GOP: Trump doesn’t want war with Iran
Senate Republicans say that for all his bellicose rhetoric, President Donald Trump doesn’t want a war — and neither do they.
Some Republican hawks are pushing for an aggressive approach with Iran, arguing that military conflict may be unavoidable. Yet their vocal warnings are obscuring the fact that many in the GOP don’t want to fight and that Trump himself is deeply reluctant to entangle the United States in foreign interventions.
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Entering a critical day of briefings on Capitol Hill, Trump has broad support in the Republican Party for a show of strength in the Middle East. They’re standing behind his multiple threats that any provocation by Iran would essentially be the end of the country.
“They’ve been very hostile,” Trump told reporters on Monday evening. “We have no indication that anything has happened or will happen, but if it does, it will be met obviously with great force. We’ll have no choice.”
But there are limits to how much support Trump could count on from his own party should military action be seriously considered.
Some libertarian-minded Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) would require a congressional authorization to support any strike on Iran, something that GOP leaders have typically ignored. But more mainstream members of the GOP like Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah have also expressed skepticism with action against Tehran.
Many in the GOP are therefore putting considerable faith in Trump’s past remarks distancing himself from the Iraq War and his moves to wind down the U.S. presence in both Syria and Afghanistan. Indeed, Republicans said on Monday that Trump’s provocative language and military movements likely mask a reluctance to strike Iran.
“You’re always concerned about it if it escalates. But I really don’t see that. The president is trying to get us out of every armed conflict we’re in. I can’t imagine him escalating into a new one,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).
Congress is filled with Iran hawks, mostly Republican but some in the Democratic Party. The partisan divide on national security has accelerated in recent years: Every Senate Democrat, other than Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and three of his colleagues, supported President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The GOP uniformly opposed it, and most in the party have supported the Trump administration’s crushing sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic.
The president has fashioned himself far more in the mold of Paul than the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was shocked by Trump’s plans to pull out of Syria and only was able to convince Trump to leave a small force in the country.
Trump’s hiring of John Bolton as national security adviser may have changed the approach inside the White House, but Trump’s dovish core hasn’t changed, senators said. Perhaps that can’t prevent conflict with Iran if it strikes first, but they said they were confident that Trump’s aggressive posture is far more about a Trumpian brand of diplomacy than it is about marching to war.
“Every president in their right mind tries to avoid a military conflict,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Iran doesn’t to go to war with the United States. We don’t want to go to war with Iran. But we’re simply not going to let them rule the roost.”
Yet Democrats are warning that the Trump administration’s rhetoric and military positioning has emboldened the party’s hawkish wing and sparked a series of escalations. After speaking with Bolton, Graham warned of an “overwhelming military response” if Iran follows through on threats to the United States.
“We’re dangerously close to this place where each of us think the other is the aggressor. And that’s how really dumb wars start,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It’s typical that the hawks in the Republican Party are always the dominant voices here. And hopefully they’re masking some quieter disagreement.”
A small slice of the party, including senators like Lee and Paul, as well as Todd Young (R-Ind.), the party’s campaign chairman, are warning that they will demand Congress take a vote to underpin any military strike. Romney has warned that Trump’s previous reluctance to military conflicts should be viewed as instructive as to how he’s viewing Iran, deeming it “close to inconceivable” that Trump would enter into a new armed conflict.
Party leaders are taking a deliberative stance heading into the briefings, saying the administration can and should present a menu of options to potential responses. The Senate and House will each hold separate briefings on Tuesday afternoon with Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and representatives of the intelligence community. Bolton is not expected to attend.
“First and foremost, this is not anything we’re initiating. This is simply a response to anything that Iran might attempt to do. The question then is, what’s the proportional response and how much,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “We want to hear about what the options are.”
Yet to hear more hawkish Republicans tell it, the intelligence of Iran’s movements and actions will be far more revealing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he hopes he emerges from the briefing flanked by members of both parties who agreed with him that there’s a “potentially imminent threat” in Tehran.
Still, he was also eager to downplay all the comparisons to the disastrous Iraq War that have been made in recent days.
“This is very different. No one is proposing a unilateral U.S. offensive against Iran,” Rubio said. “If Iran attacks, there’s going to be a response. If they don’t attack, there will be no more war. It’s not like people are making a case of an invasion.”