Perhaps it’s only natural that the media indulges in some hyperventilating when talking about foreign policy and volatile actors such as Iran. But it doesn’t help. It’s time for fewer histrionics and more sober assessments. Deconstructing the current head-butting between Tehran and the White House is a case in point.
For starters, Washington is no better at predicting war under President Donald Trump than it was the results of the 2016 elections. On at least three occasions now in the nascent era of Trump, everyone has been beating the war drums except the parties that were supposed to be going to war.
In 2017, when Trump called Kim “little rocket man,” there were warnings to head to the bomb shelters. More prudent assessments held the prospects for serious escalation looked unlikely. Fast forward, and we find the United States and North Korea holding serious negotiations for over a year—the dire warnings of the inevitable escalation to war long forgotten.
More recently, when the Guido-Maduro face-off in Venezuela devolved into a stalemate, again there were calls that U.S. military intervention looked imminent. It’s not. Weeks later, even those who were most worried would have to admit that.
Now the Chicken Little types have turned their eyes to Iran. Yet there are no signs of serious escalation.
This is not to argue that nothing will happen. This is a volatile situation. No one can guarantee that some kind of confrontation can’t happen. Nevertheless, as both sides have publicly stated, neither is interested in—nor threatening—to escalate to an armed conflict. This is more like the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 than the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914; or more like the Suez Crisis of 1956 than the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964. In those last two cases, one side or the other was intentionally looking for an incident to escalate the conflict, but that is not happening now.
Yet rather than just moving on, looking for the next manufactured excuse to worry about warmongering, there is an opportunity here to pause and get a sense of exactly what is going on. These are all observations that could have, and have been made before, by anyone who is more interested in what’s really happening, than in making every foreign policy confrontation another act of resistance.
Observation 1: Trump is not a warmonger. The tropes constantly presented suggest the president is inexperienced, impatient, impulsive or manipulated by evil counselors that make him more likely to race to DEFCON 1. These arguments are getting pretty tiresome based against a now substantial track record on how the Oval Office acts.
Trump is clearly the decider-in-chief, not swayed by any particular counselor. The notion of a Rasputin maneuvering him toward war is no more credible than the claims there existed an “axis of adults” restraining the president’s behavior. Further, in practice Trump has been pretty consistent in following his own doctrine—showing little interest in starting wars, forcing regime changing or busting-up nations so America can rebuild them.
Observation 2: Trump really does believe in peace through strength. While Trump has shown little interest in making war on the world to remake it as he sees fit, the president has demonstrated more than once he is willing to use force to protect America interests in a risk-informed manner. Many critics have trouble squaring that with Trump’s often loose rhetoric. More often than not, however, there appears to be a method behind what they interpret as madness.
While the White House may not want war, the president seems happy to engage in psychological warfare—using his rhetoric to scare, confuse and confound his adversaries. The administration balances the risk that trash talk might spark a war with all the other instruments of diplomacy from backchannel talks to coercive actions. When all of Trump’s actions and policies are taken in context, the administration looks a lot less reckless.
Observation 3: Blaming Trump is getting old. The rush to frame every incident as somehow Trump’s fault strains credulity, particularly in the case of Iran. The regime in Tehran declared America its enemy shortly after the revolution in 1979. That stance has never changed, not even during the halcyon days after Obama negotiated the Iran Deal. Even after Tehran reaped a cash windfall, the regime remained a state-sponsor of terrorism, helped prop up a murderous dictator in Syria, attempted to destabilize the region through its surrogates, and planned terrorist attacks in Europe. Trump inherited a geopolitical challenge that six previous presidents failed to adequately address. In fact, Trump deserves credit for attempting to craft a suitable and sustainable strategy to constrain an odious regime.
Observation 4: The real problem here is Europe. Trump has a handle on Iran. Rather than looking to shoulder the burden with the United States to develop a realistic plan to deal with Tehran, Europe capitals fractured like a fragile drinking glass. The Dutch and Germans have stopped training missions in Iraq. The Sanchez government in Spain pulled its warship out of the allied strike group heading to the Persian Gulf. Many European officials also used the occasion as an opportunity to trash Trump rather than scold Iran for its bellicose behavior.
This is a double-strike at European security. Strike one is it makes Europe look pretty feckless. That can only make Putin happy. Moscow would love to see fissures in the transatlantic mutual defense community to exploit. Every time Europeans go wobbly, there is more encouragement for Putin to continue to try to eat away at the foundation of the transatlantic community. Strike two is that peace and stability in the Middle East are actually more vital for the Europeans than Americans. The Iran regime is the chief threat to regional stability. Europeans should be working with Trump, not against him. Clearly, Europe needs more tough love from Washington on the Iran issue, not less.
Observation 5: Trump needs to work harder. While Trump might not start a war with Iran anytime soon, resolving our troubles with Tehran doesn’t look like it’s in the cards anytime soon either. The administration needs to up its game in pressing for a durable, sustainable security framework for keeping Iran in an uncomfortable little box. The White House, for example, has talked about creating a Middle East Security Architecture. That would help a lot in dealing with Tehran. Right now, the initiative seems moribund and the White House needs to reboot.
Nobody is arguing not to lose sleep over the mess Tehran makes of the Middle East. Nor is it reasonable to expect Washington to put aside its hyper-politics while the White House tries to deal with them. What Americans can ask, however, is that the president put all the silliness in perspective and stay on a reasonable course for protecting America’s vital interests in an important part of the world. The president has proven he can do it. He needs to keep at it.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest