There are two rules of the road for any president: Don’t crash the economy, and don’t start a war. If Donald Trump needed any reminder of this, the presidency of George W. Bush is more than sufficient. Bush started two wars, both based on lies, and lost both. And he left office with the economy in free-fall as America entered its worst depression since the 1930s.
Bush managed to win reelection in 2004, arguably through ballot fraud in Ohio. When the economy tanked, he was nearing the end of his second term, and we could do little but bid him good riddance. It was commonly believed that he left office as the worst president we’d ever had.
Trump, his successor to that title, has played with the economy like his private toy, illegally wielding tariffs that have cost jobs, raised prices and nearly bankrupt the agricultural sector of the Upper Midwest. He has juiced the stock market with tax cuts for the rich and bullied the Federal Reserve into artificially low interest rates to prop it up. The price will be paid, but probably not until after November.
Trump has also played with war, threatening to blast the People’s Republic of North Korea off the face of the planet before finding a kindred spirit in its dictator, Kim Jong-un. He still might find himself in a showdown with a nuclear-armed country that could blow up the South Pacific. Meanwhile, he has brought us, in a seven-day spasm of bellicosity, into an actual war with a major regional power that (thanks to him) will — absent heroic countermeasures — almost certainly possess nuclear capability in the near future.
There are countries you can mess with. Iran isn’t one of them.
Iran was once an “ally” — that is, a client state ruled by an unpopular monarchy we’d imposed on it way back in 1941 — and bailed out 12 years later when we swatted away a popular reformer who threatened the Pahlavi Dynasty. Unrest smoldered for a generation after that until an exiled religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, staged a revolution that caught the Jimmy Carter administration with its pants down. Khomeini established a theocratic regime that gave us our first serious adversary in the Middle East since Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. America’s embassy in Tehran was seized, and its staff was held hostages for 444 days — an insult that cost Carter his job and began the on-again-off-again conflict with Iran that has now lasted over 40 years.
When is a conflict a war? The Cold War, a 45 year struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, involved proxy wars on numerous fronts and periods of open confrontation. The most notable of these was the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. It also marked the advent of asymmetric warfare, in which colonies won their independence and small powers resisted large ones by means of guerilla tactics. With the end of World War II and the spread of atomic weapons, direct massed fighting between more or less equally matched armies in the field became, with few exceptions, a thing of the past.
One of those field wars, largely ignored in the Western press, occurred between 1980 and 1988 between Iran and its neighbor, Iraq. The war was started by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was then an American ally who calculated that it would meet with favor in Washington. Hoping to counter this, the Iranians released the hostages as a gesture to the newly-elected Ronald Reagan. Reagan pocketed the political windfall, but encouraged, armed and supported Saddam through a war that blunted potential Iranian adventurism for nearly a decade and cost a million lives. Three years later, Saddam’s army was destroyed when he ran afoul of American interests, and, a dozen years after, America occupied Iraq outright, putting U.S. forces along Baghdad’s 900-mile frontier with Iran.
The war Iran braced for did not materialize, as ethnic and religious antagonisms bogged America down in Iraq, and the Iranians, making common cause with their co-religionists, coopted the Shi’ite majority government that America had blunderingly installed in Baghdad. That led to civil war in Iraq and the effective reduction of most of it to an Iranian satellite. In turn, this opened the prospect of an Iranian-dominated Middle East from Tehran to the Mediterranean, with proxy militias in Iraq itself, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. America, having paved this road, now stood as its sole impediment.
Barack Obama began his administration by launching a cyberattack on Iran’s nascent nuclear weapons program in collaboration with Israel in 2009. It was an effective blow, but not a conclusive one. Obama changed course in his second term, negotiating a multinational agreement to pause the Iranian program in return for lifting trade sanctions. It was not, strategically, a very favorable deal for the U.S. because it left Iran otherwise free to pursue its dreams of regional hegemony with little hindrance. However, it did at least offer an olive branch to Tehran after 40 years of unrelieved conflict.
Donald Trump walked out on the agreement as part of his scorched earth policy of undoing Obama’s legacy in its entirety without so much as a by-your-leave to the agreement’s European co-signatories. He reimposed the Obama sanctions and added his own. He left no path but hostility, and military incidents began to accumulate in the Persian Gulf. Then, on Dec. 27, an American military contractor was killed in an Iranian strike on an American base in Iraq. Trump reacted massively, killing more than 25 Iraqi personnel and wounding more than 50.
This response might be contrasted with the protracted peace negotiations underway shortly before with our Taliban adversaries in Afghanistan, which had culminated in an invitation to visit Camp David. The Taliban had continued to target and kill Americans during the negotiations and, only in these past days, killed two more without even notice from Washington.
Trump wanted no escalation in Afghanistan. But he did want war with Iraq. The Iraqis responded to the American attacks by demonstrating outside the American embassy in Baghdad. There were no casualties, and forces were withdrawn on command. Trump reacted to this by assassinating Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s senior military commander and an iconic hero to his countrymen. Nine others were killed with him, and a further attack on a senior figure narrowly failed. Iran made a symbolic response, targeting American bases but again inflicting no casualties.
Trump stopped the escalation at that point, at least for the present. He had achieved his immediate political purpose: to distract attention from his pending impeachment trial. But dozens more had died in a stampede in Iran at Soleimani’s funeral and 176 more in an inadvertent shootdown of a Ukrainian airliner in Tehran, including 82 Iranians. These deaths, and above all Soleimani’s, will be remembered, and all observers now expect a sustained campaign of Iranian retaliation. It’s war now, and it won’t go away soon. And Iran, with its nuclear program restarted, will soon be in a position to destabilize the Middle East as never before.
Donald Trump has merely waged war on the Constitution until now. At this point, he’s a menace to the world.