During the run-up to the Iran deal in 2015, the main narrative put forward by those who supported it was that if the US did not do a deal then there would be a "war." During the phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump, reports indicate, the same "If you don't do this, there will be war," threat was used.
US foreign policy has increasingly been hostage to the notion that the US must cater to both allies and adversaries to avoid wars. Oddly, those countries, including Turkey and Iran, are able to bluff their way into things by alleging they are prepared for war with the United States. There is no evidence that either country is willing to risk a real conflict with the US, but their threshold for claiming they do is higher than the US, and they have learned that after decades of foreign wars Washington is more cautious about new tensions.
US foreign policy has increasingly been hostage to the notion that it must avoid wars.
In 2015 the Obama administration presented a claim, through a sophisticated network of op-eds and surrogates sent to speak to media, which argued that "the only alternative to the Iran nuclear deal is war." An April 2015 piece at The Atlantic noted that the alternative could be a "substantial war." In May 2018, when Trump left the Iran deal, the BBC reported that a possibility might be a "new and catastrophic regional war."
Turkey presented the US with a threat that Turkey would begin its operation regardless of the US presence and begin bombing US partners on the ground, the 100,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces that the US had helped train since 2015 to fight ISIS.
Trump agreed to let Turkey conduct its "long-planned operation" to attack peaceful towns and cities that the US had enjoyed being stationed next to. Turkey has become proficient at using threats against Western powers to get them to do what it wants. It threatened to send 3.6 million refugees to Europe if the EU critiqued its operation. Is it normal for US allies to threaten to send refugees forcefully into their countries to punish them for policies?
Rarely in history has the US ever moved its forces over threats. In the past it was usually the US doing the threatening, not the other way around. It was the US that threatened Libya in the 1980s, and threatened other countries if they didn't respond to Washington's demands.
By 2019, things had changed. Turkey understood that Trump wanted to end US involvement in "endless wars," since he had said he had wanted to quit Syria since the spring of 2018. The claim that US soldiers were being used as "trip-wire" against a Turkish invasion was presented as the reason they were not being used as soldiers by policeman guarding the peace.
For some US policy-makers, the notion that the US might be in places in the world to keep the peace is seen as a waste of American resources, amid an increasing demand for isolationism. Where once the US sought to always be the first country on hand to discuss a ceasefire or reduce tensions, whether between India and Pakistan or Israel and Hezbollah, the US has decided these global issues are no longer its responsibilities to deal with. Under Donald Trump's leadership, the country that once got involved in all the Balkan wars or Haiti, Somalia and other crises no longer wants international entanglements.
On the one hand, this isolationist role of the US might be welcomed by countries that see the US meddling far from home. On the other hand, it means that other powers tend to step in as arbiters. That increasingly means Russia. It also means that countries that use threats of war and attacks on their neighbors as a means of policy tend to increase those attacks, not decrease them.
The West, in the wake of World War II, saw the world through a 1930s lens of seeking to stop aggressive countries before they could get worse. That is how the UK looked at Egypt's Nasser regime in the 1950s, and also how the US looked at Saddam in 1990. There were always comparisons with the 1930s.
The US will be tested more frequently now that it has revealed its yearning for the diplomatic track.
Today countries like Iran and Turkey, feeling they have been able to push the US out of places whether Syria, Iraq or the Gulf, are empowered by that view. US policy has openly declared that if it is presented with the "war" scenario it will back down, regardless of intelligence assessments on whether countries like Turkey or Iran are actually willing to risk conflict with the US. But the presentation of the alternative "will we shoot down Turkish airplanes bombing our partners in Syria" meets a resounding "no" in the Trump administration, just as the Obama administration sold itself the notion that "war" was the only alternative to "no deal."
The US policy from 2015 to 2019 represented a long-term process that changed how the US saw the world in the 1990s. Countries that once tested the US with threats of "war," such as Panama's declaration of war in 1989, were invaded. Muammar Gaddafi's 1973 "line of death" was challenged by the US. Perhaps less noticed at the time was al-Qaeda's 1996 decision to go to war with the US. It would take years for a real US response.
Most countries did not present the US with a threat of conflict in those years. The US will likely be tested more frequently now on the global stage as it has revealed that it tends to prefer a diplomatic track not matched with a military option, and that when pushed it will withdraw or seek only diplomacy. This was hotly debated on October 15 among Democratic candidates seeking to replace Trump. However, most did not see a real conflict option as the way to confront Russia, Iran, Turkey or others.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.