by Christopher Roach
After months of escalating tensions, Iran shot down an unmanned American military drone last week. In response, a retaliatory American airstrike had been planned. At the last moment, President Trump called it off, explaining in a series of tweets that it was unnecessary and disproportionate.
According to reports, he was influenced by severe criticism leveled against our Iran policy by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson. On his show early last week, Carlson called National Security Advisor John Bolton a “bureaucratic tapeworm” who seems to have learned nothing from America’s failed venture in Iraq. He also has privately advised the president against war with Iran as a mistake of policy and a serious impediment to reelection, according to numerous reports.
For this, Tucker Carlson deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, to be shared with every administration figure who quietly argued against escalation.
More important, President Trump deserves our respect and thanks for sticking to his guns and not being dragged into another war in the Middle East by the unwise “wise men” of Washington, particularly the out-of-step Bolton.
Drone Shootdown Last in a Series of Tense Moments
The destruction of the U.S. surveillance drone comes after several months of bad behavior blamed on Iran: sabotage, mining of ships, and several explosions on Japanese and Dutch merchant ships. These events have been accompanied by America’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran and escalating rhetoric from the U.S. “national security community.”
In this complicated situation, some—including me—have speculated that the various provocations were “false flags” by others interested in fomenting a war between Iran and the United States. Such a war would be a real mistake.
We have options short of war with Iran. Our tensions with Iran appears to be deliberately enhanced by Bolton, among others, and a war with Iran—like the earlier war with Iraq—would be unpredictable, expensive, and falsely conflate our interests with those in the region who have a strong interest in seeing Iran brought to heel.
The Facts Surrounding the Drone Shootdown Are Murky
The downing of our drone is a wrong suffered by the United States, but only if it happened in a particular way. Violating another nation’s airspace is technically an act of war. It is we, rather than Iran, who would be guilty of escalation if this happened. Iran claims the drone entered its airspace, but the United States says the drone was in international airspace. The airspace in question only permits a very narrow corridor where a drone, or any other military aircraft, could transit the Straits of Hormuz without violating Iranian territory.
There is no way any layperson could know for sure where the drone was when it was shot down, but it’s not beyond belief it had drifted or been flown deliberately into Iranian airspace. After all, Iran had captured another U.S. drone in 2011, and the wreckage was recovered over Iranian soil.
Alternately, as President Trump said, the shootdown could have resulted from an Iranian general acting “loose and stupid.” Iran has released detailed maps of the incident that accord with its version of events. Notably, in a far-from-stupid act of restraint, Iran declined to attack an American P-8 surveillance plane that was also in the area and, according to them, also violated Iranian airspace.
Trump recognizes something of critical importance. Our country can stumble into a war. Others below him are in a position to make such a provocation happen, whether for ideological reasons, a quest for personal glory, or mere carelessness. And that there’s a time to fight and also a time to back down, just as in any other conflict.
Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric in the wake of this incident—and even the threatened and then “called off” strike—may be part of a broader information operation to deter and de-escalate things. The message is clear: America can attack and is on the brink of doing so, and thus everyone needs to cool it.
Of course, Iran’s attack on the drone, but not the manned P-8 reconnaissance plane, sends a similar reciprocal message.
Trump Is Trumping the Wishes of Certain Swamp-Dwellers
Trump, in spite of the caricature of him in the press, is in much the same position JFK was in during the Cuban Missile Crisis, resisting the call to escalate tensions from short-sighted national security professionals. The post-Vietnam Republican Party has often abdicated thinking seriously about national security, instead saying that we should “just leave it to the generals!” This is both unconstitutional and stupid.
Such an approach is unconstitutional because we have civilian control of the military through an elected President, and Congress is supposed to declare wars. Thus, there are two layers of political control over military action. The Constitution recognizes that not merely the military, but the whole nation goes to war, and that the people’s elected officials should control when and how that happens.
The “leave it to the generals” advice is stupid because it outsources nontechnical questions of policy to the military and the intelligence community. This abdication by elected officials treats questions of war and peace as some form of arcane knowledge inaccessible to voters and even the commander in chief.
But such questions are ones where common sense matters. The best sources are history books, where we learn the generals have frequently gotten it wrong. And since foreign policy is not chiefly a technical question, there is no uniformity of thought among the “generals”; being both soldiers as well as citizens, they have diverse opinions on such things.
Trump Rightly Listens to His Friends
Without a doubt, Iran is not a friendly country. Keeping Iran (as well as its Sunni enemies) from acquiring nuclear weapons is beneficial to the United States. We also have a general interest in maintaining open sea lanes.
But America also faces a fiscal crisis, an immediate threat from mass immigration, as well as a developing one with China. In other words, there are many problems and threats in the world, and we have to prioritize.
Getting involved in another Mideast war would distract from other strategic priorities, such as maintaining our wealth and independence, and it would divert resources from both more immediate and more important threats. And to what end? Making things easier for Israel and Saudi Arabia by siding with them against their theological and regional competitor?
There are also broader considerations of justice in this incident, which implicate our national interest in husbanding “soft power.” Such power depends partly on our reputation as a country devoted to peace and justice, a reputation severely damaged by the Iraq War.
Are we 100 percent sure this robot was not in Iranian airspace? And, even if we are, is it worth 150 or more Iranian dead? Would Iran, which believes it was defending its own airspace, not create future problems for us and others if we got this wrong? Would sitting on our rights regarding the loss of a mechanical robot not cultivate some good will among the Iranian people, who are notably more pro-American than the subjects of our Sunni allies?
Somehow things got reversed between 2003 and 2019. The Republicans, who were “all in” for the Iraq War, now are split, and the larger portion appear to be in the peace camp. Tucker Carlson has his finger on the pulse of the nationalist wing of the party. He not only reflects its views, he also often shapes them. He has undergone an evolution similar to many on the Right, an evolution that grew not only from the Iraq disaster but the later inconclusive interventions in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
This evolution within the American Right and among the American people generally led to the rejection of the old interventionist caucus, as exemplified by such figures as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham. Instead, the evolution of beliefs within the GOP led to the nomination and election of Trump under the mantra of “America First.” We realized these wars did us little good and that our safety could be secured more readily by more sensible immigration policies. This is a popular position and also a correct one.
At various critical junctures, Trump has shown he’s responsive to counsel from his allies on the right and willing to fight the good fight. Ann Coulter’s criticism was apparently critical during the shutdown battle. Trump stuck to the Syria pullout (more or less) and let go of Defense Secretary James Mattis after the latter’s refusal to implement the president’s order to declare victory and go home. And he stuck by Brett Kavanaugh during one of the nastiest nomination fights in living memory, even after fellow Republicans were counseling him to withdraw the nomination.
We also know how the swamp is resisting him and pushing the president in the wrong direction, just as it has manipulated past presidents, both openly and covertly, to continue with business as usual. Trump’s voters and their proxies—party officials, guys like Tucker Carlson, and the rest of the right-wing commentariat—need to remind Trump that we voted for him chiefly because of what he said he was going to do, including not getting involved in useless wars that do not meet the criterion of America First.
As he did this week in Iran, Trump energizes us when he keeps his promises. If he keeps doing this, he will do a service for the country and the voters who elected him. And they will reelect him for keeping the faith and keeping the peace.
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Christopher Roach is an attorney in private practice based in Florida. He is a double graduate of the University of Chicago and has previously been published by The Federalist, Takimag, The Journal of Property Rights in Transition, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Marine Corps Gazette, and the Orlando Sentinel. The views presented are solely his own.
Photo “Tucker Carlson” by Tucker Carlson Tonight. Background Photo “Fox News Studio” by Inside Cable news. CC BY 2.0.