In the years since World War II broke out in Europe and President Franklin Roosevelt foreshadowed support for France and England in a radio fireside chat, presidents have spoken to the American people at length about conflicts threatening to involve the nation.
As tensions rise precipitously between the United States and Iran - with bombers set on hair trigger alert and naval battle groups on the move - that's not what we're getting from President Donald Trump. Standing in the front door of the White House last week he blurted out, "I hope not," to a reporter's shouted question about the prospect of war with Iran.
Then on Sunday, he seemed to contradict that sentiment in a tweet, "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
As tightening sanctions cripple the Persian Gulf nation, an American carrier group is rushed to the region and nonemergency personnel are evacuated from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil - a step not taken even when Islamic State terrorists were rampaging across Iraq in 2014 - Trump needs to explain what he is trying to achieve.
The commander in chief is preparing the military for the outbreak of violence, but he's not fulfilling his role in preparing the public. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford will brief the House of Representatives in a secure auditorium. The New York Times reports that military officials expect Middle East commanders to ask for a fresh wave of American forces to deter Iran.
The White House and the Pentagon say the moves are a response to intelligence that Iran is planning attacks on U.S. troops in the region. But this conflicts with threat assessments by allies.
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Beyond this immediate urgency, confusion persists about the broader endgame behind the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign of sanctions, levied against Iran ever since Washington last year withdrew from a 2015 agreement that was successfully containing Tehran's nuclear program.
Now Iran threatens to resume stockpiling enriched uranium that could be the precursor to a nuclear warhead.
There's no question Iran is a bad actor in the Middle East, growing its ballistic missile program and using proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to provoke violence and instability. But how Trump intends to change this is not at all clear.
The sanctions are aimed at making Iran "conform to the normal things that normal nations do," Pompeo said this month. But he clearly doesn't believe this himself. "I just don't see it," the secretary of State said earlier about Iran moderating its behavior.
And Trump's other leading foreign policy consultant, national security adviser John Bolton, has made a career out of advocating force against Iran.
Is regime change the goal? This hasn't worked in Venezuela, where a weaker dictator with a devastated economy still resists U.S.-led efforts to install a new government. And Iran has resisted U.S. efforts to moderate its behavior for 40 years.
Trump, who relishes summitry, has repeatedly offered to meet with Iranian leaders and cut a "deal" to curb their behavior and accept tougher nuclear restrictions. Tehran has thus far shown zero interest.
Trump has long promised to avoid foreign entanglements and has told the Pentagon that his wish is no war with Iran. Then why did he hire Bolton?
And what is the plan? Soundbites shouted at reporters and belligerent tweets can't convey to Americans the risks Iran poses and what the United States is compelled to do about it.
If there is to be a face-off that includes the prospect of a wider conflict, President Trump owes it to the American people to speak before the saber rattling becomes a sobering reality.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Commander in chief Donald Trump, threatening 'official end of Iran' is not the endgame America needs