President Trump’s petty bellicosity can be amusing. When faced with even the slightest slight, Mr. Trump puffs out his chest like a cowardly schoolyard bully and blurts out the first thing that comes into his mind.
But there’s a place for such braggadocio (maybe), and the doorstep of war is not that place.
“Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets,” the president tweeted Saturday. “We have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Speaking to reporters on board Air Force One on Sunday, he reiterated the threat. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” Mr. Trump said. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
First things first: Targeting cultural sites is prohibited by international conventions. In 2017, weeks after Mr. Trump took office, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the “unlawful destruction of cultural heritage, inter alia destruction of religious sites and artifacts” during armed conflicts.
But beyond that, what world leader threatens another country’s cultural heritage? War is war, but a land’s culture — and its civilians — are strictly off limits. Only the worst of the worst would deliberately set out to destroy another nation’s heritage.
Smarter minds in the Trump administration quickly sought to explain away the dastardly design set out by the president. The Pentagon distanced itself from Trump’s evil threats, with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper saying Monday that the U.S. will “follow the laws of armed conflict,” ruling out the targeting of cultural sites.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also rejected the idea that the U.S. would strike cultural sites. “The American people should know that we have prepared for this, that we are ready, that our responses are lawful, and that the president will take every action necessary to respond should Iran decide to escalate,” he said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
Lawmakers from Trump’s own party blasted the nefarious plan. “We shouldn’t be attacking cultural sites. And I don’t see our military planners suggesting or identifying sites to hit,” Rep. Will Hurd, Texas Republican, said Sunday night.
But Mr. Trump’s sycophants in the White House stuck with the threat.
Kellyanne Conway claimed there are “strategic military sites” that are also considered cultural sites.
“Secretary [Mike] Pompeo said yesterday that we will be within the law, and I think that Iran has many military, strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites,” Mrs. Conway told reporters at the White House on Monday. She later amended those comments, saying she was not suggesting that Iran is camouflaging military targets as cultural sites.
Mr. Trump hates fake news, so let’s state this as pure fact: His threat to destroy cultural sites is way beyond the pale. The leader of the greatest democracy in the world should be firmly embracing the protection of all the world’s cultural sites.
Which brings to mind Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of war under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Stimson loved Kyoto, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. He stayed in Japan’s ancient former capital, filled with cultural heritage, for five days in 1926 and never forgot its beauty.
“The glories of Kyoto in the fall, her gardens, temples and surrounding hills, evidently impressed Stimson, and the decisions he made two decades later prove that the memory of this visit remained vivid,” author Otis Cary wrote in “The Sparing of Kyoto: Mr. Stimson’s ‘Pet City.’”
Those decisions? What cities to bomb to force Japan to surrender and end World War II. Kyoto was on the short list, but Stimson pressured his bosses to spare the historic landmarks and instead target Nagasaki with a second atomic bomb.
In the end, the smarter minds of 2020 prevailed on Mr. Trump and he cracked.
“You know what, if that’s what the law is, I like to obey the law,” he said Tuesday in the Oval Office. “But think of it: They kill our people, they blow up our people, and then we have to be very gentle with their cultural institutions. But I’m OK with it.”
Then he puffed out his chest again. “I will say this: if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly,” he said.
But at least Iran’s cultural heritage — which belongs to the world, too — is safe. And that’s how it should be. Too many have already been lost to war.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @josephcurl.
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