Amidst rising tensions with Iran, the president’s rhetoric has been defined by a focus on spectacle and disregard for human life. Liam Glen writes on why the prospect of Trump as a wartime leader should be worrying.
As tensions between the United States and Iran rise in the aftermath of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani’s death, the two are perhaps at their closest point to all-out war since the Islamic Republic’s founding in 1979.
Both countries’ leaders are in a difficult position. If they back down, it could amount to capitulation. If they continue to retaliate, it could escalate into a conflict that would be catastrophic to both sides.
An obvious right choice does not exist, but obvious wrongs ones certainly do. President Donald Trump demonstrated this when he threatened to attack “52 Iranian sites… some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture.” This was followed by further threats to “quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner.”
Disproportionate warfare is not legal and it constitutes a war crime.
The concept of military necessity or proportionality is a well accepted international norm governing the conduct of war. https://t.co/vzOWEGCxMs
— Ksenija Pavlovic McAteer (@ksenijapavlovic) January 6, 2020
He was likely unaware – and apathetic – to the fact that intentionally targeting cultural sites and waging disproportionate warfare are war crimes under international law. What was intended to be a tough comment to deter Iranian action instead became a national embarrassment. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the Sunday morning news to contradict the president, only for Trump to double down later that day.
This all reflects long-known truths about the president, such as his disregard for human life, obsession with projecting strength, and inability to admit when he is wrong. Over the course of his administration, these have led to countless controversies. As the possibility of war looms, however, they have the potential to make Trump one of the most destructive leaders in US history.
The Administration of Fire and Fury
Trump’s foreign policy views have been likened to that of nineteenth century presidents. His distrust of international trade, transactional view of alliances with other countries, and attempts to purchase new colonial possessions would have all been commonplace a century or so ago. The president’s attitudes towards war and peace, however, may be better described as medieval.
He often suggests flaunting international law, such as when he brought up the possibility of looting oil from Libya and Iraq. But these are only the mildest examples.
On the campaign trail, he advocated for torture and stated that his plan to deter terrorists was to “take out their families.”
After his election, Trump established bonds with killers abroad. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, has used the pretext of a War on Drugs to instigate a reign of terror which has killed tens of thousands while doing little to stop the use of narcotics. Trump called him up to praise him for dealing with the problem “the right way.”
His approach to America’s own wars, then, is unsurprising. Trump has reversed policies to stop drone strikes from killing innocent bystanders and ramped up involvement in the bloody Yemeni civil war. Under his watch, civilian casualties in conflict zones like Iraq and Syria have drastically increased.
As a final insult to humanitarian norms, Trump has pardoned Navy SEALS charged with war crimes and is considering doing the same for a former military contractor convicted of murder for his involvement in the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre against Iraqi civilians.
The administration will occasionally pay lip service to the idea of human rights. Trump responded to criticism by taking to Twitter and bringing up Soleimani’s record of murder. These concerns, however, melt away as soon as they stop being politically convenient.
Trump was genuinely puzzled that he was being criticized for advocating war crimes against Iran even though “They’re allowed to kill our people. They’re allowed to torture and maim our people.”
He is incapable of seeing the Iranian government as separate from the Iranian people. Instead, it is a simple matter of us versus them. If the Iranian military acts against the United States, then the American military is justified in doing whatever it wants against Iran – even if those being targeted have no connection with the original perpetrators.
The president’s worldview centers around a few key concepts – such as strength, loyalty, and the drive to always win – but respect for the life and suffering of anyone who is not himself is not among them.
When the Reality TV Host Goes to War
If war were to break out between the United States and Iran, the overwhelming consensus is that it would be a disaster for all parties involved.
The Iranian military, for its part, would be able to launch missiles throughout the region. What it lacks it conventional military strength it could make up by launching cyberattacks, activating terrorist sleeper cells, and, of course, by encouraging attacks by the string of militant groups throughout the Middle East that Soleimani had spent his career cultivating.
Meanwhile, America would likely respond by bombing sites throughout Iran and relying on its own allies on the region. This includes countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose militaries have controversial human rights records.
An invasion of Iran, while technically possible, would be extremely difficult. The country has a much larger size, more mountainous landscape, and stronger military than either Iraq under Saddam Hussein or the Afghanistan under the Taliban. By one estimate, it would require 1.6 million troops, while the US armed forces has less than 1.3 million current active personnel.
Even under the most competent leadership, this would be America’s worst war in a generation, filled with untold terror and destruction. With Trump in charge, there is no telling what would happen.
His disregard for civilian casualties would be the source of countless tragedies. In the worst-case scenario, he could follow strategies like that advised by Observer columnist Brittain Ladd in May, which includes “attacking one or more of Iran’s largest cities with the intent of killing as many civilians as possible” with the goal of inciting them “take to the streets in massive protest to destabilize Iran’s government.”
This, for the record, would ignore the closest historical precedent, Saddam Hussein’s ruthless missile campaign during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Rather than weakening the regime, the massive civilian casualties rallied the people against Iraq and strengthened the Islamic Republic’s control over the country.
The intentional destruction would be devastating enough, but that would not be the end of it. Underprepared and unfit troops have historically been responsible for massacres such as Nogun-ri in Korea, My Lai in Vietnam, Haditha in Iraq, and Kandahar in Afghanistan. Trump’s subversion of the military justice system signals that his immediate instinct would be to protect the perpetrators of any such incidents.
We Shouldn’t Need Adults in the Room
Those who take a more optimistic view of the administration will point out that Trump, despite his shortcomings, has yet to fulfill his critics’ most apocalyptic predictions. Most of his bluster has not translated into action. In fact, his policies up to this point may have been less hawkish than a President Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio’s would have been.
I myself have written on the president’s reluctance to involve the country in armed conflict. But the fact that he generally tries to avoid war tells us nothing about how he would conduct himself if he were to end up in one.
Meanwhile, Trump has occasionally backtracked on aggressive posturing. In June, he claimed to have cancelled a planned airstrike against Iran due to the high projected casualties. But these isolated events are overshadowed by the far greater number of times where he has completely ignored the human toll of his actions.
The most common assurance is that Trump will be held back by the so-called “adults in the room.” He may have outlandish ideas, but his military advisors will steer him in a more reasonable direction. The career officials who control the day-to-day functions of American foreign policy will make sure that nothing catastrophic happens.
Even if this system worked most of the time, however, we would still have to worry for the times that it did not. Trump is the commander-in-chief. His subordinates may try to persuade him, but once he has made up his mind, they can hardly disobey.
When Pentagon officials showed Trump his options for responding to Iran’s actions in Iraq, they reportedly included Soleimani’s assassination as the most extreme choice. Its intention was “to make other options seem reasonable.” The president’s decision to go through with it sent shocks throughout the administration.
A war would provide Trump with many more opportunities to make such choices. Even if all of his advisers were perfectly reasonable, level-headed, and committed to avoiding unnecessary death, they could not control his every action.
All of this obscures another fact: the idea of needing “adults” to “hold back” the most powerful man in the world is a ridiculous notion. In a sane world, the commander-in-chief would be competent enough to make their own choices. Instead, American citizens are left wondering whether their president is even capable of registering the consequences of his actions, while the rest of the world holds its breath. The situation could be described as absurd if the stakes were not so high.