Nicholas Kristof: Trump has a bizarre idea of winning

(Alex Brandon | AP) President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, center, and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein.

For now we seem to have averted an all-out shooting war between the United States and Iran.

Yet it’s not over. The world is more dangerous than it was a week ago, and President Donald Trump’s exuberance suggests that he may have learned precisely the wrong lesson from his clash with Iran.

Trump and some of his supporters are crowing at the lack of American casualties — Iran may have carefully aimed so as to miss people — in ways that remind me of the hubris preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As there were then, there are today concerns about whether intelligence has been overstated, leaders are thumping their chests and there’s too much confidence in the ability of the military toolbox to solve complex problems.

Trump, who in 2012 repeatedly claimed that President Barack Obama would start a war with Iran to help win reelection, is already running election ads on Facebook trumpeting his killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and saying that this is “keeping America safe.” Hmm. Look at the results so far:

Iran has cast off nuclear curbs so that it is now potentially within five months of having enough fuel for a nuclear warhead, down from almost 15 years when Trump took office.

United States forces may be pushed out of Iraq, allowing Soleimani to achieve in death one of his foremost goals in life.

• American forces in Syria may be difficult to support without the military presence in Iraq, so some or all of them might pull out as well, another strategic victory for Iran.

• The military campaign against the Islamic State is on hold, giving terrorists a chance to regroup.

• Iran’s regime, which had been threatened by enormous protests at home and in Iraq, has been rescued by Trump’s actions. Iranians have rallied around the flag, and the Iraqi narrative has changed overnight from the bullying of Iranians to the bullying of Americans.

• Instead of bringing troops home, Trump has had to deploy more to the Middle East at huge cost. We may think we can’t afford universal pre-K, but we don’t blink at lavishing billions of dollars on these military deployments.

• North Korea has gained leverage, because it knows that Trump has little appetite for two international security crises at the same time. Kim Jong Un has also surely absorbed the lesson that he must never give up his nuclear warheads, as Trump will strike countries that lack nuclear weapons while schmoozing with leaders who have them.

So much winning! And there will be more.

It’s true that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said that Iran’s response had “concluded,” but Zarif is a moderate often outmaneuvered by hard-liners. I know this partly because back in 2004, after Zarif approved a visa for me, I was detained in Iran by security forces looking for information that could embarrass Zarif and get him fired.

My best guess is that Iran will strike back hard in a way that leaves it some plausible deniability. Perhaps it’ll be a truck bomb at a diplomatic mission or Trump property, or perhaps rocket attacks on a military site by a proxy, or a cyberattack on an oil refinery or the power grid, or perhaps mines that damage oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has options, and let’s not celebrate prematurely.

One reason to worry is that both sides have shown such a capacity for bellicosity and miscalculation.

Trump miscalculated by initially failing to respond adequately to a series of Iranian provocations beginning in May, leading to underdeterrence. Then he overreacted on Dec. 29, with strikes that killed two dozen people, and then again with the killing of Soleimani, in each case failing to appreciate the risks to Americans in Iraq.

As for Iran, the best evidence of Soleimani’s miscalculation is simple: He’s dead.

Perhaps the most consistent foreign policy mistake that the United States has made in my lifetime is a failure to appreciate nationalism, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Iraq to Latin America. It’s an odd mistake for a country that was born because King George III failed to accommodate our own nationalism. Yet today as well we often overstate Iran’s religiosity but underappreciated its nationalist sensitivities.

I’ve found on my visits to Iran that when we don’t muck things up, ordinary Iranians are among the most pro-American people in the region. That time I was detained in Iran, my bags were carefully examined and X-rayed by a security goon, who snarled at me: “American reporters — bad!” Another X-ray operator nearby apparently didn’t quite realize what was going on, because he beamed at me and said in the friendliest of tones: “Americans — very good!”

Some day, people like the second X-ray operator will inherit his country, if we can avoid wars and manage the nuclear crisis. But the basic rule in international security, as in medicine, is “first, do no harm,” and Trump has violated that.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.