The Corner

White House

Does the President Know or Understand His Administration’s Iran Strategy?

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the White House in Washington, D.C., May 16, 2019. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

I deeply appreciate Senator Talent’s response to my piece about the dangers of war with Iran. I found myself nodding along to most of his points. It’s absolutely true that every course of action in the Middle East carries risks. It’s absolutely true that Iran must not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons and that increased economic pressure and diplomatic isolation are important tools in the American arsenal. But here’s where Senator Talent started to lose me:

In other words, the Trump administration has an actual policy, guided by an actual strategy. The strategy is reasonably related to America’s vital interests, and the policy has been executed with some degree of consistency over time, using the tools of smart power (sanctions and aggressive diplomacy) that are always preferable as a means of exercising national influence.

But wait. Where does this recent statement from the President of the United States fit in that deliberate, careful ratcheting up of pressure on Iran — a strategy undertaken with careful consideration of the very real risks?

Is this a statement that we’re supposed to take seriously but not literally? What does the “end of Iran” mean? What does it mean for Iran to want to fight? After all, it’s been provoking America and killing Americans for decades. What’s the step that triggers all-out war? Does he even know? Does he even truly mean a word of this tweet?

I’m sorry, but we’ve seen this movie before. Careful strategies and deliberate actions are the products of the president’s advisers. The president himself, however, sheds advisers and strategies like he changes clothes, and we’re long past the point where any reasonable observer can call his impulsiveness calculated or smart.

Let’s take a look at the shattered remnants of his North Korea policy. He went from saber-rattling against “Little Rocket Man” to writing virtual valentines to one of the worst tyrants on the planet. And what’s the result? North Korea has successfully tested its most potent weapons (including a potential hydrogen bomb), it still has its nuclear arsenal, Trump has granted its leader the great gift of a spotlight on the world stage, and we’re reportedly canceling and scaling back our own military exercises in South Korea, an act that can (and will) degrade readiness over time.

And what about Syria? Talk to individuals with real knowledge about Trump’s decision-making “process” in the on-again, off-again orders to withdraw, and they’ll tell you a tale of conflicting instructions, impulsive posturing, and towering ignorance.

The Trump administration has done some good things, no question. It successfully continued (and appropriately escalated) the Obama offensive against ISIS. It pulled the United States from the terrible Iran nuclear deal. It was right and appropriate to designate the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

But as Senator Talent notes, these good decisions also increase risks, and as risks increase, the American people need confidence that their commander-in-chief is carefully weighing those risks, understands his own strategy, and is in command of his own team. Yet the evidence is pouring out from multiple sources that Trump’s administration often is forced to work around the president (and sometimes even defy the president) to save the president.

As Yuval Levin wrote so powerfully after the release of the Mueller report, “The peculiar willingness of Trump’s people to ignore or disobey him is a blessing and a curse.” It has avoided much mischief, but it’s also a “deformation of the logic of our constitutional system,” and it’s unsustainable in a true emergency. In fact, the American people have “reason to think that our government is not ready for a serious crisis, and that its upper reaches might crumple in an emergency.”

This challenge is so pressing that any discussion of American strategy in the Middle East or elsewhere has to account for the president’s own profound shortcomings. We cannot engage in policy discussions and debates as if he doesn’t exist, as if he doesn’t put his thumb on the scales in often irrational and dangerous ways.

Senator Talent’s piece is excellent and right in many respects, but it’s a piece for a different administration and a different president. We have the president we have, and it’s vitally important that the American people not only understand the nature of this administration but that they also understand the magnitude of the danger. Calm deliberation and careful strategy may ultimately win the day, but we must be clear — our nation risks more than most Americans understand with a president who is less capable (and more capricious) than his supporters are willing to believe.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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