There have been too many nights like this since Sept. 11, 2001: tense hours waiting for confirmation of how bad things are, how much worse they might get. But one thing made Tuesday night different: On this night, the world could not trust the American president.
Reports said Donald Trump was in the situation room, Tuesday evening, surrounded by officers and aides, assessing the damage from Iranian missiles launched against Iraqi bases that hosted American troops. The whole world is waiting for answers to obvious but all-important questions: Will American forces retaliate? How severely? Does this president want an all-out war with Iran? What would that war look like?
After the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the free world rallied behind president George W. Bush. Domestic terror attacks brought out the very best in Barack Obama as president.
But as Mr. Trump faces the worst international emergency of his presidency, there is no rallying. For one thing, American society is too polarized. The Republican President’s critics maintain his administration brought on this crisis by killing the Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone attack in Iraq. Supporters believe the action was necessary to prevent an impending attack on American citizens.
And all of this takes place in the shadow of this president’s impending impeachment trial in the Senate.
Beyond that, there is simply the character of the man. In tweets of rage, Mr. Trump has disparaged opponents in terms never used by an American president in public. He has alienated allied leaders, from Canada’s Justin Trudeau to Germany’s Angela Merkel and everyone in between. He is more respectful to despots than to democrats.
The leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are calling for restraint and de-escalation because they have just as little trust in this administration as their citizens do. No one knows what game Mr. Trump is truly playing: Is he looking for an excuse to go to war? If, as early reports suggested, American casualties are few or none, will he take that as a sign that the regime in Tehran is looking for an off-ramp? Will he accept that sign and begin to wind this crisis down?
Early indications were encouraging, Tuesday night. No planned television address by the President. No tweets of fire and fury. “We do not seek escalation or war,” Iran’s foreign minister tweeted late in the evening. So no war, maybe – at least not this day.
But there is tomorrow. Will the Americans counterstrike? Do the Iranians plan future attacks? Are things about to get better or worse?
Then there is the question of who is advising this president. Mr. Trump has fired or forced the resignation of many of the advisers who were respected by those beyond the ideological inner circle of this administration. What are the true motivations of people such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? What are the military leaders counselling? Is Mr. Trump listening to them?
In a way, we’ve been lucky. This administration has managed to avoid creating or having to respond to a major international incident for most of Mr. Trump’s first term. But now events are testing the mettle of this most unconventional president. How will he respond?
People of good will have come to regret the trust they placed in American presidents, from Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War to George W. Bush during the Iraq War, to Barack Obama during the civil war in Syria. But this night, for many of us, we begin with little trust. Only fear, for what Donald Trump has gotten the world into, and how this all might end.