White House

Battling inner conflict on Iran, Trump heads to UN session

President must first convince himself of a plan before rallying any coalition

President Donald Trump waves after addressing the media during his arrival at an United Nations General Assembly session last year in New York City. He is back at the annual gathering of world leaders this week. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images file photo)

President Donald Trump heads to a U.N. General Assembly session in his hometown this week with a new national security adviser and an increasingly complicated situation with Iran. But don’t expect a resolution in New York.

Previous presidents have used the gathering of world leaders to forge coalitions in the face of geopolitical conflict. There is little evidence Trump has any plans to do so.

The commander in chief last week shifted from hawkish — warning Tehran he could use the “ultimate option” against it — to appearing to want to cool tensions. He said several times he did not view diplomacy as being exhausted after U.S. and Saudi officials accused Iranian leaders of being behind an attack on the kingdom’s oil facilities.

During a press conference Friday, Trump again sounded skeptical of a military strike on Iran, saying it “would work” but then calling it “a very severe form of winning.” Later in the day, the Pentagon announced a “moderate deployment” of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but insisted the move was “defensive in nature and primarily focused on air and missile defense.”

Trump will arrive at U.N. headquarters in his native New York City wearing his mixed feelings about foreign adventures.

In just one exchange with reporters Thursday in Southern California, the president careened from expressing his years-old skepticism about whether U.S. military force yields desired strategic outcomes to talking tough about Tehran.

“We’ve spent $7.5 trillion in the Middle East,” Trump said before switching to hawk mode and letting Iranian President Hasan Rouhani — who also will be at the General Assembly — know that the American military is ready to go.

“It’s very easy to go in. We could go in in one instant. Just one phone call, we could go in,” he said. “And we’ll see … that might happen.”

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But almost in the next breath, Trump’s inner conflict showed through. He told reporters he was always skeptical of John Bolton, the interventionist national security adviser he fired earlier this month, because “he was so in favor of going into the Middle East.”

When Bolton and other George W. Bush administration officials plunged the country into conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, they “got stuck in quicksand,” Trump said. 

“We became policemen for the Middle East — and it’s ridiculous,” he continued, again sounding dubious of getting the U.S. entangled in a likely complicated Middle East conflict. “And I’ve always felt that. … From Day One, I felt it. Even though I wasn’t in government, I felt it.”

But the president wants the world — mostly, Iranian leaders — to know he has not completely ruled out military strikes on Iranian targets: “But I think that you will see what happens, and we’ll see what happens.”

Iranian threat

During a Friday afternoon call about the General Assembly session, White House officials did not mention any Trump plans to lobby his counterparts to support strikes on Iran during their summary of his goals and schedule.

“We welcome with this opportunity to engage with [allies] about a collective response,” a senior administration official said when pressed during the call. “I’m sure it will come up.”

As Trump mulls a list of options prepared by senior Pentagon officials, foreign policy experts say Tehran has sensed and exploited his mixed feelings about pushing back on their tactics inside the region with force.

Iran is believed to be behind a number of attacks on energy infrastructure in the region in recent months after several moves by the White House to further hinder the Islamic republic’s economy. Then came the missile strikes on Saudi oil facilities, which took 6 percent of the world’s oil supply offline and which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called an “act of war” as he stood on Saudi soil.

“Over the course of the summer’s skirmishes, Tehran has taken the measure of President Trump, and they surely detect his reticence — born of electoral considerations — to avoid entangling his presidency in another messy military conflict in the Middle East,” said Suzanne Maloney of the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised senior State Department officials on Iran policy.

Trump is faced with “a very dangerous set of choices — retaliation would risk even more calamitous consequences, but inaction exposes the region and vital energy transportation to further reprisals,” Maloney said. “This standoff will almost certainly get worse before it gets better — including the almost certain prospect of expanded Iranian nuclear activities unless the deal that Trump wantonly wrecked is somewhat salvaged.”

Not politics free

Trump will arrive in New York without Bolton, a world-renowned believer in U.S. military force, by his side. One expert said the other world leaders there should view Trump’s latest personnel move through the lens, not of foreign policy, but of 2020 electoral politics.

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Kirsten Fontenrose, a former U.S. national security official, said that “rumors will proliferate about chaos at the top, [but] that is not how this should be viewed.”

“These movements are simply the result of strategic planning within the Republican National Committee,” said Fontenrose, now with the nonpartisan Atlantic Council. “Bolton was seen as an election liability because his rhetoric made Americans fear he would send their children to war.”

For his part, the president has said he simply disagreed with Bolton on too many issues, including whether to cut a now-scrapped peace deal with the Taliban in the hopes of getting all American troops out of Afghanistan — and just how tough to be toward North Korea, Russia and Iran.

Bolton’s replacement, former top U.S. hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, is considered less hawkish than his predecessor — but he is seen in foreign policy circles as likely more willing than Trump to use U.S. military power.

That’s one reason why Democratic lawmakers — despite Trump’s apparent inner conflict — are worried Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might push the U.S president in striking back at Iran on his behalf.

Senate Armed Services member Tammy Duckworth accused Trump last week of having “abdicated matters of war and peace to a despot who regularly flouts basic human rights and openly murders journalists,” referring to the man known colloquially as “MBS.”

“Once again, the Trump foreign policy doctrine has proven reckless, senseless and dangerous, full of gas-lighting and bluster,” the Illinois Democrat said on the Senate floor. “A doctrine in which fact and fiction are one and the same. It’s shameful — it’s terrifying — that we have a commander in chief who comes to military decisions by virtue of temper tantrum and announces them via tweet.”

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