By Harlan Ullman
The United States may be on the verge of launching a three-front war. History has been unkind to leaders who embarked on two-front wars. Napoleon and Hitler learned this lesson the hard way, defeated by Russia’s secret weapons: geography and frozen winters.
Today, Donald Trump could repeat that strategic miscalculation with Iran, Venezuela and — despite the “beautiful letter” from President Xi Jingping — China. Based on “intelligence warnings,” the Trump administration is dispatching the USS Lincoln carrier strike group to the Gulf along with an increased bomber presence, probably at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The first announcement of this deployment was made not by the Pentagon but surprisingly by National Security Adviser John Bolton, a fierce hawk toward Iran and well known for advocating a regime change in Tehran.PauseUnmuteLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%Remaining Time-5:34Fullscreen
For those of an earlier generation, the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964 is instructive. President Lyndon Johnson, looking for a reason to escalate the Vietnam War to force Hanoi to the bargaining table, ordered the bombing of North Vietnam in retaliation for a PT boat attack against U.S. destroyers in the Tonkin Gulf that never took place. Clearly, Bolton has forgotten the 2003 Iraq invasion over weapons of mass destruction that also did not exist. One wonders if this deployment to the Gulf is meant to provoke Iran’s leadership to some form of military response that could justify American retaliation.
While evidence of the “intelligence” that led to this decision would be important for the public to see as the truthfulness of this president has been rightly and constantly questioned, understanding the “rules of engagement” likewise should not be neglected. Giving this strike group a license to kill or to shoot first would be proof that the White House was looking beyond merely preventing an Iranian attack against U.S. and allied forces in the region. At this stage, it is unknowable whether the administration is upping maximum pressure on Iran by this show of force or has other intentions.
At the same time, the White House has not taken the use of American military force “off the table” regarding Venezuela and dethroning President Nicolas Maduro, replacing him with Juan Guadio. This would be disastrous. Fortunately, Trump seems to have an aversion for military interventions as opposed to Bolton’s more aggressive posture.
Last, the president has threatened increasing tariffs on certain Chinese exports to America to 25 percent.
The United States is extended on many fronts, from Afghanistan and Iraq to a potential nuclear arms race with Russia. Domestically, Democrats are at war with Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Attorney General William Barr over the Mueller report. Release of the Mueller report was not the beginning of the end or even the end of the beginning. The 2020 elections mean that the consequences of that report are just starting to play out. And this saga is likely to have a very long life.
What does this mean for America and Americans and indeed for international politics? Tehran has informed the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that it is preparing to enrich uranium, once suspended under the terms of this agreement. That announcement came one year after Trump had removed America from the JCPOA — the only signatory to do so. Clearly, Iran will also react to this show of force in the Gulf. But how remains unclear.
Maduro appears to have weathered the storm. The optimistic predictions of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton withstanding, barring a dramatic change of events, Venezuela will not see a regime change. And despite the phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week that Trump described in glowing terms, Moscow will receive credit for retaining Maduro in power. Deployment of about 200 troops to Caracas will be used by Moscow to underscore how influential Russia is in offsetting U.S. intervention. Of course, Syria also falls into that category.
The China dispute goes far beyond trade. The combination of China hawks such as Peter Navarro and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and a Pentagon that is seriously concerned over Beijing’s increasing military might well continue to make “global competition” the strategic foundation for Washington’s policies toward Beijing. That will lead to further attempts to vilify China’s conduct irrespective of its real motivations.
The conclusion: If the first two years of Trump’s presidency were unsettling, buckle up. Those years lacked a real crisis. The next two may not.