Reflections on a non-war

Why did Trump pull back recently from military attacks against Iran, and what lessons can we learn from the incident?

It’s alarming how close the United States came during the third week of June to stumbling into a shooting match that could have become a military disaster. On the basis of flimsy claims about Iranian responsibility for attacks against ships in the Gulf and the shooting down of a surveillance drone, the war bureaucracy in Washington quickly geared up for action. John Bolton’s National Security Council presented a package of proposed military strikes. The President reportedly gave the order to start bombing, but then at the last minute, when told the attack could cost 150 Iranian lives, halted the operation.

It was “not proportionate,” the President tweeted, to kill so many people over the destruction of an unmanned machine. True enough. Under ethical principles for the use of force, the harm inflicted must be proportionate to the harm suffered. Killing 150 people in retaliation for an uncertain and slight offense in which no one was harmed obviously would be unjust.

But since when is Trump interested in ethical principles? Why didn’t he think of moral issues and the human cost before approving the order?

It’s difficult to know what were the real motivations. Certainly political considerations were at play. Pressure against a strike was building from antiwar Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, and from civil society groups. A few conservative commentators and military strategists spoke out against striking Iran. Many in Washington have warned that war with Iran would be a disaster worse than the debacle in Iraq.

Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon said this to the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen:

I don’t think any Trump supporters support further military engagement in the Middle East right now. His default position is not to be an interventionist. I never thought he’d be this far down this path, and I’m not loving the trend line. For the Trump base, war would hurt.

The expressed concern about civilian casualties may have been cover for avoiding what would have been a serious self-inflicted political wound.

Even so, it’s noteworthy that starting a war was considered bad politics. This suggests that war weariness and opposition to military intervention have become factors in domestic politics. For Trump, cancelling the plans of his trigger happy National Security Adviser was politically astute, a way of avoiding a costly mistake.

But let’s not lose sight of that concern about civilian casualties. Whether sincere or not, it was the expression of an important humanitarian impulse. The moral concern for civilian immunity and the prevention of human suffering can be a powerful argument for countering impulsive militarism.

There are lessons here for those who seek to avoid war. Focusing on the human costs of war is an effective strategy for cutting through the geopolitical justifications for military intervention, and can help to ensure that war is indeed bad politics.



Headquarters of the Red Crescent Society in Tehran, which I visited in late December 2007 as part of a delegation from the Mennonite Central Committee. Credit: Richard A. Kauffman.