By Tom Nicholds, this article was first published by the Atlantic on 30 December 2020.
WASHINGTON - Donald Trump is intent on creating as much chaos as possible on his way out of the White House. Could that include saddling Joe Biden with another war in the Middle East?
We already know that Trump is thinking about attacking Iran. In mid-November, after he lost the presidential election, Trump asked for military options against Iranian nuclear facilities, a reckless idea that was derailed by top aides. Since then, the United States has sent B-52 bombers on missions in the Persian Gulf three times, including a 30-hour round trip from North Dakota to the Gulf on December 29.
B-52 flights are a traditional American method of demonstrating resolve, a way to signal to an enemy that the United States is engaged and alert for trouble. (Whether such flights do any good is questionable, but American administrations of both parties use them.) These recent bomber missions are ostensibly an effort to deter Iran from carrying out attacks on U.S. or allied forces as the anniversary of the Iranian terror chieftain Qasem Soleimani’s killing approaches on January 3.
Iran is almost certainly planning retaliation for Soleimani’s death, and both Trump and Biden have a duty to be vigilant about possible revenge, a real danger that deserves serious attention. Even if Iran forgoes action before January, the regime in Tehran is an ongoing threat to peace and stability in the region, a problem that Trump did not invent and that Biden will inherit.
As he has done with most things, however, Trump took a bad situation and made it worse. Killing Soleimani was the right move, for example, but the clumsiness and confusion that followed—including Trump threatening to engage in war crimes by destroying Iranian cultural sites—created a moral and political void in which Iran was able to take the initiative and retaliate against U.S. bases in Iraq without further consequences.
And whatever the flaws of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and I was one of the critics who had serious problems with the Iran deal—it at least temporarily stabilized the Iranian nuclear problem. The JCPOA was imperfect, but it was the only game in town, and Trump dumping it gave the Iranians the out they needed to go right back to their previous mischief.
Now Trump’s defense officials are making noises—while Trump himself is silent—about deterrence. But repeated bomber flights and stories about strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, particularly when they’re coming from a claque of mostly unqualified officials in an acting capacity who will not be around to fulfill these vague threats, are not much of a deterrent in the waning days of an administration that refuses to cooperate on basic matters of national defense with its successor.
Instead, Trump might be planning a final grand distraction before he is forced to relinquish his office.
The question is not whether Trump has the power to do any of this. He holds the authority of Article II of the Constitution until noon on January 20. As unsettling as it may be to realize this, Trump—like any American president—can launch anything, from a reconnaissance mission to a nuclear strike, even as Biden is standing on the steps of the Capitol waiting to be sworn in. Whether U.S. military leaders, including the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, would promptly execute orders they thought unwise or possibly illegal is another matter, but the authority of the president of the United States is not limited by losing an election.
Rather, the question is why Trump would ignite a war with Iran at the last minute, and what to look for if he has made such a decision.
The obvious reason Donald Trump does anything is because he thinks it will benefit Donald Trump.
At the least, it is one last chance for Trump to role-play the only part of the job he has ever liked: the strutting commander in chief. If Trump decides on war, he will issue orders, and there will be a great deal of saluting and generous use of the word sir, all of which (if we are to judge from his rants at rallies) he finds irresistible. From the border wall to the COVID-19 crisis, Trump’s fallback position when he is flummoxed by the complexity of governing is to call in the military and issue orders that cannot be countermanded by another branch of the government or by his own bureaucracy.
War with Iran could also be a way of making one more last-ditch argument for staying in power, but launching a war, of course, will not keep Trump in office. He may not realize this; he did not understand that his own vice president has the constitutional duty to count Electoral College votes. And someone in the current chaotic scrum may well have convinced Trump that some double-secret codicil of the Constitution will allow him to remain president.
But a war with the mullahs—the devout wish of Iran hawks like Michael Flynn, who supported Trump from the start and who now has his ear as the White House melts down in these final days—would more likely be a final punishment that Trump could inflict on the American people for rejecting him, and a massive act of sabotage against Biden for defeating him.
American citizens and their elected officials may not be able to stop Trump from issuing orders, but they can be watchful for the traditional signs of a country about to go to war.
These are the same things that observers such as journalists and foreign-intelligence analysts would also watch for, including the sudden congregation of national-security officials at the Pentagon and the White House, a heightened state of alert, an increase in the “force protection condition” at U.S. bases, and the movement of large assets into the region. (The carrier Nimitz returned to the Persian Gulf in November, but a Navy spokesperson says this was not in response to any “specific” threats, a careful use of language that does not rule anything in or out.)
Trump was never much interested in the business of governing, and once he lost the election, he completely gave up on the job of being president. He is now fully in survival mode, and this is why he should not get the benefit of the doubt we might give to other presidents who have exercised their powers until their last days in office. If we must go into another conflict in the Middle East, Trump must stand before the American people and Congress—now—and explain himself, instead of surprising us all with the ultimate act of political arson in his final minutes in an office he never wanted and of which he was never worthy.