Trump, the proportionality president, and the Iranian wild card - analysis

Anyone who is familiar with military operations by Israel or the US from the inside knows that there is no such thing as one option to kill 150 people at three sites or nothing.

Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France (photo credit: REUTERS/REGIS DUVIGNAU)
Supporters of Maryam Rajavi, president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attend a rally in Villepinte, near Paris, France
There was an unusual amount of nuance going on for US President Donald Trump on Friday, as he ordered and then canceled air strikes on Iran in response to its downing of an expensive US drone.
But none of that nuance had to do with proportionality – especially in its legal sense – or the 150 Iranian lives Trump said he was concerned about saving.
First, there is difficulty, from an operational perspective, with his statements about killing 150 people.
Anyone who is familiar from the inside with military operations by Israel or the US knows that there is no such thing as one option to kill 150 people at three sites or nothing.
You can alter what munition is used in a strike to significantly reduce the harm to the target area. One munition might blow up a whole building, another just one floor and another just one unit within a floor.
You can issue warnings to the other side before you strike, as Israel often does when it strikes empty Hamas weapons storehouses.
You can reduce the three targets to one, which reduces the volume of casualties.
Or you can pick a different set of targets with less people around.
His decision also had nothing to do with proportionality under the law of war, which essentially says that the harm to civilians from the use of force cannot be excessive in relation to the military advantage obtained through an attack.
Based on the three Iranian military targets that the US was locked and loaded to strike, it is unlikely that any civilians would have been harmed.
That basically means the law of proportionality would not have even applied.
Members of an army, certainly those performing operational functions such as radar and missile batteries, are legitimate military targets at all times.
Hitting any of those forces involved in shooting down the US drone would be the definition of self-defense – and there is no specific proportionality requirement.
What is remarkable about Trump’s tossing out proportionality as something that matters to him – and in a context where it does not even apply – is that he has been eminently clear that he is against considering proportionality in pursuing terrorists, especially ISIS.
His big break in 2016 with long-time Republican national security stalwart and former CIA director General Michael Hayden was over Trump’s repeated public statements endorsing the bombing of potentially innocent family members and nearby neighbors of terrorists to get terrorists.
Hayden and others are not necessarily against “collateral damage” to civilians if a specific attack meets proportionality requirements of international law, but they rejected his readiness to endorse unqualified attacks on potential innocents as long as he got terrorists also.
By all accounts, his targeting of ISIS did come with fewer restrictions than under the Obama administration, which has led to more civilian harm.
Trump was also widely slammed in 2016 for endorsing not just torture against terrorist detainees, but for a readiness to use techniques worse than waterboarding. No one was clear on what he meant, with some imagining “the rack” of the Spanish Inquisition.
The point is, if the first time that Trump mentions international law and war is when it does not even apply, one can take the statement with a grain of salt.
In truth, Trump just decided that he did not want to strike Iran at this time over an unmanned drone being shot down because he is highly cautious about wars in the Middle East, and is gambling that his initial buildup to a strike, coupled with his eventual restraint, may get Iran to calm its own escalation in using force.
If he pulls this off, it may be added to a short list of moments where his unconventional leadership style and high-stakes gambling, which goes against conventional wisdom, led to an unexpectedly positive foreign policy result.
Except that Trump is not the only decisive actor.
IRAN IS A wild card and is not a single-minded entity. Trump’s latest restraint did not provide it an easy landing from the US maximum pressure campaign.
The Islamic Republic’s moderates or internationalists might be interested in a new nuclear deal even if it meant some new concessions to the US – but even they might not be.
Besides them, Iran’s middle of the spectrum power center, represented by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is willing to make pragmatic moves, like deals, but is highly suspicious of the West – and nothing Trump did on Friday likely changed that.
Then there is a large wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who are a combination of ideological Messianics and ruthless realists who were willing to let massive numbers of their people die in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. They never wanted the old deal and certainly do not want a new one.
They would be happy to go to war and to show the US that even if it is stronger, it is not willing to bleed as much and for as long as they are.
So Trump’s moment this weekend could be his Obama redline moment, where he loses deterrence globally by being exposed as unwilling to use military options. On the other hand, it could be a brilliant moment, which eventually brings Iran to cut an improved nuclear deal.
Or it could be just another forgotten moment in the ongoing nuclear standoff between the US and Iran, with both sides continuing to play chicken.
Either way, proportionality was not the issue.