Donald Trump Has No Idea What He Wants To Do About Iran

Or, more precisely, he has too many ideas; the President’s strategy, such as it is, changes moment to moment. That’s because Trump’s instincts and interests are pulling him in multiple, often contradictory directions.

President Trump sees Iran as perhaps America’s toughest opponent. The Islamic Republic is an adversary that can’t be handled through a carrot and stick approach, like the threats-followed-by-flattery barrage hurled at Kim Jong Un. Nor can Iran be cowed by a game of economic Chicken, as Trump is attempting with China. Now that Iran is potentially implicated in last week’s attack against Saudi Arabia (a US ally, albeit a very complicated one), the need to come up with a coherent Iran policy has become more pressing.

On the one hand, businessman Trump prides himself on being the best negotiator (The Art of the Deal and all that), and believes that if he gets a rival world leader alone in a room with him and the translators – after softening up said leader through threats and sanctions – he can hammer out The Best Deal. That’s why he met with Kim. It’s why he floated the idea of meeting with the Iranian leadership without preconditions. This strategy is apparently part of the disagreement Trump had with now fired National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is a hardcore advocate of regime change or bust when it comes to Iran.

On the other hand, President Trump does not want to be seen as betraying his brand of hyper-patriotic American nationalism by siting down with the nation’s enemies while they’re still talking and acting like enemies – he’s already dealing with the backlash from the scrapped Taliban talks – which is why he’s now denying that he was ever willing to meet with the Iranians without preconditions in the first place.

On the other other hand, if Iran really is intractable, Trump confidently boasts that America’s military – the one he likes to show off in vicarious displays of power – is more than capable of taking out any American enemy quickly, efficiently and overwhelmingly (to the extent that he thinks about things like military history, he may be looking at the 1990s Persian Gulf War, and not the later Iraq War, as an example). It’s why he hired super-hawkish John Bolton in the first place. It’s why he can declare that the US is “locked and loaded” to strike Iran if Saudi Arabia gives the go ahead (let’s get back to THAT one in a minute). Plus, not following through on his threats would be a sign of weakness, and that’s what Obama did, not what Trump does, right?

On yet another hand (I think I’m starting to see the problem here), for all his sabre-rattling, President Trump has actually been very skittish about using the military for actual warfare, including against Iran. The one exception, early in his career, was the strike against Syria after the latter used poison gas against its own people, perhaps one of the few times where a genuine emotion other than hubris moved the President to act.

And on the final hand, President Trump has people he wants to keep happy with him. These people include his base, for which Iran is the new boogeyman (not without reason, granted) and his favorite dictators, like the Saudi leadership, to whom Trump is oddly deferring US foreign policy concerning whether or not to strike Iran. Read that Tweet again:

“[We] are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

That’s not just deferring to Saudi intelligence for information about the attack (that could be reasonable, since they would have inside knowledge, although they might also have reason to color that info), but it’s deferring to the government of Saudi Arabia for the decision on whether or not to use the might of the US military against one of the most powerful countries in the Middle East. That’s a bit problematic…

With President Trump being pulled in so many directions, it’s hard to know which hand will prevail. But I’ll take a guess: Talking tough wins Trump points. It sounds good to his base and his allies in Congress (former Senator of mine, Lindsey Graham, I’m talking about you), and, in Trump’s mind at least, it sets the stage for some grand bargain to be struck on terms favorable to the US. Actually going to war doesn’t do those things – war is messy and costly and puts you on the hook for actual lives being lost.

Trump is likely hoping for a repeat of the North Korea situation, in which he could say that his tough talk drove the Koreans to the bargaining table (never mind that the resulting bargain didn’t really net the US much of anything). But the Iranians are different; they have no interest in flattering Trump or any US president.   In the end, unless things take a dramatic turn, President Trump will continue to use his harsh rhetoric as a substitute for action against the Iranians and, whether than wait out Iran, he’ll wait out the American public until we’re distracted by some other crisis or outrageous remark. And as the 2020 campaign season goes into full swing, Iran will continue to be a useful boogeyman looming over the Middle East.

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