The news that President Trump ordered strikes on Iran, only to reverse himself at the last minute, provides an occasion to revisit the big story that Trump told in the course of getting elected to the most powerful position on Earth.
That story went a little something like this.
Trump grasped the festering popular discontent over multiple catastrophic elite failures that their architects were entirely oblivious to as they tittered away in their coastal enclaves. Trump would smash the elite consensus on immigration and globalization, no longer subjecting U.S. workers to the competition from unskilled migrants and foreign sweatshop-wage workers that had wreaked “carnage” on the Appalachian and industrial Midwestern heartlands.
And Trump would end the elite consensus on foreign policy that had mired young men and women from those forsaken places in faraway Forever Wars that represented the height of elite hubris and folly.
The latest Iran news exposes one of the most important, and potentially most destructive, false narratives at the core of that whole story.
As Trump just confirmed on Twitter, he had ordered strikes as a response to Iran’s shooting down of a surveillance drone, but cancelled the attack only “10 minutes before the strike.” He did this after learning it could result in 150 deaths, which he called “not proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone.”
So, let’s give Trump qualified credit here: It does appear he’s resisting the push for war from the administration’s hawks. (Another explanation is that he thinks Iranian capitulation is inevitable anyway, as will be discussed below.)
This seeming instinct against war, if it exists, is often presented as signaling a “contradiction," one that pits this reluctance against his desire to look “tough” in international affairs. That reluctance is said to be grounded in the story he told in 2016 — in his “nationalist” and “America First" aversion to pouring U.S. blood and treasure down foreign sinkholes.
But in this particular case, it’s precisely because the story he told is completely false that Trump is trapped in that contradiction right now — and we are trapped in an escalating situation with potentially horrible consequences.
Trump’s story about Iran has always been a lie
As many observers have noted — see this from Evelyn Farkas, or this Post editorial — it is Trump’s decision to pull out of the international nuclear deal negotiated by President Barack Obama that has led to this moment.
The short version: Iran was abiding by the deal, and was being constrained from developing nuclear weapons. But Trump pulled out — then reimposed sanctions to choke the Iranian economy, and has since dictated terms for sanctions relief that appear deliberately unrealistic, cornering Iran into a choice between escalating on its side or submitting entirely to those terms.
As David Ignatius explains, the administration is confident that this submission is right around the corner, but this would require “total capitulation.” The continued push for this makes miscalculation — and war — more likely.
But let’s focus on the original withdrawal from the deal. In the run-up to that decision, Trump falsely claimed Iran was on the verge of total collapse before Obama negotiated it, and overinflated what Iran financially got from it, to falsely portray it as a giveaway to Iran. Trump also insisted the deal was premised on believing Iran could be trusted not to develop nukes (in fact, it had strict verification mechanisms) and that the deal would inevitably fail to constrain Iran.
That latter claim proved completely false for a time, as Iran continued to abide by it. Now Iran is suggesting it will restart its programs, but this is coming after the United States pulled out of the deal that was successfully constraining it, compounding the folly of Trump’s decision.
Trump’s claim that the deal was hopelessly weak — which has been revealed as false by events, though one cannot conclusively say it would have worked forever — probably derived from the fact that Trump couldn’t bear that Obama had negotiated it. Trump treated it as weak by definition.
But there’s a deeper deception here, one that goes back to the whole story Trump tells.
The deeper deception
How did Trump square his campaign vow to pull out of the nuclear deal with his promise to avoid Mideast quagmires? By claiming not just that elites were foolishly sinking us into such quagmires but also that our elites were weak and allowing other countries to take us to the cleaners. Trump’s vow to withdraw was a sign of his strength — he’d be “tougher” with Iran, unilaterally so, and force its full capitulation (without any shots fired) that way.
As Zack Beauchamp has exhaustively demonstrated, Trump has never really been averse to military adventurism in any deeply committed sense. What he campaigned on was much closer to hawkish nationalism — he blustered for years about using force unilaterally. As we’re now seeing, this is manifesting itself in open hostility to international compromise solutions.
The Iran deal was and is imperfect — designed to constrain Iran, not through total capitulation to all our demands, but through a painstakingly negotiated international compromise.
It was working. But Trump’s worldview did not permit acknowledgment of this. Now he’s making good on his vow to achieve total capitulation through toughness, and we’re living through the deeply risky consequences.
We should hope Trump really is reluctant to go to war, and that this reluctance will prevail. But the terrible thing here is that, despite the story Trump told about elite failure, the Iran deal was one case in which international elites actually did set up a framework that likely would have averted senseless, costly foreign quagmires. In other words, here they got a very big thing right.