Opinion

Trump the counterpuncher is striking a careful balance amid rising tensions

One of the more interesting developments surrounding President Donald Trump’s behavior in these recent tumultuous days of domestic controversy is what hasn’t happened.

Despite serial maritime provocations by Iran and its Revolutionary Guard, the notorious counterpuncher occupying the Oval Office hasn’t matched Iran’s belligerence — so far.

Trump said, “it’s frankly getting harder for me to want to make a deal with Iran because they’ve behaved very badly.” He’s also promised massive retaliation if its forces go too far, stark threats remarkably similar to the ones he fired at the North Korean regime during the height of its ballistic missile tests and vows to incinerate Washington two years ago.

Remember, Trump dispatched not one, not two but three high-powered carrier strike forces into the region as a sign of big-stick sincerity. He flew stealth bombers over the Korean Peninsula. And senior military officials visited to stress America’s commitment to South Korea.

Historians view North Korea’s 1950 invasion of the South as a misinterpretation of the Truman administration’s commitment to Seoul.

Trump was criticized in 2017 for his harsh rhetoric toward Pyongyang and “Little Rocketman” Kim Jong Un.

But that regime launched no surprise attacks and, in fact, months later invited Trump to meet. We’ll see what, if anything, these meetings produce in terms of denuclearization, but at least there’s been no military action and no further ICBM tests.

Likewise, the president warned Iran against rash actions. He’s said he wants to talk with the mullahs about ending their nuclear weapons development, proxy wars and fomenting of terrorism.

Oh look! The U.S. dispatched the Abraham Lincoln carrier strike force to the Persian Gulf along with reinforced air power, B-52s, enhanced surveillance assets, more Patriot anti-missile batteries and hundreds more troops. Another 5,200 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.

The Trump administration is also quietly assembling an international coalition to shepherd shipping through the narrow Straits of Hormuz, where 20% of the world’s oil moves.

“It’s an international problem,” Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters as he traveled the region. “It’s not a United States problem.”

Tehran has so far rejected any suggestion of talks with Washington. But each week its economy weakens further under the weight of renewed U.S. economic sanctions, new ones and tough Trump enforcement actions.

For the first time, the administration halted waivers that allowed trading partners to continue purchasing Iranian oil without suffering sanctions. That severs a vital source of income for Tehran.

Iran is desperate for some kind of confrontation with the U.S. to split Washington and Europe. It has harassed numerous ships, damaged some and seized several in international waters, even downing a U.S. surveillance drone.

Last week, the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer loaded with Marines as incoming regional reinforcements, destroyed an Iranian drone that “closed within a threatening range.”

The ship’s crew actually downed the unmanned craft with electronic jamming. How did the president react? He called it merely self-defense in the face of “the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran.”

And he issued further warnings. “We hope for their sake they don’t do anything foolish,” the president added.” If they do, they will pay a price like nobody has ever paid a price.”

Sound familiar? Here’s what the same president said back in 2017: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States… They will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

One of Trump’s major diplomatic challenges since taking office has been rebuilding global credibility over the use of U.S. power after years of rhetorical but unfulfilled threats by Barack Obama. Think his empty “red line” vow if Syria again used chemical weapons on civilians.

Last year, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used them again. Immediately, U.S., British and French planes and missiles staged a one-night attack to cripple Assad’s ability to make chemical weapons and the airfield that launched them.

Before leaving Tampa, McKenzie said the U.S. buildup of an already immense arsenal in the Middle East is designed to deter Iran from more serious actions.

It’s a tricky balance, he said, between establishing sufficient deterrence without creating an imminent threat. “I hesitate to say that deterrence has been established,” the Marine said. “We continue to see possible imminent threats.”

McKenzie added: “We’re in a period right now where they’re sort of recalculating and trying to gauge our intent and our commitment.”

McKenzie’s 10-day trip through the region is designed to underline that U.S. commitment. And Trump’s.

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