The Islamic Republic of Iran has a population of 81 million. Its gross domestic product is in the top 25 or 30 globally, depending on who’s counting, and it has the largest active military in the Middle East. The President of the United States decided to bomb it yesterday, and then decided not to.
President Trump approved military strikes against Iran in retaliation for downing an American surveillance drone, but pulled back from launching them on Thursday night after a day of escalating tensions.
As late as 7 p.m., military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike, after intense discussions and debate at the White House among the president’s top national security officials and congressional leaders, according to multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.
What was happening, or not happening? Was Donald Trump being literal but not serious, or serious but not literal? Did he start off literal and turn serious? How did the Secretary of State’s straight-faced but desultory attempt to tell Congress that Iraq is tied to al Qaeda fit into those, or other, templates for the analysis of our fully armed unrealities?
It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy. It was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward.
Asked about the plans for a strike and the decision to hold back, the White House declined to comment, as did Pentagon officials. No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.
The president is not interested in the functions or responsibilities of being president, and starting a war is an extremely presidential responsibility, in these post-Congressional decades. Some members of the president’s administration have been personally trying to get the country to go to war with Iran ever since they got the country to invade Iraq, or even before that. But the president tends to be hostile or jealous toward people trying to freelance their own policy goals, unless they’re just trying to enrich themselves. He doesn’t want to be on the hook for someone doing something.
So he almost did something, and then he didn’t. Trump has been eager to escalate the conflict with Iran, but evidently under the belief that it’s the same process as inflating his net worth, saying things to impress people. This seemed feasible to him because our foreign policy, like our domestic policy, is bullshit with guns. Guns and drones. We built a drone program as a way to fight wars without being responsible for the fighting-fighting of the wars, on our end. To fight wars without casualties of war, on our end.
Now a drone had been shot down, and the war people were trying to turn it into a casualty, into an act of war. The drones only operate outside the logic of war if nobody shoots back at them. The president struggled with this, as a constraint on his ability to present reality as whatever gave him the most pride and the least headache. The drone either was or was not in Iranian airspace when Iran shot it down. We either were or were not about to rain explosives down on a major country. No one was in control of the facts, and the facts were getting bigger by the hour.