Last weekend, Saudi oil installations were attacked, allegedly by Iran, knocking about half the country's oil production offline and triggering an immediate spike in global prices. President Trump then issued (what else?) an impulsive tweet that managed to be both emptily bombastic ("locked and loaded") and pathetically subservient ("waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!"). And while he has so far made the right choice by not plunging the United States into war, his Iran policy is still an ugly mess that threatens even more chaos in the region.
Instead of the military strike urged by some advisers, the president announced new sanctions on Iran, though it remains unclear what entities could possibly still be outside the ambit of existing restrictions, let alone whether they could achieve anything. And while sanctions and military action are not mutually exclusive, the president gave other indications that war is not imminent. "That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn't an attack on us," he told reporters on Tuesday, before concluding with his ever-reassuring "We'll see what happens."
President Trump has contributed very little to American public life apart from childish vulgarity, racial incitement and partisan divisiveness, but if we can credit him with one positive achievement, it is finally shattering the two-party consensus that America's peace and prosperity must constantly be guarded by waging war in the Middle East. Apart from Rand Paul, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the 2016 GOP primary field telling the war hawks to go play in traffic after an Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities.
The Saudi crisis happened shortly after the president fired National Security Advisor John Bolton (via Twitter, of course) on September 10. Bolton, a man who has been angling for a shooting war with Iran since Pete Buttigieg was watching Saturday morning cartoons, was just the latest casualty of the president's unique managerial style, which apparently includes hiring people without reading their resumes. Maybe it's time to try ZipRecruiter? A fallout between these two men was predetermined from the moment Bolton was brought on board, and every human being on Earth is better off and safer for his departure.
But that's about the end of the good news. The president's foreign policy remains completely adrift, both understaffed and under-conceptualized, with no discernible roadmap to link his half-baked policies to his grandiose goals. Nowhere is that more clear than in the Persian Gulf.
In every other part of the world, the Trump administration acts with an astonishing lack of care, rudely shunting allies aside and announcing capricious decisions and policies without even pretending to consult with longtime partners and institutions. But in the Middle East, the president remains brazenly obeisant to the Saudis, whose leadership must have put some kind of hex on him when he first visited in 2017.
President Trump's Saudi blind spot has led him, again and again, to ratchet up conflict with Iran in a way that is fundamentally in tension with his desire to avoid military confrontation in the region. Pressure from the Kingdom was instrumental in convincing the president to walk away from the Iran Deal and to veto the congressional resolution seeking to cut off U.S. aid for the disastrous and cruel Saudi war in Yemen. Scotching the deal set off a new cycle of provocation from Tehran, and American complicity with the ongoing (and losing) war in Yemen has destabilized the region and provided a more or less permanent battlefield for Iranian and Saudi proxies to kill each other on.
The Saudis see Iranian power and influence as an existential threat, but the real question is why Trump does too. When he looks at the rest of the world, Trump sees nothing but American interests; in the Persian Gulf he sees only those of the Saudis and Israelis.
The Trump administration's Saudi-approved and utterly bananas plan to pull out of the Iran Deal only to then use sanctions to force Tehran back to the table was a spectacularly idiotic gambit which looks worse every day. Trump and his advisers apparently thought that economic pressure would quickly convince Tehran to crawl back and talk, and it has instead backfired monumentally. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said this week that Iran would not be holding talks "at any level" with the United States, quashing speculation about a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani next week. Dynamiting the deal has also led Iran to resume the very nuclear enrichment activities that the agreement prohibited — restrictions that Iran was abiding by faithfully.
The fresh sanctions have indeed inflicted the intended economic damage on ordinary Iranians. The country's economy contracted by nearly four percent in 2018 and may collapse by a further six percent this year. Inflation and unemployment are up, and incomes are down. If you enjoy forcing needless suffering on innocent working people, then by all means take yourself out to celebrate this grand achievement. But if the point was to force the Iranian regime to capitulate, not only has it not worked, but it has instead led Tehran to engage in various kinds of mischief that press against the boundaries of what the U.S. will tolerate.
Hurt me and I'll hurt you. Is this really that hard for Trump's honchos in D.C. to comprehend?
And here, again, we arrive at the fundamental incoherence of President Trump's policy. His reluctance to use force in the Middle East, especially as the 2020 election approaches, while laudable, is also the worst kept secret in the world. The Iranians know they can do just about anything short of a frontal assault on American forces and get away with it. They can read the polling that shows the American public decisively opposing war with Iran.
Think about it this way: if the U.S. isn't willing to credibly threaten force after an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia, exactly how does Team Trump intend to bully Tehran into submission? Are we to believe — and more importantly, are Khamenei and Rouhani to believe — that the U.S. will waive away the tanker attacks, the drone shoot-down and now the Saudi attack but then wake up one day and attack Iran without provocation to force them to negotiate?
It's already too late for all that. With elections looming in both Iran and the U.S., Iran is unlikely to change course until it knows who it will be dealing with in January 2021. And there's no reason to think that even if President Trump is re-elected that his so-far failed policies will magically result in a new and better deal. Instead of stupidly continuing his failed confrontation policy, the Trump administration should instead be laying the groundwork for a concerted effort aimed at reducing rather than exacerbating tensions. If they continue down the current path, they really do run the risk of a broader conflict, one whose damage will extend far beyond the Trump re-election campaign.
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