These predictions have proved correct. In May, the United States accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Then, in June, Iran shot down an American drone.
Iran’s escalation left the Trump administration in a quandary. The president likes grand diplomatic gestures. But his administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal—combined with its absurdly maximalist demand that, as a condition for any future nuclear agreement, Iran entirely capitulate to Saudi Arabia in the two countries’ contest for regional influence—has made a diplomatic solution to the crisis virtually impossible. In June, Trump’s then–national security adviser, John Bolton, argued for meeting Iran’s provocations with force. But Trump, convinced that his supporters want no more Middle Eastern wars, called off an attack aimed at punishing Iran for the drone strike. The attack on the drone didn’t kill any Americans, Trump explained. If it had, that would have made “a big, big difference.”
In backing down, he thus established a red line. And last week, Iran’s proxies crossed it. An Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, Kataib Hezbollah, fired on an Iraqi military base, wounding four American servicemen and killing an American contractor. This time, the Trump administration did respond with force: On Sunday, it launched air strikes against the militia’s forces in Iraq and Syria, killing 24 people and wounding 50.
But if Trump’s nonresponse made America look weak in June, his military response on Sunday set off a chain of events that has made America look even weaker. On Tuesday, following funeral services for the dead militiamen, thousands of supporters of Kataib Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias stormed the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, shouting “Death to America.” Outraged by the U.S. attacks, many of Iraq’s top clerics and politicians are now demanding the withdrawal of all American troops. On Tuesday, Abbas Kadhim, the director of the Iraq initiative at the Atlantic Council, tweeted, “I expect the days of the large American diplomatic & business presence in Iraq to be numbered.” Liz Sly, The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beirut, predicted an end game reminiscent of Saigon in 1975. “After today,” she tweeted, “how do the Americans trapped inside the embassy leave except by helicopter?”
Trump, as is his wont, has responded with bluster: “Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities,” he tweeted on Tuesday. “They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat.” The Pentagon announced plans to send in reinforcements. But with each escalation, Trump’s predicament worsens. His confidants insist that he can’t afford a war—which would likely boost oil prices and damage the economy—especially in an election year. Yet he also can’t pursue real diplomacy, at least not without provoking a confrontation with the GOP’s hawkish foreign-policy elite. He’s caught between his desire to avoid being like George W. Bush and his desire to avoid being like Barack Obama.