday announced it will deploy additional US troops and missile defense equipment to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as Donald Trump has at least for now put off any immediate military strike on Iran in response to the attack on the Saudi oil industry.

The US defense secretary, Mark Esper, told Pentagon reporters this is a first step to beef up security and he would not rule out additional moves down the road. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more details about the deployment will be determined in the coming days, but it would not involve thousands of US troops.

Other officials said the US deployment would probably be in the hundreds and the defensive equipment heading to the Middle East would probably include Patriot missile batteries and possibly enhanced radars.

The announcement reflected Trump’s comments earlier in the day when he told reporters that showing restraint “shows far more strength” than launching military strikes and he wanted to avoid an all-out war with Iran, which has denied responsibility for the attack.

This kind of mixed messaging puts Trump in the crosshairs of three groups of people: warmongers who use his words to pressure on him back them up with military action against Iran, the media who love wars because of the intense interest that in the news that they generates, and also paradoxically from anti-Trumpers who use it to taunt him for the gulf between his words and actions.

Matt Taibbi says that this last group should accept Trump’s lack of follow through on his bellicose rhetoric as a good thing and not use it to attack Trump in case he actually does take action because of the taunts of his critics.

One of the major worries before Trump entered the White House was what the man would do with the most awesome army in human history at his disposal. In all other areas, Trump is a man who flexes whatever he has, as often as he can. Would he wake up some morning and raze Reunion Island or Belgium on a whim, the same way he took shots at Serge Kovaleski or Carly Fiorina’s face?

Wars have been the go-to indulgence for most of history’s narcissistic autocrats, and although our undeclared bombing campaigns have increased since his election, he has tiptoed away from full-scale invasion scenarios in Syria, Venezuela and other arenas that might have tempted other presidents.

Nobody really knows why. It’s one of the mysteries of Trump’s presidency. He may be secretly afraid of making a mess of military command. He may also have a (correct) instinct that war in the current political climate would hurt him electorally. He might even, who knows, genuinely believe wars are a “bad deal.”

There’s also this: Trump is a man with few guiding principles, but call it an organizing dynamic of the man’s personality that he rarely fights anyone who can fight back. Put another way: He doesn’t like to commit financial or political capital to real confrontation when he can just take credit for things by talking instead.

Like every bully ever, he tends to be all bluster in the cafeteria but absent for the scheduled after-school rumble. Anyone who followed him on the campaign trail knows Trump, in word, can be limitlessly abusive, but if he has to face verbal targets, he often starts backpedaling before he’s through the door.

Iran was naturally emboldened by all of this, and unlikely to be impressed by Trump’s Sunday tweet that America is “locked and loaded.” Every time he makes one of these empty boasts, he makes actual bloodless solutions more elusive. Trump’s mouth keeps forcing Trump’s presidency into dilemmas Trump’s brain can’t untangle. The Iran mess is one of the worst.

Taibbi says that we should let Trump work out some face-saving deal with Iran but warns that there are many forces urging war.

He likely wants to strike a deal functionally identical to the Obama deal, so he can re-christen it the “Maximum Pressure Trump Victory Treaty” or whatever and steam into 2020 patting himself on the back. For sanity’s sake, everyone should probably just let him do this.

Unfortunately, it may not pan out that way. Washington is filled with people quietly pushing for the lake-of-blood endgame, and why not? Regime-changers would get all the benefits of an insane, expensive, protracted military adventure, while Trump would assume the political risks of war. Win-win!

“Responsible” people in Washington should find a way to let Trump be the pusillanimous double-talker he desperately wants to be. The alternative would set an awful precedent for full-blown war as a means of Trumpian expression. We’ve seen already on multiple occasions — in two bombing episodes involving Bashar al-Assad, and in reversals on stated plans to withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria — that Trump hates being called weak and will cave to “experts” on military matters if pressured.

This would be a huge mistake. The idea that America needs to retain “credibility” in the Middle East or anywhere else is absurd. It’s a little late for credibility — Donald Trump is our president! Trump’s own reluctance to launch wars shows that on some level even he understands this. If he’s not up for starting another bloody boondoggle, who are we to tell him otherwise?

I think Taibbi has it exactly right. Trump has the temperament of an immature adolescent bully who is actually scared of a fight but who can be pressured and taunted into doing something objectively stupid and terrible simply in order to protect his self-image as a tough guy. But unlike your everyday bullies, he has the power to do actual damage. We should be cognizant of this peculiarity of Trump’s character and resist efforts to taunt him into taking any irrevocable warlike actions.


  1. consciousness razor says

    I think Taibbi has it exactly right. Trump has the temperament of an immature adolescent bully who is actually scared of a fight but who can be pressured and taunted into doing something objectively stupid and terrible simply in order to protect his self-image as a tough guy.

    Let’s remember that he’s also lazy as hell. I don’t know if he’s ever been “working” in any sense that doesn’t mean “cheating.” That’s not so much his personality as the kind of status he’s had since birth.
    Anyway, being commander-in-chief sounds like work, and he’d rather be on the golf course or doing “deals” with his criminal friends. He is very insulting to people on Twitter or in front of crowds/cameras/etc. That’s more like an idle pastime: it’s a game and a form of stress relief, not work. But yes, of course, none of this means it can’t turn into much more.
    However, we are in fact fighting all over the place, whether or not those things are openly recognized as wars. With no old-school invasion using lots boots on the ground, only bombings and covert actions and such, well then … I guess that’s not the military doing it? Or those things aren’t what any sensible person would consider acts of war? Well, no that can’t be right….
    This focus on “new” wars is just frustrating, and I think it paints the wrong picture. Aren’t the old ones bad enough, or were we supposed to forget about them? Is he really supposed to get some kind of credit for only engaging in the wars that we were already in?
    How does this not “hurt him electorally,” if we do recognize that this isn’t actually “peacetime” and maintaining that isn’t what Trump has been doing, despite the fact that many talk as if that were the case? Or I should turn that around: it probably would hurt his chances, if more people were thinking that way. But I don’t think many are very clear about the extent of our current military escapades. Or they have somehow convinced themselves that those don’t really count.

  2. mnb0 says

    “the temperament of an immature adolescent bully”
    Yeah, but do you know who also had such a temperament? Kaiser Wilhelm II. Not a comforting thought.

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