The president has squandered much of his promise with his hard line on Iran.
Fifteen months ago I had a private conversation with President Trump about Iran.
It wasn’t long. It was, frankly, casual. It took place in the locker room of my golf club, which Trump had purchased during the Great Recession. (And improved considerably, without raising dues substantially, as he promised the members he would not.) We had both played that morning, and at one of the points where the two courses adjoin, I had watched his group hit tee shots. Trump had hit a solid drive. A few hours later, after wanding by Secret Service, I entered the locker room and was walking towards the urinal when I passed the president, by himself in front of the mirror, dabbling with his sunscreen. “How are you doing?” he called out as I walked by.
I had a ready conversation opener. “Very well thanks, sir. I saw you hit a great drive on 4.”
“Well pretty good,” he replied.
“220 or so, probably in the top one percent for our age group,” I added.
“One percent, can’t really do better than that,” Trump answered.
“No, no war with Iran,” he replied. As I walked out, he called out behind me. “Wait a minute, you don’t want there to be a war with Iran, right? ” I then realized the ambiguity in my words . “No,” I said. “Besides Israel, Iran is the most sane country in the Middle East.”
Trump didn’t respond directly. He paused. “No, there won’t be a war. It’s just talk,” he said. The president then made the classic childhood gesture for babble, flicking his lower lip several times with his forefinger.
Obviously war with Iran did seem a possibility then, in the fall of 2018—the president had recently scuttled the non-proliferation agreement that President Obama and six major powers had negotiated to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities, and had appointed longtime Iran hawk Mike Pompeo secretary of state. Yet there were rumors of possible diplomatic contacts—Rouhani was coming to the UN General Assembly. Like much about Trump’s Iran policy the situation seemed full of ambiguity, but I went away heartened by the conversation.
Like a certain percentage of his voters, I had supported Trump in great part because he challenged the Bush, Cheneyite Republican conventional foreign policy wisdom. Trump wasn’t an active Iraq war opponent, and his social milieu in New York was hawkish, but he was clearly lukewarm when prompted by Howard Stern in 2002 to tout the pending invasion of Iraq. In a 2008 interview with Wolf Blitzer, he wondered why Nancy Pelosi hadn’t sought to impeach George W. Bush for lying the country into war with Iraq. He began calling the Iraq war a big fat mistake, most notably in a debate before the 2016 South Carolina primary, perhaps the nation’s most hawkish state. He won that primary, and later the nomination, establishing that pro-war views were no longer necessarily majoritarian in the GOP. His messaging was mixed, ambiguous, perhaps intentionally, perhaps instinctively.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” he said, a sentiment I shared. He seemed implicitly to acknowledge that the bipartisan policy of trying to expand NATO up to the Russia’s borders and fomenting pro-Western coups in Russia’s neighbors was perilous and self-defeating. But he came across as tough and hawkish too. He praised tough generals and said he would “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” But since ISIS was a genuine enemy, then actively recruiting and training terrorists to kill civilians inside Western countries, hawkishness seemed altogether appropriate. A certain Jacksonian bluster about killing America’s enemies seemed an appropriate way to steer the Republican foreign policy away from neoconservatism and back towards realism.
In any case, I wrote several pro-Trump pieces, the first pushing back in early 2016 against National Review’s attempt to bury his campaign, a second touting the legitimacy of the nationalist and pro-border sentiments to which Trump was appealing. Of course I voted for him. And nothing, until now, has really made me question the correctness of that vote.
Naturally there were worries. Trump seemed never to have expected actually to win the presidency, and was oblivious to the exigencies of staffing. There were quite a few people with brains and administrative experience and Trumpian views willing to work for his administration, but if any of them got hired, it was largely an accident. So apart from one trade hawk and Jeff Sessions’ contribution of Stephen Miller, one sometimes had the impression that the only real Trumpian in the new administration was Trump himself. Of course the infusion of standard GOP types was not necessarily bad—they were political people and realized that an earthquake size rejection of the legacy of George W. Bush had taken place amongst their voters, and most were willing to make adjustment. But the personnel deficit meant that a lot of initial energy would be dissipated on standard GOP partisan initiatives, lowering taxes for the rich, abolishing Obamacare.
And then there were the neoconservatives. Many had signed petitions during the campaign denigrating Trump but many had not, and the Trump administration was open to hiring them. Neoconservatives had always played an inside game in Washington. The faction had survived the political collapse of its favored candidates (Marco Rubio, Joe Lieberman). One heard too many stories for comfort about the comings and goings of FDD types around the White House. (The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a major promoter of the Iraq war, was created to promote hawkish “pro-Israel” foreign policy positions in Washington.) It couldn’t be ignored that Sheldon Adelson, a passionate Israel supporter and advocate of nuking Iran, was Trump’s biggest donor. Equally important were the Saudis and other wealthy gulf states, who lavishly irrigated Washington foreign policy think tanks with oil money and were major customers of the defense industries. Their views, grounded in a fundamentalist Sunni Islam vigorously opposed to Shi’ite Iran, were always treated respectfully in Washington.
But countering this at least partially was Trump himself, who seemed to realize what a major Mideast War would do to his reelection chances, So he pushed back, sometimes mockingly, against warmongering advisers like John Bolton. (But why was Bolton hired in the first place?) Six months ago Trump called off strikes against Iranian forces because he worried about civilian casualties. He fired Bolton. He seemed inclined to talk to adversaries and one hoped he would realize that Iran could be talked to as well. His seeming disregard for the beltway conventional wisdom might lead to new initiatives.
It’s a nearly ineffable mystery how it is decided that Saudi Arabia, womb of the 9/11 hijackers, a backwards and oppressive theocracy, which funds radical Islamist educational institutions the world over, gets to be designated as America’s great ally in the Muslim Middle East. And that Iran—with its prickly, hostile, but partially democratic regime, its large and at least latently pro-Western middle class, its cinema, literature, scientists, chess grandmasters, should be an implacable enemy. That power to decide who are friends and who are enemies is perhaps the most important one, but no one has ever satisfactorily explained who wields it and why. But Donald Trump, an unconventional and disrespectful Washington outsider, once seemed more likely than any other politician to at least ask fresh questions about it.
Of course one realized this way of thinking about Trump was based on hope and more than a dollop of wishful thinking. What brings this home, and perhaps the main factor which distinguishes Trump of today from the Trump of six months ago, is the impeachment drive.
Based on essentially trivial and inconsequential charges, it is the Democratic Party’s and deep state’s attempted revenge on a man who unexpectedly defeated them and then refused them the deference to which they feel entitled. But however unjustified, the impeachment effort clearly threatens Trump’s presidency, and perhaps has him feeling cornered. It may be that Trump now realizes that war with Iran might be popular with the electorate, at least in the short run—in 2011 he accused Obama of preparing to ignite a war with Iran for domestic political reasons. And to the extent that the impeachment drive overshadows all else, at least for the president, war becomes a much more attractive option.
Whatever threatening or waging war might do for Trump politically, the reality of it would be a disaster. No one knows where we are precisely on the escalation escalator. Perhaps Iran will not respond with more than Tuesday’s errant rockets to the assassination of one of its leaders. But one already sees flourishing on the Right all the chest-beating rhetoric which one hoped a Trump presidency dampen; with the critical and important exception of Tucker Carlson, Fox News, the important conservative mass media platform, is in its 2002 mode all over again, as if nothing has been learned from the Iraq war. Once again patriotic Americans are rallying to the absurd notion that the turmoils of the Mideast can be traced to one evil man or evil regime, that a regime change war will solve the problem.
Vaporized from public memory is the fact that Iran, including the leaders now most robustly demonized, played a critical role in organizing the paramilitary militias who defeated ISIS. And if Trump somehow remains aware that occupying Iran with troops—overwhelmingly the sons and daughters of his red state voters—wouldn’t go well, his proposed alternative to occupation of Iran is apparently to commit war crimes against the archaeological legacy of ancient Persia, smashing with drones cultural treasures which are less the property of the Iranian regime than they are of all humanity. Some of his cheerleaders advocate turning Tehran into 1945 Dresden. It is simply obscene.
There was an argument during the last campaign, expressed most notably by Michael Brendan Dougherty, that the worst possible thing for those who wanted a different kind of American conservatism—an end to stupid wars in the Mideast, a more controlled immigration flow, an industrial policy that valued something other than cheap goods and “free trade”—might be a victory for Donald Trump, who campaigned for all of these things. Whether he believed in them or not, Trump recognized that this is what many voters wanted, that this was an open political lane to run in, an untapped yearning. I think, to an extent, he did believe in them, but had no idea, no real plan how to bring them about.
Faced with unrelenting hostility from the Democrats, the media and the permanent class of Beltway bureaucrats which began before he took office, and no real base in the organized Republican Party, he floundered. No wall was built. No immigration legislation was passed. No grand and necessary Rockefellian infrastructure initiatives were initiated. He has hired to key positions Beltway types who had nothing but contempt for him, and they have led him down well worn paths. One of those paths leads to a major war with Iran, an obsessively pursued project of the neoconservatives since long before 9/11.
Impeachment makes taking that path more plausible. Indeed, Trump could reasonably see it as the best possible way out. It’s now hard to see how a Hillary Clinton presidency could have turned out worse.