America is in deep trouble

After the declaration by President TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE that the United States joins Iran in refraining from further military actions, the nation now breathes a sigh of relief. But this exhale comes after a week of erratic words and actions that should raise questions about the competence and the goals of the foreign policy of this administration. The first concern is how the process leads to the product. In the past, the gravity of eliminating an official of another nation, regardless of their crimes, would have been the entailed an intense assessment around a crisis decision table at the White House.

That critical process would vet scrupulously the intelligence indicating an imminent threat and examine thoroughly both the costs and benefits for American goals in the region of the action. Congress, the press, and the public would then receive a detailed report after that shared with clarity why such extraordinary action was taken. At its best, this process leads to a consensus on the actions taken and the policy goals they have served.

Instead, a small circle of hawkish advisers had the ear of the president in Florida. Trump chose the outlier option of killing Qassem Soleimani. For a president whose approach to decisions aims at transactional benefits, his action should be no surprise. But equally damning is that administration officials danced inconsistently around what evidence would necessitate the assassination and how it would support American goals. The distance between such a momentous decision and the semblance of a responsible foreign policy were revealed this week when various Senate Democrats and Republicans offered strong negative reactions to the short briefing they received on the killing of Soleimani provided by the administration.

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The leadership style of the commander in chief, if military confrontation was soon to occur, was fully exposed on Air Force One last weekend. He tweeted that the United States was prepared to attack dozens of Iranian targets, underscoring that the United States response would be “perhaps in a disproportionate manner” and also aimed at Iranian cultural sites. His lack of knowledge that American warfighting doctrine restrains the first and prohibits the second prompted worldwide negative reaction and a statement to the contrary from the Pentagon by his defense secretary.

Moreover, in response to a question about the Iraqi parliament decision to remove American troops from the country as part of their crisis response to the killing on their soil, Trump added strategic naivete to his standard transactional decisional mode. In the former, neither the president nor any of his close advisers seem to appreciate the strategic straitjacket in which they have placed a fragile Iraqi government. They do not understand that Iraqi leaders want to avoid being the playing field for a war between the United States and Iran that very likely would destroy their own country.

Regarding the latter, the president stated he would make Iraq pay billions of dollars to compensate the United States for building an airbase there. As is his unleashed style, Trump doubled down, declaring that the United States would impose new economic sanctions on Iraq that “make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” Disagreements between allies should be addressed with sensitive direct communications that are undertaken out of the limelight rather than through public off the cuff remarks or tweets.

Also concerning are the pronouncements this week from Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo blasts media coverage of Trump foreign policy The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell US says it will leave Baghdad embassy if Iraq doesn't rein in attacks: report MORE, who argued that whether or not intelligence of the threat to attack American interests was imminent paled in significance to the importance of eliminating Soleimani, an international terrorist. When pressed further about the increased likelihood of war with Iran as a result of the Soleimani killing, he announced that the war with Iran had actually been begun by the last administration in pledging the United States to the Iran nuclear deal. It is difficult to recall a more historically inaccurate and preposterous statement by any American diplomat. But then Trump went on to offer four misleading claims about the agreement and actions by President Obama as the reason why Iran has become a violent menace.

The announcement of additional sanctions on Iran in a speech by Trump meant to contribute to mutual deescalation is astounding. Unfortunately, the administration parted long ago with the widely accepted recipe for sanctions success that each sanction imposed should be in response to each new major offense by the foe, and that the policy should be tied to intense diplomacy to achieve desired objectives. The declaration of more sanctions by the president in the face of Iranian restraint underscores the blind commitment of the administration that truly changing the behavior of a nation results only from strangling it and waiting for it to cry uncle.

The events of the past week show all too clearly that the United States is being led by a president and a secretary of state who find their singular pronouncements preferable to crisis sensitive interagency competence, and who consider the reinterpretation of previous events and the norms of economic and military use of force as theirs to alter as they so choose. Trump did not step us away from the brink as much stumbled us down his usual uncertain road to nowhere. Seldom has there been a more critical time for Congress, the press, and the public to check such instincts and actions before they lead to continued and risky military confrontations.

George Lopez is professor emeritus and a founding member with the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and is a nonresident fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.