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Trump is facing the greatest test of his presidency

Leon E. Panetta is a former defense secretary and CIA director.



As the nation begins a new year, the drums of war are beating more loudly 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 judgment, 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.


The leaders of both the United States and Iran have badly failed to achieve their objectives. President 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 U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and force the Iranian leadership to negotiate. While he talked tough, the president sent mixed messages about his willingness to use force and remain involved in the Middle East.


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 U.S. drone. The president declined to act after Iran’s brazen September attack against Saudi oil facilities. And when Trump decided to suddenly withdraw U.S. 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 signaled 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 Persian Gulf last June, using proxy forces to go after U.S. bases and allies in the region, and most recently by firing rockets at a military base near Kirkuk on Dec. 27, killing an American contractor. Its strategy was designed to push Trump from the Middle East.


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.


But the strategy failed: The president ordered F-15E fighters to attack Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy militia in Iraq and Syria, with reports o25 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 U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The United States responded with deployments of Marines and elements of the 82nd Airborne Division. The president then made the fateful decision to order the killing in Baghdad of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force. After rocket attacks early Wednesday against two U.S. bases in Iraq, the world is now waiting for the next shoe to drop.


While the death of Soleimani should not be mourned, given his responsibility for the killing of thousands of innocent people and hundreds of U.S. military personnel over the years, the fact is that his killing, contrary to the president’s assertion, only 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 U.S. global leadership, criticized 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 depend on whether Trump will finally 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 American lives will be lost.




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