Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

There’s a very complicated situation in the Middle East, as always, and President Donald Trump is of course “tweeting” about it.
A drone attack destroyed much of a major Saudi Arabian oil field, and although a Yemeni rebel group that has been fighting a bloody defensive war with Saudi Arabia and is allied with Iran has claimed responsibility the State Department and America’s intelligence are blaming the Iranian government. Trump’s first “tweet” on the matter said “There is reason to believe we know the culprit, but are locked and loaded depending upon verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
Trump’s “tweet” was characteristically hard to parse, but there was no mistaking a certain belligerence in its tone, as well as certain deference to the Saudis, who have concluded the Iranians are to blame, and Trump and his spokespeople have spent the past two days dialing that back. The Pentagon would reportedly prefer not to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, even if the Saudis pay for it, as Trump has suggested, and Trump has repeatedly assured the news media that he does not want another war, although he continues to boast of how ready the military is to wage one.
Our best guess is that Trump genuinely wants to avoid any new Middle East wars. Trump ran as a peacenik, even going so far as to accuse President George W. Bush of lying America into a war with Iraq, a claim previously made only by the far left, and although he fancies himself a tough guy he takes even more pride in his dealmaking prowess, and a new war in the Middle East would be embarrassing. So far Trump hasn’t been able to keep his campaign promises to extract American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and critics will plausiblyblame his unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Iran for provoking any conflict that might follow, and there will also be troublesome questions about why Trump seems so eager to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia’s awful government.
As Trump’s favorite Rolling Stones song says, though, you can’t always get what you want. The Iranian government is even more awful than Saudi Arabia’s, and Trump will not want to negotiate a new nuclear deal from a position of weakness. He also “tweeted” a grip that the “fake news” media had peddled the lie that he was willing to meet the Iranian dictatorship without any preconditions, which prompted all the networks except Fox News to gleefully replay all the videotape of Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly and explicitly saying he was willing to meet without any preconditions, so he clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an accommodationist.
The Iranians have become increasingly provocative since America reimposed economic sanctions, seizing commercial oil tankers and threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an America drone in international air space, and if they continue to escalate their misbehavior even the most pacifist president will eventually have to do something about it. America can’t apply any more economic sanctions, as we’ve already cut off all trade with the regime, which so far hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for, and given Trump’s tenuous relations with the rest of the world he’s unlikely to recruit other countries to join the boycott.
Thanks to fracking and other new technologies America has produced enough energy to sustain its economy since the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with no thanks to either Obama or Trump, but oil is an internationally traded commodity and a blow to a major supplier such as Saudi Arabia will result in high prices at your local pump. The global economy was already slowing before the latest Middle East flare-up, in large part because of the global trade war Trump started, so a war would be very bad for everyone’s business, including Trump’s reelection campaign.
If the Iranians continue to impede the flow of oil and thereby cause a global crash that would also look bad. For now Trump finds himself in a damned-if-you and damned-if-you-don’t situation, he has no national security advisor and only an acting Secretary of Defense, he seems beholden for some reason or another to the Saudis, and so far his much bragged about gut instincts and dealmaking prowess haven’t proved impressive.
Here’s hoping it all works out somehow.

— Bud Norman

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