The decline of discourse in the anti-Trump echo chamber.
Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable.
But the events of the past week have shown that the anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.
For example, there’s a complex policy problem at the heart of this week’s Iran episode. Iran is not powerful because it has a strong economy or military. It is powerful because it sponsors militias across the Middle East, destabilizing regimes and spreading genocide and sectarian cleansing. Over the past few years those militias, orchestrated by Qassim Suleimani, have felt free to operate more in the open with greater destructive effect.
We’re not going to go in and destroy the militias. So how can we keep them in check so they don’t destabilize the region? That’s the hard problem — one that stymied past administrations.
In the Middle East, and wherever there are protracted conflicts, nations have a way to address this problem. They use violence as a form of communication. A nation trying to maintain order will assassinate a terrorism leader or destroy a terrorism facility. The attack says: “Hey, we know we’re in a long-term conflict, but let’s not let it get out of hand. That’s not in either of our interests.”
The attack is a way to seize control of the escalation process and set a boundary marker.
These sorts of operations have risks and rewards. A risk is that it won’t cease the escalation, just accelerate it. The radicals on the other side will get enraged and take to the streets. Their leaders will have to appease that rage.
A reward is that maybe you do halt the escalation. The other side implicitly says: “Message received. We’ll do some face-saving things to appease the streets, but we don’t want this to get out of hand, either.” Another reward is that you’ve managed to eliminate an effective terrorist like Soleimani. Talent doesn’t grow on trees.
The decision to undertake this sort of operation is a matter of weighing risk and reward. And after the Soleimani killing, you saw American security professionals talk in the language of balancing risk and reward. Stanley McChrystal, a retired general, and Michael Mullen, a retired admiral, thought it was worth the risk. Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, thought it wasn’t.
But in the anti-Trump echo chamber, that’s not how most people were thinking. Led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they avoided the hard, complex problem of how to set boundaries around militias. Instead, they pontificated on the easy question not actually on the table: Should we have a massive invasion of Iran?
A great cry went up from the echo chamber. We’re on the brink of war! Trump is leading us to more endless wars in the Middle East! We’re on the precipice of total chaos! This was not the calibrated language of risk and reward. It was fear-stoking apocalyptic language. By being so overwrought and exaggerated, the echo chamber drowned out any practical conversation about how to stabilize the Middle East so we could have another righteous chorus of “Donald Trump is a monster!”
This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors —
- the Mueller report!
- The Steele dossier!
— that lead ultimately nowhere.
Most of this week’s argument about the Middle East wasn’t really about the Middle East. It was all narcissistically about ourselves! Democrats defend terrorists! Republicans are warmongers! Actual Iranians are just bit players in our imperialistic soap opera, the passive recipients of our greatness or perfidy.
The world is more complicated than this cartoon. Love or hate him, Trump has used military force less than any other president since Jimmy Carter. When it comes to foreign policy, he is not like recent Republicans. He is, as my colleague Ross Douthat put it, a Jacksonian figure, wanting to get America out of foreign entanglements while lobbing a few long-distance attacks to ensure the crazy foreigners stick to killing one another and not us.
And this is the final paradox. For all the Sturm und Drang that surrounds Trump, populist Republicans and Democrats are gravitating toward the same foreign policy: We’re in the middle of a clash of civilizations; the Middle East is so screwed up, we should just get out; we’re too stupid/ineffective/racist/imperialistic to do any good there anyway.
We fight viciously about Trump, but underneath, a populist left-right curtain is descending around America, separating us from the Mideast, China, even Europe. The real high-risk move is the one both parties are making together: that if we ignore the world it will ignore us. (It won’t.)
Maybe once the Inflammatory One is finally gone from the scene we can have an intelligent conversation about that.
The goal was to prove American resolve in the face of Iranian attacks. Now, American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond — but they don’t know how quickly, or how furiously.
President Trump’s decision to strike and kill the second most powerful official in Iran turns a slow-simmering conflict with Tehran into a boiling one, and is the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The calculus was straightforward: Washington had to re-establish deterrence, and show the Iranian leadership that missiles fired at ships in the Persian Gulf and at oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, along with attacks inside Iraq that cost the life of an American contractor, would not go without a response.
But while senior American officials have no doubt the Iranians will respond, they do not know how quickly, or how furiously.
For a president who repeated his determination to withdraw from the caldron of the Middle East, the strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who for two decades has led Iran’s most fearsome and ruthless military unit, the Quds Force, means there will be no escape from the region for the rest of his presidency, whether that is one year or five. Mr. Trump has committed the United States to a conflict whose dimensions are unknowable, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seeks vengeance.
“This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder,” wrote Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. “With Suleimani dead, war is coming — that seems certain, the only questions are where, in what form and when?”
Bruce Riedel, the former C.I.A. officer who spent his life studying the Middle East, and is now at the Brookings Institution, said, “The administration is taking America into another war in the Middle East, bigger than ever.”
Yet it may not be a conventional war in any sense, since the Iranians’ advantage is all in asymmetric conflict.
Their history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States.
For now, they cannot — at least in traditional ways.
But they have tried terrorism, including an abortive effort nine years ago to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington, and late Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security was sending out reminders of Iran’s past and current efforts to attack the United States in cyberspace. Until now, that has been limited to breaches on American banks and scrutiny of dams and other critical infrastructure, but they so far have not shown they have the abilities of the Russians or the Chinese.
Their first escalation may well be in Iraq, where they back pro-Iranian militias. But even there, they are an unwelcome force. It was only a few weeks ago when people took to the streets in Iraq to protest Iranian, not American, interference in their politics. Still, there are soft targets throughout the region, as the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities showed.
Complicating the management of a perilous moment is the president’s impeachment and the revival of Iran’s nuclear program.
Here’s how the situation developed over the last eight days.
It is only a matter of time before there are questions about whether the strike was meant to create a counternarrative, one of a conflict with a longtime adversary, while a Senate trial to determine whether to remove Mr. Trump begins. And already there are charges that the president overstepped, and that the decision to kill General Suleimani — if it was a decision, and the Iranian leader was not simply in the wrong convoy at the wrong moment — required congressional approval.
“The question is this,” Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, asked on Twitter as news of the strike spread. “As reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”
Mr. Trump will argue that he was well within his rights, and that the strike was an act of self-defense. And he will have a strong argument: General Suleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans in Iraq over the years, and doubtless was planning more.
The American announcement, from Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, cited the general’s plans — which were not specified — as a justification for the action. If there was real intelligence of impending strikes, then the longtime principles of pre-emption, enshrined anew in American policy by President George W. Bush, would apply.
Mr. Trump walked away from the 2015 nuclear agreement more than a year ago, over the objections of many of his own aides and almost all American allies.
At first, the Iranians reacted coolly, and stayed within the limits of the accord. That ended last year, as tensions escalated.
Before the strike, they were expected to announce, in the next week, their next nuclear move — and it seemed likely to be a move closer to enrichment of bomb-grade uranium. That seems far more likely now, and poses the possibility of the next escalation, if it prompts American or Israeli military or cyberaction against Iran’s known nuclear facilities.
Once it buries General Suleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — which oversaw the secret projects to build nuclear weapons two decades ago — may well determine that it is time to surge ahead. There is little question the United States is far less likely to challenge a country with an existing nuclear arsenal. The Iranians, like the North Koreans and the Pakistanis, could well take General Suleimani’s death as a warning about what happens to countries with no nuclear options.
Even those critical of the president’s nuclear move said they understood why the Iranian general was such a target.
“These guys are the personification of evil,” David H. Petraeus, the retired general who was an architect of the surge in Iraq, said in an interview Thursday night. “We calculated they were responsible for at least 600 deaths” of American soldiers.”
But Mr. Petraeus offered a caution.
“There will be an escalation,” he said. “I assume they have to do something. And the only question is, over time, have we created more deterrence than if we had not acted.”
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.”
American hard-liners have had a dangerous obsession with Iran for years, egged on by Saudi Arabia and Israel. In 2002, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Newsweek quoted a British official as saying: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”
.. I’ve been to Iran, reported from Iran and been detained in Iran; I have no illusions about it. The American hard-liners are quite right that the regime is unpopular because of its corruption, incompetence and repression. But Iran also has a deep nationalist streak, and Trump already seems to be strengthening hard-liners in Tehran. In 2002, six months before the Iraq war, I reported from Baghdad that President George W. Bush and his aides were deluding themselves to think that Iraqis would welcome an invasion; Iraqis hated Saddam but hated even more the idea of Yankee imperialists attacking their nation. Iran is similar but more formidable.
Negotiations are frustrating, imperfect and uncertain, and they may seem less satisfying than dropping bombs. But America has suffered huge self-inflicted wounds because of its invasion of Iraq 16 years ago.
Haven’t we learned lessons? Maybe “real men” should forget about going to Tehran and try multilateral diplomacy.