(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s too soon to say whether Iran’s retaliation for the killing of its most important general will be limited to this week’s missile salvo at two U.S.-Iraqi bases in Iraq. As my colleague Bobby Ghosh writes, “The fact that no Americans were killed will do little to slake Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s bloodlust.”
What is clear, though, is that President Donald Trump is not seeking to invade Iran. To start, he put a positive spin on Iran’s retaliation, saying in a speech Wednesday that the regime “appears to be standing down.” If Trump were really the warmonger that his opponents claim, he would not have described the Iranian attack as a de-escalation.
More to the point, as president Trump has demonstrated that he is uninterested in the lofty goals of nation-building and regime change that once characterized his party. He threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” only to enter negotiations with its tyrant a few months later. He recognized the head of Venezuela’s legislature as the country’s interim president, but has yet to send U.S. forces into Venezuela to oust its dictator.
With Iran, Trump boasted of his decision to end the life of Qassem Soleimani and then threatened to bomb 52 Iranian sites, including cultural ones. On Wednesday, he vowed that Iran would not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon “as long as I am president.”
And yet in that same speech, Trump extended a hand of cooperation to Iran. “The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran,” he said. “We should work together on this and other shared priorities.” This doesn’t sound like a man bent on regime change by military force. They are the words of a president who seeks to deter Iran from targeting Americans and building nuclear weapons.
Trump’s strategy so far has flummoxed most of his opposition. This week House Democrats will vote on a war powers resolution aimed at limiting the president’s authority to attack Iran. This move would make sense if it were 2002, George W. Bush were president, and an invasion force of more than 100,000 troops were being positioned in the Middle East.
But Trump won his party’s nomination partly by sounding like an anti-war activist, with his attacks on Bush’s legacy in Iraq and accusations that he lied the country into war. Just as defeated generals are often accused of fighting the last war, Democrats are now legislating against the last war.
A more sophisticated argument against Trump’s policy is that the killing of Soleimani was so escalatory that it invites the kind of Iranian retaliation that will make a hot war inevitable. That is indeed a real risk. But if this is the case, Democrats should be bolstering America’s deterrence against Iran, not undermining it.
Instead of offering a resolution to limit Trump’s range of responses to the next Iranian attack, Democrats should warn Iran that it will face more misery if its leaders choose to escalate. It’s not a stance likely to win support from the party’s online activists, many of whom are warning of a repeat of the Iraq war. It is, however, a position that would demonstrate seriousness at a moment of high partisan folly from all sides.
It may also help dissuade Iranian officials from rashly seeking vengeance for Soleimani’s death. It’s sometimes said that war is the failure of diplomacy. That’s not quite right. More often, war is the failure of deterrence.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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