All this confusion traces back to one of Trump’s biggest lies: The idea that the Iran nuclear agreement constituted a wretched display of elite failure and American weakness, and that Trump has replaced it with an approach that’s “strong.”
That tone contrasts sharply with Trump’s bellicose but toddler-like pounding of his toy war drums (his Twitter feed), which has included threats of “disproportionate” force and even war crimes. But the guy with the toy war drums also controls the U.S. military, so let’s hope Trump is looking for an off-ramp.
Iran may have given Trump that off-ramp by launching a strike that apparently didn’t kill Americans. If he de-escalates — perhaps by declaring that Iran blinked in the face of his show of strength — that will be great, as far as it goes.
But the larger point here remains this: None of this has to be happening at all.
The Iran deal was working
Many foreign policy writers have done great work in tracing the current moment directly back to Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which Iran had been complying with by accepting constraints on its nuclear program.
The short version is that Trump replaced the Iran deal with his own strategy of “maximum pressure,” which meant much tougher sanctions to get Iran to fully capitulate — without any meaningfully clear sense of what Trump thought full capitulation really meant.
As Stephen Walt notes, Iran has “neither caved to Trump’s demands nor collapsed” and instead has “moved gradually to restart its nuclear program” and “retaliated against U.S. allies in the region.”
The key point here is that, once Trump pulled out of the Iran deal — after deriding it as weakness — he had to replace it with something that constituted his own version of “strength.”
Because Trump’s conception of the Iran deal as weak was rooted largely in hatred of Barack Obama, he had neither any idea what was in it nor any vision of what a “strong” substitute should accomplish.
That left him prey to the manipulation of advisers: Former national security adviser John Bolton appeared to be pushing him toward war, but Trump (to his limited credit) balked. That failed, but the New York Times reports that the assassination reflected successful pressure by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Yet this shows, if anything, that the hawks are proving wrong. As Erin Banco’s reporting shows, the assassination came after officials determined that the “maximum pressure” campaign was failing to change Iranian behavior.
As Banco demonstrates, after an Iranian rocket strike killed an American contractor, unleashing the current escalation, some kind of big, ostentatious display of force was needed. Trump, worried about looking weak, agreed to it.
So Trump’s lurching between tough and restrained tweets represents a larger strategic confusion at the core of Trump’s assassination decision and the broader aims that extend from it. As Peter Baker reports:
In some ways, the strike against General Suleimani was seen by his advisers as a corrective to the president’s past decisions not to retaliate against Iran for various provocations, decisions that his team became persuaded were misunderstood in Tehran. In that sense, the strike was an attempt to recalibrate Mr. Trump’s policy in stronger terms.
We’d been told the assassination was needed because an Iranian attack was “imminent,” which has largely fallen apart. The substitute rationale is now the need to signal American resolve. “Maximum pressure” — Trump’s “strong” substitute for the “weak” Iran deal — wasn’t getting it done.
The deeper lie
Since Trump campaigned on a vow to stop “endless wars,” the current escalation has led many to ridicule the “Donald the Dove” interpretation of that promise and to argue he’s selling out his voters.
The nuanced interpretation of this, advanced by Ross Douthat, is that Trump actually is giving his voters what he promised: a Jacksonian combination of suspicion of international adventurism with threats to use overwhelming but very targeted force to protect U.S. interests where necessary.
In this telling, disastrously conceived establishment failures — such as the Iraq War — have turned the forgotten Americans in the Appalachian and industrial heartlands bearing the brunt of those failures against the elites. They opted instead for the guy who promised greatness through military strength unburdened by the illusion that our allies are on our side (they are perpetually “ripping us off”) and by the niceties of international engagement and law.
There is a lot to this, but let’s be clearer. Trump campaigned on an “America First” hyper-militarism that promised both an effortless crushing of the (inchoate) enemy and dramatically scaled-back engagement, all accomplished at zero serious cost. As Jonathan Chait notes, the route to this was through an explicit declaration that “strength” is synonymous with junking respect for international and human rights law, and behaving more like dictators and terrorists.
Similarly, in the Trump narrative, the Iran deal was clumsily crammed in with this bundle of things that constrained American power — it involved diplomacy, international engagement and a reliance on empirical verification systems rather than unbridled displays of strength.
Trump told endless lies about the Iran deal to support that narrative. But the more important point here is that Trump squared leaving the Iran deal with a promise to end Mideast wars by casting withdrawal as strength — he’d be “tougher” with Iran, unilaterally so, and force its full capitulation (without any shots fired) that way.
Trump may de-escalate now. But the consequences of ending the Iran deal — and of the Soleimani assassination — will continue, including a revival of Iran’s nuclear program. And so, we’re now discovering that there are untold long-term costs for trying to achieve total but ill-defined victory over Iran through Trumpian (or Jacksonian) toughness, without the engagement and compromise that the deal had put in place.
The Iran deal, achieved through numerous pressure mechanisms in addition to diplomacy, actually represented a judicious application of American strength. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is no friend to foreign policy elites, has put it, the securing of the deal itself represented “real power.”
Though Douthat does not grapple with this, no reckoning with elite foreign policy failure — or with Trumpism as a reaction to it — is complete without an acknowledgment that the Iran deal was a real achievement, that it was largely working to prevent the very entanglements Trump promised his voters we’d avoid, and that pulling out of it was its own form of profound folly.
Trump’s big lie was that the Iran deal represented American weakness and elite failure. But it was actually a salutary application of American strength, and it was one thing the hated elites got right.