One Speech Can’t Clean Up Trump’s Iran Mess


Nearly a week after recklessly causing a New Year’s war scare by ordering a drone attack on Qassem Suleimani, a top Iranian military commander, and about sixteen hours after Iran had responded by firing ballistic missiles at a pair of Iraqi military bases that house American troops, Donald Trump finally deigned to make a public statement about what the heck he was thinking, or not thinking.

On Tuesday night, the Iranian Foreign Minister announced that the two waves of missile strikes on Iraqi military bases had “concluded” Iran’s response to the killing of Suleimani. Soon after, Trump tweeted, “All is well.” These statements made it pretty clear that both sides were eager to take an “off ramp,” which is cable-news shorthand for the avoidance of an all-out war. Still, people were understandably eager to see if Trump would confirm this in person, or if they should start stocking their basements and scoping out the nearest bomb shelter.

To the relief of everyone, except perhaps the likes of the former national-security adviser John Bolton, who has long advocated for bombing Iran, Trump, on Wednesday, made no mention of further military strikes. Instead, he said that Americans “should be extremely grateful and happy. No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack.” He added, “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.” But the rest of the speech was far less reassuring. It simply confirmed what has long been obvious to most sane people: Trump doesn’t merely lack a strategy; he hasn’t got a clue, and his occupancy of the Oval Office represents an enduring threat to us all.

The speech sounded as if it had been cobbled together by someone with cognitive dissonance—or, more likely, someone who was trying to save face for the boss while simultaneously mollifying the Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. (Hannity had cheered the decision to kill Suleimani; Carlson had mocked the Administration’s claim that Iran represented an imminent threat.) The first half of the speech was Trump the Pax Americana bully, laying down the law. “As long as I am President, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” he said. Suleimani, he added, was “the world’s top terrorist,” and the U.S. would “immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.” But in the second half he sounded more like an America Firster who was eager to get out of the Middle East completely and leave the entire mess he had created for other countries to clean up. “We are now the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” Trump said. “We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.” He went on to hail the missiles in the Pentagon’s armory, which he described as “big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast,” adding that “under construction are many hypersonic missiles.” He didn’t spell out the message explicitly, but it was clear enough. Uncle Sam would like to go home and leave the hand-to-hand combat to others.

Of course, it would have been a good deal easier for Trump to pursue such an objective if he hadn’t ripped up the nuclear deal with Iran that the Obama Administration had negotiated and crippled the Iranian economy with more economic sanctions, setting off a tit-for-tat process that, even before this past week’s crisis, had prompted the Pentagon to dispatch thousands more American troops to the Middle East. As usual, Trump tried to turn things around. He described the nuclear deal as “very defective” and called on “France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China”—the other signatories—“to recognize this reality” and work together on a new deal. Mystifyingly, he also said, “Today, I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.”

Finally, Trump delivered a message to the people and leaders of Iran. There had been some speculation that he might repeat his July, 2019, offer to negotiate directly with Tehran, but he stopped well short of that, saying, simply, “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

We should all be grateful for small mercies. What would have happened if one of the Iranian missiles had killed any number of American service members? But, make no mistake, Trump doesn’t deserve credit. His impetuous blundering almost produced a full-scale conflagration, and it has left behind a terrible foreign-policy mess that one speech can’t mitigate. In the past week, the Iraqi parliament voted for the withdrawal of American troops on its soil, Iran announced that it will no longer abide by the limits of the nuclear deal, and the Pentagon suspended the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria because of concerns about the safety of U.S. troops on Iraqi bases.

Despite these ominous developments, Trump had the gall to boast about all the ISIS fighters who had been killed or captured since he entered the Oval Office. Gall is about all he’s got.



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