President Trump’s Iran policy suffers from three main flaws: No discernible policy, no confidence in Trump and no trust in his advisers.
Let’s start with the non-policy. John McLaughlin, a former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, explains why pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal was ill-conceived:
Why give up the leverage we gained by having essentially all of Europe and two rivals, China and Russia, generally aligned with us when it comes to Iran? To be sure, you could argue that the nuclear deal is not perfect and that a better one is possible, but now we are stuck trying to do it on our own and using tools — sanctions — that will spark resentment among our former partners in the deal. . . . So we are now pretty much on our own.
One might also add that all this is totally inconsistent with the president’s desired pullout from Syria — which signaled that the administration is not committed to a presence in the Middle East nor does it mind handing Iran and Russia a major geopolitical victory.
Adding to the incoherence, the White House has complained about Iran’s missile program, support for terrorists and regional aggression. Every one of these could have been addressed while remaining in the nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — and we would have had the help of allies doing it. But, of course, pulling out of the JCPOA was never a policy; it was a campaign promise born of Trump and his base’s resentment of President Barack Obama.
McLaughlin also points out that our isolation from allies actually aggravates another problem: Trump, on his own, is incapable of making a deal — North Korea? China? Congress? — leaving only the option of more sanctions (which are unlikely to compel the mullahs to shift course and return to the table), or the military option if he is intent on forcing Iran to capitulate.
While Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) irresponsibly suggests that war with Iran would all be over with a couple of missile strikes, saner and more informed sources know this is blather. “Iran’s military is, of course, not on par with that of the U.S., but it has spent decades thinking about how to use itself asymmetrically against a U.S. force to maximum advantage,” McLaughlin writes. “We could expect serious naval combat in the Persian Gulf, well-rehearsed efforts to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, multiple missile attacks on U.S. bases, facilities and allies — and strikes far afield, possibly inside the U.S., by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah. It would be costly, bloody and hard to end.”
Aside from lacking a policy, Trump is utterly unequipped to conduct high-stakes negotiations or to credibly wield even the threat of force. The administration leaked some routine military planning likely to try to convey military toughness, but it has abandoned Syria, wants to bug out of Afghanistan and Trump continues to rail about overseas bases and commitments. How credible is any military threat? We’re going to conduct this war with not a single ally?) Coupled with Trump’s infatuation with strongmen and his penchant for repeating their propaganda to ingratiate himself with practiced liars, our foes neither respect nor fear him. And, worst of all, if he truly does want to convey a real intention to use force, no one may believe him.
That bring us to his advisers, who sure have sounded anxious to pick a fight that is only winnable through regime change. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech laying down markers that Iran would never meet (thereby implying only regime change would satisfy him); now, however, he claims the United States doesn’t want war.
National security adviser John Bolton, who by the president’s own admission (!) is overly fond of military action and insufficiently concerned with its unintended consequences, seems to be spreading the notion that Iran is planning to fire on U.S. ships. Before you can say "Gulf of Tonkin," one can imagine a contrived excuse for engaging in military action.
Call me a cynic, but I simply don’t believe anything that comes out of the mouths of a president who has lied more than 10,000 times and senior advisers who constantly lie on his behalf (Pompeo had been telling us what a success the North Korea talks were, before it became obvious — even to Republicans — that we had accomplished nothing.) The gang that insisted we had no way to tie Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi simply cannot be trusted to tell the truth.
We have an acting defense secretary with no military or strategic experience (and who is utterly subservient to the president), an uber-aggressive national security adviser and a secretary of state who lacks credibility with allies and with foes. To make matters worse, none seem capable of telling the president “no."
(Incidentally, this puts extreme pressure on Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel to refuse efforts to puff up intelligence and to come to Congress and/or the American people if the president attempts to falsify or exaggerate intelligence. It’s ironic in the extreme that the same intelligence community that Trump slanders will be called upon to justify use of force. Trump might consider stopping the smears.)
Do you trust these people with the use of force or even to threaten to use force, risking precipitous action on Iran’s part?
I have no idea, frankly, what the administration thinks is attainable with regard to Iran’s nuclear program and how serious Trump is about the use of force. I have no idea whether Trump is prepared to start sanctioning our allies who continue to abide by the JCPOA (we have more than enough trade sanctions and conflicts). Does Trump think a war would help his reelection efforts? He thinks a trade war will. And I have no idea whether Bolton or Pompeo can credibly speak for Trump. (Strike that: I’m fairly certainly they cannot.)
What can be done to avoid a calamitous overreaction or a blunder leading us into war?
Congress should be crystal clear that hostilities against Iran would amount to a declaration of war, something only Congress can authorize. Since there is no human speed bump in the administration to either slow or stop rash action, Congress must insist on its constitutional role. It must be prepared to use its power of the purse to deny expenditures for Iran hostilities — absent consultation with Congress and approval for use of force.
The Senate must require that acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who has been nominated to fill the post on a permanent basis, commit during his confirmation hearing to robust briefings on Iran and to insist upon congressional authorization for use of force.
Does this all amount to an unfortunate and unusual restriction on executive authority that could impair future presidents? You bet, but the present risk of an ill-conceived war makes that unavoidable. The administration’s perpetual state of chaos, a dishonest and ignorant commander in chief and the absence of trustworthy and competent Cabinet members can rightly be cited as the gravest threats to a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of the Iran problem.