Late Thursday night, The New York Times dropped an astonishing piece of news: President Donald Trump, responding to Iran shooting down an American drone, had ordered strikes against the Islamic Republic—and then decided, with planes in the air, to call them back and pull his punch.
Often, when news organizations deliver this kind of story, the president denies the claim forcefully, usually with accusations of either calumny or treason against the outlet. (He then often slips up and confirms the basic gist of the reporting.) On Friday morning, however, Trump did something different: He gleefully confirmed the story in a series of tweets. After a preamble about how terrible he believes Barack Obama’s deal to freeze Iranian nuclear proliferation was, Trump said:
On Monday they shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters. We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!
There’s no shame in calling back the strike. In fact, it’s probably the correct call. One hundred and fifty lives is a hefty price for a single drone, as Trump said. Caution is especially wise given the escalation over recent days in the Persian Gulf, which threatens to turn into outright war. The U.S. can always decide to strike after circumspect consideration, but it can’t undo a strike that has already happened. Trump doesn’t often earn credit for restraint, but he seems to have exercised it here.
Yet the story of how it happened, by Trump’s own account, is chilling. There seem to be three possibilities. One is that Trump was railroaded by advisers who are reportedly far more hawkish on Iran than he is, and only at the last minute realized what was happening, in which case he’s being ill-served by his aides. A second is that Trump was given other, more proportionate options, and estimates of the casualties each would produce, and only stopped to consider these questions as the planes were in the air—not the sign of the sort of careful, measured decision making one wants in national-security decisions.
A third is that Trump knew exactly what he was doing and it was all a big performance. That possibility is perhaps most supported by Trump’s own account and by his past history of using the military as a prop. That’s also what a source told Maggie Haberman:
A source told me 30 minutes ago that Trump was pleased with his own performance last night, loved being in command by ordering the strikes and by then ordering the stand-down. And the president just... tweeted it. https://t.co/tUPSym7inn— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) June 21, 2019
In this view, Trump loved the feeling of being at the controls of the war machine—an even more dramatic and exciting experience than sitting in the cab of a Mack truck on the White House grounds and pretending to drive it. Pulling back the strikes wasn’t a sign of shaky resolve—it was a stage-managed turn, allowing Trump to show his power by declining to exercise it, like an ancient king granting clemency only once the condemned was at the gallows. These are the gut-clenching-and-unclenching tactics that Trump learned in television, and he deploys them far more instinctively than he does the military.
Isn’t pulling back a sign of weakness—just the sort of wobbliness on red lines that Obama exhibited? Iran hawks in Washington will say so. But though Trump likes to talk up his strength and toughness, he has repeatedly blinked. He wanted to strike Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, per Bob Woodward, but never said another word after then–Defense Secretary James Mattis effectively suffocated it. Trump once threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea, but that has dissolved into so obliging a stance that he feels compelled to assure Kim Jong Un he’d never cultivate spies in his family. He rattled his saber against Venezuela, but now that the conflict between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó is in a stalemate, he’s lost interest. Turning back is par for the course, even if he got a lot closer to actual violence with Iran—in accordance with his escalating attempts to maintain control of the public’s attention.
Yet while avoiding a shooting war may be wise, using the military as a prop for melodrama like this is dangerous. As much fun as the adrenaline rush may be for Trump, it’s unfair to military personnel to get them hyped up for battle and then change orders at the last minute—as well as running the risk that it’s too late to pull back, like a game of chicken gone awry. To paraphrase the international-relations theorist Corey Woods, if you start brandishing weapons and making threats, you’re liable to start firing simply to maintain your credibility.
Trump has repeatedly treated the military as a prop, though. A graduate of military school, he avoided the draft for Vietnam with a series of almost certainly spurious deferments for bone spurs. “I always thought I was in the military,” he once told a biographer. “I felt like I was in the military in a true sense. Because I dealt with the people.” He loves to play general, dressing up in bomber jackets and insignia, even though it took him nearly two years to visit troops in a combat zone. He dispatched troops to the southern border in the fall of 2018 even though they couldn’t legally apprehend immigrants—a move that amounted to trying to use the U.S. Army as a political prop against Democrats ahead of the midterm elections. And Trump is planning an elaborate flyover on the National Mall for Independence Day next month.
Trump’s hesitation about striking Iran is prudent, but the way in which he arrived at the decision, and his cavalier toying with the might of the American armed forces, do not instill any faith in his thought process—or give any assurance about what might happen the next time he finds himself in a similar situation.