What happens now that President Trump has announced America's withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran?
Of course, nothing is certain in international affairs, and that's even more true with Mr. Impetuous sitting behind the Resolute Desk. But it's quite likely that the scuttling of the Obama administration's signature foreign policy achievement has set us on a path that will end in war with Iran.
I use the word "war" intentionally. I don't think we will attempt a ground invasion and occupation of Iran as we did 15 years ago in Iraq. That occupation was a disaster, precipitating an insurgency that tore the country apart and eventually gave rise to the Islamic State. Iraq is a nation of 25 million people. Iran's population is 80 million. Unless Trump plans on instituting conscription for the first time since the early 1970s, there will be no American occupation of Iran.
But that doesn't mean we won't be going to war. "Regime change" isn't a "military action," as we've euphemistically come to refer to our habit of firing dozens or hundreds or thousands of precision-guided missiles at countries thousands of miles from our borders. It is, on the contrary, a blatant act of war — the launching of deadly weaponry against a sovereign nation with an eye to overthrowing its government. If that isn't war, nothing is.
The fact that the United States is so powerful that it can and frequently does wage war in this way — from a great distance, with the impunity that comes from the incapacity of the target of our aerial assault to meaningfully strike back at us — proves only that the battle will be a horrible mismatch. It's like an adult well practiced in martial arts going out to subdue a trash-talking 8-year-old who's wielding a whiffle bat.
America's hawks would surely take issue with that whiffle bat analogy, since Tehran has long wanted to build a nuclear arsenal. And many conservatives believe the Obama administration's Iran deal did far too little to forestall Iran's nuclear dreams. But the truth is, Iran is in compliance with the nuclear deal, has failed for decades to build nuclear weapons, and is utterly incapable of matching the massive arsenals of the U.S., Israel, and other Western powers.
The Iran deal, whatever its flaws and despite the president's lies and exaggerations on Tuesday afternoon, was clearly keeping Iran from acquiring a nuclear capacity from now until the deal began to expire in 2025. If the aim is to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons, then isn't a deal that achieves that goal for a decade or more obviously better than having no deal at all?
The answer to that question is obvious only if your goal really is to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. But if, instead, your real aim is to overthrow the Iranian government, the deal is a nuisance.
The idea that current circumstances demand that the United States depose the government of Iran is absurd. But that doesn't mean it won't happen. Viewed in light of the mess that American foreign policy has become and the intuitive love among Very Important People in both major parties of using military force to teach punitive lessons to bad actors and evil doers the world over, the absurdity is a sign that it's actually more likely than not to happen.
The likelihood becomes higher when you take into account the commander in chief's ignorance of the world and instinctual hostility to each and every one of Barack Obama's achievements. It becomes higher still when we factor in Trump's staff, including newly minted National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has been longing to throttle the mullahs in Tehran since the latter years of the Reagan administration, and consigliere Rudy Giuliani, who shortly before joining Trump's legal team gave a rabid speech to the MEK, a militant group of Iranian exiles that agitates for the violent overthrow of the country's theocracy. In his speech Giuliani led the crowd in a chant of "regime change" shortly after assuring them that the administration was committed both to ripping up the Iran deal and toppling the Iranian government.
One down, one to go.
Now add in pressure exerted by Saudi Arabia, which would desperately love us to solve their own Iran problem for them. (This problem became vastly worse when we overthrew Saddam Hussein, removing Tehran's primary regional adversary from the equation, and we're already "helping" them address it in their proxy war with Iran in Yemen.) That leaves us with something close to a perfect storm of over-determination in the direction of war.
Afghanistan is a chaotic mess more than 16 years after we went looking for Osama bin Laden. Iraq is still reeling a decade and a half after our invasion. Libya is still struggling to right itself seven years after we led NATO on a mission to get rid of Moammar Gadhafi. And the U.S. military is swatting at pests across wide swaths of North Africa and South Asia. This is the legacy of American foreign policy over the last two decades. It's what Trump inherited. But he also inherited an agreement that added a modicum of stability to the mix in the form of the Iran deal. Now he's gone ahead and torn it up, apparently in the asinine belief that stability is for suckers.
On the eve of the Iraq War, with the U.S. on the verge of defying the U.N. and worldwide public opinion, which was arrayed against the invasion, critics began to say that America was acting like a drunk driver on the world stage.
They were right. And 15 years later, we're still drinking.