Trump Sanctions Iran’s Supreme Leader, but to What End?

With the flourish of his pen on Monday, President Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as everyone in Khamenei’s office or appointed by him. It was a point of high drama in the escalating brinksmanship between the United States and the Islamic Republic. It was the closest that Trump has come to formally calling for a regime change. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” the President told reporters. “These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.” Usually, the United States will sanction a head of state—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—as a signal that the leader is no longer deemed legitimate. In other words, Washington believes that a leader has to go.

Trump was opaque, even puzzling, about his intentions, however. “America is a peace-loving nation,” he said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country. I look forward to the day when sanctions can be finally lifted and Iran can become a peaceful, prosperous, and productive nation. That can go very quickly; it can be tomorrow. It can also be in years from now. So, I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak. In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen.”

The new executive order also targeted the Revolutionary Guard commanders involved in shooting down a sophisticated U.S. drone last week. The Trump Administration intends later this week to impose sanctions on the U.S.-educated Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was the chief interlocutor during the two years of negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. Zarif once quipped that he and the former Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with each other during that period than they spent with their wives. As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif regularly travels to New York to attend U.N. sessions. He was here in April and had been expected to return next month.

At a White House press conference, the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, vowed that the new sanctions will “lock up literally billions of dollars more of assets.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday, charged that Khamenei’s office “has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people. It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption.” The new sanctions, Pompeo said, will deprive the Iranian leadership of the resources it uses to “spread terror and oppress the Iranian people.”

Ironically, the punitive new measure may not have major economic impact—at least not to the degree that the Administration advertised. “It’s a lot of hype, but it doesn’t mean much economically. It’s unlikely to have a damaging effect” on Iran beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed, Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions specialist who is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “It’s in the realm of the symbolic.” The sanctions are “a sideshow to a threat of military escalation and all-out conflict,” she said. They fuel a narrative focussed on Iran rather than the United States—and the fact that Trump blinked when he called off a retaliatory military strike last Thursday.

Former Treasury officials also claim that Trump did not need to sign a new executive order—beyond the hype and media attention it produced. The authority to sanction either entities or officials affiliated with the Iranian government has existed since 2012, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order, Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “It’s clear that this Administration wants to send a message,” Bauer said. “This is a response to the recent escalation and the shooting down of the drone.”

The main impact of the new sanctions may be political—diminishing rather than encouraging diplomacy or deëscalation. Pompeo said that Tehran “knows how to reach us,” if it decides to “meet our diplomacy with diplomacy.” But Tehran immediately rejected talks. At the United Nations, the Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told reporters that Tehran would not succumb to pressure. “Nobody in a clear mind can accept to have a dialogue with somebody that is threatening you with more sanctions. So, as long as this threat is there, there is no way that Iran and the U.S. can start a dialogue,” he told reporters, before a closed-door session on tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. In a tweet, Zarif said that Trump’s advisers and allies “despise diplomacy and thirst for war.” Other Iranian officials condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism.”

Trump’s decision, a year ago, to unilaterally reimpose other sanctions—splitting with the five major powers who also brokered the nuclear deal—has battered Iran’s economy. In April, Washington vowed to sanction five nations that remain major importers of Iranian oil if they didn’t cease all purchases; the move cut off Tehran’s main source of revenue. Iran’s oil sales today are about a sixth of what they were in 2016. Inflation has exceeded fifty per cent in some months, with the price of basic necessities skyrocketing. The I.M.F. projects a six-per-cent economic contraction for Iran in 2019. Yet the Iranian economy is still far from crippled. The Islamic Republic has not witnessed the kind of economic protests that erupted nationwide in late 2017 and early 2018, Western diplomats in Tehran have told me

Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and his entourage could even backfire, some experts suggest. The Trump Administration’s goal is to get Tehran to make concessions on its missile development, regional interventions, and human-rights record, as well as its nuclear program. But “these sanctions will make discussions toward a new treaty very, very difficult,” Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Middle East program who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me. “They send a bad political signal. The recent events—especially shooting down a U.S. drone—make Iran feel more comfortable and self-confident from a domestic perspective. It could say, ‘We won the last round and maybe we can talk now.’ ” No longer, Mazarei said. Tehran has boasted that it shot down the Global Hawk drone, one of the most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, with a homemade rocket. On Monday, the chief of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, warned that his forces could shoot down more U.S. aircraft flying in the Gulf, “and the enemy knows it.”

Over all, sanctions are an imperfect tool, former Treasury specialists told me. They can work—but they may take years, even decades. North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt, but Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un have yet to reduce his nuclear program, which is far more sophisticated than Iran’s. Iran is still more than a year from the ability to produce a bomb, whereas Pyongyang is estimated to have between twenty and sixty bombs. Sanctions to get Rhodesia’s white minority government to the negotiating table to end the country’s civil war took almost fifteen years. Sanctions are also most effective when the world unites behind punitive economic measures, as the U.N. did in invoking sanctions on Iran four times between 2006 and 2010. Today, the deepest split in U.S. relations with its transatlantic allies is over Iran policy.

As prospects of diplomacy dimmed on Monday, Trump signaled his willingness to deploy military force. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”

Trump’s reliance on pressure tactics is showing diminishing returns

President Trump’s brinkmanship with Mexico over immigration has opened a new and risky front in his global campaign to pressure other nations to capitulate to his demands, a strategy that has paid few dividends over 2½ years and left his major foreign policy initiatives in doubt.

From his “fire and fury” rhetoric against a nuclear-armed North Korea to an escalating trade war with China to new ultimatums aimed at Mexico, Trump has wielded threats, insults and punishments against his foreign counterparts with diminishing returns.

Though he lured Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table through a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, Trump’s historic summits with the young dictator ended in failure after talks collapsed in February.

President Trump’s brinkmanship with Mexico over immigration has opened a new and risky front in his global campaign to pressure other nations to capitulate to his demands, a strategy that has paid few dividends over 2½ years and left his major foreign policy initiatives in doubt.

From his “fire and fury” rhetoric against a nuclear-armed North Korea to an escalating trade war with China to new ultimatums aimed at Mexico, Trump has wielded threats, insults and punishments against his foreign counterparts with diminishing returns.

Though he lured Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table through a “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions, Trump’s historic summits with the young dictator ended in failure after talks collapsed in February.

And although Mexico took steps to comply with Trump’s hard-line immigration policies — allowing Central American asylum seekers to the United States a temporary haven — Trump’s vow this week to impose sweeping tariffs unless that nation curbs unauthorized immigration into the United States stirred a public backlash.

For Trump, who campaigned on achieving “peace through strength,” the consistent application of a tool kit of toughness has limited his options and left him in a precarious position as he accelerates his campaign for a second term.

Despite his pressure tactics, unauthorized immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border is at a 12-year peak, the tariff wars have sent jitters through Wall Street, and Pyongyang has resumed testing of short-range missiles, a sign that Kim is growing impatient.

“It strikes me that we are in the middle of an unprecedented and multifaceted experiment in the application of brute force,” said Daniel Russel, who served as an assistant secretary of state on Asian affairs in the Obama administration. “President Trump has been extraordinarily effective at generating leverage . . . but it has yet to be shown that he has the ability to translate that leverage into results that are advantageous to the United States or are durable.”

Trump campaigned on the theme that the rest of the world was taking advantage of the United States because of weak political leaders who valued multilateral partnerships over the unapologetic pursuit of national self-interest. He pledged that, as president, he would not hesitate to pressure rivals and allies alike to win a better deal for Americans.

“Mexico must take back their country from the drug lords and cartels,” Trump tweeted Friday. “The Tariff is about stopping drugs as well as illegals!”

Foreign leaders initially sought to placate him by offering modest concessions, hopeful that it would satisfy Trump’s domestic political imperatives by allowing him to trumpet small victories.

The Trump administration renegotiated a bilateral trade deal with South Korea and, after ripping up the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement, crafted a new accord with Mexico and Canada that experts said included valuable modernizations of some trade rules.

In Europe, some NATO members moved to accelerate previous pledges to increase their own national defense budgets amid Trump’s complaints that they were freeloading off the United States’ security umbrella — and his vague threats, first issued during his 2016 campaign, that he would pull out the United States of the alliance.

But on his signature initiatives, Trump’s go-to tactics have faltered and the president has grown increasingly frustrated, prompting him in recent weeks to escalate his threats and punitive actions.

In early May, for example, after U.S. negotiators accused Beijing of attempting to backtrack on agreements after months of trade talks, Trump responded by raising tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods that he enacted last year from 10 percent to 25 percent.

That prompted Beijing to announce it would “fight to the end” and raise duties on $60 billion of American goods on June 1.

Trump administration officials have said the president feels emboldened by the strength of the U.S. economy and believes he can outlast his rivals in a showdown that could harm both economies. But some analysts said that the president could be dangerously miscalculating his position given the uncertainty of his own political prospects.

“I know that Trump considers the 2020 campaign as a triumphant march to the inevitable [reelection], but that’s not the way the rest of the world is looking at it,” said Christopher R. Hill, who served as a U.S. ambassador under the four presidents who preceded Trump. “You’re already seeing the Chinese holding back and saying, ‘We’ll see what will happen over the next 18 months to see if he’s still around and then maybe we’ll do something.’ To some extent, Trump does not have the self-awareness to understand that people are looking at the window closing on him.”

For Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a liberal who took office in December, Trump’s threats are a serious concern, given that 80 percent of Mexico’s exports enter the U.S. market. But López Obrador, who dispatched diplomats to visit Washington on Friday, is facing increasing calls from the public and political columnists to take a tougher line with the White House.

Trump, frustrated by Mexico’s refusal to pay for a border wall, flirted with a plan to seal the southern border to trade and tourism in April before backing off over concerns from advisers about the effect on the American economy. This week, however, amid reports that U.S. authorities apprehended nearly 120,000 unauthorized immigrants at the border last month, Trump overrode similar warnings from aides.

What’s so striking with him is his willingness to pick multiple fights without thinking through the consequences,” said Eliot Cohen, a former State Department adviser in the George W. Bush administration who organized a “Never Trump” coalition of foreign policy experts during the 2016 campaign. “The Mexico thing is a great example. It could really hurt him domestically.”

Other analysts noted that Trump’s trade war with China could harm his efforts to negotiate a nuclear weapons disarmament pact with North Korea, given that the president has counted on Beijing maintaining tough economic sanctions on Pyongyang.

But Trump has shown few signs of second-guessing himself. He has threatened new auto tariffs on Japan to win leverage in ongoing trade talks, although he announced during a state visit to Tokyo last week that he would delay any action for six months.

And Trump’s reputation for hostility has preceded him. In London, where Trump will arrive next week on a state visit to meet Queen Elizabeth, Sky News broadcast a promotional video featuring a Trump baby balloon, flown by protesters during Trump’s visit last summer, darkening the skies with the ominous tag­line, “He’s back.”

“One of Trump’s major failings is that he only has a hammer,” said Andrea Schneider, a professor of law at Marquette University who focuses on negotiations and has studied Trump’s tactics. “He has no capacity of looking at the long term and recognizing that the vast majority of our interactions in life are repeat interactions. I joke with my students that if you treat negotiations as a one-shot deal, it will be. No one will ever want to deal with you again.”

In Diplomacy, Trump Is the Anti-Reagan

another take is that it’s the Plaza Redux, meaning the 1988 real estate debacle in which Trump hastily purchased New York’s Plaza Hotel because it looked like an irresistible trophy, only to be forced to sell it at a loss a few years later as part of a brutal debt restructuring.

.. “Like Reagan, he seems to sense that the nuclear technicalities matter less than the political relationship.”

.. First, Trump isn’t Reagan.

  • Reagan generally acted in concert with allies. Trump brazenly acts against them.
  • Reagan’s negotiation method: “Trust but verify.” Trump’s self-declared method: “My touch, my feel.”
  • Reagan refused to give in to Soviet demands that he abandon the Strategic Defense Initiative. Trump surrendered immediately to Pyongyang’s long-held insistence that the U.S. suspend military exercises with South Korea while getting nothing in return.
  • Reagan’s aim was to topple Communist Party rule in Moscow. Trump’s is to preserve it in Pyongyang.

Second, Kim isn’t Gorbachev.

  • Gorbachev was born into a family that suffered acutely the horrors of Stalinism. Kim was born into a family that starved its own people.
  • Gorbachev rose through the ranks as a technocrat with no background in the regime’s security apparatus. Kim consolidated his rule by murdering his uncle, half brother and various ministers, among other unfortunates.
  • Gorbachev came to office intent on easing political repression at home and defusing tensions with the West. Kim spent his first six years doing precisely the opposite.

The Peril of Trump’s Populist Foreign Policy

His style of deal-making prizes uncertainty and brinkmanship, without a plan for what comes next.

Mr. Trump’s foreign policy reflects his instinct for political realignment at home, based on celebrity populism.

Populist movements feed off grievances and impatience with traditional politics. Frustrations—whether generated by economic distress, social displacement, or cultural challenges—fuel skepticism about institutions and elites. Challengers (who want to become the new elite) attack traditional leaders as out of touch, incompetent and corrupt.

.. First, it professes to reflect the will of a scorned people.

.. Second, populism finds and blames enemies, domestic or foreign, who thwart the people’s will. Mr. Trump has mastered insulting such scapegoats.

.. Third, populism needs “the leader,” who can identify with and embody the will of the people. Like other populist leaders, Mr. Trump attacks the allegedly illegitimate institutions that come between him and the people. His solutions, like those of other populists, are simple. He contends that the establishment uses complexity to obfuscate and cover up misdeeds and mistakes. He claims he will use his deal-making know-how to get results without asking the public to bear costs.

.. Mr. Trump’s foreign policies serve his political purposes, not the nation’s interests

  • .. He says the U.S. needs to build a wall to keep Mexicans at bay—and Mexico will pay for it. He asserted he would
  • block Muslims from coming to America to harm us.
  • His protectionist trade policies are supposed to stop foreigners from creating deficits, stealing jobs, and enriching the corporate elite.
  • Mr. Trump also asserts that U.S. allies have been sponging off America. T
  • he U.S. military is supposed to hammer enemies and not bother with the cleanup—even if the result, for example in Syria, is an empowered axis of Iran, Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Bashar Assad’s regime.

.. The president’s emphasis on discontinuity—breaking things—demonstrates action while disparaging his predecessors.

.. His style of deal-making prizes uncertainty and brinkmanship, which risks escalation, without a plan for what comes next.

..  Other presidents led an alliance system that recognizes U.S. security is connected to mutual interests in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East. Past presidents believed that the U.S. economy would prosper in a world of expanding capitalism

..  Mr. Trump dismisses this U.S.-led international system as outdated, too costly and too restrictive of his case-by-case deal-making.

Institutions:

  • .. Trump disdains America’s intelligence agencies and is
  • dismantling the State Department. His foils at home are
  • the courts,
  • the press, a clumsy
  • Congress beholden to antiquated procedures, and even
  • his own Justice Department.

.. Mr. Trump’s recent trip to Asia reveals that foreigners have taken his measure. They play to his narcissism. He in turn basks in their attention, diminishes his own country by blaming past presidents, and preens with promises of great but unspecified things to come. 

.. The president’s need to project an image of personal power—for his domestic audience and his ego—makes him more comfortable with authoritarian leaders. Presidents Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte have noticed, as has part of the Saudi royal family. 

.. Sixty percent say alliances with Europe and East Asia either are mutually beneficial or mostly benefit the U.S. Record numbers say international trade is good for consumers (78%), the economy (72%) and job creation (57%). Some 65% support providing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and only 37% characterize immigration as a critical threat. All these numbers have shifted against Mr. Trump’s positions since the election.

 .. Democratic leaders face a challenge as well. Their voters, especially younger ones, increasingly support trade

Is Tom Cotton the Future of Trumpism?

The junior senator from Arkansas is a hybrid of insurgent and old guard.

At forty years old, Cotton is the youngest member of the Senate

.. when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think.”

.. It was, on one level, a breathtaking leap—to equate mockery of a louche New York billionaire with attacks on the citizens of this small, conservative city, which lies across the Arkansas River from Oklahoma.

.. “Next to Trump, he’s the elected official who gets it the most—the economic nationalism.

.. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, whose term is not up until 2020, said that, by threatening journalists, Trump was violating his oath to defend the Constitution.

.. “The President puts things sometimes in a way that I would not,” he said in early October. “But he was still nominated by our voters and elected by the American people to be our President, and if we want him to accomplish our agenda we need to set him up for success.”

.. From the beginning, Tom could play to both the establishment and the Tea Party. Everyone recognizes he’s got a firm set of conservative principles, but that makes him a polarizing figure. There are a lot of people here, too, who hate him and think he’s the Antichrist. The only thing everyone agrees on is that he wants to be President someday.”

.. To make that next leap, Cotton expresses the militarism, bellicosity, intolerance, and xenophobia of Donald Trump, but without the childish tweets.

.. He and his supporters see Trump and Trumpism as the future of the Republican Party.

.. He was the one who told us about John Kelly,” the former Marine Corps general who is now Trump’s chief of staff

.. after Cotton spoke out against a quick deal to protect the Dreamers, Trump made a formal proposal to Congress that attached many strings Cotton had demanded.

.. Trump gave Cotton a victory on the touchstone issue of his Senate career by decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-arms deal

.. “Putting aside the issue of technical compliance or noncompliance, it’s clear that the agreement is not in our national interest.”

.. “One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees you drive him to the ground and choke him out.” In response, a questioner pointed out that killing a prisoner of war is not “American practice.” (It is, in fact, a war crime.)

.. in North Korea, Cotton supports Trump’s brinkmanship with Kim Jong Un

.. one recent report suggested that the President would name him director of the C.I.A. if Mike Pompeo, the current director, were to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.

.. Cotton would ratify the President’s instincts. He offers Trump a certainty that matches his own

..  “The Democratic Party has drifted away from them,” Tom told me, as his parents sat nearby. “Bill Clinton would be repudiated by his own party today.

.. I wrote against sacred cows, such as the cult of diversity, affirmative action, conspicuous compassion and radical participatory democracy. I wrote in favor of taboo notions, such as Promise Keepers, student apathy, honor and (most unforgivably) conservativism.”

.. The letter combined outrage, overstatement, and savvy politics in a manner that Trump would perfect a decade later.

.. “ ‘God, guns, and gays’—social issues—were driving white conservatives to the Republicans all along

.. It is impossible not to see race as a central element in the fall of the Democratic Party here

.. “It took a black President to bring out the threat.”

.. “I would always say to my liberal white friends, ‘Oh, come on, surely it’s gotten better.’ And they’d say to me, ‘Oh, no, it hasn’t. You can’t believe what white people say about Obama in private—he’s Kenyanhe’s Muslim, they’d call him unprintable racial epithets.’ ”

.. I think a lot of people in Arkansas thought he was ‘uppity,’ to use the old smear.”

.. Cotton also benefitted from enormous outside spending by conservative groups, including some affiliated with the Koch brothers

.. outside groups spent twenty-three million dollars for Cotton, compared with fourteen million for Pryor.

.. Democrats in Arkansas had a special reason to disdain Obama: “It wasn’t because Barack Obama was black, it was because Barack Obama stopped the Clinton restoration.”

.. About three hundred thousand people, which amounts to more than ten per cent of the state’s population, have taken advantage of the law to obtain health insurance.

.. The program is not called Obamacare but, rather, Arkansas Works.

.. “If you live in a big city and you work in an office building, immigration is almost an unalloyed good for you. . . . It makes the price of services that you pay for a little bit more affordable—whether it’s your nanny to take care of your kids for you, or landscaping your yard, or pedicures, manicures, that sort of thing. And you get a lot of exciting new fusion restaurants as well.

“But if you live and work in a community where they have a large illegal-immigrant population

  • that’s straining the public school,
  • that’s clogging up the emergency room when you’re trying to get care,
  • that makes it more dangerous to drive in the roads because people don’t have driver’s licenses or they don’t have insurance,
  • or if they are bidding down the wages or even taking jobs away from you, then it doesn’t look nearly so good,”

.. Most economists believe that immigrants, legal and otherwise, add more to the economy than they take from it, and that their presence in the labor force does not lead to lower wages over all.

.. “He probably knows more about geopolitics than most senators.”

.. In March of his first year in the Senate, Cotton wrote an open letter to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which was co-signed by forty-six other Republican senators, warning the mullahs that Congress might undo any agreement they reached with Obama. The letter was denounced by Executive Branch officials as an attempt to interfere in a diplomatic initiative, but Cotton regards it as a triumph.

..  he boasted about the letter

 .. You simply cannot neglect security, and without security there cannot be political compromise and reconciliation, there cannot be good governance, there cannot be economic development, there can’t be anything.”

.. If Rand Paul is the leading Republican isolationist in the Senate, Cotton, in short order, has become heir to the opposing wing of the Party, the one associated with Senator John McCain, whose efforts to increase the defense budget Cotton has championed.

.. But Cotton has gone well past McCain in his swaggering belligerence.

.. “In my opinion, the only problem with Guantánamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” Cotton said. “We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that they can rot in Guantánamo Bay.”

.. skirted the edge of demagoguery. “I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do,”

.. Cotton made his name in the Senate in a more personally poisonous way. In his first year, Cotton placed a hold on Obama’s nominations for the Ambassadors to Sweden, Norway, and the Bahamas, because of an unrelated dispute regarding the Secret Service.

.. “There is a point where winning a political battle isn’t worth it.”

.. “How many guys in town can give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and also get kudos in the pages of Breitbart? The answer is, one guy.”

.. Cotton has carved out a clear Trumpism-without-Trump agenda:

  • limits on immigration through legislation,
  • deportations, and a wall;
  • longer prison sentences for American convicts and suspected terrorists abroad;
  • a bigger budget for the Department of Defense.

.. The question is whether he has the charisma to sell that agenda to a broader public.

Is Trump All Talk on North Korea? The Uncertainty Sends a Shiver

“Knowing each of them personally, I am certain they are counseling operational caution, measured public commentary and building a coalition approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Stavridis, a retired admiral, said in an email. “But controlling President Trump seems incredibly difficult. Let’s hope they are not engaged in mission impossible, because the stakes are so high.”

Christopher R. Hill, a former ambassador to South Korea who served Republican and Democratic presidents, argued that the comments could badly undercut Mr. Trump’s ability to find a peaceful solution to the dispute, playing into Mr. Kim’s characterization of the United States as an evil nation bent on North Korea’s destruction and relieving pressure on the Chinese to do more to curb Pyongyang.

“The comments give the world the sense that he is increasingly unhinged and unreliable,” said Mr. Hill, the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

.. Yet current and former senior officials said it was clear that Mr. Trump would continue his brinkmanship, particularly his belligerent tweets, no matter what his advisers do or say. One former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy workings, said nobody, including Mr. Kelly, could control the president’s social media utterances, despite what his military advisers thought about them.

The tweets most likely have forced Mr. Mattis and Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as other national security officials, to spend a significant amount of time on the phone reassuring counterparts about Mr. Trump’s intentions.

Some of Mr. Trump’s allies argue that his behavior is strategic, a way of telegraphing to North Korea — and to its primary patron, China — that the United States is taking a tougher line under this administration. There may be wisdom, they argue, in spurring fear and confusion in the mind of a leader who frequently relies on both.

The Missiles of August

In reality, the Cuban missile crisis was the kind of scenario many of us feared could follow the election of Donald Trump: An inexperienced president gets elected on promises of toughness and flagrant lies, makes a series of bad decisions that provoke escalation from our foes, at which point political considerations make him feel he can’t back down, and suddenly we’re staring at nuclear war.

.. That’s basically the sequence of events that gave us the Cuban crisis, as Ben Schwarz pointed out in a revisionist Atlantic essay in 2013. Kennedy was elected after attacking Richard Nixon over a supposed “missile gap” with Russia that did not exist. He proceeded to fulfill his promise to Make America Tough Again with a series of poorly planned, Mafia-entangled, occasionally ludicrous attempts to unseat Fidel Castro, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster. At the same time, he went ahead with a plan to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey, a provocative gesture that made the Soviets suspect that we were looking for opportunities for a nuclear first strike.

.. When Khrushchev responded to this aggression and incompetence with the missiles-to-Cuba scheme, Kennedy decided that while the missiles did not place the United States in greater military danger (a nuke is a nuke whether fired from Havana, Russia or a submarine off the U.S. coast), they created an unacceptable political problem for his presidential credibility. Thus the escalation that followed — the quarantine, the invasion threat, the nuclear brinksmanship.

.. “success” required giving the Russians the strategic concession they had originally sought. The Jupiters were removed as well, but on a delayed timetable to allow the Kennedy White House to deceive about the crisis’ resolution. Meanwhile, American efforts to overthrow Castro diminished, and his regime endures today.

.. The weapons’ purpose is blackmail and self-protection, with no Cold War grand strategy involved. The U.S. military seems more likely to be a restraining force in this crisis than a hawkish one.

.. Meanwhile Trump himself is far more publicly unmastered and privately ignorant than J.F.K. But in fairness, Trump also has confined his real bellicosity to Twitter, without ordering any Kennedy-esque military misadventures or escalations yet.

.. My sense is that he would gladly — nay, eagerly — take a version of the deal that Kennedy ultimately struck: a bargain that looked better publicly for the U.S. than in secret, that allowed him to claim success even if the reality were different.

..  the concessions we would have to make to Pyongyang are unlikely to be kept secret.

..  can see the price of letting a U.S. president save too much face.

.. So it’s more likely that if we avert war, it will be because Trump is fundamentally a bluffer, who will issue threats on Twitter but won’t overrule his advisers if they tell him not to give an order that will leave hundreds of thousands dead.

Unfortunately, the bluster and incompetence will also probably make any deal worse than it otherwise might be.

But that’s the nature of the Trump presidency: You root for the least-bad outcome, knowing that the best one is probably already out of reach.