Puffing and wheezing as if he had just climbed 10 flights of stairs, President Trump gave a bizarre speech Wednesday morning in response to Iranian missile attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, which were in turn a response to Trump's assassination of top Iranian statesman and military leader Qassem Soleimani. Trump's delivery was alarming: His speech was slurred, he botched the pronunciation of several words — warning that Iranian aggression would not be "tolerited," and boasting about his economic "accompliments" — and he baldly lied about Iran's behavior and the nuclear deal agreed to under President Obama.
The main policy announcement, though, was the imposition of yet more sanctions on the already-struggling Iranian economy. Several pundits have trumpeted all this as a victory for Trump's Iran policy. But it couldn't be more obvious that Trump has no plan at all here. His stated goals are much further away than they would be if he had simply stayed in the nuclear deal with Iran, and there is zero chance he is going to get anything better than that. He simply has no idea what he is doing.
Trump's erratic actions make for a jarring comparison with Iranian restraint. Assassinating Soleimani was an egregious violation of one of the baseline rules of international diplomacy — if two countries are not at war, then their senior leadership is off-limits to attack. For if it's fine to kill Iranian statesmen while they are traveling to a peace conference, in public and undefended, then it's fine for Iran (or some other power) to blow up, say, Vice President Pence when he is on a diplomatic trip to Ireland or somewhere. It would not be ideal to have the entire planet be a free-fire zone for top diplomats and statesmen. (Of course the U.S. has violated this rule dozens of times in the past, though never so spectacularly.)
What's more, this entire conflict is 100 percent Trump's fault. Iran was faithfully adhering to the nuclear deal struck during the Obama administration, only for Trump to renege on American promises for no reason and reimpose sanctions in 2018. Now he's murdered a popular Iranian leader over attacks on the U.S. embassy that were only partly related to Iran. (And let's not forget that as of 2015, Trump had plainly never heard of either Soleimani or the Quds Force which he commanded.)
Yet despite Trump's repeated provocations, Iran has only announced they are no longer abiding by the nuclear deal, and conducted a carefully limited missile strike that was obviously intended as a show of force. If they wished to kill lots of American soldiers, they surely could have done so. The U.S. has ring-fenced Iran with tens of thousands of troops, most in bases that would be sitting ducks for a missile attack. Rather than lashing out like a spoiled toddler demanding sweets (as Trump very likely would have done) the message here is that America should watch its step.
As Greg Sargent argues at the Washington Post, Trump's entire posture towards Iran was based on a straight-up lie: "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.'" Trump argued that by re-imposing sanctions and escalating pressure on Iran, they would be bullied into accepting a better deal. "We will be good to them. We will work with them. We will help them in any way we can. But they can't have a nuclear weapon," he said in July 2019.
But in addition to this being exactly the same concept as the nuclear deal he broke, Trump has not even outlined what Iranian capitulation to his demands would involve. Iran would be nuts to trust him to keep his word, and in any case they couldn't do it even if they wanted to.
So Trump's erratic belligerence has produced the exact opposite of his stated goals. He started a tit-for-tat cycle of violence, as Iran has responded to aggression with aggression and now appears to be gradually re-starting its nuclear program. Can you blame them? Given Trump's vicious bullying of Iran together with his kid-glove treatment of North Korea, the U.S. is sending a clear signal that only a nuclear deterrent will hold back the American imperial war machine.
Finally, there is Trump's bizarre behavior. You don't have to be a telepath to understand that the American president is an erratic, impulsive jerk who is profoundly ignorant of the most basic details about foreign countries. It's hard to consider doing diplomacy with a country whose leader can barely read off a teleprompter, let alone one which has proved himself deeply untrustworthy. Iran and the world will just have to wait and hope they can avoid war until a new president takes office.
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