As he has done with most things, however, Trump took a bad situation and made it worse. Killing Soleimani was the right move, for example, but the clumsiness and confusion that followed—including Trump threatening to engage in war crimes by destroying Iranian cultural sites—created a moral and political void in which Iran was able to take the initiative and retaliate against U.S. bases in Iraq without further consequences.
And whatever the flaws of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and I was one of the critics who had serious problems with the Iran deal—it at least temporarily stabilized the Iranian nuclear problem. The JCPOA was imperfect, but it was the only game in town, and Trump dumping it gave the Iranians the out they needed to go right back to their previous mischief.
Now Trump’s defense officials are making noises—while Trump himself is silent—about deterrence. But repeated bomber flights and stories about strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, particularly when they’re coming from a claque of mostly unqualified officials in an acting capacity who will not be around to fulfill these vague threats, are not much of a deterrent in the waning days of an administration that refuses to cooperate on basic matters of national defense with its successor.
Instead, Trump might be planning a final grand distraction before he is forced to relinquish his office.
The question is not whether Trump has the power to do any of this. He holds the authority of Article II of the Constitution until noon on January 20. As unsettling as it may be to realize this, Trump—like any American president—can launch anything, from a reconnaissance mission to a nuclear strike, even as Biden is standing on the steps of the Capitol waiting to be sworn in. Whether U.S. military leaders, including the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, would promptly execute orders they thought unwise or possibly illegal is another matter, but the authority of the president of the United States is not limited by losing an election.
Rather, the question is why Trump would ignite a war with Iran at the last minute, and what to look for if he has made such a decision.
The obvious reason Donald Trump does anything is because he thinks it will benefit Donald Trump.
At the least, it is one last chance for Trump to role-play the only part of the job he has ever liked: the strutting commander in chief. If Trump decides on war, he will issue orders, and there will be a great deal of saluting and generous use of the word sir, all of which (if we are to judge from his rants at rallies) he finds irresistible. From the border wall to the COVID-19 crisis, Trump’s fallback position when he is flummoxed by the complexity of governing is to call in the military and issue orders that cannot be countermanded by another branch of the government or by his own bureaucracy.