Throughout his campaign and then during his reelection rallies as president, Mr. Donald J. Trump continually declared that he would build a wall along the border with Mexico and that Mexico would pay for it. Time after time this was his go-to rally cry to fire up his base.
There is only one problem. Mexico supplied exactly zero pesos to build his wall.
Signaling that his wall promise was a scam, in January, 2017 Mr. Trump signed Executive Order 13767 that directed the federal government to begin building the wall using U.S. government funds. No construction began because the funding was not there and it was unclear where funds for a wall existed.
Please remember that the Republican Party controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for two years, including 2017. No funds were appropriated because the majority of those in Congress, including Republicans, realized that the wall was a terrible waste of money.
Also recall that in a compromise move, the Democrats in Congress offered Mr. Trump over 20 billion dollars for his wall in exchange for permanent legal status for the “Dreamers” (those under DACA, the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals order). Mr. Trump was for it before he was against it. He walked away without a deal.
Switching tactics, Mr. Trump shut down the government for 35 days at the end of 2018 and into 2019, the longest in American history, holding the country hostage to get funding for his wall. Congress held firm. Still no wall.
Trying yet again, in February, 2019 Mr. Trump declared a National Emergency using a loophole in an act passed during the Cold War intended to be used in a fast breaking real time emergency. He tried to use that as the vehicle to move funds to build his wall that had not been appropriated for that purpose. That move was blocked by a bipartisan vote in both houses of Congress. Mr. Trump vetoed that bill and Congress did not override his veto.
Efforts in the courts effectively blocked construction by precluding any use of appropriated funds not intended for the wall. In July of this year, on a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court allowed the use of 2.5 billion dollars in funds on the border while legal proceedings continue.
Many Constitutional experts assert that Mr. Trump’s use of these funds for a wall violates the spirit and letter of the Constitution which clearly gives the power over financial expenditures to the Congress. Article 1, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” In 2019 Congress specifically forbade the use of federal money for the wall.
To date, no new wall, fence or other barrier exists. There have been upgrades to existing fences and barriers that needed repairs.
Yesterday the Trump Administration revealed that the Department of Defense (DOD) would divert 3.6 billion dollars from DOD construction projects to be used on the wall. These were not nice-to-have items. Many of the projects were needed to repair or replace infrastructure damaged by natural disasters. Among them are:
- 400 million dollars for rebuilding military structures in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of the recovery from damage following Hurricane Maria.
- 17 million dollars for Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida to rebuild following severe damage from Hurricane Michael.
- 770 million dollars intended to help our NATO allies by building facilities for U.S. forces to operate in response to expanded Russian adventurism in Europe. Specifically, the European Deterrence Initiative is a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. I would bet Mr. Vladimir Putin is glad to hear of this change.
- Several projects to rebuild substandard schools on military bases.
- And on and on for bases in Utah, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Hawaii, Alaska and other states.
In addition, the Trump Administration is re-allocating nearly 300 million dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the U.S. Coast Guard even as Hurricane Dorian bears down on the mainland.
Besides being a dangerous precedent for future presidents who are thwarted by Congress and declare a National Emergency to get their funding anyway, it is also bad policy.
These construction projects that are now “deferred” run the danger of never being built. The Trump Administration says that future appropriations bills will pick up the funding for these needed repairs and new construction. The Democrats in Congress and some Republicans, although they mostly remain as the silent majority, argue that they will never appropriate funds for those projects because they don’t have to — they already did it and cannot appropriate funds that they already appropriated. (And you thought Alice in Wonderland had some strange characters.)
What makes this entire bizarre episode so sad is that there is only one reason that this is happening. Mr. Trump fears the voters in 2020 that he promised in 2016 would get a wall. As his signature promise, if he fails to deliver, he will be shown to be as weak and unable to govern as he actually is. This diversion of funds is a perverted use of presidential power to further the ambitions of a single person for his own gain.
It is probably only the beginning of the bizarre and Constitutionally dubious actions this president is likely to take to further his own personal goals as the election gets closer. Mr. Trump does not have the best interests of the country as his guiding light. He only cares about himself.
It isn’t funny anymore.
The past week showed the lunacy of Mr. Trump and his actions as president in all their weirdest manifestations. From calling American Jews “disloyal” to Israel (among the oldest tropes of anti-Semites) if they vote for a Democrat, to calling the Prime Minister of Denmark “nasty” (his go-to slam on women of power who don’t do what he wants), to acknowledging himself as the “second coming of God” and the “King of Israel,” to calling his hand picked Chairman of the Federal Reserve the “enemy,” it was hard to keep up with his unraveling. It was yet more bafflegab. As the old saying goes, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.”
None of these were the low points of the past week, however. That honor goes to Mr. Trump’s participation in the Group of Seven (G-7) summit over the weekend in France. The G-7 has through the decades provided a forum for the world’s seven strongest democracies to reach a common understanding of problems facing the world and to provide an opportunity to face those problems with a common purpose. This year’s meeting could more properly be called the G-6 and some guy named Trump.
Symbolic of the entire American fiasco were the pictures of the meeting on climate change where all of the G-6 were there, along with the leaders of other nations invited to sit in on the session, and an empty chair where the President of the United States was to sit. The proffered excuse for his no-show was that he was in meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A scheduling conflict. Except that both Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Modi were at the climate change round table as is clearly shown in pictures of the group in session.
Does anything symbolize our current status in the world of international diplomacy more than a picture of an empty chair?
Whatever one’s view on climate change and its importance to the world (I think it an existential threat to our well being, physically, economically and militarily) to have the supposed leader of the free world missing in action shows that the United States is no longer the leader on the world stage. Reports from other weekend meetings indicate that Mr. Trump was marginalized by the other world leaders because they were focused on important issues related to the future of their countries while Mr. Trump spent much of his time bragging about his trade war with China, pushing to have Russian President Vladimir Putin reinstated to the G-7 (making it the G-8 even though Russia still occupies Ukrainian territory in Crimea — the reason they were kicked out — and oh by the way, they are not one of the world’s leading economic powers or democracies) and touting his Doral, Florida golf course and resort as the finest in the world and the anticipated site of next year’s G-7 summit (thus making a profit on one of his business dealings by making foreign leaders and their entourages pay him for the privilege of fulfilling their duties.)
It was clear to observers that the G-6 were merely tolerating Mr. Trump and their goal was not to engage him on substantive issues, but rather to assuage him, flatter him and otherwise keep him occupied so that he did not blow up the primary focus of the work they were trying to do. They knew he would not be part of any solutions so their only objective was to keep him from making the situation worse. They mostly succeeded.
In other words, the world is moving on without the United States. “America First” has become “America Alone.”
It is, once again, obvious that Mr. Trump has no understanding of history or why the world has been at relative peace for the last 75 years. Decades of building trust through multi-lateral organizations such as NATO took down barriers that had resulted in two world wars in the span of twenty-five years. Peace resulted in tremendous economic prosperity in many parts of the world and raised the relative standard of living for most people on earth.
The number one beneficiary of that peace and prosperity? The United States. By taking the lead around the world, we could shape these institutions to our benefit. Other countries were willing to follow our lead because of our economic and military power, but also because they too benefited. It is to our distinct advantage to be part and parcel of these institutions and to set the agenda through our strength and seasoned leadership.
To Mr. Trump this system exists only because previous administrations were chumps and allowed the rest of the world to take advantage of us. Obviously, he has no understanding that the circumstances that led to World War II — the U.S. going it alone in isolation, imposing strict tariffs, the Great Depression — are being recreated by his vacillating and impulsive policy announcements via Twitter.
Real diplomacy aims to achieve a win-win for those involved. Mr. Trump’s core belief is that there are never any win-win situations. Only winners and losers. One must win at all cost — even if that means lying, cheating, and subverting your friends. Otherwise, you are a sucker.
An example would be Mr. Trump’s dealings with Denmark over Greenland. The U.S. could argue that Greenland has important strategic interest to the U.S. for two reasons. The geo-strategic reality that a militarily resurgent Russian Navy must pass through the U.K.-Iceland-Greenland Gap to get to the open Atlantic Ocean — simplifying the U.S. Navy goal to locate those forces, especially submarines. The other is the growing importance of the Arctic to commercial interests, including shipping, for which both Russia and China have ambitious plans. If Mr. Trump understood diplomacy and the multi-lateral nature of our alliances, he would know that Denmark — the Danish kingdom includes Greenland — is one of our greatest allies including sending troops to support us in Afghanistan and Iraq and suffering 43 of their brave soldiers killed in action. Instead of cancelling a state visit — rarely offered by the kingdom — and calling the Prime Minister “nasty” he should have made the visit, talked with the Danish government and worked to see how to meet both nation’s interests while preserving the goals of the U.S. Instead he got mad when they would not sell the island at his demand, as if we would sell Puerto Rico to the French because they want to protect their interests in the Caribbean.
So the world simply moves on without the U.S. and works together without our input. The resulting impact on our foreign policy and national interests is that we lose our seat at the table. All Mr. Trump can do is throw a temper tantrum and disrupt. Indeed, he considers himself a disrupter, a position that has some great appeal to his supporters.
In reality, he is not a disrupter, he is a destroyer. He breaks things and destroys in a fit of pique or just to show that he can. A real leader may shake up the status quo, but has a plan and a strategy to implement a new, and one hopes, better idea. Not so with this president. He breaks things, blames others for it, and expects the world to pick up after his mess. He has no grand plan.
Our friends and allies have learned the game. So have our adversaries. Our friends do not want to play anymore. Our adversaries see a chance to take advantage of the situation. Our friends simply placate him to his face so that he stays out of the way and then they go and do what they want without our input. Our adversaries flatter him and then do whatever they want without fear of consequences.
It may be a stretch to say that we are becoming irrelevant, but our influence is quickly waning.
This may be our weakest international position since before World War II.
Here we go again. More mass shootings and more “thoughts and prayers.” As of this writing twenty-two people died in El Paso, Texas and nine in Dayton, Ohio with dozens more wounded and injured. This comes on the heels of a mass shooting at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California that left three dead and sixteen wounded. There is an epidemic of violence in our country that is aided and abetted by the cowardice of politicians to deal with the issue in any practical way.
No piece of federal legislation concerning guns has reached a president’s desk since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 — and that law expired in 2004. More specifically, no law regulating the use of fire arms has passed since then. Two others, however, have been passed. In 2004 an Act was passed that allows current and former law enforcement officers to carry concealed fire arms in any jurisdiction. In 2005 an Act passed that prevents fire arm manufacturers and licensed dealers from being held liable when crimes are committed using their products. That’s it.
There is a more pressing issue to deal with right now, however.
The acts of these despicable individuals, of which more and more are occurring in all segments of our society, including churches and synagogues, are not really the work of lone wolfs as some would like to depict them. They are the acts of white supremacists that increasingly act in concert. Instead of being lone wolfs, they are more like wolf packs.
There is little difference between these white supremacists conversing with each other, supporting each other, giving ideas to each other, helping each other in on-line chat rooms and on the internet, especially 8chan, than 80 years ago when a bunch of white guys in sheets would congregate in the back room of a warehouse in a small town. It is the same, they just don’t have to travel any further than the lap top in their bedrooms to get their hateful ideas. The FBI and other reputable agencies tracking these trends know the threat and they know that it is increasingly likely that the members of these hate groups will take action. They are “heroes” to each other. One may debate as to whether their psychological profile leads certain types of individuals into joining these groups, but they are not “crazy” or clinically mentally ill. They are purposeful in their actions. They have plans. They have goals. They have the means to work towards achieving their ends.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said in Congressional testimony on July 23 this year that “homegrown violent extremists” are the biggest threat to the United States. He went on to say, “I will say the majority of domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
I am concerned that we are on the way to another terrorist attack that will be the “new” attack of September 11, 2001, only this time it will be carried out by one or more young white guys. Think Timothy McVeigh and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995. 168 men, women and children died that day. Hundreds more were wounded. It is possible, and some believe probable, that something similar will happen again.
We need to call it what it is. These attacks are not the result of video games, or drugs, or not going to church or mental illness or anything else. Every country in the world deals with these same issues and they do not have the pervasive and never ending attacks on their fellow citizens that we do here in the United States.
These acts are increasingly the work of white nationalists who want to eliminate anyone in our country that they deem “impure” — in other words anyone that is not white and not Christian. (It would be laughable that they call themselves Christians if it wasn’t such a deadly issue.)
It is staring us right in the face. Call it what it is. Call out the president when he says that Hispanics are conducting an “invasion” of our country. Call out the president when he calls Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers.” And on, and on, and on he goes with spiteful, hateful rhetoric towards people of color. In a rally in Florida just this May he talked of the “invasion” from Mexico and then laughed along with the crowd when someone yelled “shoot them.”
Mr. Trump is not the one that pulled the trigger in El Paso or elsewhere. He didn’t order it. He does inspire these white nationalists when he uses hateful language that leads them to violence. His barely disguised racist language is a deliberate campaign strategy to rally his “base.” Shame on him. Shame on us all. We are better than this as a country.
More importantly, we need to take action as a country and tell the government to use the same tactics against domestic threats that we do to protect ourselves against foreign terrorists. The oath I took as a Navy officer says in part “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.” We have a clear and present danger from domestic terrorists.
The biggest threat to our security and safety walks among us.
The title quote above is indelibly etched into my mind as it was emblazoned over the stairway from the crew locker room down to the boat storage area in the USNA boat house at Hubbard Hall. For four years every time I passed by that sign I took it onboard. As college rowers we knew its meaning. It takes mental toughness as well as physical fitness to compete at a high level. You can quit or you can fight through it. The quote is attributed to General George S. Patton or Vince Lombardi — take your pick — but its origin is unclear. Its meaning is not and it stayed with me through all of the years since then.
Its relevance takes on a new dimension to me in the current political atmosphere. The President of the United States is so outrageous in his daily Tweets, rallies and pronouncements to the press that it wears me down. It is truly fatiguing. It becomes part of the background of daily life. It becomes too easy to say that it is just Trump being Trump.
But we cannot. We cannot give in to that fatigue. He must be called out each and every time that he spouts hateful, racist and misogynistic things.
When E. Jeanne Carroll alleges that Mr. Trump raped her and he responds that it couldn’t have happened because “she’s not my type” we should ask what type of woman would Mr. Trump rape?
When Mr. Trump racially attacks members of Congress that oppose his ideas we must call him out. The latest episode comes this weekend with an attack on Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and the city of Baltimore. What does Mr. Trump mean when he says about Baltimore that “no human being would want to live there”? We should recognize that he knows full well that the city is majority African-American. Does that mean that they are not human?
The outrageous lies are endless. Mr. Trump is the most deliberately divisive president in my lifetime. Probably, he is the most divisive since the U.S. Civil War. Why do we tolerate it?
The Trump will be Trump argument is weak and cowardly. It is not okay. He is not what America is about. He has bullied the Republican Party to the point that good Americans that three years ago decried his abhorrent behavior now go meekly along. They pretend that they did not hear or are too busy to notice the latest insult. Or worse, they defend his comments.
Mr. Trump is a master of the playground mantra of “I’m rubber you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” He projects what he knows about his own character and his tactics onto his critics. And make no mistake, his critics are to him anyone that does not blindly follow along with total loyalty in every manner of endeavor.
The Republican Party is dead. The Democrats cannot get their act together. Mr. Trump is taking advantage of every crack in society and ignoring the law to further his own personal gain. As long as the citizens of this great country look the other way, either out of fatigue or out of a sense that laying low is the best way not to get into trouble, we will see him amplify his outrageous behavior into dangerous areas.
We are better than this. Do not let fatigue make you a coward.
The president is at it again and incited a crowd in Greenville, North Carolina to engage in racist chants during one of his campaign rallies last night.
Again attacking specific Congresswomen of color he got the crowd to chant “Send her back.”
Shameful. Horrifying. Dangerous. Un-American.
Most frightening, I invite you to look at rallies in Germany or Italy in the 1930’s and compare them to Mr. Trump’s rallies. The similarities are ominous.
The president clearly relishes his racist attacks on other Americans. I hope — perhaps in vain — that the good people of North Carolina woke up this morning embarrassed by their actions. They should be.
Should the president work in any other job in the United States, he would be fired for his racist rants as explained by a department he oversees, The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
I fear the president of the United States will have blood on his hands when one or more of his white nationalist supporters takes the situation into their own hands based on his overt encouragement of outrageous and indecent behavior.
It is clear to me and to his white nationalist supporters, that when he says “Make America Great Again” it is with a wink and a nod. He really means “Make America White Again.”
All of us are complicit if we condone such actions from anyone, much less from the president.
As I am sure you know, on Sunday Mr. Donald J. Trump sent out a series of racist tweets about four Congresswomen of color. Besides putting forth lies about who does or does not love their country, and other blatantly bizarre statements concerning a Congresswoman’s “love” for al-Qaeda, for three days (and counting) he used the most basic of racial and ethnic slurs by telling them to go back to where they came from.
This should not be surprising. Mr. Trump has a record of racist statements and actions dating to the 1970’s when he and his father were sued by the federal government for discrimination in the renting of apartments in a building in Queens, New York. The list of other racist statements and actions over the decades is way too long to recount here. However, since declaring his candidacy for president the number of such incidents have increased. As president, Mr. Trump seems to have settled on attacking women of color. Such attacks include the mother of a Marine killed in action, the wife of a soldier killed in action, various Congresswomen of color prior to this incident, and numerous others. For some reason, he thinks that’s a good thing to do.
The president is a racist.
Some may argue that I cannot possibly know what is in his heart. That is true, I do not. I do know that his recurring actions and words show that he is a racist. White nationalists say that he is one of them. They recognize what they see. To paraphrase an old saw, if he walks like a racist, quacks like a racist and looks like a racist, he’s a racist.
Sadly, however, many of us already knew this and are profoundly disappointed in his actions, but not surprised. What is surprising is that the entire Republican House and Senate members — save a few countable on one hand — support his racism. Don’t take my word for it. Yesterday the House voted to condemn the president’s remarks. Only four Republicans voted for the condemnation and one former Republican did so. One of the four is the only African-American Republican in the House. The vast majority of Republicans, in the House and Senate, are white men. There is one African-American Republican Senator.
The Republicans lack of a back bone makes me sad for our country.
Mr. Trump is fully in control of the Republican Party and good men and women that used to stand up for what was right now meekly submit to his will — and in some instances loudly support his every deed — including the most basic of hurtful phrases. “Go back.” Those two words convey hate for the “other.” Hate for people with “funny” names or who don’t look like northern Europeans. It means that you do not belong here with “real” Americans, no matter how long you and your family have lived in the United States. It separates you. It is meant to demean. It is hateful. Words matter. And only four Republicans put what was right over the fear of a Tweet from Mr. Trump. In my book, if you stand up for a racist by actively supporting his words and actions, then that makes you a racist.
Mr. Trump took this course on purpose. There was no attempt to “explain what he really meant” or to clarify, or to otherwise soften his words. In fact he doubled and tripled down on his remarks by going out of his way to repeat them over and over. It is entirely possible to disagree on a policy statement or a political agenda as I do with much of what the four Congresswomen under attack are pursuing. What is not okay is using racial and ethnic smears to personally attack other American citizens duly elected to their office.
Why is he doing this?
Three reasons come to my mind. First, this is his re-election campaign strategy. He and his fellow Trumpist politicians want these four freshman Congresswomen to be seen as the face of the Democrats. He will campaign that they represent the “true” Democrats and that if any Democrat is elected you will have people with funny names and darker skins running the country into the ground. Remember that he started his run for the presidential nomination with the birther movement that claimed President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen and followed it up with his first speech from Trump Tower announcing his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. It is a cynical and divisive deliberate strategy. It is a naked manipulation of people’s fears and emotions. It will get worse, especially since he sees no consequences to his actions. Republican politicians rolled over and now have no stomach for standing up to him. Probably, many will emulate him in their own campaigns, further dividing our country and demeaning our values.
Second, he is appealing to his base — and “base” may be the most correct term as he is using the basest of strategies to look for re-election in 2020. I knew there were racists in our country, I just did not know there were so many. And no, I don’t think every Trump supporter is a racist, but I fail to see how any policy he espouses or judge he appoints cancels out his obscene behavior that demeans the office he holds and besmirches the values of our entire country. Our country is an idea, a set of values, the search for “a more perfect union,” and not one based on ethnicity or who our ancestors might have been or the color of our skin.
Third, he is covering something up. Mr. Trump has a penchant for capturing the news cycle when he does not want us to look too closely at some other action or circumstance. My guess is that the circle around him and Mr. Jeffrey Epstein — the industrial level child sex trafficker — is getting tighter and smaller. They were known to hang together in the 1990s and early 2000s. Indeed, in 2002 Mr. Trump is quoted in New York magazine saying that Mr. Epstein is a “terrific guy” and that “he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” How young? Mr. Trump hosted a party at Mar-a-Lago where he and Mr. Epstein were the only two male guests. All the others were young women flown in for the party. On Monday a bail hearing for Mr. Epstein was held in New York that included testimony from two of the young girls he abused. Is it possible that Mr. Trump was too personally involved with Mr. Epstein and his evil life style, even has the president says he “is not a fan”? “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
The President. Of the United States. Is using the most vile and divisive words and actions to open old wounds and make new ones for his own personal gain. And 98% of elected Republicans and millions of people think that is okay.
Historians will look back on this period and mark it as the end of the Republican Party. The Republicans will be right up there in the pantheon of failed political parties with the Whigs and the Know Nothings from the 19th century. The only question is how much damage to our country will they allow before they collapse.
In the meantime, we are in big trouble as a country. We lost our soul when this man became president. Every day we endure a new attack on our values and our Constitution. I fear that Mr. Trump has lowered every bar of common decency and that his words and actions put people’s lives in danger.
When does it end?
One has to wonder where the Trump Administration is headed with their policy towards Iran. There are, to say the least, a number of contradictions. However, before I get too far into this, I would like to make three comments.
- For almost forty years the Iranians have been nothing but trouble-makers. The government is the number one source of state sponsored terrorism in the world. The leadership continues to try and export the revolution and to thwart U.S. interests in the Middle East.
- I am glad that Mr. Trump called off last week’s planned strikes into Iran. Unfortunately, like so many of his decisions, he did so for the wrong reasons.
- While on active naval service, I made two port calls in the 1970’s to Iran. One to Bandar Abbas and one to Khorramshahr. Interesting places, but maybe not too relevant to this piece. Since then I made several trips through the Strait of Hormuz on U.S. Navy ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, and every time we were tested by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) armed boats. No shots fired.
As you know, Iran is responsible for a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, in recent weeks. Five total as of this writing. Additionally, they launched surface-to-air missiles against U.S. military drones, missing once and hitting two including the most controversial last week. Why?
The most obvious reason is that their economy is being crushed by sanctions imposed by the U.S. It is having a direct and profound impact on daily life inside Iran. The sanctions are succeeding in that respect. While the United States is demonstrating its ability to succeed in this effort, it forces the Iranians to respond in order to demonstrate their own resolve, show their citizens that they will not bow to the U.S., and to attempt to get relief from the sanctions. In other words, they are demonstrating that they can have an impact on the world’s economy by stopping all Persian Gulf oil, not just Iranian oil, from reaching the market, thus having a direct impact on countries such as Japan and others that rely on that oil for their own economic well-being. If they cannot totally stop the flow of oil, then they can make it so costly — insurance rates, the price of oil, military requirements to protect tankers, etc. — that it will still have an impact unacceptable to many countries. (As a side note, when I worked Middle East issues in the Pentagon, insurance rates for shipping in the Gulf was one of our measures of effectiveness (MOE). If they went up, we needed more resources. When they went down, we as a military were being effective in keeping the sea lanes open and secure.) The point is, the Iranians are not going to stop meddling with the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf until they feel some sanctions relief.
Here is the mismatch. The Trump Administration claims that the sanctions will be eased when the Iranians come to the table to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Mr. Trump pulled us out of it in May of 2018. One may claim that the JCPOA was a good deal or a bad deal, but in the short term at least it did stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It opened Iran up to verification of its compliance and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducts regular inspections to ensure continued compliance. The other members of the agreement besides the U.S. (the U.K, Russia, China, France, Germany, and European Union) agree that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and all remain in the agreement while working with Iran to keep them from violating its terms. Even the U.S. intelligence agencies as late as this spring testified in open hearings to Congress that the Iranians continue to abide by it.
So why would Iran return to negotiate a deal that they had already agreed to but from which the United States withdrew and is now punishing Iran for complying with that treaty? To be fair, one of the main criticisms of the JCPOA is that it addresses only nuclear weapons and not the development of ballistic missiles or Iran’s continued support of terrorism throughout the region. Fair enough. The original idea behind the negotiations was to take it one step at a time. Solve nuclear weapons and then address missiles in another treaty. Solve missiles and then address stopping terrorist activities. A building block approach that would instill trust as each step takes effect and allows for continued negotiations. It may or may not have worked, but now we will likely never know. More to the current point, why would the Iranians trust the U.S? And if this president can tear up a treaty with malice of forethought then what would keep the next president — elections are in 18 months and we may have a new one — from tearing up the Trump Treaty? There is no trust.
Making matters worse for our current strategy is that our trusted allies and friends no longer trust us either. Some, especially Japan and Germany and France, are not even sure that they can trust us when we say that the Iranians are definitely behind the recent attacks. And if they don’t support us now, they will certainly not support us in an armed conflict in the region. The U.S. does not want to go it alone in this arena.
Making it worse, even it if it sounds logical on one level, is Mr. Trump’s tweet that maybe the U.S. would not protect shipping without being compensated.
“China gets 91% of its Oil from the [Strait of Hormuz], Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey. We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”
While on one level it is imperative for a coalition effort to thwart Iranian attempts to disrupt the shipping lanes, on another it ignores the number one maritime objective of the United States — to protect shipping lanes around the world to ensure the free flow of commerce at sea. Did that just change because “we don’t even need to be there”?
While Mr. Trump once again made himself the hero of a soon to be catastrophe by fixing the crisis he created, still, calling off the strikes last week was the right call. He made himself into some kind of humanitarian savior by implying that no one told him about possible loss of human life. I find that insulting to the U.S. military. He implies that they aren’t doing the job because he didn’t find out about the number of casualties until 10 minutes before the strikes. Hogwash! The president, any president, is offered a series of options for him to choose. Included in the “pros and cons” of any option is the potential loss of life to Americans and to those under attack when the situation is not all out combat but rather a “message” as these were intended to be. He is either lying or cannot comprehend basic information. (By the way, in that series of tweets Mr. Trump tries to sound tough by saying that “we were cocked and loaded” to attack. Anyone that has served in the military would know that no one talks that way in senior, serious discussions and that besides, the expression is “locked and loaded.”)
But I digress.
The best reason for calling off the strikes is that, according to reports from senior, unnamed officials in the Pentagon but thought to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that there was no second step. There was no consideration for what is called branches and sequels — what happens and what steps do we take when the Iranians inevitably respond. There was no clear understanding of what those strikes would do to enhance our strategy of getting the Iranians to the table. It would in fact, have made that much harder as the Iranians would likely have escalated their attacks and there were no follow-on U.S. plans. Fundamentally, Mr. Trump and his advisers lost sight of the fact that the enemy gets a vote on how things unfold. Without thinking through the next steps, having those strikes go forward would have opened up a potential Pandora’s Box of serious trouble in the Gulf.
Remember this. There is a reason we have fought in Iraq and Syria. They are not Iran. Iran has been a bigger trouble-maker in the region and a bigger counter to our policy goals than the other two ever were or could be. Why haven’t we gone after the Iranians in the same way? Because it will be hard.
In the 1987-88 Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. and other nations escorted tankers to protect them from the Iranians. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians tried to cut off Iraqi oil shipments through the Gulf. Besides escorting tankers, the U.S. and coalition forces fought the “tanker wars” to punish the Iranians for placing mines in shipping lanes and other hostile acts. U.S. Navy ships were hit by mines (none sank) and other Iranian actions resulted in SEAL raids, and attacks on Iranian warships. Operation Praying Mantis resulted in a number of Iranian ships going to the bottom or being put out of action. The point is, the Iranian harassment of shipping quickly came to a stop. The Iranians also learned some valuable lessons in how to combat U.S. forces through asymmetric means.
The Iranian Navy is basically a professional navy built along the lines of most in the world with a recognizable command and control structure. The real bad guys are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that have their own forces, ashore and afloat, and do not answer to anyone in the Iranian government other than the Supreme Leader. Those are the ones to keep an eye on.
So now what? The Iranians probably think that Mr. Trump is all bluster and no action. Will that encourage more dangerous provocations on their side? How will the U.S. respond? If our policy is to corral Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions than how do we do that? No easy answers.
Whether we are officially in or out of the JCPOA, along with the other members of the agreement, it would seem to provide the best frame work for re-engaging with the Iranians. As far as practical, without losing our advantage in the region, talking is better than fighting. Should it come to war, we will prevail. But keep in mind that we are not talking about a few cruise missile strikes into empty air fields in Syria. It will be messy and we will take casualties. They will not be pushovers and they will test our capabilities. Right now, the rest of the world may not be with us. Most importantly, what is the end game? What do we want from the fighting? In 1988 it was for them to quit interfering with shipping lanes. It worked. Today we say it is guarantees about no nuclear weapons. How do we achieve that when everything the Iranians see around them (hello, North Korea) indicates that Mr. Trump responds with love letters to those with the weapons who test them, fire ballistic missiles and threaten the U.S. main land?
The Iranians tried negotiations through the JCPOA and feel like they were tricked. It will not be easy to get them back to the table, no matter how grim their economy. The Trump Administration needs to re-engage with the Iranians, without preconditions, but without easing sanctions until talks resume. Then a measured give and take — known in diplomatic circles as “compromise” — can result in the easing of some sanctions in return for specific Iranian actions. This may be the best way to ease us out of this growing crisis. Without it, expect the Iranians to continue to act out until they find the limit of U.S. patience.