Let’s examine what we learned from Trump’s speech and how it illuminated the events of the past few days:
Trump’s Iran policy has been a catastrophic failure. “The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer,” Trump said. But that in itself is an acknowledgment of his own failure.
When the president came into office, we had a painstakingly negotiated agreement that by the consensus of the entire international community was successfully restraining Iran’s nuclear program. Trump not only abandoned that deal, he instituted a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, arguing that if we crippled their economy, they’d become less aggressive in the region and crawl back to the negotiating table, whereupon they’d give us whatever concessions we asked for.
The very fact that we’re in the position we are now demonstrates that this policy has failed.
Rather than ceasing provocative operations, Iran has continued and even increased them. Indeed, they’ve become so aggressive that the Trump administration decided to assassinate their most important military official, a step that surely would have been unnecessary if “maximum pressure” was working the way it was supposed to. Trump himself implicitly acknowledged this by ticking off a list of recent Iranian actions to show how nefarious they are.
Trump desperately wanted to find a way to declare victory and back off. The great concern of the moment is that by assassinating Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Trump set off a cycle of retaliation between the two countries that could spin out of control. Iran seems to be cautious about that, which could be why they aimed missiles at a largely empty area of an Iraqi base housing U.S. troops and informed the Iraqi government beforehand that the missiles were on their way.
Trump could nevertheless have thundered against the missile attack and promised to hit back, under the long-standing American principle that says we can do what we like to other countries but they can’t do the same to us (try to imagine how we would have responded if another country had assassinated, say, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs).
But Trump did not vow revenge. Instead, he said, “Iran appears to be standing down.” This is despite the fact that there’s no particular evidence that Iran is actually standing down; far more likely, they’re planning other forms of less conventional retaliation that could play out over months or even years.
Trump is still obsessed with Barack Obama. For whatever combination of reasons, Trump has long been obsessed with President Barack Obama and comparisons anyone might make between the two men. Perhaps this is because Obama embodies just about every personal virtue in which Trump is lacking; more likely it’s the fact that Obama enjoys a level of respect and admiration at home and around the world that Trump knows he will never come close to achieving.
While other, less petty presidents would refrain at moments like this from taking bogus potshots at their predecessors, Trump simply cannot resist the opportunity to blame what happens on his watch on Obama. “The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration,” he said. “The very defective [Iran nuclear agreement] expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.” None of those things is true.
Trump is comically insecure about his manhood. “Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast,” Trump said. Sometimes a missile is just a missile, but sometimes it’s an expression of your desperate fear that people will point and laugh at you.
Trump still has no idea what he wants to accomplish with regard to Iran or how to do it. Much of Trump’s speech — the parts that weren’t devoted to how great the U.S. economy is or how we’ve now reached energy independence, neither of which have anything to do with the current crisis — was about Iran’s misdeeds and how we’re now going to be hitting them with sanctions to punish them and change their behavior. Which is something you could have heard a U.S. president say at any time in the past couple of decades.
So why is that going to work now? What is the ultimate goal Trump is pursuing? Does he even know? Does he have any idea how to get from where we are now to there?
Apparently not. But if nothing else, at least we know that Trump doesn’t seem to want to escalate the military conflict further. Not for the first time, his tendency to beat his chest fiercely and then back down may put a limit on how much damage he does.