Truly bad messaging is undermining trust among allies and the American public — and increasing the chance of accidental escalation.
War with Iran? America, stop right there. President Donald Trump is not leading you into a new head-to-head war with a regional power. This administration is not going to war with Iran. Not this week, anyway.
No matter how much the events of the past few weeks have dismayed many (and excited a few), what senior administration and military leaders have said repeatedly is that they do not want war — but they are more willing and ready to strike back at Iran or Iranian-backed proxy fighters in the region, following a credible threat against U.S. troops and allies. Now, that may eventually lead to a larger war. Or it may not. But it sounds like Washington is doing more of the same, rather than something new.
America, you have been fighting with Iran for years. You knew that, right? And you’ve been postured for war in the region for years. This didn’t start with sending an aircraft carrier last week. The United States has enormous firepower, troops, and intelligence assets in the region at permanent and temporary land, air, and naval bases. The Pentagon has tens of thousands of troops at bases in Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain, and Djibouti. Bombers, fighters, warships, carriers, drones, trucks, special operators — you name it, the U.S. already has it there. Or can get it there, even if it has to fly bombs in from Missouri.
U.S. troops and intelligence assets already are clashing with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq, fighting them alongside the Saudis on the Arabian Peninsula and in Yemen, at sea in the Persian Gulf, and in cyberspace, just to name a few places. Top U.S. generals have been repeating themselves for years, presenting evidence that Iran is spreading weapons that threaten U.S. interests and citizens (which is one reason why they continue to call for U.S. military involvement in the Yemen conflict) and warning more may need to be done to stop them. Obama authorized strikes on Iranian militia during his time, and so has Trump.
So why the divide between those who think Trump is amassing forces and evacuating embassy civilians just to show force and stare down Tehran, and those who think he and Bolton intend to start a war? Here’s why.
Because this administration’s bad public messaging and mistrust of journalists by its understaffed, combatitive and too-frequently seemingly incompetent public affairs teams left a giant hole of questions big enough for Americans to drive an aircraft carrier through. There’s no denying that from Tampa to the Pentagon to the White House, the administration blew the PR rollout on this whole thing. And they blew it again, on Tuesday, when the deputy commander of counter-ISIS forces in Baghdad, who is a British major general, couldn’t say whether there was actually any new Iran-related threats or changes to the force protection levels at U.S. bases. Central Command’s top spokesman had to email reporters hours later to directly refute the general and say yes to both questions, leading reporters to question whom the public should believe.
But because this all started with words from Bolton, critics say there is reason to fear he is trying to get Trump to go along the war his critics say he’s always wanted. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said as much last year in Defense One: “Don’t Let Trump Go to War With Iran.” Others are saying it’s just like the pre-Iraq War intelligence hype of 2003. Or worse, the Gulf of Tonkin. In more typical times, a new positioning of ships and bombers could have been announced calmly but forcefully and more clarity by a defense secretary, Joint Chiefs chairman, and CENTCOM commander in a Pentagon briefing — or with them standing behind the president at the White House.
Yet it’s not just Team Trump’s fault. When Trump lurches, his opponents — and some reporters and pundits unfamiliar with actual military preparations for war — pounce. They overreact. And on these kinds of military and national security questions they often misread Pentagon language or jump right into conspiracy-theory level declarations.
Ordering firepower into the region doesn’t mean war is coming. It could actually mean what U.S. officials say it means: that the U.S. military is getting better positioned in case of war. After all, the United States has also repositioned quite a lot of new firepower to Russia’s doorstep, but nobody thinks Trump is about to start a war with Russia. Nor in Korea, where in Trump’s first years the military repositioned firepower and buzzed the peninsula with long-range bombers in shows-of-force. In 2017, the U.S. military was not about to strike North Korea, nor were they in 2018 when Trump bragged about having a bigger nuclear button than Kim Jong-un. Just like now, the president beefed up forces, but said plainly he didn’t want war, and neither did anyone in the Pentagon.
The U.S. military fights to win, and win with overwhelming force. Yet two years ago the world was not used to Trump’s fiery rhetoric. He had the world on edge, and the words of the President of the United States must be reported. In fact, when a commander in Afghanistan in April 2017 dropped the GBU-43 largest conventional bomb ever, on a cave complex, reporters asked whether and pundits speculated that Trump and Mattis meant it as a signal to North Korea, which was hiding nuclear targets underground. It wasn’t a signal, they later said. The United States doesn’t send signals with a single bomb half way on the other side of the world. If the U.S. wanted to signal it was going to war, there would be no question about it.
Which brings us to the real question: what is the actual threat (to U.S. troops or otherwise) and is the White House response (aircraft carriers, bombers, threats, evacuations) commensurate to it?
Despite Bolton’s reputation for wanting to confront Iran, and the PR mistake that clearly fueled a wave of wag-the-dog conspiracies, those stories should have been shot down when officials at CENTCOM and at European Command went on record last week with an extensive set of answers saying that the additional military assets had been requested by CENTCOM commander Gen. Frank McKenzie a week earlier than Bolton’s Sunday announcement in response to intelligence that had indicated possible threats to U.S. troops in his region. But after the 2003 Iraq War, trust is an earned commodity for intelligence estimates. And now U.S. allies say they are skeptical of the threat. Spain even has withdrawn a warship.
By now, Americans — including critics, pundits, and reporters — should be better at knowing the difference between preparing for actual war and preparing for something else. Instead, they saw headlines like Rolling Stone’s “It Sure Looks Like the Trump Administration Is Preparing for War With Iran.” And they saw op-eds from Obama-era officials trying to lay it all on Bolton, the liberal national security cabal’s favorite enemy.
“Is this the Gulf of Tonkin?” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked former Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin, on Tuesday.
“You know, it has that feel to it,” said McLaughlin. “It’s very dangerous at this point, I think.”
On Monday, Trump was asked if he was preparing for war with Iran. “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran," he said.
But then the New York Times reported that Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan had prepared a contingency plan to send 120,000 additional troops to the Middle East to confront Iran, if necessary. On Tuesday, asked this time if he was planning to send 120,000 troops to Iran, Trump replied, “I think it's fake news. OK? Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that. Hopefully, we're not gonna have to plan for that, and if we did that, we'd send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
When you’re talking about war and can’t get your message straight, that’s a problem.
There’s another quote this week that may have been lost in the hype and headlines: “It’s not in [Iran’s] interest; it’s not in our interest; it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict.”
That’s not a quote from a Democratic dove or Bolton hater. That came from a former four-star commander of U.S. Central Command, retired Gen. John Abizaid, who as of last month is Trump’s new U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Abizaid once commanded all American troops in this region. He was asked how the U.S. should respond to the latest potential conflict point -- apparent sabotage to Saudi oil vessels in the Gulf of Oman.
"We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war," he said.