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Why Trump did it: A strategic distraction — or a spoiled child showing off his new toys?

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- Commentary
(DOD photo by U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Chuck Burden)

For all the talk about Donald Trump wanting to end the “forever wars,” I think we knew what he was really talking about, don’t we? He wanted to end the “Bush-Obama” wars because his only real foreign policy has been to reverse anything his predecessors did. That includes all of them going back to at least Franklin D. Roosevelt, and maybe Abe Lincoln.

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It’s been clear from the beginning that Trump had no real understanding of world affairs or history, beyond a vague notion that America has become weak and feckless due to our foolish adherence to silly legal and moral restraints on our behavior. Despite our economic and military dominance in every corner of the globe, he feels the U.S. has been humiliated by strongmen who think we’re soft. It is the worldview of a spoiled child.

It was inevitable that he would one day decide to demonstrate military strength to prove his mettle, and entirely predictable that he would do it impulsively at a moment of extreme political danger. His anger and frustration over the impeachment process have been palpable. He’s been way in over his head from the start, and the stress of trying to do a job he is so clearly unqualified to do has undoubtedly frayed his nerves. He was going to lash out — it was only a question of when and where.

Trump has been alienating allies and kissing up to adversaries since he took office, so there’s nothing unusual in that. But his behavior in terms of national security has been increasingly erratic for the last few months. Obviously, there was the bizarre Ukraine scheme that got him impeached. Last summer he abruptly aborted a retaliatory bombing strike against Iran after it was already, in his words, “cocked and loaded,” for stated reasons that made little sense. The only explanation that anyone came up with was that he’d been talking to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson (who occupies the Middle East contrarian position at Fox News) who told him that the Trump base was tired of war.

Shortly after that Trump pulled another abrupt move, this time in Syria when he announced he was pulling American troops out of northern Syria and had given a green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to fulfill his long-held wish to invade and displace hundreds of thousands of Kurds, whose fighters had been working alongside Americans in the war against ISIS. Again, Trump gave the excuse that he was fulfilling his campaign promise to end the war, but it was clear he’d just made the decision impulsively without any thought to the consequences. Someone apparently convinced him that he should keep troops in the region to “guard the oil,” which made him happy, and that was that. The Kurds are still paying the price.

Then there was that weird plan to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David to sign a peace deal that didn’t exist and the pardoning and palling around with accused war criminals over the past few weeks. All these stops and starts happened quite publicly on Trump’s ungovernable Twitter feed and without any of the normal consultations with Congress or even his own advisers. Each time, it gets leaked that administration officials have been taken by surprise, and there seems to be little understanding of Trump’s rationale.

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This latest decision was different. Iraq has been heating up with protests for many weeks. The shelling that killed an American contractor, as well as the protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, were obviously occupying the attention of the Pentagon and the administration’s national security advisers. Trump is reportedly terrified of a Benghazi situation on his watch, so the embassy protests got his attention. He was still smarting after being called weak by Iran hawks after calling off the bombing last summer. So he was ready for some action.

According to the New York Times, Pentagon officials offered the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani as an extreme option, under the assumption that Trump, like presidents before him, would choose a more prudent course. Why they would have thought that, considering who he is and how he’s been acting for the past few months, doesn’t say much for the judgment of Defense Secretary Mark Esper or his aides, particularly since Trump is already at the most precarious moment of his presidency.

Until now, each time Trump was tempted to take forceful military action he either hedged or backed off. This time he went with the most extreme option, reportedly under the influence of the most hawkish members of his administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence. He ignored protocol once again and failed to notify Congress or key U.S. allies (even as he blabbed to his wealthy customers at Mar-a-Lago that they could expect something “big” to happen.) He has doubled down on this whole thing every day since the assassination, tweeting threats to commit war crimes against Iran and demanding that the Iraqi government pay for the costs of the American invasion and occupation, or face crippling sanctions if they now insist that U.S. troops leave the country.

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Aside from the twisted psychology that drives all of Trump’s decisions, why has he gone so completely off the rails now?

The most obvious reason, of course, is that he’s being impeached and he decided to “wag the dog” to distract the attention from that high-stakes political battle. Throughout the holiday season, one damaging Ukraine story after another came tumbling out of various FOIA requests and reports in major newspapers, which have made the president’s unwillingness to release documents and allow witnesses to testify in the Senate trial look worse and worse. There are even a few cracks appearing in the solid Republican wall, with some senators starting to say they were open to witnesses, while Democrats have not broken ranks in either house of Congress. Trump was clearly worried that the whole thing was hurtling out of control.

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He is also clearly spooked by the rift among conservative evangelicals. He even felt the need to hold a rally in a Florida church last Friday to shore up the faithful, where he spoke about his decision to order Soleimani’s assassination. Nothing will make the religious right happier than the prospect of a Middle East conflagration, which at least some evangelicals believe will lead to the End of Days and the Rapture. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising if one of his more cunning advisers, such as Pence, whispered in his ear that his hardcore Christian supporters would appreciate a display of muscle in that region.

Finally, Trump has been bragging about his shiny, expensive, massive military build-up for at least the past two years. He portrays it as his single greatest achievement. Did you think a man like him wouldn’t ever want to show off his brand new toys? Of course he would. He was just saving it for a moment when (in his mind) it would do him the most good.

Trump may be unbalanced but he’s always self-serving. And he has a feral survival instinct that he always relies on when the walls start to close in. Will it save him one more time or has his luck — and ours — finally run out?


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