President Trump’s shifting accounts Friday of his abrupt decision not to launch an airstrike against Iran underscored uncertainty within his own administration, and perhaps in his own thinking, over when to use American force and how to confront a foe that he has labeled one of the world’s great menaces.
Trump and other Republicans have been split in recent years over when to use the military in the Middle East. One incident, however, has united them — President Obama’s decision in 2012 to pull back from a threat to retaliate in Syria after the country’s government crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons. Republicans, including Trump, denounced that as a grave error.
Friday, Trump’s response to Iran was drawing uncomfortable comparisons to that incident from some Republicans, even as the president’s restraint drew uneasy praise from some Democrats.
“I much prefer him doing the right thing in the wrong way than the wrong thing in the right way,” said Robert Malley, a former advisor on the Middle East to Obama.
“This is one of the very rare common points between President Trump and President Obama, and they come to it for different reasons in different ways and with very different world views,” Malley said. “But what they have in common is shared healthy skepticism about military entanglements in the Middle East.”
For more than a year, Trump has tried to use a combination of aggressive rhetoric and tough economic sanctions to force a change in Iran’s actions. But some of his top advisors have argued that only a change in regime would tame Tehran’s belligerence.
Trump has viewed the public differences between him and more hawkish advisors as a useful way to keep adversaries off guard and gain negotiating leverage.
But on Friday, some experts in the region warned that mixed U.S. signals had reached a dangerous level. Iran, they warned, would read Trump’s cancellation of missile strikes as a retreat, and the uncertainty could still lead to unintended conflict.
Exactly what took place on Thursday night remains somewhat uncertain. According to the account Trump gave Friday, he abruptly canceled a planned U.S. missile strike against three Iranian targets shortly before launch because he was told the raid would likely kill 150 Iranians.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights,” Trump tweeted. “When I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General.”
“I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” he wrote. “Sanctions are biting & more added last night.”
Trump initially said on Twitter that he called off the strike 10 minutes before launch. Later in the day, in an interview with NBC News, he said he called off the strike about “30 minutes” before it would have been irreversible but before any planes had taken off.
“Nothing was green-lighted until the very end because things change,” he said in the interview, contradicting news reports Thursday evening sourced to administration officials.
“I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone, plane, whatever you want to call it, and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour after I said go ahead,” Trump said.
“And I didn’t like it, I didn’t think, I didn’t think it was proportionate.”
The aborted U.S. attack was planned in retaliation for the Iranian shoot-down before dawn Thursday of an unarmed U.S. military surveillance drone near the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway for oil shipping.
Iran said it had launched a ground-to-air missile against the drone because it was in Iranian airspace. The Pentagon said the jet-powered Navy drone was hit over international waters. Both sides offered competing maps and videos to buttress their claims.
In public comments on Thursday, before he canceled the retaliatory strike, Trump had emphasized that “it would have made a big difference” if Iran had downed a piloted aircraft or caused U.S. casualties.
He also said Thursday that Iran’s missile launch was probably unintentional and “a mistake,” giving Tehran breathing room in the tense standoff even though senior Iranian officials and commanders had already made clear the attack was deliberate.
....proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world. Sanctions are biting & more added last night. Iran can NEVER have Nuclear Weapons, not against the USA, and not against the WORLD!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
The incident dramatically highlighted how Trump appears caught between his own isolationist leanings and the more hawkish instincts of his top national security advisor, John Bolton, and the broader GOP national security establishment, which desires a U.S. military response.
“If there is no reaction and we think we can negotiate, it will be a bad move,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a former Air Force pilot. “To shoot down a $200-million plane the size of an airliner that easily could have had 35 people on it, there needs to be a response.”
On the other side, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), a former Navy SEAL, said that Trump’s actions had demonstrated U.S. resolve without escalating the conflict.
“Whether intentional or not, we now have the best of both worlds: There is a clear indication that we’re willing to strike and retaliate when they hit us,” he said. At the same time, Trump was, in effect, telling Iran, “‘I control the narrative, I control the escalation and I will give you a second chance,’” he said.
“I think the president was uncomfortable with taking human lives when they didn’t take human lives. I think that’s a reasonable position to take,” Crenshaw added.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) issued a statement Friday that implicitly criticized Trump for a lack of clear strategy.
“This is a dangerous, high-tension situation that requires a strong, smart and strategic approach,” Pelosi said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s chief allies on Capitol Hill, said he thought Trump should declare that Iranian action to resume enrichment of uranium would be a “red line” justifying a military strike.
Trump’s handling of the situation, drew criticism from national security experts who noted, among other issues that, it would be unusual for a president to ask only in the late planning stages of a military strike about the number of potential casualties.
“The thing in his tweets that’s really alarming is when he says ‘10 minutes before’ the strike he asked how many people would die,” said Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “An experienced leader would be asking that hours before that.”
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at International Crisis Group, said Iranians might see Trump’s decision as weakness and a license to have a free hand in the region, increasing the odds of an unintended conflict in the future.
“Each cycle of escalation is bringing us closer to the brink,” he said. “This time, the president was able to control his impulses, and I think he managed to rein in the more hard-line advisors…But there’s only so many times he’ll be able to do so.”
Within Trump’s own camp, opinion was divided. One campaign associate expressed relief that the president called off the strike, even while casting doubt on whether the White House narrative was true.
“The MAGA crowd is really antiwar, so there’s a lot of relief,” the person said, using the acronym for Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan. “Whether it happened the way he’s saying it did, which I doubt, is sort of secondary.”
On the other side, some of Trump’s staunchest defenders in conservative media took issue with his apparent reversal.
“There’s a price to pay for inaction,” Brian Kilmeade, host of Trump’s preferred morning TV show, “Fox & Friends,” said during an impassioned monologue Friday morning.
“They blow up four tankers and we do nothing,” he said. “Weakness begets more attacks.” The U.S. has blamed Iran for a series of attacks on oil tankers. None of the attacks caused the ships to sink or resulted in casualties.
Daniel Benjamin, a former coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department who now teaches at Dartmouth, said Trump is taking credit for his tough actions on Iran but appears unable to acknowledge that the current standoff was an outgrowth of his policies.
“This is the fundamental incoherence in the policy,” Benjamin said.
“We have backed the Iranians into a wall, caused real damage to their economy, and the notion that they’re not going to try to do something is totally misbegotten. It just seems as though Trump and people around him are not understanding the fundamental calculations of international politics.”
Iranian officials portrayed the drone attack as a victory, one that had led the U.S. to blink in a regional game of chicken.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, said Iran could have targeted another U.S. plane, a Boeing P-8 Poseidon aircraft, but chose not to do so.
“This plane also entered our airspace, and we could have targeted it,” Hajizadeh said, “but we did not because our purpose behind shooting down the American drone was to give a warning to terrorist American forces.”
State cleric Mohammad Haj Ali Akbar said the downed drone “was a message about Iran’s authority and security.”
“We will not start a war. But if you start a war, you will not be able to finish it.”
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.