Presidents have always had to deal with unforeseen foreign crises that erupt out of nowhere. For Bill Clinton, it was the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, Somalia. For George W. Bush, it was the 9/11 attacks. For Barack Obama, it was the civil war in Libya. Each required the administration to react rapidly under intense pressure, which invites mistakes.
Donald Trump has figured out how to avoid such surprises. He doesn’t wait for crises to erupt but creates them himself. Since they are largely of his making, they tend to be susceptible to his own unilateral “remedies.” And once the crisis has passed, he can claim credit for staving off the disaster that wouldn’t have loomed except for him.
North Korea is one example of this peculiar method. Faced with its nuclear arsenal and growing missile capability, Trump spouted threats like a hot-springs geyser. Having raised fears, he quelled them by arranging a summit with Kim Jong Un, got a vague agreement and pronounced that there was “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
In fact, North Korea has continued producing nuclear weapons fuel and, presumably, building nuclear weapons. Even after Kim resumed missile test launches, Trump expressed faith in him and promised, “Deal will happen!” We’re still waiting.
Iran is the latest country to be enlisted in his addiction to drama. The sort of deal he is pursuing with Pyongyang is the sort of deal that his predecessor had achieved with Tehran, which he repudiated because, after all, his predecessor had achieved it.
Trump is using a formula of economic sanctions, bellicose rhetoric and ominous maneuvers — an evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, sending an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf — to counter alleged new threats from Iran.
There is no particular reason to believe these supposed threats are genuine, given the president’s allergy to speaking truth. The claims are also contradicted by others in a position to know.
Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, the top British commander in the coalition fighting the Islamic State, said flatly, “There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria.” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., emerged from a Tuesday briefing by top administration officials to say there was “not a single shred of evidence presented to justify the escalation.”
The administration says it will treat any attack by groups with ties to Iran as grounds for a devastating military response. But in The Washington Post, RAND Corporation analysts Becca Wasser and Ariane Tabatabai wrote of these non-state partners, “very few take their orders directly from the Iranian regime,” and its “power over many of these groups is debatable.”
Treating the acts of an alleged proxy group as Iranian aggression means giving rogue actors the means to embroil us in a catastrophic conflict. It delivers control to the craziest people.
Trump seems to think that faced with his threats, Iran would have no choice but to back down. But backing down is something no government wants to do, because it suggests weakness and invites more demands. Iran has no reason to think that doing Trump’s bidding would satisfy him.
His national security adviser, John Bolton, has a record of advocating preemptive strikes against Iran as well as regime change. As a member of Congress, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed that call.
There are three possibilities in the current situation. It may be that Iran actually is testing us and that the administration’s moves will convince it to stop.
But two others are equally plausible. One is that Iran is doing nothing unusual and will decline to escalate. In that case, Trump can claim to have deterred Iran from doing something it had no intention of doing.
The other is that the administration’s threats will alarm the Iranians so much they will conclude that hostilities are imminent and decide they had better land the first blow. Having drawn a red line, Trump may find that Tehran or one of its non-state partners will cross it, giving him a choice of launching an attack in response or swallowing the violation.
Bluffs can be useful in confrontations, but only if you are prepared to back them up. Trump’s experience is in real estate negotiations, where if you talk tough and don’t get your way, you can always get up and leave. The international arena is more like a biker bar — where walking away may not be an option.