President Trump speaks to the press on the White House South Lawn on Tuesday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration, is author of “The World as It Is.”
May 16 at 6:40 AM
The Iraq War showed us all what happens when exaggerations and lies are weaponized to justify an ideological push for war: In 2002 and 2003, a relentless series of ominous, overblown public statements and bogus intelligence reports were used to justify an invasion — part of a deliberate campaign to make an offensive military action look defensive: “Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation,” President George W. Bush said, “the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war.”
It wasn’t true. Yet Bush made the case that the United States had to attack before Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction that Iraq didn’t really have. Now a similar cycle of deception may be repeating itself with President Trump’s increasingly belligerent posture on Iran.
Trump’s Iran policy has long been rooted in falsehoods. In 2017, his administration refused to certify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the Iran nuclear deal — on the premise that Iran wasn’t complying with the terms. That wasn’t true. Earlier that year, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran’s compliance; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported to Congress that “Iran is adhering to its JCPOA obligations”; and the U.S. intelligence community presented no evidence justifying Trump’s decertification.
Trump’s subsequent decision to withdraw from the JCPOA was no surprise. For years, he had railed against it as the “worst deal ever negotiated” by tossing out a raft of easily debunked assertions: that Iran was given $150 billion under the terms of the deal, a claim The Washington Post’s Fact Checker rated with four Pinocchios; that Iran’s regime was verging on “total collapse” before the deal, implying that somehow the deal lent the regime new life. After pulling out, Trump has continued to dispute his own intelligence community’s assessment that Iran had been complying. Numbed to a president who lies so regularly that it’s become the background noise to our political culture, his reckless exit from a multilateral, U.N. Security Council-endorsed arms-control agreement that wasn’t being violated was treated as just another routine turn of events in Trump’s Washington.
Since then, Trump’s administration has made every effort to manufacture a crisis with Iran. To the dismay of our closest European allies, the administration has repeatedly imposed new sanctions; officially designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization; announced an “Iran Action Group” in the same week as the 65th anniversary of a U.S.-backed coup in Iran; threatened, via a tweeted-out video message from national security adviser John Bolton, that the Iranian regime wouldn’t “have many more anniversaries to enjoy”; and hinted that the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda and associated forces could be applied to war with Iran.
This month, the manufactured crisis was escalated. Bolton announced the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the region, referencing unspecified “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” from Iran that could lead to the use of “unrelenting force” by the United States. Days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that any attacks from Iran or its proxies would be met with a “swift and decisive U.S. response.” The State Department has drawn down some of our personnel in nearby Baghdad, again citing unspecified threats from Iran.
Our allies have contradicted this view: Speaking at the Pentagon this week, a British major general stated, “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
The ideological agenda behind the administration’s rhetoric and policies is clear. Bolton, in particular, has long advocated regime change and called for war, writing an op-ed in 2015 for the New York Times titled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Israel and Saudi Arabia — with governments that have cultivated close ties with Trump — favor confrontation with Iran. Based on that history, it’s hard not to conclude that Trump’s administration has pursued a clear strategy: provoke Iran into doing something that gives a pretext for war. And as with Iraq, the administration has used exaggerations and unspecified intelligence reports to lay the predicate that an offensive war against Iran will be defensive. In that context, the closure of the U.S. Consulate in Basra and the Baghdad Embassy drawdown are ominous, removing targets that could feature in an Iranian response to a U.S. attack.
The remaining question involves Trump’s ultimate intentions. He campaigned pledging to end U.S. wars in the Middle East and as recently as his State of the Union address earlier this year, said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” But he also clearly revels in undoing the progress of President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and posing as a tough guy on the world stage. He could (and should) pivot back to diplomacy, as he’s attempted to do with North Korea, though his actions to date have only set back the starting point for serious diplomatic efforts. Instead, on his watch, our country has become isolated from our allies, and, unsurprisingly, Iran has signaled that it plans to restart elements of its nuclear program that were rolled back or halted under the JCPOA. Trump could still pull back from the brink, or he could follow the momentum of his own creation into a war that could be a deadly, costly disaster.
We don’t know what he’ll do. But we know Trump is averse to truth, addicted to lies, and that what he says about Iran should be treated with tremendous skepticism. The consequences of a war with Iran — a much larger, more determined and more sophisticated adversary than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — should be urgently aired. And Congress, the branch of government empowered to declare war, should make clear that military action against Iran is not authorized.
It can be tempting, sometimes, to shrug off the false and misleading statements, more than 10,000 and counting, that Trump has habitually proffered while in office. But if we slide into another war based on a fundamentally dishonest premise, Trump’s lies could wind up producing painful and far-reaching consequences.