If even the Pentagon does not know whether it is coming or going in Iraq, it might be hard to blame the rest of the world for being a little confused about President Trump’s strategy for the Middle East.
As Iranian missiles fell on American bases on Tuesday in retaliation for the drone strike last week that killed Iran’s most powerful general, the administration scrambled to explain its mission and goals in the region amid a chaotic brew of conflicting statements, crossed signals and mixed messages.
The president who promised to bring troops home from the Middle East is now dispatching more instead. The Pentagon sent a letter saying it was withdrawing from Iraq, only to disavow it as a mistake. The State Department talked about “de-escalation” while Mr. Trump beat the war drums describing all the ways he would devastate Iran if it harmed more Americans.
And even then, the president was forced to back off his threat to target Iranian cultural sites after his own defense secretary publicly said doing that was a war crime.
Likewise, the administration’s explanation for authorizing last week’s strike has varied depending on the moment. At first, officials emphasized that Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite security and intelligence forces, was eliminated to prevent an “imminent” attack that could take hundreds of American lives. But in the last day or so, Mr. Trump and others focused more on retribution for General Suleimani’s past attacks on Americans.
“The messaging has just been horrible,” said David Lapan, a former Department of Homeland Security spokesman early in the Trump administration who is now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s just been all over the map. At a time when you have something so serious, you need clear communication and instead what we got was contradictory, confusing communication from an administration that already has a trust deficit.”
With Mr. Trump, so much of his presidency is situational — he careens like a bumper car from one crisis to another, many of them self-created, rarely pausing to set a straight-ahead course but never lacking for energy and always willing to ram into other vehicles. No matter how much aides try to impose an orderly process, he still prefers seat-of-the-pants governance, leaving advisers scrambling to adjust.
“At the end, our Iran policy’s about protecting and defending the homeland and securing American lives,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday. “I know that the efforts we have taken not only last week with the strike against Suleimani, but the strategy that we have employed has saved American lives.”
Mr. Pompeo has been a forceful public advocate for both the president generally and the strike specifically, but he and others like Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper have been caught out trying to talk their way around things the president has already said. When Mr. Trump threatened to target Iranian cultural sites in violation of international law, Mr. Pompeo insisted that was not what he meant while Mr. Esper gently but unmistakably made clear the military would not do it.
Mr. Pompeo has been pressed to explain the reasons behind the attack at this time given that General Suleimani has been responsible for the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq going back many years. Asked on Tuesday to elaborate about the “imminent” attack he previously described, Mr. Pompeo instead shifted to General Suleimani’s past actions, citing a rocket attack by forces tied to Iran on an Iraqi base that killed a United States civilian contractor.
Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to seven Israeli prime ministers, said even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the president’s staunchest allies in the Middle East, had “whiplash” from Mr. Trump’s latest action, having assumed the American president would not take decisive action against Iran this year.
“Everyone is scrambling now to decipher Trump’s intentions,” Mr. Lipner said, “with the fear being that this may have been his parting shot before exiting the region completely and leaving U.S. allies to fend for themselves.”
WASHINGTON – If even the Pentagon does not know whether it is coming or going in Iraq, it might be hard to blame the rest of the world for being a little confused about President Trump’s strategy for the Middle East.
N.R. – But wherever you are, in any corner of the world, if you want to be aware of Mr. Trump’s future intentions and strategies, stay connected on Twitter ! 🙂
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