Trump Plays Chicken With the Ayatollah

The United States and Iran remain on a collision path. Here’s what President Trump should do.

President Trump applied maximum pressure on North Korea, and it is continuing to produce nuclear weapons.

He applied maximum pressure on China, and we may be facing a trade war.

He applied maximum pressure on Venezuela, exacerbating hunger in the streets but leaving the dictatorship in place.

He applied maximum pressure on Palestinians, who responded by refusing to meet administration officials.

Most worrying of all, Trump applied maximum pressure on Iran, and we may now be on the brink of war.

In each of these cases, Trump pursued aggressive tactics without any obvious strategy. The tactics themselves often proved quite successful at inflicting misery, but this simply led several countries to double down on belligerence in ways that endanger the United States — and that is particularly true of Iran.

Trump says he called off military strikes on Thursday — thank goodness! — but he adheres to a failed policy that has put Iran back on a potential track to nuclear weapons. He is improvising, confusing friend and foe alike, even as he plays a perilous game of chicken with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump seems to inhabit a fantasy world in which his abandonment of the Obama nuclear deal with Iran, along with sanctions and bellicose tweets, will force Iran to roll up its nuclear program. Instead, Trump’s tactics have, quite predictably, led Iran to lash out.

Some Americans speak blithely about “surgical strikes,” and I fear that many Americans, including those in the White House, don’t get how badly these can go awry.

If we kill 150 Iranians in a set of airstrikes, as Trump says had been anticipated, Iranian proxy forces will retaliate by killing Americans in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Iran or its proxies might strike at Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, while also interrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. We might see Hezbollah strikes on Israel and a new Israel-Lebanon war. The global economy could take a significant hit.

The conflict may start “surgical,” but it’s unlikely to end that way.

It’s essential that we clarify the location of the U.S. drone that Iran shot down, and delay any action until that question is resolved. Trump insists that the drone was in international airspace, while Iran says it had intruded over Iranian territory.

The Times quoted a senior administration official as acknowledging that it may in fact have violated Iranian airspace; if so and the administration is caught lying to the world, this will be an enormous self-inflicted blow. Iran’s decision to shoot down a drone in its own airspace would be understandable; certainly the United States would shoot down an Iranian drone that intruded over our territory.

The national security adviser, John Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reportedly are pushing for military action. Both are longtime hawks, with Bolton urging in 2015 that “to stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.” Bravo to uniformed officers in the Pentagon for pushing back and warning of the dangers of escalation.

I suggest this principle of foreign policy: Hawks who were completely wrong about Iraq should refrain from jingoism about Iran.

What can be done to reduce the risk of war? Here are four steps for Trump to take:

1. Ensure that U.S. forces fire only in clear self-defense or on presidential orders, to reduce the risk of an accident. In 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes shot down what the crew believed was a threatening Iranian military jet. In fact, the airplane was a civilian Iranian airliner, and all 290 people onboard were killed.

2. Try to organize an international force to protect ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This would present a united front against Iranian provocations and reduce the risk of a limpet mine starting a war.

3. Disentangle the United States from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have played a pernicious role (along with Israel) in encouraging belligerence toward Iran (the Senate took a landmark step in the right direction a few days ago by voting to block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia). The blundering Saudi efforts to challenge Iran have so far backfired in Qatar, Lebanon and, most tragically, Yemen, so Trump should listen carefully to what the Saudi crown prince says — and then do the opposite.

4. Seek secret talks with Iran to patch back together the nuclear agreement.

These approaches may not succeed, but the stakes are high enough that they are worth trying. War is sometimes necessary; this is not one of those times.

Trump’s maximum pressure has been a failure in country after country, and I fear that his cancellation of airstrikes on Thursday may have simply deferred a military clash with Iran. The two countries remain on a collision path, with few face-saving exit ramps, and with hard-liners on each side escalating and empowering those on the other. Look out.

Why I could no longer serve this president

I resigned because the traditional core values of the United States, as manifested in the president’s National Security Strategy and his foreign policies, have been warped and betrayed. I could no longer represent him personally and remain faithful to my beliefs about what makes America truly great.

.. These policies are purportedly being pursued to make good on nativist campaign rhetoric that resonated with many legitimately aggrieved Americans. But I know many of these voters. They are not “deplorables.” They deserve better. They deserve enlightened and informed debate about the true nature of the globalized economy, automation, and the need for education and reimagined job-skills programs to keep us competitive.

.. Instead, they are being offered the siren song of populist scapegoating of immigrants, jingoistic chest-beating and a schoolyard bully’s attitude that taunts: “I win, you lose.”
.. Moreover, policy options based on fear and hashtags will only offer us a false dichotomy.
.. immigration issue cannot be debated rationally when the president routinely encourages division and disparages today’s migrants with the same hateful language deployed a century ago to excoriate my Irish and Italian ancestors.
.. My goal is to create the conditions for respectful and nonconfrontational dialogue between supporters of the president’s immigration policy and the full panoply of migrants

Big patriotism is poisoning America

Though I suggest Trump and his supporters on this issue are missing the protesters’ point — and, in some cases, doing so willfully — I have no doubt that, for Trump’s part, patriotism is indeed at stake. The trouble is the sort of patriotism that informs their ire, for patriotism is not of a single kind.

.. Frodo does not love the Shire because it is the best country in Middle-earth. It does not boast the striking scenery and deep knowledge of the elven kingdoms, or the security and wealth of the dwarves, or the cosmopolitanism and architecture of the cities of men. The Shire does not have to be the best, for it is already home and already good in its own way.

If the patriotism Tolkien depicts is small, the patriotism most prevalent in America today is a poisonous variety we might call “big patriotism,” or, less charitably, nationalism. Its contrast with more modest variants is vast.

.. Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home.

.. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

.. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion.

  • When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it.
  • Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

.. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves.

.. “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition.

.. Big patriotism is always a matter of comparison. It is, as Lewis put it, “a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others.” Big patriotism is incapable of appreciating our home’s good qualities except at the expense of other places. Foreign lands and people must be put down if we are to be held up.

.. It is the foundation of jingoistic American exceptionalism and a constant siren song to empire — for why shouldn’t the world be ruled by the best?


Small patriotism is humble and open to constructive critique. Just as we would welcome an exterminator telling us our house has termites, so in small patriotism we can give a hearing to those who see some problem with our home. Big patriotism cannot hear a word against country, however gentle or wise. The best, by definition, cannot be wrong.

.. It does not ask to be valued above more significant loyalties, like those to God or family or concrete community. Big patriotism demands pre-eminence.

.. Big patriotism is incessantly self-serious and therefore always on the brink of offense.

.. But however natural it can feel, big patriotism is poisonous, and it leads to the type of shallow outrage we now see over these athletes’ attempt to respectfully call attention to a grave concern.

Israel’s conservative President speaks up for civility, and pays a price.

Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, the new President of Israel, is ardently opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. He is instead a proponent of Greater Israel, one Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. He professes to be mystified that anyone should object to the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank: “It can’t be ‘occupied territory’ if the land is your own.”

.. Last month, he told an academic conference in Jerusalem, “It is time to honestly admit that Israel is sick, and it is our duty to treat this illness.”

.. “The extremists are talking too loudly, and everyone is convinced that only he is on the right side,” Rivlin told me in one of our conversations. “It’s not just Jews against Arabs. It’s the Orthodox versus those who don’t think they can keep all six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Bible. It’s rich people versus poor people. At some point, something came over Israel so that everyone has his own ideas—and everyone else is an enemy. It’s a dialogue among deaf people and it is getting more and more serious.”

..  More explicitly jingoistic and racist elements now operate closer to the center of Israeli political life. Some well-known figures in the religious world speak openly in an anti-democratic rhetoric of Jewish supremacy—“strength and victimhood all melded together,” as one Israeli friend put it to me. (When a group of rabbis told their followers not to rent property to Arabs, Rivlin called the edict “another nail in the coffin of Israeli democracy.”) Yoav Eliasi, a rapper who calls himself HaTzel (the Shadow), led a group of fellow-fanatics who broke up a peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. One of the groups that accompanied the Shadow was Lehava (Flame), an association of religious extremists who see it as their mission to battle assimilation. Lehava tries to break up weddings between Muslims and Jews. Similar groups comb through Facebook looking for left-wing sentiment among Israeli Jews; when they find it, they send letters to their employers demanding that the lefties be fired.

.. Had a Jewish left-wing critic made the sort of statements that Rivlin has, he would not wait long before being denounced as a “self-hater.” A non-Jew could expect to be branded anti-Semitic. Because of his conservative bona fides, Rivlin cannot easily be dismissed.

.. Many Israeli friends have remarked on the élite in the country—doctors, artists, engineers, businesspeople; call it two hundred thousand people—who provide Israel with its economic and cultural vibrancy. That élite is no less patriotic than the rest, but if its members begin to see a narrowing horizon for their children, if they sense their businesses shrinking, if they sense an Israel deeply diminished in the eyes of Europe and the United States, they will head elsewhere, or their children will. Not all at once, and not everyone, but there is no denying that one cost of occupation is isolation.