If you’ve been following President Donald Trump’s misadventures in foreign policy over the past three years, you may have noticed that his interactions with America’s rivals follow a pattern.
It’s played out clearly in Trump’s relations with China since he declared a trade war on the country in 2018. It’s also been playing out in his interactions with Iran, culminating in this month’s assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
The pattern looks like this:
Step 1: There is a legitimate problem.
Step 2: Trump starts a fight to address the problem. In China’s case, the trade war. In Iran’s case, his “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions.
Step 3: As the fight goes on, Trump’s language becomes increasingly bellicose, and so does his opponent’s.
Step 4: A tit-for-tat ratcheting-up of tensions ensues, with parties threatening or engaging in aggressive action.
Step 5: Trump makes threats or engages in extremely aggressive action, and his opponent seems to stand down from doing anything rash.
Step 6: Tensions cool, but the relationship between Trump and his opponent, and their constituents, sours. Any goodwill is gone. Trust dissipates.
Step 7: Return to Step 1.
The problem here, of course, is that after all of the histrionics and, in Iran’s case, violence, the problem from Step 1 remains. Not only that, but because relations between the two countries got so ugly in Steps 3 through 5 , it will now be harder to solve the problem from Step 1 regardless of how nice we were in Step 6.
This is, in short, a wildly stupid cycle.
To better explain this pattern, let’s start with a quick trade-war refresher.
The Trump administration kicked things off in 2017 by opening an investigation into China’s abuse of American companies. In 2018, the US slapped tariffs on the country and slowly increased them (while China responded almost in kind) until a short detente in December of that year.
Talks rolled along until last May when the negotiations broke down. Tensions rose and threats were made, and by August the markets were having a full on panic attack. Then in September, Trump threatened tariffs so punishing China returned to negotiations, but with a far less ambitious deal on the table. After that there was a great deal of kabuki theater about having a “phase one” deal before it was officially announced in December.
We still do not know all the details of the phase-one deal, but we do know it does not address the issues for which Trump started this war. We know China is still refusing to meet some demands for increasing US imports and that a phase-two deal is highly unlikely.
The trade war, I’ll note, cost US consumers and businesses “$3.2 billion per month in added taxes and another $1.4 billion per month in efficiency losses,” according to the Federal Reserve. C’est la vie.
Now we’ll do Trump’s cycle with Iran, a cycle on which the lives of US citizens and our allies depend. This one we’ll take a little slower.
Trump, ever dismissive of the work of its predecessor, left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as “the Iran deal,” in 2018. It was a carrot-and-stick deal that allowed Iran to participate in international markets again if it paused its nuclear program and ceased its attacks on the US and its allies.
As Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, and Abbas Milani, the director of the Iran Studies Program at Stanford, wrote in the New York Review of Books last week, the plan was working, contrary to Trump’s claims. US assets were not attacked while the deal was in place.
The president then hit Iran with crippling sanctions in what the administration called a “maximum pressure campaign.” After that Iran started reengaging in violence, resulting in the tit-for-tat that ended General Soleimani’s life earlier this month.
And while the administration says it targeted Soleimani because he was planning an “imminent” attack, the American people have yet to see any proof of that. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that attacks were coming but “we don’t know where and we don’t know when.” In the days before that interview, members of Trump’s own party — from which he demands an undemocratic, unquestioning fealty — started crying foul because the evidence of a so-called imminent attack has been so thin.
Blessedly, after all that violence and rhetoric, the US and Iran seem to have made it to Step 6, in which tensions between the two parties cool. This only after Iran sent dozens of missiles flying at US airbases in Iraq and another Iranian missile may have accidentally killed 176 people on a passenger plane taking off from Tehran and headed for Ukraine.
Since Iran and the US seem to have gone back to their respective corners, it’s time to take stock of what this “maximum pressure” campaign has done for the us.
- Iran is stronger in the region, especially since Trump pulled US forces out of Syria. The administration’s new sanctions did not stop it from supporting its proxy forces in Iraq and Lebanon.
- After the assassination of Soleimani, the Iraqi Parliament voted to throw out US forces so the Trump administration has started preparing sanctions against the country, which is technically an ally.
- Iranians, who were once protesting their government in the streets, are now out in mourning for Soleimani.
- Pompeo said the Soleimani assassination made the region safer, but US citizens are being told to leave Iraq immediately for their safety.
- More soldiers are heading to the region, despite Trump’s promises to disengage from conflict in the Middle East.
All this and we still have the problem we started with. Iran is a rogue nation helmed by what President George W. Bush called an “Islamofascist” regime. Iran’s leaders said they will return to enriching uranium with impunity, and our allies in Europe and the Middle East are angry with us.
And perhaps you think that after firing a couple dozen missiles at US coalition forces in Iraq, Iran is now mollified. Perhaps that is true.
Or perhaps this is not over yet and Iran has simply moved the theater of violence to somewhere more comfortable — to a place of plausible deniability where it can do what it is so infamous for — the use of its proxy forces and targeting US assets for bombings, kidnappings, or cyberwarfare.
You might call that a return to Step 1, and that would be generous.