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.