Going into this post, I wasn’t sure how to “hook” it, as every angle to slice into it with seemed banal. A whole lot of nonsense has been talked about the drone shootdown and the U.S. response. The good sense has mostly been summarized already.
But I’d been thinking since late Thursday night, when I first heard that there had been a strike package ready to go, but Trump canceled it at the last minute, that Trump had probably done the right thing because the reported nature of the strike was out of phase with where we are in this problem.
Friday morning, we heard Trump call the strike “disproportionate” to the offense of the drone shootdown. That’s serviceable enough, but didn’t quite get at the fundamental concern.
Peggy Noonan’s weekly column for the Wall Street Journal is what put it in frame for me. She wrote about relatives of hers who are diehard Trump supporters – wrote with love, bemusement, and some gentle criticism. Here is the passage that struck me:
[I]t is a weakness of Trump supporters now that they still cannot take seriously the unreadiness of the White House for a sudden, immediate and high-stakes crisis. They do not see the chaos and the lack of professionalism of the unstaffed government as a danger. It is, a dreadful one.
Certainly, we spent much of Friday hearing from pundits and officials on precisely this topic as it relates to the Iran situation.
One of the key deficiencies in a conventional sense is the messaging we seem to be getting about what’s going on and what the U.S. intent is. But I say we “seem to be getting” it for a reason: because we’re looking for it in the wrong place.
Where the eyes of convention are looking for the “administration’s message,” it’s mixed and sometimes unintelligible. Convention wants the message to be conveyed through the vehicles tailored for the legacy media: on- and off-record statements from administration officials (and others unnamed, supposedly in the know), made to reporters from a few privileged outlets that set the terms of the discussion and the framework for public knowledge.
But that’s not where the message is actually conveyed. It’s conveyed in Trump’s tweets. If you just read his tweets from the incident, you parse out easily his priorities, concerns, and intent. (Thread; click through.)
President Obama made a desperate and terrible deal with Iran – Gave them 150 Billion Dollars plus I.8 Billion Dollars in CASH! Iran was in big trouble and he bailed them out. Gave them a free path to Nuclear Weapons, and SOON. Instead of saying thank you, Iran yelled…..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 21, 2019
This next part matters so very much that I’m going to herald it with a drum prelude.
Ready? Here it is.
That overlay of convention has been driving the train for too long. Trump can’t make himself heard over its rules and gatekeepers and expectations.
That’s why he has to tweet – but it’s also why his administration, to make headway against America’s biggest problems, has to seem to the entrenched class of pundits and political operatives to be afflicted as Peggy Noonan describes: with the “lack of professionalism of [an] unstaffed government.”
And now, the hook I was looking for. A “professional, staffed government” of the kind Noonan and others long for would have done exactly the wrong thing about Iran on Friday, 21 June 2019.
It could very well have done so with good intentions. But what it did would still have been wrong, because that professional staffed government, moving within its framework of convention, would not have questioned any of its assumptions or premises. It would have accepted them willy-nilly as givens. It would have assumed the very thing that should not be: that only an active, kinetic response was politically, strategically adequate to the active, kinetic provocation.
The “way we do things” has come to be the “why” of doing things – and that wasn’t appropriate to this moment.
Two examples, both bedrock in this scenario. One is the matter of “proportionate” response. The amount of nonsense talked about this on Friday was off the charts. Trump made clear his perspective on what was proportionate – he looked at likely fatalities in Iran – but there is no convention or rule that had to lead him to the particular conclusion he came to.
A response is not “disproportionate,” under any understanding of “law of armed conflict” conventions, just because it produces fatalities where the initial offense didn’t. Trump made that up on the fly, if you want to put it that way. Another way of putting it is that he thought about the basic nature of the problem itself, instead of about his options as dictated by convention, and came to his own conclusion rather than selecting one off a menu.
Moreover (the second example): if the New York Times reporting on the target set was accurate – i.e., that the strike would have hit “radars and missile batteries” – the issue of collateral damage to “protected” targets wouldn’t have even come up. Collateral damage concerns, which relate to “protected” things we don’t want to hit, are what drive the prediction of casualty counts.
To be on the right side of “proportion,” military targets are what you hit if you want to generally avoid collateral damage concerns. There are quite a few radars and missile batteries in Iran that can be hit without coming anywhere near protected facilities where collateral damage has to be a consideration. A whole lot of them are right on the southern coast.
And yes, in a non-war scenario like this, that means when you’re hitting military targets that aren’t things like barracks or headquarters buildings (which will naturally have a lot of people in them 24/7), the personnel who may be present at military sites are not considered collateral damage or a deterrent factor.
Pundits were jabbering all day about what a shame it was Trump’s unready, unprofessional Pentagon had apparently not briefed him beforehand on likely casualty figures from the proposed strike.
But the target set explains that. By convention, there was no need to brief him on it. These were military targets, and it’s a virtual certainty that not one of them was close enough to protected infrastructure to raise collateral damage concerns.
Trump didn’t assume from any perspective that he had to operate in a conventional way in this matter. A “professional, staffed government” was primed to do exactly that, however — yet with no delinquency or malicious intent.
I want to drive home this one point before treating the final topic. What I just took you through is a superb example of how the assumptions behind our conventions distort the message about the Trump administration that comes out to the public. The media and most politicians are hungry to hear every topic framed and spoken of in the way they’re familiar with. They often don’t even really understand what they’re talking about, but they react favorably to familiar expressions, and unfavorably when that’s not the noise stream that’s coming at them.
These folks have no way interpret Trump, because he doesn’t hold himself bound by the conventions they navigate by.
A fresh look
That brings us to the final point. Trump evidently took this Iran problem down to the foundation and the studs to examine it. That’s a good thing, and it’s something he wouldn’t have done if he’d been almost any other president since 1945.
An analogy may help here. I’ll have to explain the analogy, but in doing so I think the Iran situation will also be illuminated.
Most readers are familiar with the concept of “rules of engagement.” If you know something more about them than the average media reporter, you know that we don’t have them to protect the enemy from us. We have rules of engagement because we have an obligation, not just a right but an obligation, to defend our own forces.
But that’s not actually the highest level at which we judge the necessity and value of rules of engagement. Logically, it couldn’t be. If our greatest concern were defending our own forces, we’d never send them outside the security gates.
No, the highest level of value and necessity for rules of engagement operates on this principle: we need rules of engagement because we do have to fight; situations do go hot; and what we must retain above all is the control and discretion to stick to our own objectives for combat.
We have rules of engagement to keep the opponent from dictating to us when a fight starts, how it develops, how much it will escalate, and what it will be for.
When we’ve had the touchstone of one type of operational or combat situation for a long time, as we have now since, basically, Desert Storm in 1991, we become complacent about our most fundamental assumptions. We forget that they’re even there. We revisit only secondary and tertiary considerations. The original ones are stored on a shelf, and fewer people remember what they are with each year that passes.
That’s why it takes an administration like Trump’s to break the carapace of convention off, and see that in the drone shootdown situation, the real issue was not what kind of response would be proportionate – as if proportion, as conventionally defined, were the supreme deciding factor.
The real issue was how a response would affect our ability to retain control and discretion over our own strategic moves.
Could we have retained control by agreeing to Iran’s escalation with the drone shootdown? I think Trump judged correctly that we couldn’t.
That doesn’t mean Iran would have immediately leaped into concerted military action of some kind. That’s not the point.
The point is rather what a lot of people have been saying for the last 24 hours, but without it really registering. We have a strategic plan underway with the sanctions. They are having a serious and meaningful effect, which is why Iran is trying to knock us off course with provocations.
Having the desired effect with the sanctions requires holding other key factors in stasis for the time being. A strike against Iranian territory would have loosed at least one of those factors, and that’s Russia’s willingness to remain effectively on the sidelines, not actively, aggressively opposing the U.S. program. There are other conditions that would have been affected as well.
Trump has said what needs to be said about the other factors. It’s all there if you just listen. We do have the means to mount a tough containment response if necessary, and we’ll have a better posture for it if we continue with the deployments announced in May and harden our defenses in Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the region.
I would favor billing Iran for the drone. There should be a way to recover the drone’s value from either frozen assets or Iran’s current cash flow. One of Iran’s European trading partners would be an appropriate avenue for pursuing that; Europe depends on the U.S. to do the heavy lifting that makes their trading posture possible.
Other than that, we need to hold the line on navigation and commerce in the Persian Gulf region, as well as sternly opposing Iran’s proxy moves, and we need to stay the course with the pressure campaign on the Iranian regime.
Read Trump’s tweets. All you’re going to get from the mainstream media is caterwauling about Bolton being a “neocon” and the White House and Pentagon being in some combination of chaos and meltdown. If you want to know what the administration is thinking, watch for the tweets.
Policy communication by tweet is the darnedest thing I’ve ever seen, but the conventions of presidential communication from the last half-century or more no longer serve either the American people or the sound formation of policy. The conventions of presidential communication are mainly used now for exploiting people’s unthinking expectations about them. Those expectations, and the exploitation of them, have become a whole industry unto itself. Breaking that juggernaut into a wheezing, smoking hulk is a great good.
Meanwhile, this unsettled situation hasn’t ended. It continues. It requires a resolution that hasn’t come yet. Trump has retained the discretion he needs over where the dynamic with Iran goes next, and that is better than any alternative.