The media has spent endless hours lately asking the famous Watergate question: What did he know, and when did he know it?
In this instance, the speculation is about when President Trump received casualty estimates for retaliation against Iran for the downing of an unmanned drone.
After his about face on retaliation, President Trump said he asked for the casualty estimates at the last minute. Presented with the estimates, Trump said, he didn’t want to cause an estimated 150 casualties over a drone. With minutes to spare, he called off the retaliation.
The media had a feeding frenzy: Suddenly, the story became whether the President had received the casualty estimates earlier in the process (likely he had) and just used that as an excuse. He looked indecisive!
Taking another point of view, Holman W. Jenkins in a column in this morning’s Wall Street Journal headlined “His Finest Hour” praises the President’s decision:
Donald Trump made a good decision for himself and the country by violating yet another norm, this time with respect to Iran’s attack on a U.S. drone. His voters did not elect him to make an irritant like Iran central to his presidency. Likely many of his supporters, even now, don’t consider him a “competent” president, using that word advisedly.
He is good at bringing Trumpian impulses and instincts into every situation, including in deciding which untruths to wrap himself in. He hasn’t “grown” in the job in the traditional sense of increasingly conforming to settled norms and expectations.
Keep in mind that when Iran engages in a provocation, Iranian decision makers have in mind an expected U.S. reaction. Iran is playing a weak hand right now. Sanctions are biting. Under the Obama deal, Iran was getting paid for agreeing not to do something it had good reason not to do anyway—engage in a high-risk nuclear breakout.
Iran wants the money turned back on. But without a way to deliver concessions to the Trump administration that would be consistent with regime pride, Tehran is left trying to stoke a sense of confrontation without going over the edge. It wants the U.S. media in a tizzy. It wants Europeans wringing their hands. By some path even Tehran can’t see, it hopes this will somehow reopen the door to negotiations and get the money turned back on.
Here’s what I mean by stale: By employing the alleged logic of escalation, many now fear Iran will be emboldened to launch some deadlier provocation.
Well, maybe. But Iran’s goal is to get the money turned back on, not to keep the money turned off plus lose its power grid or see its air-defense network taken down.
Donald Trump’s “gut” is not the genius he thinks it is. It is not any kind of genius to always do the unexpected thing, or to reject the advice of those around you just because they are advising it. And yet, in a rigadoon like the one the U.S. and Iran have engaged in the past 40 years, chucking out the script is perhaps the only sane response right now.
Jenkins, by the way, is hardly an unabashed fan of the President’s.
Jenkins believes that there is never a time when President Trump will not “misrepresent” facts if he sees doing so to his advantage.
But the President is not a conformist and in this instance, Jenkins believes it served the U.S. well.
It should be noted that conservatives are divided on on Trump's sudden about face, with Rep. Lynne Cheney comparing it to President Obama's drawing a red line in Syria and then declinine to make good on it.