Can Trump put out the fire he started? .. By ISHAAN THAROOR

Can Trump put out the fire he started?

(Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

(Zach Gibson/Bloomberg)

It’s a strange thing for leftist doves to find themselves on the same side of an issue as Tucker Carlson. The right-wing Fox News anchor known for his unabashed white nationalism was among the skeptics whoprivately urged President Trump not to launch a military strike against Iran last week. After Iranian authorities downed a U.S. surveillance drone above the Strait of Hormuz, the White House plotted retaliatory action. Key figures in the administration — chiefly, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were reportedly keen on hitting back. A plan of attack was put into place.

But on Friday, Trump took to social media and congratulated himself on reining back a U.S. military that was “cocked and loaded” to strike at Iranian targets. Carlson’s thinking — that Trump’s nationalist base is uninterested in, if not wholly opposed to, costly military entanglements abroad — appeared to be on the president’s mind. He suggested the more effective approach would be for the United States to maintain its current pressure campaign on Iran, including slapping on more economic sanctions Monday. (The United States did carry out cyberattacks on Iranian systems last week.)

“I’m getting a lot of praise for what I did. My expression is, ‘We have plenty of time,’  » Trump told reporters Saturday, referring to his decision to halt an attack that would have claimed Iranian lives. “Everyone was saying I’m a warmonger, and now they’re saying I’m a dove, and I say I’m neither. I didn’t like the idea of them unknowingly shooting down an unmanned drone and we killing 150 people.”

Trump also publicly upbraided Bolton for his “tough posture” and hawkish mentality. In private, Trump was said to be complaining about the assembled hard-liners in his inner circle. “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting,” Trump told one confidant about his own advisers, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t need any more wars.”

On one count, Trump is right. He is neither a warmonger nor a dove. If Trump had his way, the United States would likely have a smaller military footprint in the Middle East and lean more aggressively on its allies in the Gulf to execute its regional agenda. But for all Trump’s insistence that he is opposed to war, he still is the one who laid the powder for a dangerous flare-up.

The showdown over Iran was just the latest instance of Trump playing both arsonist and fireman. The current state of tensions is a direct consequence of the Trump administration reneging on the terms of the Iranian nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions and enacting other measuresto squeeze the regime in Tehran. All of this was done against the wishes of key U.S. allies in Europe and amid the protestations of much of the foreign policy establishment in Washington.

“Trump’s usual shtick is to paper over the problem of his creation and then declare victory, but this week he added a biblical dimension to the drama-making,” wrote Politico’s Jack Shafer. “First, he assumed the persona of the vengeful god, commanding an attack on Iran in retaliation for its shoot-down of a $200 million Navy surveillance drone. Then he ducked into the wardrobe for a costume change to emerge in the cloak of the Prince of Peace and called off the strike.”

It’s a somewhat unconvincing act, especially as Trump’s hawkish advisers remain on the warpath. Both Bolton and Pompeo journeyed to the Middle East over the weekend, talking tough on Iran and vowing to prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons — a prospect the U.N.’s atomic agency and the other permanent members of Security Council all believed had been avoided by the nuclear deal Trump rejected.

Bolton appeared in Israel alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hailed the “crippling American sanctions” placed on Iran. Pompeo is slated for a whirlwind set of talks about Iran on Monday in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab monarchies most bent on countering the Islamic Republic.

“Pompeo, who last year issued a list of 12 broad demands for change in Iran, shows no signs of softening his outreach to the Islamic Republic,” wrote my colleague Carol Morello. “He began his travels lashing out at Tehran, belittling its explanation of why it downed a U.S. drone last week as ‘childlike’ and not worthy of belief.”

Pompeo tried to steer Trump toward military action last week, and he retains significant influence within the White House. “In an administration that churns through cabinet members at a dizzying pace, few have survived as long as Pompeo — and none have as much stature, a feat he has achieved through an uncanny ability to read the president’s desires and translate them into policy and public messaging,” noted the New York Times. “He has also taken advantage of a leadership void at the Defense Department, which has gone nearly six months without a confirmed secretary.”

America’s top diplomat also rubbished claims that Trump had sent a message to Iran via a diplomatic backchannel run by Oman. The president says that he is open to talks with the regime in Tehran, but few experts believe this administration is on track to lead Iran to the table.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iranian nuclear negotiators and a scholar at Princeton University, told the Atlantic that, “by destroying the deal, Trump destroyed confidence and any chance for future negotiations.”

And tensions seem bound to spike again.

“Avoiding further escalation will be difficult, given both sides’ determination not to back down,” Philip Gordon, a former Obama administration official, wrote in Foreign Affairs. “A new nuclear negotiation, which Trump claims to want, would be one way to avoid a clash. But Iran is not likely to enter talks with an administration it does not trust, and even less likely to agree to the sort of far-reaching deal Trump says is necessary.”

• The Wall Street Journal presents its version of the deliberations that took place in the White House last week:

“Military officials have long said they don’t seek a conflict with Iran. They were concerned about casualties and about ensuring any strike option was proportional, but they also worried about an Iranian response. The U.S. military’s presence in the region has been reduced over the years and no one wanted to stumble into a conflict with the military operating with reduced capabilities, a number of officials said.

“Pompeo was supportive of strikes at the breakfast, but also more understanding of the reluctance that others perceived coming from the Defense Department, administration and White House officials. Vice President Mike Pence supported the strikes in a national-security meeting later that morning, then supported the president’s decision to halt them, according to these officials.

“At that national-security meeting, the recommended option was presented to the president, officials said. Casualties were discussed and the president agreed to the plan, one official said…

“That estimate came later on Thursday: 150 potential casualties, or about 40 to 50 at each strike, Trump explained on Saturday.

“But one administration official disputed that estimate, saying it was a worst-case scenario for a strike that happened in the middle of the day. The strikes were planned for the middle of the night, when there would have been a few casualties at each location, the official said.

« That still may have been too many for Trump. ‘Anything is a lot when you shoot down an unmanned’ drone, the president said Saturday, when asked about the casualty estimates.”

• In a major rebuke of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, voters in Istanbul elected Ekrem Imamoglu to be mayor of Turkey’s most populous city. The election was a rerun from three months ago, after Imamoglu — a candidate from the main opposition party — pulled off a stunning victory over Erdogan’s chosen candidate. But the result was overturned on technical grounds by a court, a move that was seen as ominous sign for Turkey’s beleaguered democracy. Imamoglu’s repeat victory shows that there’s some hope yet. From my colleague Kareem Fahim:

“Ruling party candidate Binali Yildirim, a former prime minister, conceded the race in a televised speech shortly after the results showed Ekrem Imamoglu leading with nearly 54 percent of the votes. Erdogan, who fought tooth and nail to retain the mayor’s seat, offered his own congratulations on Twitter a short time later…

“Imamoglu’s win on Sunday gave Turkey’s main opposition party nominal control of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and its commercial hub, after decades of dominance by the AKP. Erdogan’s legendary political gifts, including his ability to sway elections by force of personality and to mobilize his sizable base of supporters, had failed him, at least for the moment…

“Turkey’s faltering economy and the soaring cost of basic goods were central concerns in both elections. But this time, some people also said they were angered by the cancellation of March’s vote, viewing it as a cynical manipu­la­tion of Turkey’s democracy.”

• North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has received an “excellent” letter from Trump and is seriously considering what his American counterpart had to say, North Korean state media reported Sunday. From my colleague Simon Denyer:

“Earlier this month, Trump announced he had received a ‘beautiful letter’ from Kim, breaking the silence between the two men since a summit in Hanoi in February ended in failure. The president appears to have written back and received a similarly warm response…

“Trump will travel to South Korea’s capital, Seoul, June 29-30, and some experts had suggested he might even try to arrange a meeting with Kim at the border between North and South Korea — although that would give the two sides no time to prepare.

“The news of Trump’s letter comes just after a landmark state visit to North Korea by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which celebrated and strengthened the ties between the two countries. That visit has also helped bolster China’s role as a significant player in North Korea denuclearization talks.”

• Hundreds of thousands in Prague took to the streets to demand the Czech prime minister’s resignation. The rally against Andrej Babis was the biggest show of public discontent since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism.

In Imlil, Morocco, the path leading to Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, which is visible in the background. (Charlotte Schmitz for The Washington Post)

In Imlil, Morocco, the path leading to Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak, which is visible in the background. (Charlotte Schmitz for The Washington Post)

The ripple effect 

Their screams must have carried for miles in the thin air of the Atlas Mountains, anguished sounds of a terrorist attack that no one was there to hear, see or stop. Maren Ueland, 28, and Louisa Jespersen, 24, Scandinavian students who revered the outdoors, were descending North Africa’s highest peak in December when they encountered four men searching for Westerners to kill.

The men waited until after nightfall, then approached the women’s tent with knives and misplaced hopes of becoming Islamist heroes. They attacked Ueland, a Norwegian, and her Danish friend, Jespersen, in their sleeping bags, stabbed them until their bodies went limp and severed their heads in a ghastly sequence recorded on a cellphone.

The December 2018 attack, like so many in this age of mass killings and social media, was an act of senseless and performative violenceThe killers became absorbed in a violent Islamist universe they saw on the screens of their cellphones. Their overriding aim was to impress the Islamic State, earn the status of soldiers in its apocalyptic struggle and see their own recording distributed across the group’s propaganda platforms. But the Islamic State did not distribute the video, refused to acknowledge the attack and to this day has ignored the Moroccans’ pledges of loyalty.

The video went viral nonetheless, viewed millions of times by Islamic State supporters who didn’t share the group’s selectivity, by dark-Web bottom dwellers devoted to gore and by the morbidly curious.

The most alarming audience, however, was one that the attackers had not envisioned: far-right and white-nationalist movements. Extremists posted gruesome scenes of the women’s deaths on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms alongside condemnations of Islam and calls for a civilizational clash.

When officials in Norway and Denmark pleaded with the public to stop sharing the video, that effort was denounced by far-right groups as a betrayal of religion and race — censorship of content that revealed the true nature of Islam.

The victims were caught between warring ideologies that they had rejected in life. In the days after the attack, far-right activists scoured the women’s social media accounts and mocked them for their tolerant views.

“It is obvious to point out the naivete of the two deceased, but they are, as all, a product of their upbringing,” said an entry on Uriasposten, a Danish, anti-Islamic website. “Perhaps the eternal struggle against ‘prejudice’ has unpleasant side effects.” — Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet 


President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping in Beijing on November 9, 2017. (Damir Sagoli/Reuters) 

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jingping in Beijing on November 9, 2017. (Damir Sagoli/Reuters)

The preview 

Leaders from the Group of 20, which includes 19 nations and the European Union, will gather in Osaka, Japan, on Friday and Saturday for a global summit that hopes to tackle major problems like climate change, women’s empowerment and the global economy. But attention will likely be on the state of the U.S.-China trade war. President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are planning to meet during the summit, hoping to get talks back on track since things devolved in early May. The South China Morning Post reports that negotiators are frantically preparing for the high-stakes meeting. After speaking with Xi by phone on Tuesday, Trump said he thought there was “a chance” the two countries could strike a deal.

Speaking of deals, the remaining signatories of the Iran nuclear deal will meet Friday in Vienna to « tackle challenges arising from the withdrawal and reimposition of sanctions by the United States on Iran,” according to a statement from the European Union. Since Trump pulled out of the accord last year, tensions between Tehran and Washington have been heating up. The United States has reimposed suffocating sanctions on the country, prompting Iran to announce it would “surpass the deal’s limit on enriched uranium” by Thursday, according to Radio Free Europe. The Vienna meeting of representatives from Iran, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia will aim to “keep Iran fully compliant with its commitments,” said Federica Mogherini, the E.U.’s top diplomat.

In more domestic matters, candidates for the Democratic presidential primary will hold their first debates on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s a crowded field of 20 contenders who are hoping to oust Trump from the White House in 2020. Former vice president Joe Biden is leading in the polls, but has come under recent fire for comments concerning his past working relationships with segregationist lawmakers.

And the Trump administration’s much-touted and controversial summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take place in Bahrain on Tuesday and WednesdayAs readers of Today’s WorldView know, the conference has been condemned by much of the Palestinian community as a bid to ease the economic struggles of Palestinians without granting them any rights. The move is unlikely bring the region any closer to peace: The Post reports that representatives from Israel and Palestine probably won’t show up. — Ruby Mellen

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