by Derek Davison
We’re going to win. We’re going to win so much. We’re going to win at trade, we’re going to win at the border. We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning, you’re going to come to me and go “Please, please, we can’t win anymore.” You’ve heard this one. You’ll say “Please, Mr. President, we beg you sir, we don’t want to win anymore. It’s too much. It’s not fair to everybody else.” And I’m going to say “I’m sorry, but we’re going to keep winning, winning, winning, We’re going to make America great again.”
That was reality TV star-turned-presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Billings, Montana, in May 2016. Having now survived over two years of Trump’s presidency—which still seems at times more like another TV series than real life—we have a pretty good sense of what “winning” looks like with him at the helm, and there’s really only one thing to say:
Please, Mr. President, we beg you sir, we don’t want to win anymore. It’s too much. You’re going to get us all killed.
Perhaps that’s hyperbolic. After all, for as much as he’s blustered about U.S. military might and as much as he’s bungled U.S. foreign policy since taking office, Trump seems to have assessed (correctly) that he will pay a heavy political price in the event of a full-blown military conflict and has tried to avoid one.
Of the multiple overseas crises Trump has manufactured or helped manufacture in a bit over half a term in office, the only one that really risked the loss of a great number of U.S. lives was his 2017 dust-up with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. That multi-episode arc saw our protagonist threaten with “fire and fury” a state that would in short order test both a thermonuclear bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile, but the danger was averted after Kim sent Trump the first in a series of “beautiful letters” and the two leaders held the first-ever (and first of three so far) summit between a North Korean leader and a U.S. president.
Winning So Much
But the thing about being president of the United States, a nation with pretensions to global hegemony that spends as much on its military as the next seven countries combined, is that your actions don’t just affect the people of the United States, and your wars—if you start any—don’t just harm the United States. And in the Middle East, a region that wasn’t especially stable before he came to office, Trump has driven all concerned to the brink of war. It’s a war nobody seems to want—least of all Trump himself—but one that edges ever closer as the president and this season’s antagonist, Iran, continue raising the stakes.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Although it is the September 14 attack against Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais—claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels but widely presumed, whether directly or via proxies, to have been an Iranian operation—that has the Middle East on edge at the moment. No matter what’s happened since or what comes next, the Trump administration fired the first shots in this conflict. Trump’s decision last year to violate the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and impose crippling economic sanctions against Iran got this ball rolling. Because the United States has the power—through its effective control of international financial networks—to levy penalties against foreign, as well as U.S., individuals and companies for trading with Iran, the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign amounts to an economic blockade. And an economic blockade is, under international law, an act of war.
The effect of the campaign is also akin to war. Missiles may not be striking Iranian cities, and U.S. soldiers may not be landing on Iranian beaches—yet—the Iranian people are suffering nevertheless, for lack of basic human needs like medicine and food. The Trump administration continues to insist that its sanctions are not meant to apply to such humanitarian goods, but their practical effect has been to block the sort of financing that Iranian importers would need in order to pay for the importation of critical items. And despite repeated warnings about the impact of its sanctions on the Iranian people, the administration continues—seemingly with malicious intent—to make it harder for them to survive.
Sick and Tired of Winning
What have the Trump administration’s punitive measures wrought? In a recent Foreign Policy article, Ilan Goldenberg and Kaleigh Thomas from the Center for a New American Security declared Trump’s Iran policy to be a “failure.” But the more salient question is: what Iran policy? Going all the way back to the days of candidate Trump, what has he ever said or done with respect to Iran that’s constituted a definable goal, let alone a coherent plan for achieving it?
The one thing candidate Trump seemed to know about Iran was that Barack Obama had negotiated the JCPOA and that the JCPOA was bad. Why was it bad? As far as it was possible to tell, Trump’s main objection was that it had been negotiated by Obama. He never displayed any grasp of the deal’s substance, and, on those occasions when he tried to explain the deal, he invariably got the details seriously wrong. But it was the “worst deal ever negotiated,” he was sure of that, and “dismantling” it would be his “number-one priority.” Trump would “revise” the agreement, his advisers said, after “negotiating” either with Iran directly or with the multilateral group that had negotiated the original deal.
Then Trump took office, and…did nothing. His path toward renegotiating it was closed off because the other five parties to the accord—Iran above all—had no interest in reopening what had been a grueling negotiations process simply to appease the new U.S. president. There’s no indication that it ever even crossed Trump’s mind that he might be the only one interested in talking, and so, for the first 16 months of his administration, Trump chafed against the deal but left it grudgingly in place.
Then, in early May 2018, after appointing ultra-Iran hawk, John Bolton as his national security adviser, Trump took the step that, more than anything else, has led us to the present moment: he pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions against Iran. Indeed, the Trump administration has gone further than the Obama administration ever dared in terms of the degree to which it has closed off virtually all Iranian economic activity, driving its oil exports nearly to zero and, crucially, designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. Since the IRGC is a government institution and plays a considerable role in the Iranian economy—an artifact of the Obama-era sanctions regime—that designation has given the administration the latitude to essentially criminalize the Iranian government and vast swathes of the Iranian economy.
The administration has taken these steps in violation of U.S. obligations under the JCPOA and against the positions of virtually the entire international community—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain excepted. It’s little wonder that virtually nobody in Iran still sees much value in remaining in the JCPOA, nor do they have much faith that the U.S. can be trusted to keep its word under any similar agreement moving forward.
It’s been over 16 months since Trump announced that he was running the JCPOA through the White House shredder, and still his aim in doing so remains unclear.
Was it to force Iran to capitulate? That certainly seemed to be the intent behind Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of 12—later 13—“demands” to which the Iranians were supposed to capitulate simply to open the door to new talks with the U.S. More recently, however, the administration has been practically tripping over itself to insist that it wants to talk with Iranian leaders with “no preconditions.”
Was the aim, then, simply to bring the Iranians back to the table to negotiate a new deal—either an augmented nuclear accord or something broader? Because the Iranians have been offering the possibility of new talks, provided the United States returns to the JCPOA and resumes upholding its obligations under the deal. They’ve even suggested that they’d be willing to negotiate a deal that goes beyond the scope of the JCPOA, provided the U.S. “pays more” for it. But the Trump administration clearly isn’t happy with those offers.
Was the goal to weaken Iran? To make Tehran retreat from its involvement in regional affairs and ultimately contain its foreign policy? In that case then, the policy has been a clear and total failure, and that’s without including the recent strikes in Saudi Arabia—assuming Iran really was responsible for those.
Was the intent to so badly immiserate the Iranian people that they would rise up as one and overthrow their government? Because the pressure campaign is striking out there as well.
Winning, Winning, Winning
The truth is that the Trump administration’s Iran policy has achieved none of these possible goals, and yet there’s no sign it’s considering a course correction. Which means one of two things: either it has another goal in mind, or it has no goal in mind.
The obvious assumption is that the maximum pressure campaign is meant to provoke a war with Iran. But, despite surrounding himself with long-standing advocates for such a war (Pompeo, his now-former National Security Advisor Bolton, and hanger-on Rudy Giuliani to name but three); outsourcing much of his Middle East policy to Iran foes Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and accepting considerable financial support from Iran war advocate Sheldon Adelson, Trump himself continues to insist that he doesn’t want a military conflict.
So, then, what does he want, and how does he imagine that staying the course on a dismally failed policy will achieve it? Whether intentional or not, what now seems clear is that the maximum pressure campaign is both means and end. Cruelty has become the goal. And this isn’t just true with respect to Iran. In case after case—from North Korea to the Palestinian people to Venezuela to the southern U.S. border and inside the U.S. itself—the Trump administration has adopted policies marked by what can at best be described as callous indifference to the tremendous suffering it has caused.
Is that ultimately Trump’s objective? Simply to inflict as much misery on as many people as possible while he’s in office? Or is that the unintentional effect of electing a president who has no goals, or at least no idea how to accomplish them?
Amid this wanton cruelty, Trump seems not to have realized that the pain he inflicts brings consequences, and one of those consequences can be retaliation. As a wounded animal may lash out in self-defense, so too may a country straining under international isolation, to make its adversaries feel some of its pain and raise the costs for those who continue to maintain that isolation. Iran is lashing out now. Every time it does, and every time the United States responds by tightening its sanctions regime just a little more, the Persian Gulf moves closer to war. A war that, to reiterate, nobody wants–least of all Trump himself.
The one positive thing that can be said about Donald Trump’s foreign policy is that for all of its cruelty, all of its inconsistency, all of the chaos it’s created, he hasn’t started a full-scale war yet. But the haphazard mess that is Trump’s Iran policy now threatens to breach even that low bar. The president may not want a war, but unless he changes course quickly, war may be what he gets.