What should President Trump do in response to the surprise attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure?
Let’s first be clear about what not to do.
The president should avoid doing anything urged by the war-hungry wing of the Republican Party—Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) and their like. Trump was right to oppose their policies during the 2016 campaign. He needs to be resolute in standing up to their recklessness today. When Trump shared the debate podium four years ago with puerile yes-men who favored endless wars in the Middle East, he was the “adult in the room.”
Americans remember Ronald Reagan today as the epitome of American strength and strategic success. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hailed him as the man who won the Cold War “without firing a shot.”
It is worth recalling what “without firing a shot” meant in context.
The year 1983 was a particularly ugly, stressful time in the United States’ confrontations with the Soviet Empire and our adversaries of various stripes in the Middle East, including Iran.
When Iranian-backed terrorists blew up the United States Marine barracks in Beirut in October that year, Reagan resisted the temptation to go to war against the ayatollahs. In fact, he made a tactical retreat, pulling our Marines out of Lebanon. He did not worry about short-term perceptions that the United States had been humiliated. He did not partake of the absurd and unbecoming machismo that warlike Republican senators like to flourish today.
That September, when a Soviet fighter plane shot down an unarmed South Korean civilian airliner, killing hundreds of people including a member of the U.S. Congress, we were on the brink of nuclear war. Did Reagan reach for the “football”? No. He refrained from going to war with the Soviet Union, perhaps saving millions of lives and averting nuclear winter.
Did Reagan do nothing? No. He ratcheted up pressure to undermine the Soviet Union for the long haul. And he concentrated on making the United States stronger at home.
The perpetrators of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 used a spectacular surprise attack to lure the United States military into 18 years of quagmires in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The perpetrators of the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure want to do the same thing—to provoke a United States president and Congress into a hasty and costly intervention that would only weaken and demoralize us in the long run.
Rubio and Graham are boisterous but utterly incoherent when it comes to national security strategy. They are bitter enemies of our ally Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Saudi government assassinated Jamal Khashoggi, a renegade Saudi agent whose cover was as a “journalist.” Rubio and Graham have perpetuated the lie that Khashoggi was a bona fide journalist and have urged the overthrow of the rulers of Saudi Arabia. This sort of strategic insanity has no place in prudent conduct of our national security.
Trigger-happy Graham displayed both his rashness and his ignorance of the oil industry when, while the smoke had only begun to billow from the Saudi oil facilities, he called on Uncle Sam to attack Iran’s refineries, “which will break the regime’s back.”
In reality, oil exporters earn hard currency through selling crude oil; they don’t sell refined products. That is why the attacks against Saudi Arabia have targeted crude oil production and processing centers, not refineries. It’s a good gag when Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil tries to hold the world ransom for “one million dollars.” It’s less funny when a senior U.S. senator imagines that hitting some refineries will put the mullahs out of business.
We are in a protracted conflict, and the United States and our allies need to act strategically over the long term. Reagan won the Cold War by resisting the temptation to go to war when there were flashpoints such as what we’ve seen in the past week.
America is much stronger than Iran. We are much stronger than the terrorist organizations ISIS and al-Qaeda. We can outlast them.
The Trump Administration should refuse to take the bait of answering a spectacular attack with a showy gesture of rapid escalation that is not strategically sound. We need to play to our strengths and not dissipate them. The United States must operate steadily, and usually covertly, to degrade our adversaries’ ability to harm our allies and our interests.