Perhaps a Perilous Time

The recent attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities – for which the Iranian-backed Yemen rebels, the Houthis, have claimed credit — create plenty to ponder; they are perhaps the first meaningful yield of the seeds sown by President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, and of the way his heedless, casual, and inconsistent bluster has compromised his – and our — credibility. A few thoughts:

Inasmuch as the location of the Saudi facilities’ damage was on their north and northwest sides, it seems more probable, despite the Houthis’ claims, that the attacks were launched from Iran (to the facilities’ north), rather than from the Houthis’ Yemen strongholds (to the facilities’ south). There are mixed reports as to whether the damage was caused by drones or missiles, but American experts have opined that Iran was the perpetrator because the weapons were Iranian, and too sophisticated to have been entrusted to their Houthi surrogates. That said, the Iranians deny that they were responsible for the attack, and interestingly, the Saudis, obviously feeling trepidation as to what a broad scale Middle East war might mean for them, have asked for U.N. experts to verify the U.S. claims. (Comment: we used to be the gold standard. That our word is no longer sufficient – even with an ally that we have treated better than it deserves – is arguably a result of President George W. Bush’s 2003 claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and an understandable suspicion that Mr. Trump may be seeking a conflict with Iran for his own political purposes. Compromised credibility – both national and personal — is hard to reclaim.) (Another comment: actually a pretty adroit maneuver by the Iranians. While probably not egregious enough to result in all-out war, it has: delayed their regional rival’s public offering of Aramco stock, thus setting back Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s domestic agenda; pointed out to the Saudi Royal Family how easily its wealth can be hit; and raised the price of whatever oil Iran is able to export.)

Since abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the official name of the multilateral Iran Deal negotiated by the Obama Administration to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon — the “JCPOA”), the Trump Administration, in an effort to force Iran to the bargaining table for what it considers a broader and better deal, has imposed financial sanctions upon Iran that have by all accounts crippled its economy. We have apparently not expected a military reprisal in response to our initiative, our approach being “informed,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article last November, by Mr. Trump’s “… strategic calculation the Iranian regime understands and fears the United States’ military might.” The most intriguing question: Since we do have the military might to do catastrophic damage to Iran if we choose, why would Iran be so bold as to launch attacks on the Saudi facilities?

While over the years many western foreign policy experts have expressed the hope that Iranian moderates (the “technocrats”), generally considered to be led by President Hassan Rouhani, will control Iran’s future – the fundamental premise upon which the Obama Administration built the JCPOA – these experts generally concede that the true control of the country currently remains with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 80, and the Islamic conservatives beholden to him, perhaps most prominently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the “IRGC”). Some of these experts make a point that was initially counterintuitive to me: that the IRGC leaders, despite their rigid adherence to Islam, are not ascetics; these men have major financial interests. Although probably an ancillary irritant, their financial losses due to the American sanctions have undoubtedly added to the ferment that has arisen from what they consider grievous religious and national insults.

Richard Haass, in A World in Disarray, has noted: “[T]here is scant evidence that sanctions can ever be made strong enough to dissuade a country from pursuing what it believes to be a vital national interest ….” From 1938 through 1941, in response to warlike initiatives by the Japanese Empire, the United States imposed increasingly punitive sanctions upon Japan, which in turn strengthened the hand of Japan militarists calling for war against the U.S. Recently-released notes of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito indicate that he regretted not preventing the Japanese military from leading Japan into a war he felt it couldn’t win. Iran resents American intrusion upon what it considers its rightful regional hegemony. It is history [guided, as TLOML points out, almost entirely by men 😉 ] that aggressive voices generally overwhelm the restrained.

Although – much to my dismay – I heard an MSNBC talking head make a point this week similar to that which follows, I nonetheless offer it here since it’s an impression I’ve had since the President’s earliest days in office [and thus, consider it mine 🙂 ]. I would submit that it is the most critical flaw in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach: he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It has guided his trade policy, his attitude toward NATO, etc., etc., etc. For someone so obsessed with his own appearance and standing, he inexplicably fails to grasp that first rate political and military leaders are not motivated by money, but by power, “face,” and sometimes religion. I am absolutely convinced that if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were given the stark choice of either maintaining power over their countries while living in mud huts or living without power in opulent castles … they’d both opt for the mud huts. Mr. Trump would clearly choose the castle – and is unable to fathom that anyone would do otherwise. These are the contrasting motivations that have caused him to eschew diplomacy in favor of economic sanctions to achieve his goals although, as Mr. Haass has stated, sanctions rarely obtain strategic result. If faced with an existential threat, a true leader can’t be financially bullied to forsake what s/he considers vital interests, and a military leader’s instincts will be … to reach for a gun. These are the people running Iran. Perhaps they either don’t fear our military might enough, or believe that Mr. Trump has the resolve to use it. They are not contestants in a reality show.

I am concerned that Mr. Trump’s honeymoon – the grace period that our international adversaries have actually afforded him because of his emotional unpredictability tied to American military and financial might – might be ending. His reactions to the Iranian foray will be watched closely by Messrs. Putin and Xi, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the Taliban, and others, with potential consequences for Ukraine, Taiwan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I fear that we may be entering a perilous time in the Trump presidency.

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