A personal note: We almost went to war with Iran but somehow we didn’t. Donald Trump overrode the decision of President John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pompeo – or something. I kind of missed it all. I spent most of the last two days in the hospital dealing with issues which are of no political or international or cultural interest at all. Those aren’t worth discussing in a public forum. But what just happened? It’s time to catch up. But so many insightful people said so many insightful things. There’s so much out there.
There’s too much out there. And there was too much lost time – time to consider it all and synthesize it all and judge it all – so others can do that this time.
What the hell just happened? The best syntheses may have come from Slate’s Joshua Keating and from Andrew Sullivan, now writing a weekly “summary” column for New York Magazine.
Keating gets to the heart of things:
It seems unlikely that the pundits who praised Donald Trump for showing resolve and growing into his office when he ordered airstrikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military, in April 2017, will offer similar compliments now, after Trump pulled back from strikes against Iran at the last minute Thursday night – though the latter is arguably a truer example of presidential leadership.
Granted, it’s not encouraging that the president of the United States appears to trust Tucker Carlson more than his own advisers, and it’s hard to believe his tweeted assertion this morning that he was only told about the potential casualties after the military was “cocked & loaded” to strike. But Trump was also under enormous pressure from both political allies and his own advisers to respond. It appears he didn’t like the looks of what he was getting himself – and the country – into, and he withdrew over the advice of the administration’s top officials. Doing that sometimes is a big part of his job. The troubling question, though, is whether the president even realizes the impossible foreign policy position he’s created for himself.
That’ll happen when you threaten war but your heart just isn’t in it. The other side sees the contradiction. You puzzle your own supporters and give your opponents a way to call you incompetent, a man with no strategy. That seems to be what happened here:
If Trump deserves criticism, it’s for letting the situation escalate to the point that he was on the verge of ordering a high-casualty military strike – and risking a full-blown war – over a downed drone. Everything that’s happened between the U.S. and Iran in the past year is a predictable result of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and impose conditions on the Iranian regime that amount to a demand for complete surrender. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt (who has never been fully sold on Trump’s foreign policy) accused him this morning of going “full @BarackObama on a red line.”
The comparison in this case is fair: Obama’s “red line” comment about Syria’s chemical weapons program brought him to the brink of launching a military intervention in 2013 that he clearly did not want to launch.
And that’s Trump too:
What should be clear after Thursday night is that, for all his bluster and threats, Trump is not actually a hawk. He doesn’t want to start any new wars or topple any foreign regimes. Again and again during this administration – with North Korea, with Venezuela, with Iran – military action has appeared to be imminent, doves in the media and on Capitol Hill have panicked, neocons have salivated, and then nothing has come of it.
It’s probably time for both sides to stop taking the bait. It’s also clear that the dark Rasputin-like powers of John Bolton are somewhat overestimated. The president may be happy to let his national security adviser wage his passionate lifelong crusade against the International Criminal Court, but when it comes to big matters of war and peace – matters that could impact Trump’s reelection chances – Boltonism does not reign supreme.
Keating, however, sees a hot mess here:
On Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, Trump launched his reelection campaign by boasting that “great nations do not want to fight endless wars” and that the U.S. is “starting to remove a lot of troops.” Those boasts, though, came just a day after the Pentagon announced that 1,000 new troops were being deployed to Middle East.
Trump keeps running into these contradictions because his team does not share his goals and because the image he’s trying to project makes his policy aims practically unachievable. He may want a foreign policy of military restraint, wherein U.S. security interests are defined narrowly and the focus is on border security, counterterrorism, and trade rather than ideological crusades, misbegotten human rights advocacy, or long-term military commitments. There are smart people in Washington who might be perfectly happy to help Trump implement such a policy.
But they are not the people who surround him. Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel were the officials who, according to the New York Times, were arguing forcefully for a strike on Iran Thursday.
That is odd, but Trump just can’t quit these folks:
Despite Trump’s own reluctance to deploy significant military force, he also wants to be seen as a tough guy, to act with swagger, threaten foreign governments, kill and torture terrorists, surround himself with the trappings of military power, shock the Europeans, and trigger the libs. This machismo has led him to hire either military figures like H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, who have conventionally hawkish views, or Fox News reactionaries like Bolton who has unconventionally hawkish views. The risk here is that, as with the stepped-up campaign of digital incursions into Russia’s power grid that the Times revealed last weekend, officials with less aversion to military action may increasingly just cut the president out of the decision-making process.
But that’s not the real problem:
Most of all, Trump seems to want easy wins. In a Wednesday Washington Post article about the president’s growing frustrations with his administration’s Venezuela policy, one official explains:
“Trump has clearly been frustrated about a foreign policy issue he ‘always thought of as low-hanging fruit’ on which he ‘could get a win and tout it as a major foreign policy victory,’ the former official said. ‘Five or six months later it’s not coming together.'”
The dynamic appears much the same with Iran. Washington think tank hawks and Republicans on Capitol Hill may have applauded Trump’s move on the Iran deal and his “maximum pressure” campaign, and they may feel encouraged that the U.S. is finally taking a hard line against Iranian influence in the Middle East. But Trump, with his pro-Russia sympathies and desire to get out of Syria as quickly as possible, has never appeared quite as interested in Iran. For instance, others may see U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – despite its dismal human rights record and its own regionally destabilizing actions- as necessary to counter Iran, but Trump tends to emphasize the economic importance of Saudi arms sales.
Keating sees evidence of that:
It was telling how Trump began his tweetstorm Friday morning: “President Obama made a desperate and terrible deal with Iran – Gave them 150 Billion Dollars plus 1.8 Billion Dollars in CASH!”
It’s as if he’s saying: All I wanted to do was get our money back, and now I’m on the brink of a massive war.
Trump may have hoped his Iran deal decision was a way to undo a key part of Obama’s legacy. He knew it made some of his voters and donors and his friends in Israel and Saudi Arabia happy. He may also genuinely believe that Obama allowed the U.S. to get ripped off. If he was thinking ahead at all when he exited the deal, he may have genuinely believed that either something like the status quo would continue or that Iran would buckle under the pressure and come to the table to give him another Kim Jong-un–style summit. That is not what happened.
And that means that this is most likely:
Just because Trump doesn’t want war doesn’t mean he still won’t get one. The administration’s actions, and Iran’s responses, have left him with few options for a diplomatic resolution. And having already applied “maximum pressure,” there are few options left for responding to further Iranian provocations beyond force. The next Iranian attack could result in the loss of an American life, not just a drone. Pompeo has now explicitly called that a red line, which even Trump may feel compelled to enforce.
Trump may not like the situation he’s in, but it’s one largely of his own making – and it’s not going to be easy to get out of.
And that traps all of us, if Keating is right.
Andrew Sullivan, however, takes a wider view of what is happening:
There are times when it seems to me there’s little point in trying to analyze Trump’s policy positions. His attention span is so tiny, his intelligence so constrained by psychological illness, his views so dependent on emotive whim, it’s simpler just to sit back and watch as one’s jaw slowly drops. The cruder, dumber explanations are often a better fit.
Trump’s Middle East policy, for example, is exactly what you’d expect if you imagined a president simply dedicated to the reversal of everything Obama tried to do. Instead of balancing Shia and Sunni, we’ve gone all in on the Sunni powers. Instead of balancing between Israelis and Palestinians, we now have a West Bank settlement enthusiast, Jared Kushner, eager to please an evangelical base for whom the state of Israel is literally the manifestation of God’s plan. Presto! From this worldview, Palestinian rights don’t really exist. Which is how a “peace plan” could emerge that encourages the Palestinians to accept indefinite disenfranchisement and indignity – and calls it a solution.
But take a step back from that and see more:
The Iran policy is driven by similar impulses. But it’s more crudely about doing the reverse of what Obama attempted, regardless of the consequences. So the Iran deal – one of the triumphs of American diplomacy in recent times – had to go not because it was failing (it wasn’t), but because it was succeeding and that meant, well, Obama did something worthwhile. Egged on by pro-Israel fanatics, Trump also ratcheted up sanctions and pummeled the Iranian economy so that Tehran would somehow cave in, keep its nuclear ambitions constrained, and alter its regional interventions.
And of course that was nonsense:
There was never any evidence that this would work. In fact, there was much evidence that it would achieve the opposite and, of course, it has failed spectacularly. But what it has achieved is a strengthening of the most hardline Islamists, and of Iran’s threat to quit the JCPOA and go back to building nuclear capacity. So Trump is now actually trying to find a way to prevent an Iranian bomb without an Iran war – which is to say, he’s now trying to do exactly what Obama already accomplished. Except this time, it’s the U.S. that has lost any of the high ground it once held. I can’t believe I’m sympathizing with the despicable regime in Tehran. But given the way they’ve been treated, I can’t blame them for fighting back.
But wait, there’s more:
Health care is another issue on which Trump wants to abolish something Obama achieved in order to somehow recreate it. Obamacare is, Trump keeps saying, a “disaster,” a claim for which he provides no evidence. He then claims to support a health-care policy that would rely on the private sector, cut costs, and deliver cheaper and better medical care for everyone. He has no idea what he’s talking about, has no concept of what it means for an ordinary person to not have health insurance, has no grasp of even the smallest truth about healthcare policy, and yet wants to throw millions of people off their health care while pretending he’s doing the opposite. He’s stopped only by a GOP that knows how damaging that would be politically.
But wait, there’s more:
On climate, it’s the same picture. No real argument, unhinged assertions, international isolation… but a regimented policy of reckless denialism. Again, does anything more substantive than hatred of Obama, chumminess with oil executives, and contempt for the environment motivate this nonsense? Nothing that I can see. Immigration? Instead of building on Obama’s relative success at keeping migration low, Trump has behaved so as to make any bipartisan deal impossible. He rejected a sane compromise last year that would have given him his dumb wall, and is now presiding over the biggest influx of illegal immigrants since the Bush era.
But wait, there’s more:
On the economy, Trump’s record is best summed up by his presentation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Art Laffer, whose idiotic curve is being disproven on a daily basis, as U.S. debt soars after even more tax cuts in a time of growth. Obama cared about the deficit and slowly brought it down, even while recovering from a brutal recession. Trump doesn’t give a shit, prints money more aggressively than any “socialist” could, and declares success because he’s traded a short-term sugar high in growth for a long-term bankruptcy (a theme of his own business career, of course).
So it comes down to this:
I’m not saying it’s crazy or wrong for a president to undo some of his predecessor’s policies and reverse some others. That is, if he has a different view of the world and makes a rational case. But I am saying that basing domestic and foreign policy solely on visceral emotions about the first black president and his achievements is a form of bigoted, unstable madness that has no place in the affairs of state of a great nation. It is a manifestation of Trump’s obvious unfitness for the office he holds, and of the terrible danger his presidency poses. So far, we have avoided the worst consequences of this blindness. But if war comes, that dumb-luck honeymoon will surely end.
But, other than that, Trump is doing a fine job. But that’s just two views of all this. More was said. More happened. It’s time to get back to getting a sense of it all. It’s time to get back to work here. That’s next.