February 20, 2020
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For now, Trump reassured a jittery nation with Iran speech

Evan Vucci | AP
Evan Vucci | AP
President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Vice President Mike Pence, and others look on.

We’ll admit that it is a very low bar to clear, but by showing restraint in a brief Wednesday address to the nation about the U.S. confrontation with Iran, President Donald Trump put many minds at ease. Since the recent attacks on the U.S. embassy in Iraq and the U.S. killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who was behind brutal killings across the Middle East, there had been talk and fears of military escalation, even war between the U.S. and Iran.

Trump himself tweeted threats to hit Iran “harder than they have ever been hit before!” An, he said the U.S. had targeted 52 Iranian cultural sites, which would be a violation of international law.

On Tuesday night, Iran fired missiles at an airbase in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed. There were no U.S. casualties. Trump administration officials have said that the missile attacks deliberately avoided U.S. personnel, thus allowing Iranian leaders to boast about retaliation without provoking further U.S. response. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested that the strikes “concluded” the country’s response to the United States.

Then, on Wednesday morning, Trump — who seemed unusually but encouragingly subdued — spoke of peace and cooperation. There were no threats, no ultimatums. So far, there has been no further provocations from Iran. And, somewhat uncharacteristic for Trump, he has not posted any tweets to contradict his moderated address from the White House.

We are under no illusions that the conflict and tensions are over, but stepping away from the incendiary rhetoric and military strikes allows both nations time to reset their relationship with one another.

Of course, much is left to be resolved. Iran remains a major sponsor of terrorism around the world and its pursuit of nuclear weapons only worsens that threat. The crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet, which has just taken off from Tehran, killed 176 people, many of them Canadian, Tuesday night. Western officials believe the jet was accidentally shot down by an Iranian missile, raising the possibility that the hopefully short-lived escalation of military counterpunches had deadly, if unintentional consequences.

But, on Wednesday, restraint and de-escalation ruled the day. That is reason for hope.

“To the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future and a great future — one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world,” Trump said. “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

To be sure, the president’s speech contained falsehoods, exaggerations and contradictions. For example, his call for a nuclear agreement with Iran disregards the fact that the U.S. had such an agreement, which international observers said was working to stop Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Trump’s call for NATO to play a larger role in turning Iran away from terrorism is undermined by his frequent badmouthing of the organization.

We don’t intend to downplay Trump’s disparities and distortions, and we understand that his address Wednesday seemed out of character. But, the overall message was what a nation worried about a new war, and a long-time adversary, needed to hear.

One reassuring speech, however, does not negate the need for Congress to reclaim its responsibilities with regard to military actions. The House approved a measure Thursday asserting that the president consult with Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Maine Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree voted for the resolution, which is nonbinding.

A similar measure, which is now co-sponsored by Sen. Angus King, faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate. “This is a bipartisan statement that Congress must reassert its historic and constitutional role in authorizing and declaring war, while still allowing us to defend American personnel against Iranian threats,” King said in a statement.

Sen. Susan Collins has long called for Congress to reassert its war powers authority. “Congress must not be side-lined in important foreign policy decisions. These decisions include any future military escalations in Iran,” she told the BDN earlier this week. But, she has concerns about the scope of the proposal in the Senate and is discussing them with Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, the measure’s sponsor.

Trump’s largely prudent words on Iran helped tamp down the threat of escalating military action against and from Iran. Lawmakers now have a chance to step up to fulfill their constitutional responsibility.


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