Donald Trump came mighty close to launching the US into a war with Iran on Thursday night, ordering air strikes against the Middle Eastern state before thinking better of it with just 10 minutes to spare.
According to The New York Times, the Pentagon had planes in the air and warships moving into position when the order to abort came, the US military ready to retaliate after Tehran's Revolutionary Guard shot down a US Navy RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone.
General Hossein Salami said his men had taken out the craft to send a "clear message" to America after secretary of state Mike Pompeo blamed the country for blowing up two foreign oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, with the countries already at odds over sanctions and the Trump administration's decision to withdraw the US from a 2015 nuclear accord.
With an anxious international community chewing its fingernails on Friday morning, President Trump finally explained his last minute change of heart in a series of tweets.
He was moved to compassion after an unnamed (possibly fictional) general gave him the casualty rate, he said, realising that air strikes killing at least 150 people would not be a "proportionate" response to the loss of a military toy, even if had cost $130m (£103m).
As CNN security analyst and former Obama adviser Sam Vinograd pointed out, this was probably face-saving nonsense to put a positive spin on a failure of nerve: the fatality projections would surely have been available to the president well in advance.
His tweet also confidently states the drone was "in International Waters".
He meant "over" rather than "in" but, grammatical nitpicking aside, the assertion also contradicts Tehran's own version of events, the regime insisting the American drone was brought down over the southern Iranian province of Hormozgan having drifted illegally into its airspace.
In the run-up to the aversion of this "self-inflicted disaster" (to quote 2020 candidate Joe Biden), Trump had discussed the threat posed by Iran at an Oval Office press conference with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.
Having earlier issued this threatening tweet...
...the president appeared to trail his U-turn when he told reporters (completely ignoring General Salami's happy admission of guilt):
I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth.
I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.
While Trump's public statements are often garbled and contradictory, he was particularly incoherent when he said:
We didn’t have a man or woman in the drone. We had nobody in the drone.
It would have made a big difference, let me tell you. It would have made a big, big difference.
You don't have to be an aviation expert to know that any drone is, by definition, unmanned.
They are, after all, also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).
It's terrifying to think that a man who does not consider the cost to human life as a direct consequence of his actions until 10 minutes before the missiles are fired has the keys to the nuclear codes, even more so that he doesn't understand precisely what it is he's fighting over in the first place.
What's even weirder is that Fox News host Tucker Carlson has been credited in some quarters as the real hero of the hour, changing the president's mind on wading into conflict at a pivotal moment by broadcasting a segment on his show entitled "Hungry for War" in which he hit out at the hawks in Trump's inner circle like national security adviser John Bolton:
They want a war badly, badly enough to lie about it, that's why they're putting American troops into situations where conflict is inevitable.
While his fellow presenter Sean Hannity warned Iran, "You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you," Carlson found himself in the unlikely position of being the voice of peace and moderation.
I think I need a lie down.