President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision against military strikes may have prevented open military conflict with Iran, but it also showed him anew to be an unpredictable, unreliable, partner at home and abroad.
Trump won his job partly on his claims to be a great dealmaker. But the celebrity businessman-turned-president’s negotiating style — repeatedly pushing toward a brink only to pull back at the moment of action — leaves the U.S. lurching from crisis to crisis. On trade tariffs, immigration raids and now the standoff with Iran, his course reversals confound allies as well as adversaries, and his own party in Congress.
As fallout from Trump’s actions reverberated around the globe on Monday, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to the Middle East in search of a coalition of allies against Iran, the president offered a fresh round of equivocation, defending his decision not to attack Iran even while issuing new threats.
“I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us. A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future, but I felt that we want to give him this chance,” Trump said.
“We would love to be able to negotiate a deal if they want to. If they don’t want to that’s fine too.”
His backing off on military strikes that were about to be launched in retaliation for the shootdown of an unmanned U.S. drone was just one of several recent tactical shifts by the White House on significant issues. Over the weekend, Trump changed course over immigration raids that had stoked fear among people and families living in the country illegally. He postponed steep tariffs he had announced on Mexico earlier this month, giving immigration talks more time.
The Iran standoff, however, is perhaps the most dangerous, as the two countries escalate rhetoric and actions that raise concerns in Congress and the world at large that Iran and the U.S. could stumble into broad military conflict.
When lawmakers asked the president last week how he would be making his decision on Iran, he responded, “My gut.”
While that decision not to order military strikes appears to have calmed tensions with Iran, at least somewhat, Trump’s messages leave uncertainty about next steps.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a newly elected freshman who served as an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.
“I’m glad that he changed his mind about the strike, made the right decision, but he made it in the worst possible way,” Malinowski said in an interview Monday. “I don’t think anyone has any clue what our policy is.”
GOP defense hawks, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the former vice president’s daughter, warn against Trump’s approach, too. She told a radio host that “weakness is provocative” when it comes to confronting Iran and other adversaries.
Other Republicans say Trump is merely keeping his options open as he pushes Iran to negotiate. That’s different, they say, from his predecessor, Barack Obama, who drew a red line against Syria, but then wavered against taking military action.
Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Monday that Trump’s style is more like one you’d see from a litigator trying to get an outcome in talks. “It sort of sends a signal to Iran that if you continue, do expect a military response,” he said.
Trump’s shifting tactics have drawn mostly silence from U.S. allies across the globe, who have declined to publicly assess the president’s decision making or his ”maximum pressure” campaign that is using economic sanctions in an effort to force Iran to the negotiating table over nuclear issues.
The tensions with Iran come amid deepening divisions between the United States and its European allies over foreign policy and trade, with the allies appearing to talk past each other on a matter that all view as a crucial security issue.
While European leaders have been careful not to criticize Trump’s actions, they’re also cool toward U.S. talk of building a global coalition against Iran.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ZDF television over the weekend, “The strategy of maximum pressure can’t be the right one, because one of the consequences is that we are all talking about how serious the situation is, and that there is a danger of war.”
Germany, France and Britain, as well as Russia and China, remain part of the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned last year as he tries to cut a new accord that would further curtail Iran’s nuclear capability.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close friend of the president, has welcomed Trump’s tough line toward Iran, including last year’s U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal. But the Israeli leader has said little in public during the recent crisis, apparently wary of being seen as pushing the U.S. toward war.
Yoel Guzansky, a former adviser on Iran policy in the prime minister’s office and now a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said the administration’s decision against a strike essentially sent Iran the message that “if you don’t kill Americans you can do whatever you want in the Gulf.”
But Tzachi Hanegbi, a Cabinet minister close to Netanyahu, played down Trump’s last-minute decision to call off last week’s airstrike.
“The real big story is that the American policy toward Iran, which has changed to our delight in the last two, three years, is a policy that completely serves the world’s and Israel’s interests, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” he told Israeli public radio on Sunday.
That’s a sentiment shared by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are also supportive of Trump’s tough talk on Iran. The Gulf allies have not commented on Trump’s about-face. Indeed, they have been reluctant to publicly criticize him over any of his policies.
Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Trump has made his decisions all about himself, and that means some allies will stick with him while others will have concerns. “That would be the case if he bombed Iran or if he didn’t bomb Iran.”
“For Donald Trump, he’s damned if he’s does, damned if he doesn’t,” she said by phone from a security conference in Hamburg. “He’s so personalized everything in terms of Donald Trump.”
Associated Press writers Shahar Golan in Jersualem, Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin and Deb Riechmann and Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.
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