Let’s pretend we had a normal president. (I said it was make-believe.) How would this have unfolded?
We would not have exited the Iran nuclear deal without a coordinated strategy involving our allies. Without leaving the Iran deal, we could have developed a policy to counter Iran’s non-nuclear aggression and make it a pariah state for its human rights abuses. We could have maintained a consistent presence in Syria, not freaked out our allies and not given Iran and Russia the green light to occupy and to build the land bridge (the so-called Shiite Crescent) connecting Iran through Iraq to Syria, Lebanon and up to the Golan Heights.
In other words, we would have either: 1.) stayed within the Iran deal with our allies and sought to obtain leverage to expand the deal (e.g. eliminate the sunset provision) and curtail Iran’s non-nuclear aggression or 2.) exited with allies and with a strategy to intensify pressure that anticipated Iran’s military retaliation.
A normal president would not have declared his intent to conduct a strike in retaliation for Iran shooting down a drone, only to brag about pulling the plug when he supposedly found out how many casualties he anticipated. A normal president would not have signaled foolishness by giving unprecedented legitimacy and stature to North Korea in exchange for nothing (or actually, for worse than that, because we now ignore its missile tests).
The commander in chief’s credibility and personal restraint, the maintenance of allies and a clear-eyed appreciation for our enemies are a normal president’s assets; this president has none of those.
Moreover, a normal president would not have told more than 12,000 lies, giving the impression that he either cannot discern fact from fiction or doesn’t care to. He would not have stepped on Congress’s power of the purse, but rather, would have conducted a respectful relationship with the first branch of government, consulting and providing information as needed to enlist its support in foreign affairs.
In the parallel universe of normalcy, the president would not have allowed a constant churn in his national security team (four national security advisers, three defense secretaries and two secretaries of state, if you counting those in acting roles) and instead would have assembled a reliable, cohesive and competent team with a track record of working together.
In Normal Land, a president and his secretary of state would not have over-valued the Saudi relationship and lied about a lack of definitive evidence tying Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He would not have indulged the crown prince’s genocidal war in Yemen and even rewarded the Saudis by looking to sell the kingdom nuclear technology. And Mr. Normal President would not have sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin time and again so as to deny that his election was aided by Russian interference. In short, there would have been no doubt whose side our president was on.
Unfortunately, we have Trump and a Republican-controlled Senate that has indulged his lies, rationalized his inconsistencies and ignored his fondness for dictators. We could have faced a situation in which a normal president might in fact have laid the groundwork for a joint, focused response to Iranian aggression, but instead we are isolated, lack international credibility and see a commander in chief operating without mental acuity or buy-in from Congress and the public.
Trump has handled this about as poorly as one could have. Writing in The Post, veteran diplomat Dennis Ross concludes: “We might well be on the precipice of the first foreign policy crisis of the Trump administration. Trump will face a real dilemma: He will not want oil prices to shoot up, and he will not want to get embroiled in a war with Iran.” He adds, “Striking the balance between threats and offering the Iranians a way out is the challenge before the administration now.”
However, virtually no one outside the White House thinks Trump or his blustering yes-men have the skill and/or will to avoid a shooting war or to conduct a competent one with clear and limited objectives. Indeed, it is certainly possible that Trump is egging on the Saudis.
No amount of advice to the White House will improve matters nor make Trump sane, stable and sensible. It’s really up to Congress, which must put the brakes on use of force, swiftly hold hearings, lay out the facts to the American people and set its own conditions for authorizing exercise of force (e.g. not going it alone). That’s how things should normally work. But we don’t have a normal president, and therefore are compelled to improvise.