The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, September 22, 2019


We're continually told by the four constituencies that the Trump administration is "chaotic," that his foreign policy is a mess, that we are not respected by our allies or our adversaries. That's abject nonsense, belied by clear foreign policy accomplishments, but Trump Derangement Syndrome rules the day. Iran is a case in point.

Trump wisely withdrew from Obama's Iran deal, an agreement that did nothing substantive to offset Iran's nuclear ambitions and funneled billions to a rogue regime that is the worst of a number of bad actors in the Middle East. With harsh sanctions put in place by Trump, Iran is being squeezed — hard — and as a consequence, they're acting out—seizing ships and recently, bombing Saudi oil fields. Their hope is that Trump, like other U.S. Presidents, would allow himself to be convinced to respond with force, beginning a conflict that we'll later have to extract ourselves from with concessions. To date, Trump has been too smart for that, refusing the admonitions of neocons who want a kinetic response and instead ratcheting up sanctions, grinding the Iranians into the ground. In an amusing turn of events, Trump's resistance to kinetic action has rendered the Democrats speechless—they're not sure how to respond.

Holman Jenkins, Jr. summarized all of this when he writes:
Our policy is working. Only when and if it serves our interest do we need to respond militarily (though it might be useful to strengthen the effect of sanctions by attacking under-the-table Iranian oil exports). It does not need to be done, as Arab and other critics suggest, to validate the 40-year U.S. policy of preventing any rival power from dominating the gulf and its oil resources.

We don’t have to prove that commitment at the drop of every hat. One of the many benefits of the U.S. domestic oil resurgence is that we don’t have to overreact to lesser disruptions of the oil flow from every regional spat or upset. The world economy remains adequately supplied. If prices go up a bit, the U.S. now benefits as a major producer, offsetting some of the damage on the consumer side.

Our position is stronger than ever. Only weak nations need to overreact.

Which is just as well. Even Donald Trump’s most devoted followers, for better or worse, have little desire to see him become a war president. They sense that recent wars haven’t served U.S. interests. They understand that the peculiar dynamics of the Trump presidency would not provide the unifying and rallying oomph that sometimes makes war an attractive domestic political proposition. Nor would being a war president particularly suit Mr. Trump’s episodic and wandering leadership style.

Which is also fine. There is no reason to oblige the Iranians and the Saudis, in their different ways, in how we respond to the attack. The Iranian goal is to lure the U.S. into a confrontation that Washington would eventually be wiling to pay to get out of, presumably by lifting sanctions and resuming the Obama nuclear payola. For the Saudis and their local allies, they wish to see the world’s superpower expend some of its military stockpiles to degrade Iran’s offensive capabilities in ways that would convenience them but wouldn’t do much for us ...

There are no guarantees, but the evidence so far is encouraging. Sanctions have cut Iran’s oil exports by 90% since April 2018. The regime is plodding toward a domestic crisis that, as of now, Iran’s leadership appears to hope it can escape by initiating provocations meant to suggest a wider war unless the U.S. backs down. Yet these war threats, if allowed to materialize, would only accelerate Iran’s domestic crisis. Though more provocations may be coming, these would only make it tougher for a future Democratic president to cancel the sanctions and reinstate the Obama nuclear deal. It’s hard to see a way out of Iran’s sanctions trap except by meeting U.S. demands to curb its obnoxious regional behavior.

Whether from shrewdness or instinct or an inability to reconcile his bellicose Twitter style with his urge for deals, Mr. Trump’s administration has defaulted to a useful strategy. It consists of letting sanctions work while leaving it to our local partners to cope with any spillovers that don’t fundamentally affect U.S. interests.
Any policy and any action that causes the Iranian regime to struggle is a win for the West. Donald Trump has created a nightmare for the Mullahs, economic stress that is hurting them badly, and an attitude that does not allow them to ensnare the United States in a regional conflict that we can't win. That may change if the Mullahs get really desperate, but if they do something that cannot be ignored without kinetic action, I can only hope we respond with overwhelmingly disproportionate force.