I wish we had been wrong, but we were all too right. The only warning that has not been vindicated is that his anti-Muslim rhetoric would alienate Muslim allies; President Trump’s kowtowing to the rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has kept them aligned. But all the other debilities we foresaw are now abundantly manifest.
Trump has shown no ability to grow in office; but then it’s hard to learn if all you read is Fox News chyrons. He is today the same compulsive liar and erratic ignoramus he was at the start of the 2016 campaign. Only now, the stakes are much higher. Trump is commander in chief as the United States is locked on a collision course with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The crisis in the Persian Gulf shows the danger of having a president who is so unfit for office. Indeed, this crisis is largely of Trump’s own making.
In May 2018, Trump exited the Iran nuclear deal, even though Iran was in compliance. Trump castigated the deal as “horrible,” “laughable,” “disastrous,” largely, it seems, because it was negotiated by his hated predecessor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out 12 demands that the current Iranian regime would never meet; they included Iran’s cutting off support for all of its regional proxies and ending its missile program. National security adviser John Bolton signaled that the administration is interested not in reform but regime change; in February, he posted a video on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, telling the mullahs, “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”
The administration has implemented punishing sanctions that have cut Iran’s oil exports by more than half. The Iranian government considers this an act of “economic war,” and it has responded like most nations under attack — not by surrendering but by hitting back. In recent weeks, Iran has been blamed for attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Iran denies responsibility, but now it is threatening to ramp up uranium production and break out of the nuclear deal. What did Trump think would happen when he pulled out of the nuclear deal? Or did he think at all? Most analysts warned that the move would increase the risk of Iran’s restarting its nuclear program and of war breaking out — and it has.
Trump’s response has been as incoherent as usual. He alternates between bluster (“If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran”) and offers to talk. He contradicts his own aides (remember the 12 demands?) by saying: “We just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons.” But if all he cares about is nukes, why did he pull out of a nuclear deal that was working?
The United States cannot successfully deal with a menace such as Iran when it is led by a president with no credibility or moral standing either at home or abroad. U.S. allies distrust Trump’s claims of Iranian responsibility for the tanker attacks and bristle at Trump’s unilateralism. According to the New York Times, even Trump’s own intelligence and military chiefs don’t trust him enough to share details of U.S. cyberoperations against Russia. If Trump’s own subordinates don’t trust him, how can the rest of the country or the world?
Under another president such as Ronald Reagan, Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf might be a casus belli. But we cannot risk a war under this president. The least bad outcome is for Trump to veer, as he has with North Korea, from irresponsible saber-rattling to oleaginous appeasement. Better for Trump to fall in love with another odious dictator than to start a war that could easily spin out of control. No matter how Trump handles this self-created crisis, his Iran policies drive home the warning in the War on the Rocks letter: He is diminishing America’s safety and standing.