In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump told voters weary of U.S. engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere he would take great pains to avoid another Mideast war. In the wake of attacks on Saudi Arabian oilfields, President Trump proclaimed himself “locked and loaded," awaiting only the Saudis’ official placement of blame, deferring to the Kingdom as to “under what terms we would proceed.”
Monday, despite Yemeni Houthis’ claim of responsibility, the Saudis strongly pointed a finger at Tehran. Also Monday, Trump walked himself back from high alert, suggesting Mohammed Bin Salman would not be determining the American response.
In the war inside Trump’s head, that cooler-headed commander in chief must prevail. The president has one hell of a case to build with the American people before getting U.S. military assets or troops tied down in a conflict that would almost surely metastasize into a wider war.
In April, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress took the extraordinary step of demanding the U.S. withdraw its support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, a powerful statement that America does not wish to be a party to a vast humanitarian catastrophe there. Trump vetoed the resolution.
Saudi Arabia is an American ally in the planet’s most volatile tinderbox. The United States ought not take kindly to hostilities against it, including and especially those that threaten the world’s oil supplies. But Iran, which sponsors destabilizing and anti-Israeli terrorist throughout the region, is already in a tightening economic vise, isolated nearly as much as any nation can be.
Assuming Tehran is confirmed as the culprit, what is the national interest in using U.S. military might to do Saudis a solid and invite fresh cycles of escalation?
The Saudi-Iranian proxy war is on the brink of becoming a direct conflict. Though America makes no secret whose side it is on, direct military engagement carries extreme risk. Walk softly.