By Hans Binnendijk
Most recent American Presidents have had troops fighting at least one war, and President Donald Trump appears on the verge of starting his with Iran. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both emerged with success from Desert Storm and Kosovo while Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush tarnished their presidencies by fighting unwise wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Trump’s war could have more in common with Lyndon Johnson’s and George W. Bush’s wars.
Trump seems to sense the risk he is taking and says he does not want war. He has offered to speak with Iran’s leadership to avoid it and said recent attacks on tankers were “very minor.” He then called off planned retaliatory air strikes against Iran. But tensions remain high.
Trump’s negotiating style has dug a deep hole for him that he will have trouble climbing out of. Trump tears up agreements he does not like and seeks new ones. He threatens and bullies to strengthen his negotiating position. He then tries to reconcile and diffuse the crisis he has created by engaging in high wire negotiations. Finally he hypes whatever modest deal emerges as his own stellar victory. This may work on occasion in real estate deals and it might even have succeeded with Mexico. It is not working well with China or North Korea. And it certainly is not working so far with Iran.
After abrogating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran last year despite US intelligence estimates that Iran had not violated the agreement, Trump imposed massive sanctions on Iran, including on oil exports. Iran is retaliating by threatening to expand its enriched uranium stockpile beyond the agreed JCPOA limit, by planting mines on oil tankers transiting the Persian Gulf, and by firing at American drones. Trump now faces a renewed Iranian nuclear program and a potential closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Iran refuses to talk with him.
While there remains room for both sides to back away, the risk of escalation is great. If Iran persists with its retaliatory moves, the United States will need to take the lead in keeping the Strait open. This happened in 1988 when President Ronald Reagan sent US warships to escort re-flagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Strait and ultimately attacked Iranian facilities in Operation Praying Mantis. This very short conflict with Iran ended in the tragic US shoot down of an Iranian commercial airliner.
Reagan’s tanker war was contained but Trump’s may not be. Iran was at war with Iraq in 1988 and could not afford to escalate. Now Iran has surrogate forces throughout the Middle East. It has Russia as an ally. This time Iran’s threats create real incentives for the US to target Iranian nuclear sites. And to keep the Strait open, the US may be tempted to destroy the Iranian navy and air force which it could easily do. But should this happen, Iran would likely initiate attacks on US interests throughout the Middle East making a massive ground war hard to avoid.
So if the path is escalation, what might history teach us about the outcome?
Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush respectively fought ideological wars to defeat communism in Southeast Asia and to bring democracy to the Middle East through regime change. This required large occupation forces and fighting protracted insurgencies that undercut America’s military advantage and engendered major domestic dissent.
By contrast George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton fought quicker, more pragmatic wars where the adversary’s aggression was clear, and those Presidents were wise enough to limit their war aims. They were not about regime change. American casualties were limited or in the case of Kosovo non-existent.
Trump’s war with Iran would have strong ideological elements to it. His National Security Advisor John Bolton has long called for regime change in Iran. Iranian would probably lose any initial military confrontation, but as was the case with in Vietnam and Iraq, American victory would probably remain elusive. The US could be caught fighting another protracted insurgency.
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were also able to construct broad international wartime coalitions. Those coalitions provided both additional combat power and legitimacy. Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were not, and both of their wars damaged America’s NATO alliance in the process.
Trump would probably be unable to form a large international coalition to pursue his war against Iran. Most European allies fault Trump for destroying the JCPOA and starting the current crisis. Some may even side with Russia or China against a US intervention.
Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush were not experienced in foreign policy and both let strident senior advisors lure them into wars that ultimately undercut their domestic agendas. Trump is not a foreign policy veteran and is under the influence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom are strident with regard to Iran.
So Trump’s war, if it starts in earnest, may not end well. If he is counting on a quick victory to bolster his re-election prospects, that could easily backfire and instead cost him his re-election. To avoid a protracted war, Trump may be better off listening to the more circumspect advice of Fox New’s Tucker Carlson rather than Bolton and Pompeo. Trump’s best bet now is to work with America’s European allies to craft a less belligerent solution.
Hans Binnendijk is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served formerly as NSC Senior Director for Defense Policy and as Director of the US Institute for National Strategic Studies.
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