The latest book about the Trump presidency has a vivid moment when Christopher Miller, acting defense secretary, dissuades the president from attacking Iran by acting like a “f***** madman.”
Jonathan Karl’s Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show, released today, describes a November 12, 2020 meeting, shortly after the disputed November 3 election, when Miller talked through with Trump and top officials a response to an International Atomic Energy Agency report. The IAEA warned that Iran had increased its stockpile of enriched uranium to the point where it could make enough weapons-grade uranium for two bombs within six months.
Trump turned to Miller, according to Karl’s book, and asked if Iran’s nuclear sites could be taken out from the air. "Yes, Mr President," replied Miller. "We can absolutely do that."
But 100 manned flights would be needed, given Iran’s air defense, and “three, four or six planes” would probably be shot down, Miller told Trump. “I just want to make sure you are comfortable with that.” Trump was worried about things going wrong, especially Boeing’s involvement in air-to-air refueling as “they can't build s**t anymore."
Miller’s tactic worked. An alarmed Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, phoned Bill Barr, the attorney general, to get him onside.
"I would play the f***ing madman," Miller told Karl. "And everybody else would be like, ‘All right, he’s the new guy. He's fucking insane…I have found oftentimes with provocative people, if you get more provocative than them, they then have to dial it down.”
The Trump emerging in Karl’s account is unpredictable and ignorant – but a man consistently skeptical of force and committed to withdrawing US troops from foreign theaters, an aim more common among the left of the Democratic Party than amid right-wing Republicans.
US Navy aircraft carrier landing In the Persian Gulf region.
The writing had been on the wall for at least a year. Trump had in 2018 withdrawn from the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal and imposed ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions that he and apparently Pompeo believed would force Iran into broad concessions over its missile and nuclear programs and to curb its regional alliances.
Ten minutes to go
But did Trump have a plan B? A long piece in the New York Times in September 2019 highlighted Trump’s June 20 decision not to retaliate against Iran for shooting down a US surveillance drone. With ships aiming Tomahawk missiles, jets in the sky, and 10,000 sailors and airmen mobilized, Trump called of strikes with ten minutes to go after being told 150 Iranians would die.
The Times argued that the “about-face, so typically impulsive, instinctive and removed from any process” was a turning point in Trump’s presidency, one that
“was taken by Iran as a sign of weakness, emboldening it to attack” Saudi oil facilities at Buqaiq and Khurais in September 2019.
Trump’s response to the Buqaiq-Khurais attack – in which Iran denied involvement – was just to tighten financial sanctions.
But the Times even before that attack had noted that “as eager as he is to fight with 280 characters on Twitter, Mr Trump has proved profoundly reluctant to fight with live ammunition on a real battlefield.” The paper highlighted the influence on Trump of Fox News, especially presenter Tucker Carlson, always keen to remind the president he had been elected to stop wars, not start them.
Not ready to respond
In a meeting in Congress over the drone shooting down, Trump, according the NYT piece, “rambled on about how bad Mr Obama’s deal [the 2015 nuclear agreement] had been and insisted over and over again …that his pressure campaign would force Iran to the bargaining table. He seemed less certain about what to do in response to the drone shootdown.”
The picture emerging from Karl’s Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show confirms the NYT portrayal. Trump essentially repeated a mistake made by Barak Obama in failing to act in 2013 when President Bashar al-Assad apparently crossed a “red line” set by Obama over the use of chemical weapons.
In that sense, Miller’s “f***ing madman” act had more sense than the president’s responses. “Trump is in a box of his own making,” Philip Gordon, a Middle East adviser to Obama, told the Times in 2019. “He has put in place policies…guaranteed to provoke an aggressive Iranian response, but he’s not prepared to respond aggressively in turn, and the Iranians know it.”