President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.
The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.
None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.
This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.
Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.
The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.
The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.
In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.
Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.
Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.
Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.
An interview with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s chief of staff.
“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.”
So says Gadi Eisenkot about the Jewish state’s undeclared and unfinished military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. For his final interview as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he retires next week, the general has decided to claim responsibility and take at least some of the credit.
Eisenkot’s central intellectual contribution in fighting that campaign is the concept of “the campaign between wars” — the idea that continuous, kinetic efforts to degrade the enemy’s capabilities both lengthens the time between wars and improves the chances of winning them when they come. He also believes that Israel needed to focus its efforts on its deadliest enemy, Iran, as opposed to secondary foes such as Hamas in Gaza.
“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he says, “it also weakens you.”
This thinking is what led Eisenkot to become the first Israeli general to take Iran head on, in addition to fighting its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. And it’s how he succeeded in humbling, at least for the now, Qassim Suleimani, the wily commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which has spearheaded Tehran’s ambitions to make itself a regional hegemon.
.. “We operated under a certain threshold until two-and-a-half years ago,” Eisenkot explains, referring to Israel’s initial policy of mainly striking weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. “And then we noticed a significant change in Iran’s strategy. Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian air base. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”
By 2016, Eisenkot estimates, Suleimani had deployed 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops. The Iranian funds flowing toward the effort amounted to $16 billion over seven years. Israel had long said it would not tolerate an Iranian presence on its border, but at that point Syria had become a place in which other countries’ declaratory red lines seemed easily erased.
In January 2017 Eisenkot obtained the government’s unanimous consent for a change in the rules of the game. Israeli attacks became near-daily events. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped a staggering 2,000 bombs. That May, Suleimani attempted to retaliate by launching “more than 30 rockets toward Israel” (at least 10 more than what has been previously reported). None reached its target. Israeli responded with a furious assault that hit 80 separate Iranian military and Assad regime targets in Syria.
Why did Suleimani — the subtle, determined architect of Iran’s largely successful efforts to entrench itself in Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon — miscalculate? Eisenkot suggests a combination of overconfidence, based on Iran’s success in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse, and underestimation of Israel’s determination to stop him, based on the West’s history of shrinking in the face of Tehran’s provocations.
“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” he says. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”
“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he adds a little scornfully, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”
Eisenkot seems to feel similarly about Hezbollah and its longtime leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The group had devised a three-pronged strategy to invade and conquer (even if briefly) at least a part of Israel’s northern Galilee: building factories in Lebanon that could produce precision-guided missiles, excavating attack tunnels under the Israeli border and setting up a second front on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
So far, the plan has failed. The factories were publicly exposed and the tunnels destroyed. Israel continues to attack Hezbollah positions on the Golan, most recently last month against an intelligence position in the village of Tel el Qudne (also previously unreported).
“I can say with confidence that as we speak Hezbollah does not possess accurate [missile] capabilities except for small and negligible ones,” he says. “They were hoping to have hundreds of missiles in the mid- and long-range.”
That means Hezbollah is unlikely to soon start another war with Israel. Suleimani has pulled his forces back from the border with Israel and withdrawn some altogether. The resumption of U.S. sanctions has also put a squeeze on Iran’s ability to finance its regional adventures. Israel also thought it had won a reprieve of sorts when John Bolton indicated the U.S. would not quickly withdraw from Syria, thereby obstructing Iran’s efforts to build a land bridge to Damascus, though that reversal seems to have been reversed yet again.
Iran may now turn elsewhere. “As we push them in Syria,” Eisenkot says, “they transfer their efforts to Iraq,” where the U.S. still has thousands of troops. Thanks to Gadi Eisenkot, at least we know the Iranians aren’t invincible.