We in the foreign policy community do not use the phrase “dumpster fire.” We think it’s beneath us. Also, it’s overused. But there really is no other term for the conference the Trump administration put on in Warsaw this week.
First, let’s talk about the dumpster, and let’s give credit where it is due. Over the first year of the Trump administration, State Department officials worked frantically to try to come up with a side agreement between the United States and Europe that would convince President Trump not to pull out of the deal to rein in Iran’s nuclear weapons program. They got real results, and both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his successor Mike Pompeo backed their efforts and tried to convince Trump to uphold the agreement.
They failed. Trump pulled out, and the reward Pompeo and the State Department team got for their efforts was to be sent back to Europe to negotiate a plan to squeeze Iran even harder.
No surprise, they failed again. After 18 months of trying to sweet-talk Trump, European leaders have begun to give up. When asked about recent reports that Trump had considered pulling out of NATO, a source close to Emmanuel Macron told Bloomberg that at this point, nothing Trump could do would surprise the French president. German intellectuals are debating the country’s role in a post-U.S. order. And Europe has made Iran policy its test case, saying publicly that they reject the legitimacy of new U.S. sanctions and rolling out a financing mechanism to allow companies to do business in Iran around the sanctions.
Some diplomatic strategists would think the February rollout of that mechanism meant this is a bad time to stage an international conference intended to demonstrate Iran’s isolation. But not Team Pompeo. They pushed Poland (not usually a big player on Iran policy) to host a conference, and send out the invitations.
The responses came back, and they weren’t encouraging. The head of E.U. foreign policy was busy. The German and French foreign ministers were busy. The U.K. foreign minister would need to leave early. Russia and China don’t actually want to isolate Tehran, so they weren’t going to come. To drive the point home, the Warsaw meeting took place as Russian president Vladimir Putin hosted the presidents of Turkey and Iran, to discuss a final settlement in Syria — something over which Washington has less and less influence.
So the administration tried something else, shifting their marketing from an Iran conference to a Middle East conference. Oh, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be delighted to come — he happens to be running for reelection, and his close ties to the Trump White House are a central part of his campaign. The administration put out a new set of rumors: Jared Kushner would use the conference to put out his long-awaited Middle East peace plan.
So the conference opened with no outcomes in sight and a group of mostly second-tier attendees who outspokenly disagreed with the core goal of the conference. Oh, and Vice-President Pence. Maybe it would just go by quietly and irrelevantly.
This is where we add the fire to our diplomatic trash bin. At a premeeting press availability, Netanyahu said the purpose of the gathering was to prepare for “war with Iran.” It took his team a surprisingly long time to claim there was a translation issue, deciding that they hadn’t meant “war,” they had meant “battle.” Possibly, it took them just long enough for an Israeli news cycle to hear a candidate threatening war on Israel’s enemies, while assuring the international community later that no, of course he didn’t mean a literal “war.”
Pence, meanwhile, used his speech at the conference to go after exactly the countries we used to call America’s closest allies — the ones with democratic governments and treaty commitments to respond to an attack on the U.S. as if it were an attack on them. The ones who responded in support of Washington after 9/11, who sent troops to fight beside ours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. He called out Britain, France, and Germany by name, demanding not just that they stop facilitating trade with Iran but that they follow Washington’s 2018 move and withdraw from the Iran deal.
Mind you, there were allies in Warsaw that Pence and Pompeo were celebrating. Who were they? Senior officials from Saudi Arabia and its regional partners. Americans and Israelis crowed that leaders of Arab states that don’t recognize Israel sat next to Netanyahu at an opening dinner. No major breakthroughs on the long-promised Kushner peace plan emerged, but hey, the foreign minister of Yemen shared his microphone when Netanyahu’s broke.
That’s Yemen, where half the population needs food aid and half a million children are at risk of imminent starvation — kids too weak even to cry. Some ally. After the festivities in Warsaw had wrapped up for the night, the House of Representatives took a historic vote to cut off U.S. funding for the war in Yemen and the humanitarian catastrophe it is fueling. But for every fire Congress attempts to dampen, the administration seems set on starting another.
The only problem with the dumpster fire metaphor is that it suggests a problem or embarrassment that is contained. And the Trump administration’s quest to break old alliances and set up an Iran conflict with its partners of convenience is anything but contained. It’s not normal for the U.S. to lecture allies in public; it’s not normal for those allies to acknowledge in the press that they reject U.S. policies. And as the administration is fecklessly telling Europe to get in line, it is looking to ramp up missile programs those same countries have told Washington they don’t want, to counter Russia or Iran. All that at the same time it has put forward a candidate to head the World Bank who makes allies very uncomfortable — perhaps in part because it’s unclear whether Trump believes in the mission of the World Bank.
Washington has a long history of convening international conferences to leverage the power of partners. Many are forgettable. Some, like the Helsinki summit process of the Cold War years, succeed far beyond expectations not so much because of what they do, but what they inspire others in and out of governments to do — even, sometimes, spurring people to push back against U.S. mistakes and hypocrisy. Perhaps the Warsaw meeting, in its own way, will inspire that. Or, perhaps, it will fail far beyond its apparently small stature.