US President Donald Trump wages wars of trade and words, but he has pulled back from an air attack on Iran that could have led to an armed conflict — an actual war.
Countermanding the hawks surrounding him, Trump aborted air strikes on Iran in retaliation for Tehran shooting down an unmanned American surveillance drone a mere 10 minutes before its launch on Thursday.
He tweeted on Friday: “We were cocked and loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. One hundred-fifty people, sir, was the answer from a General. Ten minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone”.
Trump laying down proportionality as a factor is a marked departure from previous administrations. Both the Bushes, senior and junior, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan as collateral damage in their wars.
This picture of Trump caring for 150 Iranian lives may seem incongruous, but he is a man of complex psyche. Despite his bluster and threats – even to annihilate North Korea – he appears reluctant to start a military war, perhaps having learnt the lessons of the US wars of the last half a century and is against military adventures abroad.
Iranians can retaliate causing widespread economic harm by disrupting traffic in the Gulf region by shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, the area where they had shot down the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone on Thursday, claiming it was over their territory, which Trump has denied.
Tehran has shown that it can almost masochistically absorb pain, as during the war with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or through years of international sanctions.
It is estimated that about 20 per cent of the world’s total crude oil passes through this choke point, about 40 kilometre at its narrowest point. India, which relies for much of its energy needs on the region, has sent two Navy ships to the region to protect its shipping.
The area presents other risks of immense magnitude for unintended escalation. In 1988, the US shot down a civilian Iran Air passenger Airbus killing 290 people, including 10 Indians, while it was over Iranian territory. The US made the fantastic claim that it had been mistaken for an F-14 Tomcat jet fighter.
A businessman by profession, Trump instead prefers to wield the economy as a weapon to beat down his foes. He has imposed painful sanctions on Iran – which causes collateral damage to countries like India and Venezuela. He earlier prevailed on Russia and China to more closely observe the UN sanctions on North Korea.
He has repeatedly said he doesn’t want war with Iran. Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a rare agreement with Trump said: “I don’t think the President wants to go to war. There’s no appetite to go to war in our country”.
Even before he ran for President, he called the Iraq war “a mistake” after supporting it in the initial phase. He said during his election campaign that he would bring home US troops from Afghanistan.
While in office, he pulled back US forces from Syria leading to a public break with his Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest.
Before his decision to call off the air strikes, Trump had created wiggle room to avoid military action. He hinted that the Iranian leadership may not be behind it, saying: “I imagine someone made a mistake” – someone “loose and stupid”.
Earlier this month, two petroleum tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman. The US blamed Iran for the attacks but Tehran has denied any involvement. Trump later downplayed the incident, too, tamping down the calls for retaliation.
He is surrounded by hawks like National Security Adviser John Bolton, whom he once said would have gotten the US involved in many wars if he had his way, and Secretary of State Pompeo.
Bolton wants regime change in Iran and Venezuela – and possibly most countries around the world and a display of US might. In reality, the US does not have the power that Bolton imagines – or if it did, it has squandered it away. Iran is larger and even more complex than Afghanistan or Iraq.
Trump also realizes that a large segment of his base – which contributes a sizable part of the US military personnel – is wary of wars, even if they sometimes sound jingoistic nationalists.
Iran is not entirely off the hook either even if it has avoided US retaliation this time. “I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” Trump tweeted.
The current tensions began after Trump renounced the multinational agreement with Iran to stop nuclear proliferation and lift sanctions on Tehran. He then reimposed the sanctions.
On Monday, Iran said that it had increased production of low-grade uranium and would exceed the limits set by the nuclear pact unless the Europeans, who were co-signatories to the agreement intervened.
The Shia Islamic leadership’s continuing response may be to test Trump, while his hawks look for or engineer provocations.