A troubling piece of mail showed up in my mailbox on March 28 from the Republican Presidential Task Force. The envelope contained a “Strategy Survey,” which was essentially a Trump fundraising questionnaire. There were a number of loaded questions about various political issues in the presidential race. The one that caused particular concern was whether the recipient would support the President taking military action against Iran if it were to make or use a nuclear weapon.
First of all, it troubled me that war was being treated as a political policy choice. Would a positive response of more than 50% result in military action against Iran? Secondly, the question seemed to imply that military action might be an option in the run-up to the November election. Either possibility is unsettling.
The questionnaire came shortly after what was reportedly a tense debate in the White House over the Iran issue on March 19. Just as the coronavirus was starting to hit hard, Trump and his advisors were considering whether to ramp up action against Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo, a long-time advocate of regime change, was for it, while the military officials urged caution.
It is likely that Iran has played a part in some recent provocations in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of General Qasem Suleimani on January 3. That killing resulted from the death of an American contractor in Iraq that the U.S. blamed on an Iranian-backed Shiite militia, which triggered American attacks on the militia’s bases, which caused angry Iraqis to storm the American Embassy in Baghdad, which resulted in the strike on Suleimani.
The military was smart to urge caution in taking action against Iran. Iraqi officials have provided fairly strong evidence that the contractor was not killed by the Shiite militia. If that is true, the escalation that resulted in the present confrontation with Iran was a mistake. The attack occurred in an area where Islamic State insurgents have operated and could well have been a false flag operation--an attack intended to place blame on the wrong party. Why wouldn’t ISIS want the U.S. to attack their enemies, the Shiite militias? The situation in Iraq is complicated and it is risky to jump to conclusions.
What is fairly clear, however, is that the attacks against our forces in Iraq predictably increased after the President disavowed the nuclear deal with Iran. Trump appointees had certified that Iran was living up to its commitments under the agreement up until Trump breached it and re-imposed sanctions. The best way to keep Iran from making a nuclear weapon would be to reinstate the agreement. That would certainly reduce tensions and eliminate the need for the military action question on the Strategy Survey.
And, speaking about policy toward Iran, why not try to work out problems without choosing the military as the first option? Both countries have common concerns where cooperation is possible. We worked with General Suliemani to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9-11 attack, at least until President Bush declared Iran to be part of the Axis of Evil in January 2002. We worked with Shiite militias loyal to Suliemani to rid Iraq of ISIS insurgents in 2017.
There are things we could never agree upon, but cooperating where we can, and trying to reduce tension where we can’t, would be better than the present standoff. The two countries have had serious troubles in the past and there is lots of bad blood, but we need to be realists and try to work toward the future instead of dwelling on the past. When I recall safely walking on the streets of Hanoi two years ago and being warmly received by people whose parents I was trying to kill 50 years ago, I know it can be done.
Alas, just after finishing this column, I learned of Trump’s April Fool’s Day tweet: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed.” Perhaps this will provide a perfect distraction from the wretched coronavirus news.