Opinion | National Security

With the Iran-Saudi crisis, Trump faces hard questions — some of his own making

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The surprise drone strike on Saudi petroleum production may trigger the military crisis many fear the Trump administration is poorly equipped to handle. 

The U.S. reaction to the strike will be determined, ultimately, by a president who makes national security policy on instinct and gut reaction. Trump alone will decide - and be accountable - without a fully staffed or fully functioning National Security Council and without the input from the best national and foreign policy security minds in the country.

Despite Trump's often immature threats about destroying opponents, he seems inclined personally to avoid military conflict. Let's hope that impulse continues. A unilateral American military strike on Iran in response to the attack on Saudi Arabia is a very risky national security decision.

Trump is probably under pressure for American military action against Iran from hardline U.S. and Middle Eastern hawks. He has fended them off before. He should do so again.

Since the president has launched unilateral economic warfare on Iran and aligned himself with a Saudi monarch who orders the murder of dissidents, including journalist and American resident Jamal Khashoggi, the likelihood that the attacks on Saudi Arabia are linked to American policy is real.

Whether Iran conducted the attacks directly or gave Houthi surrogates in Yemen the means to launch them is debatable, but almost certainly Iran had a major hand in the attack. Although the attack targeted the government of Trump's personal ally, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and not directly on the U.S., Iranian motives also must have related to American sanctions on Iran after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal with Tehran.

Trump now faces the fact that allies are critical to American leadership in the world. Because of Trump's hostile American unilateralism, no political leader among traditional U.S. allies appears willing to go out on a political limb at home to follow Trump. After trashing international organizations throughout his presidency, Trump's influence at the UN and elsewhere is also doubtful - unless Iranian actions become much more threatening to the broader international order.

This is the price of unilateralism - America would be largely alone in an attack except for a ruthless Saudi monarch.

The president should not underestimate Iran. This is not some weak, desperate backwater country. Tehran is no novice to security issues. Iran is a regional power and an ancient empire that has been dealing with potent foreign military forces since Alexander the Great.

Whatever Trump decides to do, the United States will bear the consequences.

Today, Iran has a population of about 84 million energetic people, many of whom are not that enthusiastic about the direction of the country. Any U.S. strike on Iran will unify the population behind the current regime and inflame Muslims, particularly Shiites, around the world.

The surprise nature of the attack on the Saudis should also be a concern to the White House. From an Iranian perspective, the unexpected and sophisticated strike on a strategic target was a major success. This attack demonstrates Iran's asymmetric ability to act in an unexpected and capable way. Iran has many options around the world to respond to American military action. The Middle East, Afghanistan and Europe are particularly vulnerable to future Iranian operations.

As the president considers his options, he should answer some serious questions for the public to consider:

  • Why is the United States responsible for responding to an attack on Saudi Arabia? Yes, Saudi Arabia is a long-standing American ally, but the strike was on a Saudi facility and appears linked directly to the war in Yemen. The Saudi military is equipped with some of the best U.S. military equipment. If there is a military strike on Iran, the missiles should be directed - or the planes flown - only by Saudis.
  • Exactly what American interest is advanced by a military attack on Iran? The Iran attack has no real impact on American access to petroleum. How a strike would enhance the possibility for new nuclear negotiations with Tehran is unclear. How American security in general would be improved by a military attack on Iran is also unclear.
  • Why is this America's problem and not a world problem? And are we prepared to go it alone? I do not see anyone racing to join the U.S. in action against Iran over these strikes.
  • Once an American strike is launched, then what? Are we prepared to pay the potential cost of a military conflict with Iran of extended duration? Put more directly, are Americans willing to sacrifice the blood of our military personnel to respond to a drone attack on a Saudi oil patch? I don't think so - certainly not in the long run - and Tehran has probably already made that calculation.

The right policy for the region is to promote stability in the Middle East through broad international engagement, not American unilateralism.

The reaction to the drone strike on Saudi Arabia should be an international one.

Unfortunately, Trump and his unilateralist supporters, are not inclined to take this path. They have damaged too many relationships with allies and international institutions to create effective coalitions or to stimulate broad international action to achieve that goal.

The United States should not act unilaterally in the Middle East, and certainly should not go down the path of American military action against Iran at this point. I just hope Mr. Trump follows his more peaceful instincts on this one.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.

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