Donald Trump’s Iran Show

He has a nose for power, and he thinks Tehran is weaker than Obama understood.

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.

s Trump has already authored his own tell-all

Trump is damaged most, not by sabotage, but by self-revelation.

.. The president has recently taunted FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for “racing the clock to retire with full benefits,”

  1. attacked the “Deep State Justice Department,” taken credit for the lack of commercial airline crashes,
  2. urged“Jail!” for former Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, called for the sacking of two journalists,
  3. claimed the news media will eventually “let me win” reelection to keep up their ratings,
  4. displayed a sputtering inability to describe his own health-care reform plan,
  5. claimed that a cold snap disproves global warming,
  6. boasted of having “a much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button than Kim Jong Un,
  7. tried to prevent the publication of Wolff’s book,
  8. and insisted he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius.”

.. More likely, Trump is exhibiting a set of compulsions and delusions that have characterized his entire adult life. You can’t have declining judgment that never existed. You can’t lose a grasp on reality you never possessed. What is most striking is not Trump’s disintegration but his utter consistency.

.. If the secret tape of a president threatening a private citizen with jail were leaked, it would be a scandal. With Trump, it is just part of his shtick.

.. The president’s defenders, in perpetual pursuit of the bright side, argue for the value of unpredictability in political leadership — which is true enough. But Trump is not unpredictable. He is predictable in ways that make him vulnerable to exploitation.

He is easy to flatter, easy to provoke and thus easy to manipulate.

.. The Chinese have made an art of this

.. “I like very much President Xi,” Trump has said. “He treated me better than anybody’s ever been treated in the history of China.” Contrast this with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has treated Trump like an adult with arguments and criticism. Big mistake.

.. Trump has revealed a thick streak of authoritarianism. “I have [an] absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he insists.

  • .. “Libel laws are very weak in this country,”
  • Rivals are not only to be defeated; they should be imprisoned.
  • Critics are not to be refuted; they should be fired.
  • Investigations are not to be answered; they should be shut down.

.. we are depending on the strength of those institutions, not the self-restraint of the president, to safeguard democracy.

.. At the beginning, they could engage in wishful thinking about Trump’s fitness. Now they must know he is not emotionally equipped to be president. Yet, they also know this can’t be admitted, lest they be accused of letting down their partisan team.

.. GOP leaders are engaged in an intentional deception, pretending the president is a normal and capable leader.

.. they will, eventually, be exposed. And by then, the country may not be in a forgiving mood.

 

The GOP health-care bill shows the need for regular order.

Kennedy was the showy performer in that ugly spectacle, but Senator Biden, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was the stage director. Prior to Bork’s nomination, Biden had in fact said that he would support it: Bork was, after all, a distinguished legal scholar with a long history in public service. Bork had many challenges in front of him: For one thing, he was very sharp-elbowed in intellectual disputes, which had not won him very many friends.

.. The Senate majority leader at the time was Democrat Robert Byrd, a man who had rejoiced in the title of Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, and who held a grudge against Bork for his role in the Watergate scandal, during which Bork had fired special investigator Archibald Cox on the orders of President Richard Nixon.

.. The Senate majority leader at the time was Democrat Robert Byrd, a man who had rejoiced in the title of Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, and who held a grudge against Bork for his role in the Watergate scandal, during which Bork had fired special investigator Archibald Cox on the orders of President Richard Nixon.

.. The Democratic primary field was very full: There was Biden

.. Biden could not afford to stand by his earlier assessment of Bork and announced his opposition to the nomination shortly after it was made formal.

.. The 14 hours Senator Byrd had spent filibustering the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not prevent him from becoming the Democratic leader in the Senate.

.. The Bork nomination, on the other hand, was an ordinary piece of government business elevated by Democrats to the status of national emergency in the service of narrow partisan interests. Biden was running for president, Kennedy was running for conscience of the Democratic party, and Byrd, frustrated by Republicans’ lack of cooperation on a number of his spending priorities, had promised: “They’re going to pay. I’m going to hit them where it hurts.”

.. The hysteria and vitriol directed at Bork were of a sort rarely seen since the early 19th century. But they quickly became commonplace.

.. But the rules of the game are not all there is to the game. What in another context might be called “sportsmanship” is in politics a question of prudence and even of patriotism, forgoing the pursuit of every petty partisan advantage made possible

.. The progress from Robert Bork to Merrick Garland is a fairly obvious story, but there is more to it than that:

  • The increasing reliance upon legislative gimmicks such as omnibus spending bills and retrofitting legislation to fit with the budget reconciliation process,
  • the substitution of executive orders and open-ended regulatory portfolios (“the secretary shall . . . ”),
  • the prominence of emergency “special sessions” in the state legislatures,
  • the absence of regular order in the legislative and appropriations process —

all are part of the same destructive tendency. Procedural maximalism in effect turns the legislative system against itself, substituting the exception for the rule and treating every ordinary item of business as a potential emergency item.

.. at the time, their numbers in the Senate were enough to secure their victory without a filibuster. But the course they set in those hearings — one of maximal confrontation, of reaching for whatever procedural cudgel is close at hand — led directly to our current state of governmental dysfunction.

.. at the time, their numbers in the Senate were enough to secure their victory without a filibuster. But the course they set in those hearings — one of maximal confrontation, of reaching for whatever procedural cudgel is close at hand — led directly to our current state of governmental dysfunction.

.. The recently proffered Republican health-care bill instantiates much of what is wrong with our politics:

The bill was constructed through an extraordinary process in which there were

  • no hearings,
  • no review from the Congressional Budget Office, and
  • no final text of the legislation until shortly before the vote.
  • The process is erratic and covert rather than regular and transparent.
  • It was put together in a purposeful way to avoid substantive debate and meaningful public discourse,

making the most of the majority’s procedural advantages for purely political ends.

.. As Rod Dreher recently put it, Republicans will have to choose whether they love the rule of law more than they hate the Left.

.. Republican populists who argue that the GOP must play by the same rules in the name of “winning” have very little understanding of what already has been lost and of what we as a nation stand to lose.

The United States will not thrive, economically or otherwise, in a state of permanent emergency.

.. What’s truly remarkable about our current constant national state of emergency is that no one can say exactly what the emergency is. But we all seem to be very sure that something has to be done about it right now, that we must rouse ourselves to excitement about it, and that the ordinary rules of lawmaking and governance no longer apply.

There is not much political mileage to be had from arguing for regular order, transparency, and procedural predictability — but that’s part of what makes those things so valuable. Order in the little things is a necessary precondition of order in the big things. Orderly government cannot be built on a foundation of procedural chaos.

Kim Jong-un Is Not a Freakish Buffoon

North Korea is not a problem that can be solved. As much as the West may engage in wishful thinking about a revolution, the Kim family regime has survived far longer than almost anyone predicted. Even today, it shows no signs of collapsing, and the North Koreans show no signs of rebelling en masse.

Does anyone actually think that with another round of sanctions the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, will suddenly give up power and North Koreans will all become liberal democrats? Or that somehow Washington could brandish enough aircraft carriers that the North Korean military and political establishment will surrender?

.. The widespread mocking of Kim Jong-un as a freakish buffoon is a sign of our misguided approach. Viewing him as a joke is a mistake not because it’s rude, but because it contributes to a dangerous underestimation of his power. Mr. Kim has managed to rule for almost six years as a brutal totalitarian dictator. He may be many things, but he is not a lightweight.

.. North Korea isn’t unpredictable; rather, it is the most predictable country on earth.

.. The North Koreans are also very calculating. By aiming test missiles at Japan, Pyongyang is sending a clear signal: Take a preventive shot at our missile sites, and we will take a shot at Japan, most likely at the roughly 50,000 American military personnel stationed at United States bases there. It would not be the start of a second Korean War, but rather a poke for a poke. Would the United States really want to up the ante a second time?

.. Twenty years ago, there might have been an opportunity for the two sides to reach a deal. But both Washington and Pyongyang have had years of evidence to back their claims that the other side will never live up to its word.

.. North Korea poses almost no threat to South Korea as long as the United States-South Korea alliance remains ironclad. Kim Jong-un may be many things, but he is not suicidal. Deterrence will continue to work.

.. For the United States, making steady progress in alleviating the humanitarian and economic problems, while maintaining strong deterrence against the nuclear program, is the only way forward.