Are you ready for another war in the Persian Gulf? I didn’t think so. It will come as a disagreeable surprise, then, that the Trump administration appears to be preparing for one.

Banner headlines in The New York Times on Monday declared that the administration is thinking about sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Gulf region, about the same number we sent the last time we invaded Iraq. Asked about the report, President Trump dismissed it as fake news – but then he added ominously that if he were to send troops, there would be a lot more of them than that.

So what’s going on? The president’s Twitter feed is no help in this case. He has taken issue with the stewards at Churchill Downs, and credit for the turnaround of the Red Sox. But on the question of war or peace in the Persian Gulf, @realdonaldtrump is largely silent. His Twitter feed came to life briefly Wednesday, to say that he wants to talk to Iran (undercutting his own administration), but the Iranians don’t want to talk to him, so that offer is moot.

Ever since the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the carefully negotiated agreement that its predecessor concluded between Iran and the principal nuclear powers, including China, Russia, France and the U.K., we’ve been on a collision course with Iran. The administration has recently imposed sanctions against any state buying Iranian oil, which comes pretty close to being an act of war. The Iranians responded at first with relative restraint, but as these unilateral American sanctions have increasingly damaged the weakened Iranian economy, there are indications that Iranian patience may be reaching its limit. Iranian saboteurs seem to have damaged four tankers carrying Arab oil, and there are ominous intelligence reports of Iranian plans to attack American targets in the Gulf, either directly or through surrogates.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an emergency trip to Iraq last week, canceling a long-planned visit to Germany – to the fury of our German allies. Our absurdly large embassy in Baghdad has been stripped of its non-essential personnel, and national security adviser John Bolton has made a great show of announcing the dispatch of a carrier strike group and bombers to the Gulf, declaring that it was intended “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” Would the Iranian sabotage of Arab oil tankers qualify? Bolton presumably thinks so.

It is no surprise that Bolton is leading the charge. He’s long been a supporter of an Iranian exile group, the People’s Mujahedin. One of the original components of the Iranian Revolution, they fought with Iraq against their own people during the Persian Gulf War, and they are detested in Iran. More of a cult than a political movement, they have discovered that American politicians can be bought for the price of a $50,000 appearance. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s television lawyer, is another one of their fans. It apparently does not bother their supporters that the group has the blood of an American military attaché on their hands.

What all this will add up to is not clear, but the mixture of American bellicosity and Iranian desperation is potentially explosive. With Gen. James Mattis out of the Defense Department, one barrier to an ill-considered military adventure has been removed. We would seek to play to our advantage over Iran in the air and at sea, and there is said to be a plan for a cyber offensive on the shelf, too. It may all look good on paper, to Bolton and even to his boss, but once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it will be impossible to call them back.

This administration has no strategic direction, and in a confrontation with Iran, we would be isolated with the Gulf Arabs and Israel, without the support of our traditional allies in NATO. It is not exactly comforting to think that we may be dependent on the good sense of one Donald J. Trump to stop the rush to a war that could make the occupation of Iraq look like a walk in the park.

 


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