Fears that Donald Trump might try to wreak havoc on the world stage in his final, desperate, weeks in office appear to have been well-founded, after he reportedly asked for options on bombing Iran.
A report in the New York Times said Trump was advised against strikes on Iranian nuclear sites by senior officials warning of the risk of triggering a major conflict. But it added that the president may not have entirely given up on the idea of staging attacks on Iran or its allies and proxies in the region.
On the same day, Trump’s newly installed defence secretary, Christopher Miller, confirmed that the US would draw down its military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq to 2,500 troops in each country, shrugging off concerns that an abrupt withdrawal in Afghanistan could derail peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban by convincing the rebels they could win without a deal.
A defence department inspector general report on Tuesday said it was “unclear” whether the Taliban were violating a separate deal it made with the US in February.
The developments come days after Trump removed Mark Esper, who as defence secretary had argued against a rapid departure from Afghanistan, and installed loyalists in the Pentagon and National Security Agency, with a record of backing aggressive action against Iran, or supporting a rapid extrication from Afghanistan.
Miller issued a message to Pentagon staff on Tuesday, with a warning not to try to resist new orders from the top. “Do your job,” Miller said. “Focus on your assignment.”
He stated his first goal was: “Bring the current war to an end in a responsible manner that guarantees the security of our citizens.”
Miller did not define the “current war” but it was widely seen as a reference to the military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The new acting under secretary of defence for intelligence and security, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, installed in the Pentagon at the same time as Miller, has reportedly pushed for regime change in Iran, and for aggressive action against Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.
The turmoil in foreign and defence policy comes at a time when Trump is refusing to accept election defeat and is preventing Joe Biden’s incoming team from receiving intelligence or policy briefings.
Former officials have suggested that Trump is aware he will eventually have to leave office and is considering another run at the presidency in 2024. To that end, he is looking at last-minute options for fulfilling campaign promises he can point to, to build a narrative that he ran a successful administration that was removed by a rigged election.
“This will be his version of the Lost Cause,” a former official from the Trump White House said, referring to attempts after the civil war to romanticise the Confederacy. “He can go out in a blaze of glory, and the stab in the back theory gets strengthened because he can point to all the things that he did.”
The former official added there were also factions in the Trump administration who view the weeks until Biden’s inauguration as a last chance to achieve their objectives.
One of those factions is focused on Iran regime change, and has made common cause with Trump in the effort to destroy the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), by which Iran received sanctions relief in return for accepting limits on its nuclear programme.
So far, the effort to kill the deal has failed. Iran and the other national parties to the JCPOA have continued to express faith in the agreement, even after Tehran increased its production of low-enriched uranium far beyond JCPOA limits in response to US sanctions.
Mike Pompeo’s state department is reportedly planning to add another layer of sanctions with each remaining week of the presidency in an attempt to make the breakdown of the agreement irreversible.
“What I’ve always worried about was that people around Trump would try to persuade him that he’s the last thing standing between the ‘weak Democrats’ who would take over after him, and Iran developing a bomb,” said Rob Malley, a former Obama administration official who was one of the JCPOA negotiators, and is now head of the International Crisis Group.
On Tuesday’s report that Trump’s aides had persuaded him against carrying out strikes on Iran, Malley said: “I’m not sure this is the end of the story. There may be a covert operation that would be less risky than what the president might have been talking about … And unlike in the years past, he would not have to carry the consequences.”
Malley pointed to other goals that administration factions might seek to achieve in the freewheeling, norm-busting atmosphere of Trump’s last stand, like recognizing Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements (Pompeo is set to be the first secretary of state to visit a settlement this week) or designate groups such as Yemen’s Houthi movement or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organizations.
Taking military action as a lame duck president, however, is likely to be harder than taking such administrative measures, as the armed services would resist taking steps they saw as reckless.
“One thing the Pentagon excels at is slow-rolling the White House,” Tom Ricks, a military historian, said. “The services are very conscious of their constitutional responsibilities.”