As Michelle Goldberg wrote recently in the New York Times, “The nightmare stage of Trump’s rule is here.” The decision to eliminate Maj. Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Iran’s most important military official, for which the President quickly took full responsibility, “has brought the United States to the brink of a devastating new conflict in the Middle East.”
Having witnessed Donald Trump’s recurrent erratic and vindictive behavior, I have been holding my breath for three years, waiting for the international crisis to emerge that would pique the President into backing himself into a strategic cul-de-sac from which to escape would take a complex and delicate effort, a task for which this president seems ill-suited. (Tensions have eased considerably as of this writing, but the situation remains volatile and unpredictable.)
Last spring I read Presidents of War by Michael Beschloss. In addition to outlining the expanding power of the executive branch in declaring war, the book recounts how current events shape Presidential decision-making which, in turn, determines if and when we engage in conflict with foreign adversaries.
Repeatedly throughout the book, external circumstances combine with Presidential fears and foibles to draw Americans into ill-advised wars that no one seems to want. Illustrations abound: James Polk’s obfuscations about the “real” Texas border, the debate over slavery and the desire for territorial expansion (slave or free?) justified the War with Mexico in the mid 1800’s. The slogan “Remember the Maine” built popular support for the Spanish American War; yet a decade later, it was revealed that spontaneous combustion in the ship’s hold and not the Spaniards were actually to blame for the sinking of the USS Maine. More recent deceptions surrounding the War in Vietnam or the “weapons of mass destruction” argument for invading Iraq are deceits that continue to impact foreign policy.
The chronology of half-truths and deliberate mis-statements litter our history with a long line of official obfuscations and disproportional reactions based on unrelated domestic politics, personal face-saving, maintaining familial traditions and delusional behavior. Decisions prompted by these dynamics have led to untold misery, lost lives and destroyed property.
President Trump is in the midst of impeachment. Reflecting on Beschloss’s findings of how American Presidents have made decisions in the past, it is impossible to imagine that this explosive, impulsive President did not factor the undercurrent of impeachment into his decision to strike the Iranian military leader. Sadly, this is but another incident in a long line of events that reveal how arbitrary decision-making can be, even at the highest levels of our government.
Three things make the current incident more troublesome than past events. First, we are living in a nuclear world where ill-timed, split second judgments can lead to consequences that impact millions and last for generations. Second, in the age of social media, the possibility that deception will ultimately be uncovered is highly likely. It took more than a decade for the truth about the USS Maine to emerge. Today, news (and fake news) lights up the internet and the whole world has instantaneous awareness of events and statements emanating from Washington. Third, the current administration seems to lack a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the complex world of international relations, and shows no inclination to study history in order to avoid mistakes of the past. This is a volatile brew. The largely predictable response to Suleimani’s death has already begun (and more is yet to be revealed). Lives are in danger.
Beschloss concludes his book with these words, “The Founders…hoped that all future Presidents would be people of sagacity, self-restraint, honesty, experience, character and profound respect for democratic ideals. They anticipated that any Chief Executive would strain to avoid taking the nation into conflict, except to confront a genuine, immediate national danger. And they expected that in the absence of such danger, all future presidents would resist any temptation—which the Founders saw in the Europeans they abhorred—to launch a major war out of lust to expand their own popularity and power.”
The possibility that the current occupant of the Oval Office doesn’t follow the Founders’ script is both all too evident and all too scary to contemplate.