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January 12, 2020

Politics of de-escalation

Opinion

January 12, 2020

As “the loudest voice” in the room, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo successfully lobbied for President Trump to authorize the illegal assassination strike against Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

This “victory” proved fleeting, however, considering the risks to this administration’s reelection that accompanied all-out war. A full-blown conflict appeared increasingly likely following Iran’s missile strikes on American bases in Iraq’s Anbar province and in Erbil, so it is understandable for Americans to be surprised by Trump’s reversing course, and with the de-escalation he announced in his latest speech to the nation.

American politics has become increasingly carnivalesque in the era of Trump. Making effective predictions is difficult with a leader this volatile. One day, he’s escalating the conflict with Iran by ordering the assassination of a major state leader. The next, he’s pulling back from the precipice of war, showing restraint by avoiding a full-blown conflict. Despite this schizophrenia, I believe there is a coherent explanation for why Trump reversed course with Iran, and it is directly motivated by fear of public fallout in the face of war.

For one, it’s worth pointing out that the Jekyll and Hyde foreign policy approach has become routine with this President. Trump has a long history of playing chicken with foreign leaders, particularly with regard to potential military conflicts. Consider examples that litter his presidency: One, the threat to “totally destroy North Korea,” followed by rhetorical overtures in the form of a diplomatic PR meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un; two, Trump’s “escalation-deescalation” against Syria’s Bashar Assad, via the 2017 bombing of the Shayrat air base. The strike was undertaken in the name of stopping Syria from future use of chemical weapons against its own people. But the bombing was largely symbolic, as it was accompanied by Trump providing Russian and Syrian leaders with advance warning, and which wrought minimal damage on the Syrian government’s military capabilities; and three, Trump’s back-and-forth with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he repeatedly insisted, despite seeking to avoid a Turkish invasion of Syria, that Erdogan was free to invade, but that Turkey would be forced to take over anti-ISIS operations following its occupation.

These examples, in addition to his latest actions with Iran, reveal a picture of a president who thinks that militarism and aggressive posturing are central to maintaining his “credibility” as a strong-man and a decisive leader, even as he has little interest in pursuing all-out wars with foreign adversaries.

This aversion to all-out war is also apparent with regard to Iran. Trump spoke explicitly in mid-2019 about U.S. military engagement against Iran in terms of avoiding a commitment to American “boots on the ground.” The reluctance to commit ground troops is no sign of principled anti-imperialism, and it is not unique to Trump, but rather has become a structural feature of American politics following Bush’s extremely unpopular war with Iraq.

Barack Obama also spoke repeatedly about limiting US military conflicts in the Middle East, about ending conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and promising to avoid “boots on the ground” in Syria. Obama eventually reneged on his promise of no ground forces in Syria, secretly introducing a few thousand troops to commit to the US anti-ISIS campaign from late 2015 onward. Still, Obama’s secret escalation, coupled with the relatively limited military engagement of troops, spoke to a new reality in which mass anti-war sentiment restricts US military engagements abroad, even if it hasn’t ended them.

The reluctance of both Democratic and Republican officials to introduce ground troops in US conflicts overlaps with the public’s opposition to open-ended military campaigns in the Middle East, and with their concern about American military casualties. It’s worth pointing out that one of the first comments Trump made in his “de-escalation” speech with Iran was to note that no American servicemen or women had been killed in Iran’s strikes on US military bases. Clearly, this issue was highly salient for this administration, as it stood at the brink of war. And insider accounts now make it clear that American casualties were a primary concern for members of the Trump administration, as they assessed how to respond to Iran’s missile strikes on US military bases in Irbil and al Assad.

It is probably the case that a prolonged war with Iran would have spelled the end of an already unpopular Trump administration. By going “all-in” on war, any resulting bloodshed and loss of American life would fall squarely at Trump’s feet. The primary obstacle Trump would face in such a campaign is the public itself, which has long been casualty averse. With the U.S. nearly two decades into its “War on Terrorism,” foreign conflicts have cost the country trillions in financial resources, and thousands of lives, not to mention the mass destruction brought upon other nations. And Americans are increasingly unwilling to pay these costs.

It was clear as early as the mid-2000s that Americans were becoming increasingly intolerant of extended wars, in light of steadily rising military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with rising opposition to war.

Excerpted from: ‘Pulling Back From War: Trump and the Politics of De-Escalation’.

Courtesy: Counterpunch.org