world view

The Strategy Behind Trump’s Incoherent Iran Address

President Donald Trump speaks in the Grand Foyer of the White House on Wednesday, January 8, 2020. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On the morning after Iranian missile attacks on Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed, President Trump delivered a televised address from the White House that offered a condensed version of every national-security trope beloved of Republicans and a good chunk of his campaign stump speech.

We got a declaration of victory: “Our great American forces are prepared for anything,” he said. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”

We got the United States as the world’s sheriff: Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a global threat, but “we will never let that happen,” Trump declared. At his direction, “the United States military eliminated the world’s top terrorist, Qasem Soleimani.” (That’s something people who actually study terrorism would dispute.)

We got campaign-trail chest-thumping: “The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion,” Trump claimed. (That figure represents three years of military spending, nothing more — or less.) The U.S. has achieved energy independence. We’ve developed advanced weapons, and our missiles are “big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast.” All while the economy is booming.

We got a few lines for those who like to think of Trump as an antiwar president, despite his belligerent rhetoric and the uptick in casualties from U.S. drone and missile attacks under his administration. “The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it. We do not want to use it,” he said.

We got beating on European allies. Trump said he would be asking “NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East.” Never mind that last week the Trump administration failed to alert NATO, which has hundreds of troops supporting the U.S. in Iraq, of its attack plans. You could almost hear the screens shattering at NATO headquarters, as dozens of beleaguered Alliance officials punched the W-T-F keys.

We got hints that what Trump really wants is a negotiation with Tehran that provides even more photo ops and victory declarations. He called on the U.K., Germany, France, Russia, and China to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement they negotiated along with the Obama administration, so they can “all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”

But we also got rhetoric suggesting that Trump — or the hawks around him like Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — is still set on the destruction of the Iranian regime. The president announced he is imposing “additional punishing economic sanctions” on Iran, and said the world must tell the regime its “campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.”

What was missing from the speech was any sense of a coherent strategy toward Iran or the Middle East in general. It seems the president and his advisers were trying to send various messages to Iran and our allies, not all of them compatible. As Brookings’s Tamara Wittes pointed out, the president didn’t balance his “we’re outta here” rhetoric with any statement of support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, or other Gulf allies — i.e., the places Iran’s proxies will target for revenge. Nor did Trump offer Iran or our European allies anything concrete to negotiate about.

That doesn’t mean Trump’s speech was completely nonstrategic. As usual, Trump was sweet-talking his base, while suggesting to GOP interest groups that if they stick with him through impeachment, he’ll keep delivering on their wish lists. Above all, his aim was to control the narrative: claim credit for at least temporarily returning to the status quo with Iran, while looking tough standing amid a crowd of top military officials.

The problem, of course, is that there are many longer-term narratives that Trump doesn’t control — like whether Iran does dash to make a nuclear weapon, whether our allies are willing to work with us in the Middle East, and whether American leaders maintain any credibility on the global stage. By engaging in chest-thumping, dishonest insults, and incoherent messaging, Trump is losing ground on all of these fronts.

The Strategy Behind Trump’s Incoherent Iran Address