In the weeks after President Donald Trump was sworn in last year, German chancellor Angela Merkel was widely acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic as the real leader of the free world. This year, French president Emanuel Macron is getting some of the same buzz from foreign-policy-establishment types and liberal think tanks.
It’s easy to see why. Both are seen as the polar opposite of Trump. Both have a more dignified demeanor, champion Western values of democracy, and enthusiastically embrace the notion of collective security rather than the president’s neo-isolationist “America First” foreign policy. In the eyes of most observers, these qualities all make them more plausible candidates for a symbolic title that would normally be the property of the American president.
It’s true that Trump’s personal behavior and approach to foreign policy make him the American president least suited to the role of “leader of the free world” since the term was coined. But after Macron’s and Merkel’s visits to Washington last week, it’s clear that he still actually deserves the title. As the only Western leader who grasps the danger posed by the Iran nuclear deal and the need to fix it, Trump is, if only by default, playing the leadership role that U.S. presidents traditionally play.
Much of the coverage last week centered on Macron’s and Trump’s bizarre body language and odd friendship, and the ice-cold nature of Merkel’s relationship with the president. But the subtext to both meetings was that the Europeans were trying to somehow coax Trump into behaving like a team player on Iran. Trump’s determination to either fix or pull out of the Iran nuclear deal is seen by Europeans, as well as by most American foreign-policy experts and even many of those who style themselves the “adults” in his administration, as the latest proof that he isn’t fit to lead the free world. Trump’s insistence that the pact must change — in spite of opposition from his European allies, Russia, and China, and the absolute insistence of the Iranians that they will never agree to alter it — is seen as proof of his ignorance, his lack of realism, and his petulance toward an accomplishment of the Obama administration. Macron and Merkel, and all those who have looked to them as the real leaders of the West, believe that the Iran deal is working, and that Trump’s desire to overturn it must be curbed if conflict is to be avoided.
But while Trump may not sound like the leader of the free world, he is the one who is actually defending it, while more sophisticated Europeans and American policy experts advocate walking it into peril with eyes wide open. The Europeans’ arguments against Trump depend on a collection of dubious assumptions about the nuclear pact.
Trump’s critics claim that Iran’s compliance with the deal has frozen the nuclear threat in place, and that the pact must be allowed to continue lest Tehran be freed to break out to build a weapon. Moreover, they assert that European resistance to any effort to reimpose international sanctions on Iran renders Trump’s effort moot. The critics also believe any attempt to increase pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue, or to try to halt their missile program, or to curb their role in Syria and support for international terror, is an invitation to a conflict that nobody wants, including the Americans.
Trump’s critics also argue that any flaws in the deal — most particularly the sunset clauses that cause it to expire within a decade — either are insignificant or can be addressed by side deals, to be negotiated separately, that will not threaten the status quo.
Yet these assurances are all false.
Iran may be complying with the weak terms of the pact, but the deal allows the country to keep its nuclear infrastructure and advanced research capability. More important, the impending expiration of the deal, Macron’s and Merkel’s assurances notwithstanding, guarantees that Iran will get a bomb within a few years anyway.
Though he centered U.S. diplomatic efforts solely on the nuclear question and ignored every other concern, it was President Obama’s hope that the agreement would allow Iran to “get right with the world” and resolve other differences. But rather than providing an incentive for normal relations, the deal has actually encouraged the Islamist regime’s worst instincts and made it more of a danger to the West rather than less of one.
The deal enriched (through both the release of more than $100 billion in frozen assets and the collapse of sanctions), empowered, and legitimized Iran. That not only bolstered a tyrannical government that is facing unrest from Iranians who are sick of its theocratic rule, but also enabled it to advance its quest for regional hegemony. Iranian-backed terror groups aren’t just destabilizing the region. Tehran’s successful intervention in the Syrian civil war has helped drive much of Syria’s Sunni majority into exile and allowed Iran to establish military bases there to threaten Israel and increase the chances of another Middle East war. And Iran’s missile program could give it a delivery vehicle for a bomb that could threaten Europe as well as Israel.
The proof that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented to the world on Monday also figures into this equation. The Mossad’s revelations of a secret Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s consistent lies to the international community also undermine the credibility of those who think the country can be trusted to comply with the deal or not to take advantage of its expiration.
A responsible Western leader would consider how dangerous it would be to allow Iran to continue on this path. Someone who valued the security of the free world would not see it as a reasonable option merely to postpone the Iranian threat a few years while strengthening it and weakening Western resolve against Tehran in the meantime.
Yet that is exactly what Trump’s critics want. Far from providing a plausible plan of action to address the Iranian problem, all Macron and Merkel offer is disingenuous talk about side deals, talk that seems primarily aimed at deceiving Trump into backing down or otherwise prevaricating so as to leave the current untenable situation unchanged.
Trump is defending the West against Islamist foes while more reasonable leaders are bent on a course that can only lead to disaster.
Though they claim Trump is helpless to change things, he is not. If the U.S. threatens to reimpose sanctions in order to force changes in the nuclear pact — or to replace it with a new, broader, and more effective plan — then it can force its allies and foes, all of which need to be able to conduct transactions with American financial institutions, to comply. Iran’s economy is weak and cannot withstand a concerted push from the West. Nor can it count on Russia, which is its ally in Syria but has its own problems and priorities, to bail it out of trouble if the U.S. is determined to correct the flaws in Obama’s deal.
Trump may not know as much about policy as either Macron or Merkel. He also may not understand the values of the West to the degree he should as the leader of the free world. To the contrary, everything that comes out of his mouth seems antithetical to his responsibility to rally democratic nations together against freedom’s foes, including the Russian regime, for which Trump has an inexplicable soft spot.
Yet when it comes to the threat from Iran, only Trump seems willing to do the right thing while the rest put their heads in the sand. His correct analysis of the situation may have more to do with his instinctive distrust of experts than anything else. But, as when he made the threats that led to negotiations between the two Koreas, Trump is in fact taking the right course of action while defying the foreign-policy establishment — which has been consistently wrong about just about everything in the Middle East, especially Iran.
He may not look or sound like it. But so long as Trump is defending the West against Islamist foes while more reasonable leaders are bent on a course that can only lead to disaster, we have no choice but to call him the leader of the free world.