On Monday, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration had reviewed plans to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East to address provocations or nuclear weapons development by Iran. Such a large deployment of troops would rival the American force that invaded Iraq in 2003, and would break with a gradual withdrawal of military in the region since troops were first pulled out of Iraq in 2011.
The administration has become increasingly hawkish toward Iran, in spite of Trump’s campaign commitments to avoid such foreign entanglements, since national security adviser John Bolton was appointed over a year ago.
Bolton has been pushing for war with Iran for almost two decades, and shortly after his appointment, Trump withdrew from the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran—despite the fact that it was successfully preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons—all as part of Trump’s nebulous quest for a “better deal.”
Last month, the administration moved to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, in an effort to increase pressure on the nation. It was the first time the US has ever applied the label to a foreign government entity.
For Iran hardliners like Bolton, however, the successful deal inconveniently eliminated the best justification to go to war with Iran. And Bolton reportedly called on the Pentagon to draft the recent plans.
It’s likely that Trump still wants to avoid war with Iran, and he has said exactly that in recent days, according to several administration officials. Trump seems to believe that “maximum pressure” and isolation against Iran will push them to wholly relinquish their nuclear program, with no cost to the US. But Bolton may be betting that this path will ultimately leave the president with no choice but to either back down or acquiesce to a war that Bolton failed to sell to the George W. Bush administration. And based on personality alone, Trump may indeed be loath to back down.
Yet one of the bright spots of the Trump administration has been his instinct to avoid war. Trump’s bellicose rhetoric with foreign leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, while risky, has apparently signaled a tough approach to negotiations rather than a genuine willingness to use force. Even the approach to the administration’s military actions have revealed a desire to minimize American casualties and avoid larger entanglements. Before bombing a Syrian military base, for example, the administration warned the government and allowed it to evacuate the base.
Trump should follow this instinct. War with Iran would not only be a repeat of the mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq, but in many ways, would be much riskier.
As David French points out in the National Review, “we have not fought an intact regional power since Desert Storm, and we have not fought a foe with Iran’s long-range strike capability arguably since World War II.”
If the conflict escalated beyond the limited engagement Trump might be led to imagine, the consequences could be far-reaching. Iran’s missile arsenal is unsurpassed in the region, and it would be capable of inflicting serious harm on US interests. It would likely use its missiles to stymie any buildup of US troops in the region, and well aware of the US public’s lack of appetite for war casualties, would inflict as many as possible, as early as possible. Its proxy forces and capability to threaten American naval ships add further military threats that could go far beyond what the American public is willing to accept.
And the economic damage could go even further. According to an analysis by the Navy cited by French, 34 percent of the world’s crude-oil experts pass through the Strait of Hormuz. Oil prices would skyrocket, and other world powers would likely pressure the US to withdraw.
Iraq was itself an unpopular and largely disastrous war, one for which candidates are still paying a political price for today. Hilary Clinton’s baggage of support for the war may have even helped Trump take the White House to begin with. But that mistake would be dwarfed by the reality of war with Iran. And it’s a mistake that would cost thousands of Americans their lives, and Trump his political credibility. Hopefully, he will realize that before it’s too late.