Well, we walked right up to the brink of war with Iran last week. Again. It didn't happen, of course, and The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other journals of record are replete with minute-by-minute explanations of what happened when and why. Much of it is nonsense. And much more of the coverage ignores the bigger-picture analysis.
First, we know that after a full day (and part of a night) of consultations with top generals, advisers, and Congressional leaders, President Trump decided to call the whole thing off. He tweeted, "We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights [sic] when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it."
I don't believe this for a second. That's not the way it works in real life.
I can tell you from 15 years of first-hand experience at the CIA and another two-and-a-half at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that there is never just one target, and never just a target or targets with civilian casualties. Any mid-level nobody involved in planning such an attack can tell you that the president is given a list of dozens of potential targets, each with a cost/benefit analysis attached. International law is such that the targets must not be adjacent to civilian populations anyway. 150 casualties? Not a chance.
A conversation between Trump and "his" generals would have consisted of those generals offering up dozens of choices like bombing parked planes, hitting buildings somehow associated with the Iranian nuclear program in the middle of the night, or maybe even bombing utilities. There wouldn't be any 150 casualties.
We've also seen reports that Trump, through Omani diplomats, told the Iranians that an attack was coming. That's standard operating procedure. It's done so that the country being bombed can evacuate whomever needs to be evacuated. It's a "courtesy" to prevent casualties, as ironic as that may sound. That's why there were no casualties when Trump bombed Syria in 2017.
More important than Trump's reasons for calling off the attack is that fact that the entire incident, from start to finish, made him look weak, and it exposed a serious ideological rift in the administration. The image of a "compassionate" Trump -- that he called off the attack because the planned response wasn't commensurate with Iran's alleged downing of a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drone -- just doesn't make sense. Nobody believes it. I wouldn't be surprised if Trump himself doesn't.
A more likely scenario is that Congressional leaders -- Republicans -- got to him and told him that he wouldn't have their support for an attack on Iran, he was being manipulated by his aides, and he was beginning to look like he was taking orders from John Bolton. Remember, Trump is all about perception. He wouldn't want to be perceived as Bolton's b*tch.
Furthermore, and again I say this from experience, nobody wants less to send troops into harm's way than the Pentagon brass. When I was at the CIA, the real hawks were the likes of Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, not the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They did all they could to keep us out of places like Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere, even if they failed in the end. Trump, meanwhile, has surrounded himself with hawks who would love nothing more than to bomb the daylights out of just about anybody, Iranian or not.
The heavy-hitters are John Bolton, who couldn't get himself confirmed as ambassador to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration because he was too hawkish even for Republicans in the Senate; Mike Pompeo, who by his own admission absolutely loved the clandestine workings of the CIA when he was director there; and Bloody Gina Haspel, who replaced Pompeo and whose love of torture and violence against other human beings already is well-documented. These are the people who have the president's ear. At least, they did until a few days ago.
None of those mentioned so far have come out of this a big winner. One person did, though. That would be Vladimir Putin. Trump's stooges put Putin in a win/win position. First, he wins if Trump acts unilaterally, that is, without United Nations or Congressional authorization and without support from allies. He consults with the Chinese, the Japanese, the Germans, Brits, and French and he looks like the level-headed statesman, the one who doesn't want to resort to military power.
But then Putin wins again if Trump does attack Iran because he was (again) the level-headed statesman who urged calm, who wanted to use diplomacy, who was willing to be the middleman with the Iranians. He was the one offering negotiations, shuttling to speak with the Chinese, the Europeans, and the Iranians, trying to work out a deal.
I think I have an idea or two. First, hands off Iran. We can't afford another war, either literally or figuratively. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are declining in quality, our international health care ranking is plummeting. We should spend the money at home. If we're going to be taken seriously as the strongest superpower in the world, we should exhibit that power across a diplomatic conference room table.
Finally, it's time that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates fight their own battles. It shouldn't be up to us to take out their enemy just because it might make their lives easier. They should do their own dirty work, or even better, they too should be engaged in diplomacy, whether directly with Iran in the case of the Gulf States or with their own people, in the case of Israel and the Palestinians.