Trump faces the greatest test of his presidency

As we begin a new year, the drums of war are beating louder than ever. Yet we too easily forget, with memories of past wars fading, how they begin. History makes clear that, too often, the cause is failed leadership — struggling to exercise good judgement, miscalculating what others will do, sending mixed messages to adversaries, ignoring intelligence and relying on the false belief that power alone is enough to quickly prevail in any war.

The 21st century in particular has been defined by wars that are easy to get into but difficult to get out of. Terrorism and hybrid wars have made it much more challenging to play by the old rules and achieve victory.

All those factors of failed leadership are now at play in the relationship between the United States and Iran. Both sides had mistakenly assumed they could bully the other into doing what they wanted. Absent any willingness to stop and engage in serious negotiations, each side will be trapped in a cycle of punch and counterpunch- one that likely would lead to another prolonged war in the Middle East.

The leaders of both the United States and Iran have badly failed to achieve their objectives. President Donald Trump thought he could simply walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, ignore the other nations — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — that had negotiated the deal, impose new sanctions, reinforce US forces in the Arabian Gulf and force the Iranian leadership to negotiate. While he talked tough, Trump sent mixed messages about his willingness to use force and remain involved in the Middle East.

The fate of his presidency and the fate

 of the nation depends on whether the 

president will get serious about the 

threat of war and his responsibilities 

as commander in chief

Trump was reluctant to respond to a series of Iranian attacks on bases and allies over the past year. In June, he called off a retaliatory strike against Iran at the last minute after it had downed a US drone. The president declined to act after Iran’s brazen September attack against Saudi oil facilities.

And when Trump decided to suddenly withdraw US forces from Syria — abandoning Kurdish allies and allowing Turkey, Russia and Iran to expand their influence in Syria — and vowed to get out of “forever wars”, he signalled that Middle Eastern countries should take care of their own problems. He created what a recent Wall Street Journal editorial described as “an open invitation to adversaries to impose casualties that would cause the President to follow through on his isolationist impulses”.

Iran miscalculated as well by attacking oil tankers in the Arabian Gulf last June, using proxy forces to go after US bases and allies in the region, and most recently by firing rockets at a military base near Kirkuk on December 27. Their strategy was designed to push Trump from the Middle East.

But the strategy failed: The president ordered F-15E fighters to attack Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy militia in Iraq and Syria, with reports of 25 people killed and 50 wounded. Whether the White House anticipated the action’s consequences is not clear. But consequences happened.

Violent, pro-Iranian protests endangered the US Embassy in Baghdad. The United States responded with deployments of Marines and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division. The president then made the decision to order the killing in Baghdad of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force.

While the death of Soleimani should not be mourned, given his responsibility for the killing of thousands of innocent people and hundreds of US military personnel over the years, the fact is that his killing increases the risk of war with Iran. The president and the Tehran regime have been exchanging threats of further attacks. We are on the brink of another Middle East war that neither side wanted, which would cost countless lives and would not be easily resolved.

Trump is facing the greatest test of his presidency. For the past three years, he has questioned the role of the US global leadership, criticised alliances and often ignored the guidance of his more experienced military and diplomatic advisers. The reality of a potential war has caught up with his tweets.

The fate of his presidency and the fate of the nation depends on whether the president will get serious about the threat of war and his responsibilities as commander in chief. Military power alone will not be enough. The most sobering lesson of 21st-century wars is that, absent strong leadership, more lives will be lost.

Leon Panetta is a former US defence secretary and CIA director.

— Washington Post/ Gulf News